Photographer Michael Wolf captures portraits of toy workers in China holding up different toy parts. He tries to reveal the “countless Chinese factory workers slaving away in stuffy environments to construct piles of plastic toys”.


This kind of images portraying Chinese migrant workers have filled the media and art world in recent years. On one hand, I give full appreciation to these photographers who are passionate about showing the lives of Chinese workers; on the other hand, I feel frustrated that these intelligent people are always shown in such disconnected and impersonal way – they are not the toys they make, yet, they look as uncharacteristic as the toys they make.

The conditions of Chinese factories need to improve, and the workers deserve better treatments. But it is not all doom and gloom, factories are never sexy and there are millions of people around the world who are doing uninspiring job everyday, not because they want to, but because they have to. Isn’t it time we move on to a more personal understanding of these people?


When western photographers take a photo of Chinese people, there is very little or no communication between the photographer and their subjects. There is a general Western view on Chinese workers which is not the same as Chinese culture. Anyone has been to China know Chinese people are very open to conversation and making friends with Chinese is easy. Chinese people are curious  and always interested in other people and cultures. But  Western photographers tend to strip all the cultural context when photographing them. The results are often a serious of dull looking people looking guarded on camera. Of the 800 Chinese migrant workers I have interviewed for my project, everyone has exceptional vivid personality when I start to know them better, and these personalities shine through even in the hardest living or working conditions. They are often left disheartened by how the West often fails to capture the richness of their personalities.


Perhaps it is a time we find out more about their integrity as person rather than merely pointing camera at them. Instead of feeling sorry for the lives they are living lets try to understand their admirable strength and how they risk everything to challenge and to change the fate of their future through factory work in China.


People in China holding Chinese flags while protest against government corruption – it’s ok to denounce the government, but not ok to denounce the unity of the country.

Like me, most Chinese people are brought up on images of China’s suffering in the hands of the Western and Japanese invasions. It always serves as a warning of what China might be again, if people don’t unite. The humiliation of these invasions still affects people’s lives in China today.

The more the West gets involved in Tibet, the more people fear the same history will repeat. With negative reports from Chinese central media, Chinese people believe that the West is trying to invade China again through the issue of Tibet.

Every middle class Chinese person I meet wants to go to Tibet. However, most of them are not interested in the Tibetan culture as much as the amazing scenery. China is always willing to learn from other cultures, but historically it looks down on cultures which are not as advanced as ours. This ignorance is a second barrier to understanding Tibetans and appreciating their way of living.

That’s why it is very hard for any Chinese to speak out for Tibet without being labeled a separatist. To be a separatist is to deny your own culture and people, which is seen as a traitor to your country. Once people in China see you as such, you won’t only be denounced by the government, but more crucially, you will lose creditability with the entire Chinese people. As an intellectual, it is much worse of a punishment to lose your audience.

Therefore, reform in Tibet will come at a much slower pace. As the Chinese slowly open to other cultures and influences, I sincerely believe Chinese people will reflect on their own lives and understand the actions of Tibetans with restored mutual respect.

Four young men in China went into hiding, after posting videos on Weibo showing them tearing up photos of Chairman Mao. It mirrored Sinead O’Connor tearing up a picture of the pope. All of them looked at the huge influence that both figures have on the modern world, and saw it as their right to emphatically disagree with it. Sinead was on the receiving end of death threats, boycotts of her music, and public outrage. Similarly, the young men faced a public fury that saw the online account of one of their girlfriends shut down in an attempt to limit the damage.

For millions of people figures like Chairman Mao or the Pope represent something indelible, a sort of fundamental foundation, so while the West champions freedom of speech and political expression, it seems there’s an unspoken limit – Sinead’s career never did recover from the backlash of that incident. I can imagine it being a Western act of challenging free speech. What surprised me was the fact Chinese youngsters are learning from their western counterparts to express their own opinions in a way that’s almost forbidden in Chinese society.

The Orphan of Zhao (2010 Chinese Film)

The Orphan of Zhao (2010 Chinese Film)

The recent controversy over the Royal Shakespeare Company’s casting of the play Orphan of Zhao has sparked an online debate about the complexities of casting minority actors.

