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Beijing Close-Up: Photographer Tom Selmon Crosses the Borders of Gender in China

Tom Selmon, Beijing-based photographer from London, likes to capture a lesser-known side of China’s capital. Going off the beaten path, Selmon does backstage, fashion and street photography. His photos show a new Chinese generation that celebrates gender-nonconformity.

Manya Koetse

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No Tiananmen Square or Summer Palace – Tom Selmon, Beijing-based photographer from London, likes to capture a lesser-known side of China’s capital. Going off the beaten path, Selmon does backstage, fashion and street photography. His photos show a new Chinese generation that celebrates gender-nonconformity.

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

LOVING THE CAMERA

“My work is a display of everything I love in the world.”

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“I’ve always known I wanted to be behind the lens. I studied Film Studies in London and initially thought I would be a filmmaker. But I soon discovered I was not looking for long storyboards, I just wanted to shoot. So I started doing photography, and my teachers liked my work. I took a course in Fashion Photography and then decided that was what I was going to do. I love fashion, I love photography: I’d be a fashion photographer.”

“My work is a display of everything I love in the world. That includes people, faces, naked men, and drag. I’ve been interested in drag since I was 16. I probably was into it earlier than I realized: I already wore girl’s clothes at the age of two.”

“Besides my editorial work, I also shot the drag scene in London. I was photographing, doing another job on the side, and experimenting with shooting different things. I am gay and the [tooltip text=”Stands for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender.”]LGBT[/tooltip] scene is something I relate to. In my work, I hope to get across that I am doing it not to make a point – because actually it shouldn’t be a point. In many other photographer’s work, I feel drags or transgenders are often made to be look ugly. I just like unique faces and the shapes of bodies, and want to bring out the beauty in people.”

 

NEW TERRITORIES

“I wanted to go some place that would open my eyes.”

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“When I was in London, I felt like I needed to push myself further and decided something needed to change. Someone I knew was living in Beijing, and I decided to take the jump and come here. I initially had no specific interest in China, I just wanted to go somewhere that was very different from London, some place that would open my eyes. I can say that now, looking back, because at the time I had no clue. I actually came for none of the reasons I thought I was coming for.”

“It was not easy in the beginning. I felt like Beijing was like a dream, and I was zoned out. The language barrier was a problem too: if I got into a taxi, all I could do was point at my address on a piece of paper. One of my first nights here my taxi driver ended up at taking me to the airport instead of my own home due to a miscommunication.”

“After some time I came into the right flow of meeting new people, finding a teaching job for steady income, and going out into the streets. It was only then that I really started to appreciate the city.”

 

SHOOTING BEIJING LIFE

“People here just stand around and have no idea how great they look.”

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“There is this ‘flow’ in Beijing that I love. Once you’re in the flow of the city, it becomes easy to meet new people, to open doors and to start new projects.”

“I naturally got into Beijing street photography, because I just find so much life here. There is always something going on, from the early morning till late at night. I find it easier now to step up to people and ask if I can take their photo. It often turns into something really lovely. There is so much expression in people’s faces, and also some sort of honesty. Many people here just stand around and seem to have no idea how great they look. Beijing’s fashion is sometimes ridiculed, but many outfits are actually amazing, and people put a lot of energy into them. Those shots of the people combined with the urban environment give a very cool composition.”

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“I am not very interested in shooting the cigarette seller down the street. I want to capture what is going on right now with the new generation. It’s iconic because it represents what is going on in 2016. I need to be in China longer to understand it, but there is some sort of new sexual revolution going on. Issues of gender and sexuality seem to be really playing a big role for this generation.”

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CROSSING THE BORDERS OF GENDER IN CHINA

“I get a sense of pride and vulnerability in someone’s face here that I won’t get in London.”

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“Continuing here what I did in London, I wanted to dive into the Beijing LGBT and drag scene. The ‘umbrella’ is LGBT, but I am also interested in shooting ballet dancers or other performers. I love those worlds that involve fluid gender identities, where people are giving beauty, elegance and movement.”

“I went to a rooftop screening of [tooltip text=”Fan Popo is a Beijing gay film maker, writer and activist.”]Fan Popo[/tooltip]’s documentary about the mothers of gay children in China in late Summer (2015), and that was my first entry into Beijing’s LGBT scene. I’m slowly getting to know it now, and I found that there is quite a tight community consisting of Chinese and foreign people. They organize many activities, and in that sense, it is different from London. People from the LGBT scene everywhere, also in London, still have to fight for equality. It is not like people in Beijing are fighting for something different, but they just have to fight harder.”

