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From Mountains of Taishan to Faces of Amsterdam – Interview with Photographer Jimmy on the Run

His past in China, his present in Amsterdam and his future in photography – Jimmy is always on the run.

Manya Koetse

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Fashion & Street Photographer Huang Jianmin a.k.a. Jimmy is the focus of the recently released short doc Jimmy on the Run by filmmaker Wytse Koetse. The short film [7 min] shows Jimmy’s passion for the lens, his dynamic lifestyle, and his struggle with family expectations. What’s on Weibo spoke to Jimmy about his past in China, his present in Amsterdam and his future in photography.

 

ANOTHER LIFE

“I had never even seen a city until I was 12 years old.”

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I meet Jimmy in his home in the city center of Amsterdam. It is the first time we meet, but I feel like I know him quite well – it is because I have seen the short doc Jimmy on the Run that gets up close and personal with this photographer and his work. On Jimmy’s comfortable couch, we talk about his life in China, his love for the streets of Amsterdam and the journey he’s made to get where he is today.

“I was born and raised in a village in China’s Guangdong province,” Jimmy, whose Chinese name is Huang Jianmin (黄健敏), begins: “Taishan is my hometown, Taishanese [台山话] is my native language. We lived in a rural area on the outskirts, which was like a small village. There was nothing there when I was young. I had never even seen a city until I was 12 years old. It has now changed enormously; there’s even a train going there. It was a good place for me to grow up. I could play outside with my friends all day. We would catch fish, go up the mountain and pluck fruit from the trees.”

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“My dad started working in Amsterdam when I was seven years old, so I mostly grew up alone with my mum. Many people from Taishan leave for America or Europe. Already since the 1900s people from [tooltip text=”Taishan is known as the No 1 Home of Overseas Chinese.”]Taishan[/tooltip] left in great numbers to the ‘Old Gold Mountain’ [旧金山, San Fransisco].”

“I was sixteen when my mum and I also moved to Amsterdam. I was afraid to leave China, and actually did not want to go. But gradually, I started to see that life in the Netherlands might bring me new opportunities. Some of my friends in Taishan are jobless now. If I would’ve stayed, I probably would’ve been married and have my own family now. I’d be in the village, and would go to the big city once a year. But my life turned out differently.”

 

COMING TO AMSTERDAM

“I was lucky to discover my love for photography – it saved me.”

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“I soon discovered I really liked Amsterdam. It’s easier to get what I want here. It’s colorful and people are very approachable. I have been to big cities like Hong Kong, New York and Paris, but never got that same feeling there. People are down to earth here. Amsterdam might not be a fashion city like Paris, but Amsterdam sure is a people’s city.”

“I started out doing different jobs after I arrived in Amsterdam. I never graduated from any school, because of the language barrier and the different educational systems in China and the Netherlands. I would work in Chinatown supermarkets, help out in restaurant kitchens here and there, sort out the luggage at Schiphol Airport. I was also a mailman for some time, and worked as a cleaner in houses. I once found a dead guy while cleaning. After that, I was no longer afraid to get my hands dirty.”

“I am prone to addiction, and this started becoming somewhat of a problem after I came to Amsterdam. I developed an addiction for gaming. I don’t drink, I don’t smoke and I don’t gamble – but I couldn’t stop gaming.”

“Some years after I’d moved to Amsterdam, I had a girlfriend and it was through her that I first got interested in photography; she had a brother who was into it. He would take pictures at parties. I thought it was pretty cool. I would play around with my father’s camera, but then bought my own first camera in 2008 – I was just smitten with it. I started going out into the streets with it. I would search for something to shoot, and would always find it. I was lucky to discover my love for photography – it saved me from gaming. It became my new addiction.”

 

JIMMY ON THE RUN

“I am used to running after things – I’ve done so all my life.”

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“Taking self-portraits became a way to express myself. I did not take these pictures to represent myself to others, but to record a moment in time and try to capture the feelings I had. It was something personal.”