Although the anger of the Chinese and other East Asian actors is understandable, the issue carries more shades of grey underneath the black and white.

The fact that the RSC is doing Orphan of Zhao is a triumph. It shows a great interests in Asian culture and history. In the context of a non-racially biased society, the race and ethnicity of the cast members is by definition irrelevant, and it’s the opportunity for pure cultural exchange and understanding that matters. For this, I believe both the West and the East will benefit.

We can’t assume that a production of Romeo and Juliet in China is not true to Shakespeare, simply because it has no Western actors in it.

However, there is a total lack of East Asian actors in Western TV, film and plays. Most Asian actors who do appear are British, yet they are hardly ever casted as anything but a sterotypical Asian person.

We need to make a protest, but it must be for the right purpose and from a right angle. It’s important to note that making misleading protests when others are stepping out of their comfort zone makes them less likely to do so again.

Exhibition Artwork Preview

August 10, 2010

Title: Bloodlines

This work represents the consumption of women by overpowering state control and social pressure. The text in the background comes from genuine government propaganda and is written upside down and written unevenly to question it’s validity. The slogans read “Giving birth to a boy or a girl are both equally good”, “Girls can also carry the family bloodline. Tomorrow they are the builders of our country.”

A reverse-mermaid is used to suggest that the reproductive value of a woman is more important than anything else. The fish’s mouth points to the Chinese character for “woman”, while the woman’s feet point to a character meaning “to reproduce” or “to pass on the bloodline”.

The green colour of the bowl suggests spring – the start of reproduction.

Title: Nirvana

This work talks about the One-Child Policy in the countryside, and in-particular the importance of having a son, along with the policy’s environmental impact. The slogans are this time written as if they are on the doors to a house – where traditionally words are written that bring good fortune. The text across the top reads “Family Planning”, while down the side is “Have less babies and plant more trees” and “Have less babies and raise more pigs”. Again, these are from genuine Chinese government posters found in rural China.

The woman in the picture is posing in a Buddhist position and surrounded by a halo, which suggests that her achievement – giving birth to a son – has turned her into a religious icon or magical Buddha. However even as a Buddha, she has been placed under the frame of a door, where her movement is restricted. The forest in the background represents her environmental achievement – she helped the environment by having just one child.

The painting is to be hung above eye level, so viewers have to look up to her in a gesture of respect and admiration.

You can’t, so don’t bother.

Having said that, there are some observations which can make your visit more pleasant and enjoyable, such as an awareness of the psychology of the country.

I have heard many culture shock stories from visitors, and often the conversation goes like this: I was so surprised how different China was compared to Japan. Yes, people like to compare their experience in China with that of Japan. I think it is very important that people are aware of the dichotomy of the two Cultures. The two countries do

One of My Home Town's Public Square

share lots of similarities when it comes to race, belief, traditions and customs, but there are also significant differences – especially in regards to Western influence. While Japan swiftly embraced the Western Culture from 17th century (after an initial resistance), China has always historically shun away from the West – at least until the 80’s when China went through economic reform. Even with reform, Westernization and globalization have just started to infiltrate the material aspects of Chinese lives, while Chinese culture evolved little with time. This phenomena sometime tricks visitors into thinking people would behave in certain ways because of their Westernized appearance or living conditions, and they are often startled into culture shock when this is not the case.

Lets use the the behaviour of spitting in public places as an example. In China, the government forbids spitting for hygiene reasons, but the five thousand years of Chinese culture never said anything about it. So despite the government (which in comparison only existed just over 60 years) urging its population to abandon this behaviour it continues to this day. Many Westerners would be disgusted to tread through a road of spitting mines. But instead of letting this ruin your holiday and hold you hostage of fear, try to forget about the standard of Western culture for a second and think: right, you are in a foreign country, therefore it is pointless to try to measure this culture with your own, and just forget about your own expectations of how people should behave but rather they are nothing more than ‘different’ from your culture. In fact let me tell you something to cheer you up: Chinese are spitting much less because they are aware you are a foreigner, out of curtsey just to accommodate you. Learn from the locals, see how they have craftly avoided any damage from spit and you will come out a winner. (Note on spitting: Chinese are told not to spit from early in their education, but there are 1.3 billion of us, and some do not have the privilege of education or they just simply don’t care. I do not support the behaviour but simply find it funny and want to focus on the difference of cultures.)

