Studio portrait of a Chinese woman (c) 2012 Jamie Carstairs

Old Photographs Fever: The Search for China’s Pictured Past

Just a quick post to tell you about a programme I heard on BBC Radio 4 last week, Old Photographs Fever – The Search for China’s Pictured Past.

Old Photographs Fever on BBC iPlayer

It talks about the current interest in historical photographs in China and discusses why so much material from the late 19th and 20th century has been lost.

A new and intense appetite for images of the country’s past has resulted in a publishing phenomenon: sales of books and magazines filled with historical photographs have rocketed. China’s turbulent history in the twentieth century meant that archives of all kinds were destroyed: in warfare and revolutions. During the Cultural Revolution of 1966-9, the process was continued by the Red Guard. People also destroyed their own – now dangerously bourgeois – family albums. Nearly a century of photographic history was erased.

The photographs that do survive were mostly taken by foreigners, living in or visiting China, who took them out of the country to safety. Professor Robert Bickers at the University of Bristol is leading the search to collect and digitise these photographs in order to restore a historical vision of China which is unfamiliar and fascinating to its citizens now. The online collection is extraordinary in its range and reflects all aspects of life in China. There are studio portraits, gruesome police photos, industrial and rural landscapes, tourist snaps and family albums.

One of the jewels in the collection is the work of Fu Bingchang, a senior Chinese diplomat, whose access to the elite of Chinese society in the first half of the twentieth century and whose talent as a photographer make for a unique and beautiful set of images. The photos were given by Fu’s son Foo Chung Hung (Johnny) and his granddaughter Yee Wah, who recall finding them in twelve leather trunks of possessions which were smuggled out of China.

The Visualising China project, based at the University of Bristol, is doing an amazing job of tracking down, archiving and digitising these rare photos and what’s even better is that the entire collection of over 8000 images is freely accessible online. You can keep up with news and highlights from the project at the Visualising China blog. It’s where I found this rather gorgeous Surrealist studio portrait:

Studio portrait of a Chinese woman (c) 2012 Jamie Carstairs

(c) 2012 Jamie Carstairs

video with excerpts from the programme and a slideshow of photos is on the BBC website – highly recommended. Emile de Bruijn of the fantastic National Trust Treasure Hunt blog also posted about The lost world of Fu Bingchang.

Waste Not at the Barbican

At the weekend I saw a fascinating and poignant art installation called Waste Not, by the Chinese artist Song Dong.  It’s been shown around the world for the last few years, and now there are five days remaining until it closes at London’s Barbican. If you haven’t already been to see it, I recommend going – and it’s free!

The work presents five decades of items collected by Song Dong’s mother, Zhao Xiangyuan. The Chinese adage of wu jin qi yong – ‘waste not’ – was taken to extremes in Song Dong’s family home, and the story behind the clutter is what really elevates the installation.

I took some photos too.

Old Master Q: A Hong Kong comics classic

Old Master Q (老夫子 or Lǎo Fū Zi in Chinese) is a long-running comic (manhua) from Hong Kong detailing the misadventures of Old Master Q and his friends Big Potato and Mr Chin. They’ve been described as the most popular comic book characters in Hong Kong and I think they’re real icons for the Chinese diaspora too.

Old Master Q comic book covers

I remember reading Old Master Q when I was about seven or eight years old, living above my parents’ takeaway in England. Someone had bought these comic books over from Hong Kong in the 1980s I suppose but the flavour of the artwork was decidedly 1970s, all girls in miniskirts with super-long hair.

Old Master Q comic: Skillful Clumsiness

There wasn’t much text in the four-panel strips so even I as a non-Chinese reader could enjoy them. I found Old Master Q hilarious, full of absurd situations and silliness, and I’m sure that my sense of humour was profoundly influenced by it.

Old Master Q comic: Pizza

Old Master Q has been running for 50 years and I believe it’s still being published. It was created as a strip in 1962 by Alfonso Wong (Wong Kar Hei), going by the pseudonym Wong Chak, and serialised soon after in 1964. The comic has been adapted into numerous live action and animated films as well as TV series across the decades, such is its enduring appeal.

Old Master Q film poster for Mr Funny Bones

One of the key elements of Old Master Q, and the most charming thing for me, is how the characters remain steadfastly stuck in a world that’s really always 1960s Hong Kong even though they might be time travelling, in outer space or using mobile phones. They’re constantly navigating the line between traditional Chinese ways of doing things and modern Westernised life. The world might look on in consternation at these yokels but Old Master Q is almost always cheerfully jubilant, even wilfully so.

Old Master Q comic: Overreact

I once asked my family why Old Master was called Lǎo Fū Zi and my brother thought that it was possibly a pun on Confucius: Confucius is known in Chinese as Kǒng Fū Zi – Master or Teacher Kǒng. Alfonso Wong himself says that Lǎo Fū Zi is a generic title for an old learned person. I think I prefer my brother’s wittier version.

Old Master Q comic: Scary Fingerprints

If you want to see more strips and find out more about this true product of Hong Kong in the 60s, have a look at the official Old Master Q website. And I recommend Hong Kong Comics: A History of Manhua by Wendy Siuyi Wong for an in-depth read on the topic, plus tonnes of great artwork.

Chinese wallpapers at the National Trust

The National Trust’s Treasure Hunt blog has been delving into the world of Chinese wallpapers recently and I thought I’d share a few of these wonderful photos with you.

Wallpaper in the State Bedroom at Penrhyn Castle (©NTPL/Andreas von Einsiedel)

Ornate, hand-painted wallpapers like these were the height of luxury during the 18th century and it’s amazing that some are still extant in their original homes.

Wallpapers in the study at Saltram (©NTPL/John Hammond)

Wallpaper in the Chinese Dressing Room at Saltram (©NTPL/John Hammond)

What really caught my eye were the pictures of the newly painted fascimile wallpapers at Avebury Manor.

Wallpaper in progress at Avebury Manor (©NTPL/James Dobson)

The design was applied to the walls by stencil and then details were painstakingly painted in by hand.

Detail of wallpaper in progress at Avebury Manor (©NTPL/James Dobson)

Hand-painting wallpaper at Avebury Manor (©NTPL/James Dobson)

The design may not strictly be historically accurate but I think the decision to feature flashes of local British flora and fauna (such as wild pansies, red admiral and peacock butterflies, great crested newts and foxes) on the wallpaper adds another neat layer of history onto this restoration project. After all, true Chinoiserie, like the original Chinese wallpapers, was always made for Western consumption and Western tastes.

You can read more about Chinoiserie and wallpaper on the Treasure Hunt blog.