“The gays here have a different view on what it is to be gay. It also has to do with how people identify with being gay. Here, many homosexuals find it important to identify themselves as ‘feminine’ or ‘masculine’. It sometimes makes me think of what London used to be like ten years ago. There is a strong sense of gay pride.”

“There is this first generation here of both heterosexuals and gays now who are more open about sex. For me as a photographer, this new generation gives a myriad of people and scenes to shoot. I get a sense of pride and vulnerability in someone’s face here that I won’t get in London. There is a delicateness and femininity, which I find beautiful.”

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“It has not been hard to find people willing to be photographed here. I always manage to get what I want from people. I just ask, and they say yes all the time. I also find that they are a bit more open to getting naked for a photo here. My recent work includes a photo series shot in a gay spa in downtown Beijing, individual portraits of people I have met on the streets, backstage series at contemporary dance shows and Chinese opera, and a project on the nouveau riche in one of Beijing’s super clubs. Maybe people are so willing to say yes because they are being shot in a way they have never been shot before.”

 

PHOTOS TO COME

”I’ve never understood why nudity is more censored than violence.”

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“I am not sure what I am anymore. Am I a street photographer? A fashion photographer? An LGBT photographer? A nude photographer? Maybe I’m a bit of everything. My work is not about gays or transgenders, it is about people. My photos are not political; they are esthetical. I just love people and their bodies. It is all about faces, and how light reflects on the naked skin. Nudity makes people different. It is beautiful – I’ve never understood why nudity is more censored than violence.”

“I do hope to make an impact with my photos. In the end, I just want people to see my work. I do it because I really enjoy it.”

“I am not done yet in China, and I know that new opportunities will open up for me. I still have a lot to learn and to be exposed to here. I find it all very exciting. In London I always knew what was happening, and here I just never knew what is going to happen next. I don’t know where I’ll be one year from now. I am going to stay in China for another year, as I feel I have only just started to skim the surface.”

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tomselfPhoto on Tom Selmon’s Instagram. Tom Selmon on the left. 

Tom Selmon’s website: www.tomselmon.com
Tom Selmon’s Instagram: follow

By Manya Koetse

All images by Tom Selmon, do not reproduce without photographer’s permission.

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

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Manya Koetse is the editor-in-chief of www.whatsonweibo.com. She is a writer and consultant (Sinologist, MPhil) on social trends in China, with a focus on social media and digital developments, popular culture, and gender issues. Contact at manya@whatsonweibo.com, or follow on Twitter.

China Arts & Entertainment

‘American Factory’ Sparks Debate on Weibo: Pro-China Views and Critical Perspectives

‘American Factory’ stirs online discussions in China.

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Award-winning documentary American Factory is not just sparking conversations in the English-language social media sphere. The film is also igniting discussions in the PRC, where pro-China views are trumpeted, while some critical perspectives are being censored.

By Anna Wang and Eduardo Baptista

Even as China posts its lowest industrial output growth since 2002, Weibo’s ongoing reaction to Netflix documentary American Factory is rife with declarations of the Chinese manufacturing sector’s impending victory over its US rival. This, however, is not the full story.

The first documentary distributed by Higher Ground Productions, owned by former US President and First Lady, Barack and Michelle Obama, American Factory painted a damning picture of Trump’s protectionist policies.

US manufacturing cannot keep up with the brute efficiency of its Chinese competitors. The story of a shuttering American factory revived by Chinese investment and an influx of Chinese workers, opening up a Pandora’s Box of cultural clashes, paints a telling, but pessimistic, picture of the current strategic conflict between the two superpowers, from the ground-up.

Image via Netflix.

Despite the Great Firewall, Chinese netizens found ways to watch the documentary, that was made by Ohio filmmakers Steve Bognar and Julia Reichert. Temporary links to streaming and subtitle services litter the Chinese Internet, making any accurate count of total mainland viewership nigh-impossible. However, one indication of the film’s popularity among mainlanders was the 259,000 views for a trailer posted on Bilibili.

One likely reason for netizens’ interest is that it neatly plays into Chinese state media rhetoric on the US-China trade war.

The inevitability of China’s rise up the global supply chain (and a corresponding decline on the US side) is a recurring theme in opinion pieces penned by the likes of Xinhua and Global Times, but also an increasingly louder cacophony of bloggers.

 

American Factory shows that the US will probably lose out to China in manufacturing.”

 

One Chinese company (Wind资讯) posted on Weibo that “what Obama means in this film, in a very oblique way, is that anti-globalization will produce a lose-lose scenario.”

The official Weibo account of Zhisland, a Chinese networking platform for entrepreneurs around the world (@正和岛标准) posted a review of the Netflix film titled: “Behind the Popularity of American Factory: Time Might Not Be on America’s Side” (“《美国工厂》走红背后:时间,或许真的不在美国那边了“).

