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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.

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 Celebs

Meet Ding Zhen: Khampa Tibetan “Horse Prince” Becomes Social Media Sensation

Ding Zhen’s quiet life out in the grasslands is seemingly over.

Luke Jacobus

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A Khampa Tibetan farmer has become an online sensation in China due to his handsome features. His overnight fame, which comes with legions of adoring fans and TV show invitations, has sparked discussions about the often-overwhelming loss of privacy that can accompany online stardom.

The recent rise to internet fame of a young man named Ding Zhen (丁真) has sparked controversy over the benefits and downsides of e-celebdom.

The 20-year-old farmer, who lives in Litang in the Kham region of Tibet, found accidental online fame after being captured in a blogger’s photography session in Nyima County, according to a Haixia News article.

His handsome features attracted online attention, snowballing out of control after his appearance on a livestream. The young man shyly admitted to having little proficiency in reading or speaking Mandarin, but managed to express his love for raising horses.

The cameraman and other villagers apparently later publicized Ding Zhen’s name, address, and other personal info, soliciting gifts and leading some netizens to mock Ding Zhen’s village neighbors as “blood-sucking vampires.”

Ding, still unaware of his own fame, mentioned with some difficulty on the livestream that his dream was simply to become a “horse prince” (马王子) by winning his local horse races. His dream after that? To raise more horses, of course much to the delight of many Weibo users, some of whom have begun creating fan art in the young man’s honor.

Calls for Ding Zhen to open a Douyin account of his own, or even to appear on reality television shows such as The Coming One (明日之子) and Produce Camp (创造营), have inspired heated debate.

“This kind of person,” wrote one Weibo commenter, “should be riding horses and shooting arrows out on the grasslands; he shouldn’t be imprisoned in Vanity Fair by your fan club’s cultural values.”

Others worried that this young man, “uncorrupted by the world,” might be taken advantage of by others for financial gain.

This concern over the invasiveness of online fans likely stems from previous incidents where ordinary Chinese citizens became extraordinarily famous overnight, such as in the cases of ‘Brother Sharp,’ a homeless man similarly inundated with adoring praise online for his good looks and stylish appearance, and Shanghai’s ‘Vagrant Professor,’ both of whom found their privacy constantly invaded by fans seeking photos or just a chance to meet the new stars. Soon both men could hardly walk outside without being swarmed as their private life had been effectively ended- all because they happened to become popular online.

‘Brother Sharp’ (on the left) and the ‘Vagrant Professor’ (right) both also went viral overnight.

Two phenomena unique to the Chinese internet seem to place these e-celebrities at a higher risk of being tracked down offline by their fans. One of them is the “human flesh search engine” (人肉搜索,) a massive online effort tapping into the knowledge and offline connections of netizens to track down and identify a person, often for shaming or as justice for perceived wrongdoing. The other is the highly-organized “super fan club” phenomenon prevalent in Chinese e-celeb culture, some of which boast structures rivaling the biggest corporations, with PR and financial departments. It’s no wonder then that some netizens fear for Ding Zhen’s personal life.

Many of these concerned netizens seem to particularly admire the simple, pastoral lifestyle of the “grasslands” (草原) which Ding leads, one which has been popularized in novels like Jin Yong’s Legends of the Condor Heroes (射鵰英雄傳), which details the adventures of the young Guo Jing, a Chinese boy who joins the court of Genghis Khan. The novel has been read by millions across China and has become a prominent source of political metaphors on the Chinese web. One commenter exhorted others to “Let him become his own hero, a horse prince! Don’t let the worst impulses of the internet corrupt him.”

With the question “Should Ding Zhen leave the grasslands?” (#丁真该不该离开草原发展#) becoming a trending topic all of its own, it seems opinions about his popularity are fiercely divided. “I hope this handsome guy can make his own choices,” writes one Weibo user: “..and no matter whether he becomes a star or not, I hope he can keep such an innocent heart!”

According to the latest reports, Ding has received a job offer from a Chinese state-owned company since his unexpected rise to online fame. CGTN writes that the ‘horse prince’ has now signed the contract, but they do not mention if this new job will allow him to do what he loves most – raising horses and being out in the grasslands.

 
By Luke Jacobus

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©2020 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

Oh, the Drama! Chinese Opera Performance Turns into Stage Fight as Drunken Man Attacks Actors

This local traditional opera performance unexpectedly turned into a stage fight.

Manya Koetse

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On October 9 in Zhejiang’s Lishui city (Laozhu Town), a theatrical performance unexpectedly turned very dramatic when a drunken man stormed on stage to fight with the performers.

A video showing the Chinese opera performance being disturbed by the drunkard, turning it into a chaotic stage scene, is gaining major attention on Chinese social media.

The incident occurred Friday night around 9 pm, when the Laozhu Theatrical Troupe was performing.

Videos of the incident that are circulating online show how one man comes on stage, attacking one of the actors. The scene escalates into a big fight when others try to intervene. The police were quick to arrive at the scene.

Various news reports suggest the man started to act out after getting into an argument with one of the ‘Huadan’ (花旦) performers of the troupe. In traditional Chinese opera, the Huadan characters are young female roles, often seductive in appearance and quick with their words.

Local police posted on Weibo that the chaos was caused by a 33-year-old local who started to become aggressive after he had too much to drink. The man is charged with disorderly conduct and is currently detained.

The case received even more attention on social media when it turned out that the 33-year old troublemaker is the son of the head of a neighboring village.

Many Chinese netizens feel that the man is spared by Chinese news media outlets, which only report about a “drunken man” who was “causing trouble.” They insist that the real story should be properly reported.

“The son of the village chief took liberties with a huadan actress who rejected him, and then he kicked her, causing her to lose consciousness. He then beat up other actors,” some commenters explain.

“He is not just a ‘drunkard’, he’s the son of the village secretary.”

“What an explosive performance it was!” one Weibo blogger writes.

By Manya Koetse

Spotted a mistake or want to add something? Please let us know in comments below or email us. First-time commenters, please be patient – we will have to manually approve your comment before it appears.

©2020 Whatsonweibo. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce our content without permission – you can contact us at info@whatsonweibo.com.

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