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“One time when I was out taking photos, I saw a girl on the streets. She probably was around 16 years old, and was very slender with long legs. Blue jeans jacket, boots and a cigarette dangling from her mouth. When I saw her, I knew I had to take her picture. I am used to running after things – I’ve done so all my life. But this was the first time I ran after someone to take a picture, and it turned out perfect. She was the start of me taking pictures of people. I started blogging and getting active on social media. I then became Jimmy on the Run.”

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“I can’t really explain how I work in doing street photography. It’s a feeling. I met a 17-year-old ginger boy today, and I thought: I need to talk to you, I need to photograph you. There will always be people saying no when I ask if I can take their picture, but you still need to ask. It has made me more confident.”

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“Faces, fashion, people moving – my photographs are about the moment someone gives me. I like unique faces, they don’t have to be pretty. I like anything that’s timeless. Portraits, classic looks. I don’t feel like I need to capture the era we live in, I want to capture the moment we live in. My photos should still look good on your wall fifty years from now.”

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“Filmmaker Wytse Koetse liked my pictures, and started following me on social media. I also liked his work, especially the short documentary Cola Chicken. It was real, simple and pure. I loved the scene where Chen Chen [the main subject] talks about how he loves dogs, but also eats dog meat, and then says sorry to the dog. That guy is real, that’s the real shit.”

“I did not just agree to him filming me because I liked his work, but also because I felt a little lost at the time and it helped me. I had just started as a freelance photographer. It was the right timing. Wytse started coming over and followed me as I worked. We spent so much time together that we became much closer throughout the process of filming. The documentary initially was supposed to be just about my work, but in the end, it also became more about myself. We talked a lot, and I’m quite a sensitive person. My father is the man I respect most, but he’s not proud of me. When I start talking about him, I often have to cry. It’s good to face yourself. Things are much better now. If I’m gonna show my dad the documentary? I’m not sure yet. Maybe later.”

 

BETWEEN CHINA AND AMSTERDAM

“I grew up with Deng Xiaoping, but we learned that Mao was the sun. He was like a God to us.”

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“Amsterdam has helped me open my eyes to new things. In China, I always felt restricted. In school, I had to wear a uniform and the teachers were very strict. I grew up with Deng Xiaoping, but we learned that Mao was the sun. He was like a God to us. We had one cinema and the only movies we saw were those about Mao fighting against the Japanese. Of course, my parents had it much worse than me and my life was good, but I did not feel free. Amsterdam has changed me. I look differently at life now. I never really saw things over there. I now see fashion, and see different scenes. Like the gay scene – I had never seen something like that before.”

“In China there is a great divide between the rich and the poor. In Amsterdam, there is this overall vibe of people being people – it doesn’t matter if you’re homeless or a celebrity. It’s one of the reasons I love Amsterdam so much; there’s a sense of equality.”

“For me, Holland means freedom. I can dress how I want and say what I want here. In China, I cannot. I was once hit when I tried to take a picture in Hong Kong. I am not sure I want to try to do photography in China anymore. I am more scared to do it there.  I feel safer here. People here are very straightforward, and I like that: yes is yes, no is no. Shit gets done this way.”

“I don’t miss my life in China, but I do miss the food. I used to go back a lot, but now not so much. I sometimes feel a bit caught between China and Amsterdam. I’m a mix of both now. Many of the second generation Chinese who were born in the Netherlands don’t understand me. I was not born here, and our backgrounds are very different. I don’t consider them Chinese like me. But at the same time I can no longer move back to China, because I might be too Dutch now. Although I must admit, I am not as open-minded as Dutch people are. My parents will never be my ‘friends’, like it is for many Dutch here. Anyway, there is no way I could indefinitely move back to China, maybe only for a year or so. I can’t handle the smog. My friends in Shenzhen have started to look old. Besides, there is no life there for me now.”