It warns the audience right off the bat to “not assume that this film will promote cooperation between China and the United States. In contrast, it will surely stir up mixed feelings among both audiences.”

American Factory shows that the US will probably lose out to China in manufacturing,” Zhisland writes. The article argues that China will win out due to its lower labor costs, lack of trade unions, and more disciplined managerial styles. “It’s an uneven playing field,” the author continues: “Time may not be on America’s side.”

Toward the end, the author claims: “We are about to enter a new era in which China will gradually become the most dominant player in the global marketplace.”

The fact that many on Weibo shared these kinds of pieces as a reaction to the documentary suggests there is confirmation bias at work here. As is common on Weibo and other social media, comments on the pieces like the above simply rattle unsubstantiated claims, frequently descending into ad hominems.

Another Weibo user (@用户Mr.立早) adds comments when sharing the above article: “The American workers repeat Trump’s mantra, but won’t act on it. They’ve been idling for almost a century. They’re hopeless.”

 

“American Factory tells you: separate the US economy from China, and the US will go bankrupt.”

 

Chinese state media also chimed in on how American Factory proved their most important talking points on the ongoing US-China trade conflict.

Xinmin Evening News, an official newspaper run by the Communist Party’s Shanghai Committee, published an article by Wu Jian called “American Factory Tells You: Separate the US Economy from China, and the US Will Go Bankrupt” (“《美国工厂》告诉你:将美国经济从中国分离,美国会破产“).

In this piece, Jian claims that “in the age of globalization, ties between China and the US cannot be cut. Using high tariffs to force U. S. manufacturing return to the States… is simply not realistic. Separate the US economy from China, and the U.S. will go bankrupt.”

The article was also shared widely on Weibo. Thepaper.cn, an online news site affiliated with Shanghai United Media Group, published a review titled “American Factory: The Things that Are Spelled Out and the Things that are Implied” (“《美国工厂》:那些说出来的,和没有说的“).

The author, Xu Le, writes: “What struck me most about the film was the look on the faces of the American workers. All of them … had the same burnt-out expression… Their faces reminded me of photos of people in the late Qing Dynasty. That dull expression reflects a civilization in decline.”

“We’re a family at Fuyao” American workers listen to a rosy speech from their new bosses.

In the film, When American foremen visit a factory run by glass manufacturer Fuyao in China, they are alarmed to see Chinese workers picking up glass shards without safety glasses or cut-resistant gloves.

A Chinese worker picks up glass shards with minimal safety equipment, shocking his American co-workers.

Xu comments: “Why is it that Chinese workers are able to put up with even more drudgery while being paid far less than their American counterparts? This is something we Chinese are very familiar with.”

 

“Are you the glory, or are you the cost of the glory?”

 

Qin Hui, professor of history at Tsinghua University, once argued that China’s economic growth isn’t because of economic liberalism or government oversight, but because of China’s refusal to guarantee certain basic human rights.

In Maoist China, the state stripped the underprivileged of all political power in the name of the greater good dictated by socialist dogma. Post-Mao China continues to exploit the underprivileged, but now for monetary gain. He called it China’s “advantage” of “low human rights.”

Despite the nationalism sentiment fanned by American Factory, it has also provoked reflection on China’s advantage of low human rights summarized by Qin Hui.

Weibo user ‘Zhi21’ (@ZHI2i), a recent college graduate, writes on Weibo: “I just finished an internship at a factory. I worked 12 hours a day. More than 11 hours of every shift was spent on my feet without stopping, just to keep up with the assembly line. It didn’t make sense to me. After watching American Factory, I feel like American workers are lucky to only work 8 hours a day. That’s why the production costs are higher in the States. They pay too much attention to whether or not workers are comfortable.”

Another Weibo blogger (@GhostSaDNesS) notes that “in American Factory, Fuyao employees believe that to work is to live. They defend the interests of capitalists while they are actively exploited. Unions in the West chose human rights, Chinese capitalists chose profit, and Chinese workers have no choice at all.”

Some of these posts were apparently censored; threads that displayed as having over 200 comments only showed 12, and users complained that their posts were being deleted or made invisible to other users by Weibo censors. “They didn’t give any explanation,” one blogger wrote: ” I only expressed that I felt sorry for the people at the bottom. I didn’t question the system. I didn’t ask to change society.”

Views like that of @Crimmy_Excelsior (“I was confused. Which country is the capitalist one and which country is the socialist one?“) are apparently sensitive enough to be taken offline – they touch upon the tension between the CCP’s espousal of Marxist-Leninism and the plight faced by hundreds of millions of Chinese that have their working conditions driven down by capitalist markets.