People often find Japan is a much easier country to understand and easier place to relax and often they assumed the same from China. You are more likely to find a Western chain restaurant in any Japanese city than in China. Please do remember the size of the two countries are vastly different. China has 56 ethnic groups which have every different culture from one and the other. It is a country that covers 12 time zones and has more neighbouring countries than any country in the world, and yet the formidable mountains, rivers and deserts surrounding it made China an isolated country for centuries. To understand China, is to have the determination of climbing the Mount Everist . Simply going to a supermarket or restaurant in China town, will not equip you with sufficient knowledge to survive real culture shock in China.

The other very common culture shock is staring. Yes, it is rude over in the West, while in China, it is an honour if you get stared at. Imagine seeing the royalty on the London street? Won’t you stare and be amused? Yes, you are as fascinating as royalty to the Chinese people. Even though their looks can be bland and appear emotionless at first glance. So before you give the on lookers the angry what-the-hell-are-you-staring-at treatment, let me tell you something that will light up the situation. Before I go any further, it is important to point out that staring – which is considered rude in the West – does NOT have the same meaning in China. Everyone is allowed to stare and be stared at in China – it simply means something is interesting therefore worth a look, and it only display the inquisitive nature of human beings.

My first awareness of how Chinese love to stare was in front of the train station in my home town. In any city’s station you will find the most curious people because this is the first stop of the 865 million or so farmers pouring into the cities searching for work each year. To them, anything interesting could be an opportunity. My mother left my husband and I to attend the luggage while she went to get tickets. Within 5 minutes, there was a full circle of people around us, doing nothing, just staring. And there was my husband and I who tried very hard to ignore them. Nobody did anything, nobody made a sound or a gesture. Just a group of people staring. By the time my mother came back, all she could see was a wall of people. She pushed through the crowd expecting some kind of drama, but instead, all she found was the two of us amused and puzzled . It can be frightening if you are not the comedic type, but we should have done what my mother did, she just brought up a sunny smile and waved at all of them and said, it’s only my daughter and her husband, what is there to stare at?’ Within seconds, all the onlookers dissolved into thin air like they were never there before!

My husband had developed a great humorous strategy against the staring culture, instead of getting angry, he gave them a big grin and stared right back at them. which usually caught them so off the guard that they either stumble or get very shy and embarrassed. Once, he was on a bike, cruising through the pleasant early summer evening. In the other direction came a guy who decided this foreigner was entertaining to stare at. My husband’s grin and straightforward stare was so magical he was transfixed and eventually walked right into the tree in front of him.

A lot of people I talked to seemed to get very upset when they encountered culture shock in China. They would say how could the locals do this and that, how unacceptable they could be. But what is acceptable? Have you ever thought that what is acceptable for you might not be for the locals. Everyone has his own social standard. Try to remember why you are there in the first place – didn’t you want to experience a different culture? When there, try to be an observer rather than a judge. The sooner you get this in your head, the sooner you will have a much better, relaxing and enjoyable holiday to come. Why not find in a humorous way to accept those differences, which will surely let you come home with some stories to tell.

Students wait with luggages in Tiananmen Suqare

In recent years, China has caught up very fast on the movements of Westernization and globalization. The causes for culture shock are becoming fewer and fewer, and I hear more about how much people love their visit in China (mainly the big cities) these days. I feel grateful for people’s acceptance of Chinese culture on one hand, and find myself disappointed at the speed of change on the other hand. Wouldn’t it be so boring if you don’t get anything new at all? That is the mystic charm of China. So if you still want to find some thrill, go deeper into the north west of China which is less exposed but offers a ray of cultural diversity. However, there are very important and valuable lessons China can learn from other countries. Such as the attention to hygiene, human rights, tackling corruption and bribery. And I hope China will learn them fast.

Is it racism?