 

CHOOSING A NEW PATH

“There’s no sweet without sweat – you have to work hard to achieve your dreams. ”

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“Am I a street photographer or a fashion photographer? I am both. Street photography is in my heart. I want to mix street and fashion. My style is raw, I like to keep things as authentic as possible. I’m rather nostalgic and have a soft spot for the 1950s and 1960s. Sherlock Holmes, Dorian Gray, Helmut Newton, Richard Avedon. I love doing everything analog, not digital. I hate social media. I need it because it helps me, but I hate it. I used Chinese microblogs before, now I use WeChat and have Tumblr, Facebook, my blog and my website. I sometimes post very personal stuff and people don’t even see it. Every time you post something on social media you give away a little bit of yourself.”

“The relationship with my parents is now good, but they are more traditional than I am. My mum is somewhat more western than my dad is. My dad is the one I respect most in this world. I love him. But I cannot let go of the fact that I don’t make my father proud. He envisioned another life for me than the one I chose. They’d hoped that I would’ve been married by now, with kids.”

“My dream for the future? I am a one-child-policy kid, and I’ve always been jealous of people with brothers or sisters. I hope to have at least two children one day. And I would really love to have a daughter. I would take her to Disneyland. She can dress up as Batman, I’ll be Robin.”

“I also want to publish a book with my photos. It will be called the Faces of Amsterdam. I hope I can work for high-end magazines. For now, I’ll just keep on working hard. I live by ‘xian ku hou tian’ [先苦后甜, Chinese expression]: ‘there’s no sweet without sweat’. You have to work hard to achieve your dreams. That’s what happiness is, right?”

This interview was conducted and condensed by Manya Koetse in Amsterdam.

To watch the short film about ‘Jimmy on the Run’, see the featured video on top of this article, or go view it at Filming Freedom. For more of Jimmy’s work, see www.jimmyontherun.com.

©2016 Whatsonweibo. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce our content without permission – you can contact us at info@whatsonweibo.com.

Manya Koetse is the founder and editor-in-chief of whatsonweibo.com. She is a writer, public speaker, and researcher (Sinologist, MPhil) on social trends, digital developments, and new media in an ever-changing China, with a focus on Chinese society, pop culture, and gender issues. She shares her love for hotpot on hotpotambassador.com. Contact at manya@whatsonweibo.com, or follow on Twitter.

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China Arts & Entertainment

Chinese Social Media Reactions to The New York Times Bad Review of ‘Wandering Earth 2’

A New York Times bad review of ‘Wandering Earth II’ has triggered online discussions: “China’s gonna save the world, the US can’t stand it.”

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This Chinese Spring Festival, it’s all about going to the movies. After sluggish years for China’s movie market during the pandemic, Chinese cinemas welcomed millions of visitors back to the theaters during the weeklong Spring Festival holiday.

Much-anticipated new movies attracted Chinese moviegoers this festive season, including Full River Red by Zhang Yimou, the suspenseful Hidden Blade, or the animated Deep Sea by Tian Xiaopeng.

But the undisputed Spring Festival box office champion of 2023 is Frant Gwo’s Wandering Earth II (流浪地球II), the sequel to China’s all-time highest-grossing sci-fi epic Wandering Earth (2019), which also became the fifth highest-grossing non-English film of all time.

The narrative of the follow-up movie Wandering Earth II actually takes place before the events of the first film and focuses on the efforts by the United Earth Government (UEG) to propel the Earth out of the solar system to avoid planetary disaster. This so-called Moving Mountain Project – which later becomes the Wandering Earth Project – is not just met with protest (the majority of Americans don’t believe in it), it also bans the Digital Life Project, which supports the idea that the future of humanity can be saved by preserving human consciousness on computers (backed by an American majority). The film is all about hope and resilience, human destiny, and geopolitics at a time of apocalyptic chaos.

Outside of China, the sequel was also released in, among others, North American, Australian, and UK cinemas.

Although the film, featuring movie stars Wu Jing and Andy Lau, received an 8.2 on the Chinese rating & review platform Douban, a 9.4 on movie ticketing app Maoyan, dozens of positive reviews on Bilibili, and was overall very well-received among Chinese viewers, a bad review by The New York Times triggered discussions on Chinese social media this weekend.