Many users don’t buy into nationalist interpretations of the film, and argue that economic gain achieved at the expense of human rights is shameful. @陈生大王 raises a poignant question: “This is a glorious time for China, but I hope this film inspires you to think about who you really are as an individual. Are you the glory, or are you the cost of the glory?”

“The cost of the glory” is derived from a quip popular on China’s internet. The Chinese government often urges its citizens to rally together, using the rhetoric, “We must win this trade war at all cost.” Some netizens then twisted the phrase, saying, “We must win this trade war at all cost, and we later find out that we are the cost.”

 

“China’s prosperity did not just happen overnight – Chinese people worked hard to make it happen.”

 

Even among those in favor of China’s controversial work ethics, there have been concerns over the status quo. Earlier this year, engineers in the tech industry publicly aired their grievances about their “996” lifestyle. The term refers to a high-pressure work schedule of 9am to 9pm, six days a week. This is the kind of life workers in Fuyao are living, with no hope of improvement – they are that the company would find a replacement in no time, making any form of complaining moot.

Recent events in mainland China only increase the credibility of this representation. Factory workers at Jasic, a maker of welding machinery in Shenzhen, attempted to start a union last year. All those involved were fired. A number of college students and activists who actively supported the workers were detained and persecuted.

According to the “China Labor Movement Report (2015-2017)” by China Labor Bulletin (a NGO based in Hong Kong that promotes and defends workers’ rights in the People’s Republic of China) “intensification of social conflicts, including labor-capital conflicts, has crossed a tipping point, and directly threatens the legitimacy of the regime.”

More conspicuously, there are netizens that don’t buy the narrative that Chinese workers are innately “tougher” than their American counterparts. As user @胡尕峰 observes: “(In the film), a new Chinese CEO explains to his fellow Chinese that Americans have been encouraged too much growing up, and can’t take criticism. Chinese born after 2000 have been raised the same way! In my circle of friends, some mothers nearly faint when their babies are finally able to poop. Is China going to end up the same as America?”

American Factory’s objective portrayal of cultural shocks between American and Chinese workforces clearly generated thoughtful reflections and incisive criticism from a sizeable number of netizens, while also being another reason for Chinese state media to highlight the rise of China in the global market.

The chairman of Fuyao Group, Cao Dewang, made headlines this week with the quote: “China’s prosperity did not just happen overnight – Chinese people worked hard to make it happen.” “We indeed worked hard for it,” some commenters agreed: “That’s definitely true.”

By Anna Wang and Eduardo Baptista

Edited by Eduardo Baptista

Spotted a mistake or want to add something? Please let us know in comments below or email us. Please note that your comment below will need to be manually approved if you’re a first-time poster here.

©2019 Whatsonweibo. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce our content without permission – you can contact us at info@whatsonweibo.com

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China Arts & Entertainment

Famous Chinese Nursery Song “One Penny” Inflates to “One Yuan”

One penny becomes one yuan in this children’s song. What’s next – changing it to QR codes?

Manya Koetse

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Famous Chinese children’s song “One Penny” (一分钱) has changed its penny to a Chinese yuan ($0.15).

The lyrics to the song are now published online and in children’s books with the different lyrics, Chinese news platform City Bulletin (@都市快报) reports on Weibo.

The altered text in a children’s book.

The classic song, in translation, says:

I found a penny on the street,
And handed it over to Uncle Policeman.
The Uncle Policeman took the penny,
And nodded his head at me.
I happily said: “Uncle, goodbye!

The song, by Chinese composer Pan Zhensheng (潘振声), is known throughout China. It came out in 1963.

Apparently, in present-day China, nobody would go through so much hassle for a penny anymore, and so the text was altered (although it is very doubtful people would go through the trouble for one yuan either).

The penny coin (0.01) in renminbi was first issued in 1957, and is somewhat rare to come across these days. “It’s probably even worth more than one yuan now,” some netizens argue.

Chinese media report that composer Pan Zhensheng said the song is just an innocent children’s song, and that it should not be affected by price inflation. Sina News also quoted the composer in saying that changing the text is “not respectful.”

Although some Chinese netizens think the change in the song is just normal modern development, others do not agree at all. In Hangzhou, some say, all you can find on the streets nowadays is QR codes rather than coins. Surely the song should not incorporate those new developments either?

Some commenters on Weibo say the song would never be realistic in China’s current cashless society anyway: “Kids nowadays are not finding cash money at all anymore!”

By Manya Koetse

Spotted a mistake or want to add something? Please let us know in comments below or email us. Please note that your comment below will need to be manually approved if you’re a first-time poster here.

©2019 Whatsonweibo. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce our content without permission – you can contact us at info@whatsonweibo.com

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