May 15, 2010

If someone were rude to you on the bus, was it racism or was he simply ill-mannered? If someone didn’t like you, was it racism or were you not his type of friend? If someone took advantage of you, was it racism or was he plain sleazy? If someone gave you an offensive look, was it racism or was he irritated? In short, do you respond to every unpleasant and unfortunate event with racism? Do you see everything through the tinted glass of racism?

After spending 13 years of my life in Britain, I have a very different view on racism compared to most of my fellow foreign friends. When people ask me whether I encounter a lot of racism in this country, I honestly don’t think so. However, it is often a very different matter when I ask other migrants. I have always wondered why.

The best example to demonstrate this would be my mother. She was a well educated scientist who gained prestigious recognition in the field of chemistry. Three years ago she came over to Britain, and suddenly for the first time, I was aware of the oppressive existence of racism through the experiences my mother. Within two months of arriving in the country, my mother had concluded this country was very racist. Eventually she broke lose and told me why. Among many tales, she said people would ignore her when she asked for help. I asked her whether she queued or waited for her turn. The answer was no. These behaviors would be perfectly acceptable in many situations back in China, but not so in Britain. There were obvious customs difference between the two cultures. I told her to Imagine that she were paying a visit to her friends’ house, as a courtesy, she would behave within the rules of the house as a sign of respect. So she should do the same while she was in Britain. She accepted my suggestion of adapting the local culture, and soon she found people were much easy to get along with, and she felt more confident and happier as a result.

There was another example where she bought a bottle of pepsi in a hot summer. Somehow the plastic bag broke and the bottle fell to the ground and was broken . She went back to the shop and tried to ask for a replacement from the same person who sold it to her. The assistant refused and there was nothing she could do but went home. She was very upset and told me how racist the person was. I told her it might not be the case. I asked her whether she ever saw some foreigners in China been ripped off by street traders? She said yes. It was the same thing, I told her. If you didn’t know the language to communicate and the rights you have in any country around the world, there was a good chance that you would be cheated, dismissed or neglected by the locals. There are always some people somewhere who will take advantage of you if you don’t know the rules. I told her if she could speak better English and insist to speak to the manager, that would be more than enough to get thing sorted.

The way I see racism is that it makes you angry, makes you filled with grudges; it defeats you without a battle; it makes you insignificant and prone to more attacks. Who would want to live a life like this? Yes, you might think it makes your life easier because you can blame every unpalatable thing on racism, but it also limit you chance of progress and having a better quality of life.

It is all in the attitude. My mother certainly enjoyed her life much more in Britain after she concentrated on more self improvements and less on finding fault in others. In comparison, Her friend who was in a same club could not see the other side of the coin. Auntie Ng was born in Hong Kong and lived most of her life in Britain. She was over competitive and often discourteous. Eventually, there were so many people who refused to be involved in any activities with her, and she ended up being very isolated. Instead of reflecting on her own behaviours, she constantly complained to my mum about how all the British people in the class had turned against her because they were racist. My mother knew that was utterly untrue since everyone was friendly and respectable to her. Being a friend, she told Autie Ng the truth and urged her to restrain her competitive behaviour and to treat others with more consideration. But Autie Ng would not listen, by the end the atmosphere was so unbearable for her she was forced out of the class. The outlook of racism did not do any favour for Autie Ng but made her life more miserable.

If every morning you woke up thinking everyone you encountered that day would be racist, you are not going to have a good day. You would give out this vibe of being a target and some people would pick up on that vulnerable emotion and indeed attack you. However, if you woke up thinking you were as equal as everyone else, you would have more confidence and self esteem that you would influence people around in a positive way. Treat unpleasant encounters as individual cases, either there is something you could improve on, or agree that there are always some bad peas in a pod and just move on. It may not make life as easy as labeling everything as racism, but it will give you more satisfaction as a human being. Remember that we choose to come to this country to experience and learn about different life and cultures not the other way around.

Of course there will always be some pathetic losers who call out names, but they do it to everyone, to women who look sexy, to men who look trendy, to anyone who is obese, to anyone is any different or better than themselves. Life is too short to waste a second of thought over those wretched creatures. If someone did ask to buy DVDs off you, just give them a bright smile and say: Yes, I have a lot, but I am just not interested in selling any to you.