Chinese media outlet The Observer (观察者网) initiated a Weibo hashtag about “The New York Times‘s completely sour review of Wandering Earth II” (#纽约时报酸味拉满差评流浪地球2#, 6.2 million views at time of writing).

The New York Times review of Wandering Earth II, titled “The Wandering Earth II Review: It Wanders Too Far,” was written by Brandon Yu and published in print on January 27, 2023.

Yu does not have a lot of good things to say about China’s latest blockbuster. Although he calls the 2019 The Wandering Earth “entertaining enough,” he writes that the sequel is a movie that is “audaciously messy” and has lost “all of the glee” its predecessor had:

“(..) the movie instead offers nearly three hours of convoluted storylines, undercooked themes and a tangle of confused, glaringly state-approved political subtext.”

The topic was discussed on Chinese social media using various hashtags, including “The New York Times Gave Wandering Earth II a 3″ (#纽约时报给流浪地球打30分#, #纽约时报给流浪地球2打30分#).

Instead of triggering anger, the bad review actually instilled a sense of pride among many Chinese, who argued that the review showed the impact the movie has made. Some commenters pointed out that the movie is a new milestone in Chinese cinema, not just threatening America’s domination of the movie industry but also setting a narrative in which China leads the way.

“We’re gonna save the world, and America just can’t stand it,” one commenter replied.

That same view was also reiterated by other bloggers. The author and history blogger Zhang Yi’an (@张忆安-龙战于野) argued that The New York Times review was not necessarily bad; it actually shows that Americans feel threatened by the idea of China’s important role in a new international world order, and by the fact that China actually will have the capacity to lead the way when it comes to, for example, space technology innovation, robotics, and artificial intelligence.

Zhang argues that if a similar movie had been made by India as a Bollywood blockbuster – including exploding suns and wandering earths – The New York Times would have been more forgiving and might have even called it cute or silly.

But because this is China, the film’s success and its narrative plays into existing fears over China’s rise, and it clashes with American values about what the international community should look like.

Zhang writes: “The China in the movie doesn’t boast itself as the savior of the world, but in reality, China really is capable of saving the world. The United States is no longer able to do so (电影里的中国没有把自己吹嘘成救世主,现实中的中国真的有能力做救世主。而美国却已经不能了).”

One popular Film & TV account (@影视综艺君) also summarized the general online reaction to the bad review in the American newspaper: “Whenever the enemy gets scared, it must mean we’re doing it right. Our cultural export has succeeded.” That post received over 120,000 likes.

On Zhihu.com, some commenters also attached little value to the review and showed how the overseas reviews of Wandering Earth II widely varied in their verdict.

Meanwhile, a state media-initiated hashtag on Weibo claimed on January 28 that Wandering Earth II has actually “captured the hearts of many overseas audiences” (#流浪地球2海外上映获好评#), and that the film’s “imaginative” and “wonderful” visuals combined with its strong storyline were being praised by moviegoers outside of China.

On IMDB, the movie has received 5.9/10; it has gotten a 70% Rotten Tomatoes score. The Guardian gave it 2/5. Meanwhile, on Weibo, one reviewer after the other gives the film 5/5 stars.

Weibo blogger Lang Yanzhi (@郎言志) writes: “Recently, we’ve seen a lot of attacks and slander directed at the China-made science fiction movie Wandering Earth 2, especially coming from Western media and pro-Western forces, because the film’s “Chinese salvation” narrative made them uncomfortable. This was already the case when the first film in the series was released. It is very clear that Wandering Earth is not just a movie: it is a symbol of great influence.”

By Manya Koetse , with contributions by Zilan Qian

 

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China Arts & Entertainment

Behind the Short Feature Film of the Spring Festival Gala

The first-ever ‘mini film’ of the Spring Festival Gala struck a chord with viewers for its strong storytelling and authentic production.

Manya Koetse

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This precious and powerful short film by Zhang Dapeng has touched the hearts of Spring Festival Gala viewers. But there is more to the short film than meets the eye. Here’s the noteworthy story behind the 7-minute Spring Festival Mini Film.

On January 21, 2023, China’s Spring Festival Gala, hosted by China Media Group, kicked off the Year of the Rabbit. The annual show, which featured forty different acts and performances, lasted over four hours and attracted millions of viewers worldwide (see our liveblog here, and see a top 5 highlight of the show here).

Traditionally, the Spring Festival Gala always shows several short public service ad films in between the performances, but this year was the first time the Gala featured a “mini-film” or “micro film” (微电影).

Titled Me and My Spring Festival Night (“我和我的春晚”), the 7-minute film was praised among viewers. On Weibo, one hashtag dedicated to the short film received over nine million clicks (#我和我的春晚#).

The film was directed by the Beijing director Zhang Dapeng (张大鹏). Born in 1984, Zhang is a Beijing Film Academy graduate who previously attracted wide attention for directing the Peppa Pig Celebrates Chinese New Year movie and the brilliant ad campaign that came with it. Titled What Is Peppa, that short ad film featured a grandfather living in rural China who goes on a quest to find out what ‘Peppa’ is. The promotional video became an absolute viral hit back in 2019 (see/read more here).

Still from ‘What is Peppa.’ 2019.

This time, Zhang’s latest Chinese New Year film is about a hard-working former military man from China’s countryside named Zhang Jianguo (张建国), for whom coming on the show to play the trumpet has been a dream for many years. By featuring his story, the film takes us from the Chinese 1980s, 90s, 00s – as we see him change jobs, move around, and start a family – up to the present.

The main idea behind the film was to honor all the ordinary viewers who have written – and are still writing – to the Gala ever since it first aired in the early 1980s, and to tell a story inspired by these personal letters and ordinary viewers.

Short Summary of “Me and My Chunwan”

At the start of the film, we see Zhang Jianguo dusting off his military honorary awards (光荣军属), putting on his jacket, grabbing his thermos flask and trumpet, and setting out on a journey in the midst of winter.

Riding an electric tricycle in the icy cold, his driver (actor Huang Bo 黄渤) asks him where he is going. “Can you keep your mouth shut?” Zhang replies (“你嘴严实不严实”). “I can,” the driver says, and Zhang then says: “So can I.”

The voiceover narration, a first-person narrative by Zhang himself, explains that he has always been busy: “I never had time for the Spring Festival Gala. My Spring Festival fate is all because of something my captain said.”

The film jumps to a scene showing Zhang as a young military man during the Chinese New Year’s Eve, working outside while people are watching the Spring Festival Gala on a small black and white television inside. As his commander (played by Wu Jing 吴京) hands him his trumpet, he says: “Go and play your trumpet on the television.”

“If the leader asks me to go on the Spring Festival Gala, it’s a task I must complete,” the voice-over says.

But in the military scene itself, duty calls and Zhang has to blow the trumpet to announce dinner time.

In the years that follow, Zhang is always busy during the Spring Festival Gala. Working in the factory, getting married, working on a train, farming cattle, taking care of his family, and always cooking. His trumpet is still there with him, to announce dinner time or hanging on the wall as a memory of times past.

As the years pass by, Zhang realizes that he has gradually forgotten about his commander’s words. Time moves fast. First, he had a son, then his son grew taller than himself, and then his son had his own son. “And I still had never been to the Spring Festival Gala.”

With his captain’s words back on his mind, Zhang, now an older man, sets out on his journey without telling anyone. By foot, by electric tricycle, by bus, and by train, Zhang travels all the way to the famous Beijing Studio 1 to perform at the Spring Festival Gala after being “too busy” for forty years.

Backstage at the Spring Festival Gala, Zhang sits down with famous Chinese Spring Festival Gala performers (Ma Li 马丽 and Shen Teng 沈腾). While unpacking his lunchbox, he tells them he was finally not too busy to come on the show: “I wrote a letter and here I am.” “It’s that simple?” Ma Li wonders.

The producer then rushes to come and get Zhang, who bravely walks towards the stage with his old little trumpet.

A female voice-over then reads out a message, while we see various scenes throughout the years showing Zhang – from young to old – writing letters to CCTV from wherever he is.

The female narrator says: “Dear Uncle Zhang, we’ve received your letter regarding your hopes to realize your cherished stage dream. In this age of emailing, and knowing that you’ve been writing us for 39 years, we’re moved and feel guilty. Our reply may be late, but not our sincerity..

Meanwhile, we see a flashback to a mailman pulling up to old Zhang’s home (the mailman is the actor Wang Baoqiang), and the old Zhang finally receives that much-anticipated letter from CCTV at his remote rural home.

The female narrator continues: “This year, we proudly invite you to be a guest at the Spring Festival Gala and to “ring the dinner bell” [play the sound announcing dinner]. Sincerely, the Spring Festival Director Committee.

In the final shot, we see Zhang blowing the trumpet at the Gala, with flashbacks showing him blowing that trumpet in all those decades before. He has finally made it to the big stage.

A Noteworthy Story

While Me and My Spring Festival Night received a lot of praise on Chinese social media, the story behind the film was not immediately clear to many viewers celebrating the Chinese New Year, but it was explained in several articles and interviews with director Zhang Dapeng.

During the live-televised Spring Festival Gala itself, the airing of Me and My Spring Festival Night was directly followed up by a shot featuring a person (a veteran) in the audience standing up and actually playing the trumpet.

Directly after, the song “Goodmorning Sunshine” began, representing multiple people from all kinds of professions and social groups. About one minute into the song, the camera turns to another audience member: the person who plays ‘Uncle Zhang’ in the mini-film. Later in the song, we can see he is wiping away tears, visibly moved.

Why was he so moved? The older man in the audience, the main ‘Uncle Zhang’ actor in the film, is Jin Changyong (金长勇), and he actually is not a professional actor.

Somewhat similar to the character Zhang Jianguo, Jin Changyong or “Uncle Jin” (金叔) is a hardworking veteran from Hebei’s Huailai County in Zhangjiakou.

Jin Changyong is a 63-year-old farmer who is also active at the Hebei Tianmo Film and TV Park doing security and logistics-related jobs. He served in the army for four years from the age of 19, as, among others, a military chef.

Director Zhang Dapdeng came across ‘Uncle Jin’ one day while shooting another film at the studio. While Jin was busy doing kitchen work, director Zhang saw him and, as he later recounts, was struck by his face that showed he had “lived through many changes” (“这种饱经沧桑的脸”).

Zhang later invited Uncle Jin to star in the movie, and he also made sure Jin’s own story played a role in the script.

Director Zhang Dapeng, image via CCTV.

This makes this short movie all the more special, something which has since been discussed on Chinese social media (#春晚微电影的主演是普通农民#).

The surprising twist in the story is how Zhang Jianguo tells other people he has just always been “too busy” to attend the Gala, while he had in fact already written to the show for 39 years with the hope of one day being invited.

Another noteworthy aspect of the film is how Zhang Dapeng chose to cast some of China’s most celebrated actors as supporting roles to lift up the main character and actor, Jin, who was inexperienced and learnt from his fellow players.

In an interview, Jin expressed that the entire experience of playing in this short film left his overcome with emotion. After the filming had ended, he told reporters that he had sleepless nights because he had not received an actual invitation to the Spring Festival Gala yet, something which he so very much hoped for. Just one week before the show, that invitation finally came.

The fact that Jin, in a way, played a man like himself in the short movie has added to the film’s popularity.

“I was sincerely moved by this film,” one commenter wrote, with others saying: “This was the best program I’ve seen on the Gala over the past decade.”

While some people also remarked that the short film seemed to have been influenced by The Grand Budapest Hotel by Wes Anderson, others praised it for its originality.

“This was just the best part of the night,” several commenters said: “It made me cry.”

“Zhang Pengda – a name to remember,” others wrote.

You can watch the short film on Youtube here.

By Manya Koetse 

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