I must confess that at the outset of the 21st century, though certainly aware of the increasing prominence of the People's Republic of China in world affairs, I had given no serious thought to the prospect of visiting mainland China, even as a tourist, nor had I contemplated pursuing my professional projects there actively.
Not that I disdained or resisted the idea, by any means. However, my professional sphere by then had already become considerably internationalized, expanding beyond the U.S. borders into Canada and Latin America, reaching across the Atlantic to eastern, western, and northern Europe, stretching into the former Soviet Union, India, and Israel. A full plate, by any measure, especially since my project remains a one-man operation without an institutional support base.
|Then, just before Christmas on December 23, 2003, an online correspondence began with Anna Lung of Hong Kong, who lives just across the border in Shenzhen (see map, right) with her son Jacky. This communication grew into a friendship, then a flirtation, then a courtship.
As a result of which, after 18 months, I flew to Hong Kong so that we could meet in person. I first set foot in mainland China on June 19, 2005. The hypothetical and abstract quickly turned real and solid. To make a long story short, we got engaged that fall and married in Hong Kong on September 8, 2006.
In addition to relishing my time in Shenzhen with Anna and Jacky, I discovered that I found China itself an enormous adventure. The urban culture ot Shenzhen, the energy level, the cuisine, all fitted well with my own inclinations and appetites. So I began making plans to shift my home base from Staten Island, New York (where I've lived since 1967) to Shenzhen.
Much of my work nowadays proves transportable, so I assumed I'd continue to spend chunks of time in the U.S. while making Shenzhen my headquarters. But it seemed logical to explore possible avenues and outlets for my energy in the PRC as well. With Anna's help, I began to investigate the Chinese photo and art scenes, to discover whatever options existed for my participation therein.
Serendipitously, in March 2005 Guangxi Normal University Press had contacted me to inquire about the availability of translation rights for all my books of essays. Pursuing that invitation and following our noses led us to various individuals, situations, and events. In unusually short order I became involved in writing, curating, and consulting activities in the PRC, with lecturing and teaching looming on the event horizon.
Given the image most westerners carry of mainland China as an epitome of what Karl Popper calls a "closed society," I have found this country and culture remarkably permeable. The people I've met so far in professional circles have treated me as the Marco Polo of photo criticism, telling me I'm the first western photo critic to come to China. The fact that I intend to establish a permanent presence here delights them. From my end, I look forward to serving here as an eccentric model of the independent critic, freelance, with no institutional affiliation or imprimatur a cultural function with no real precedent in Chinese society.
As ever, part of my engagement with any notable component of my life includes writing about it. So I have begun to produce responses in prose not only to the Chinese photo and art scenes but to China itself: its people, its cultures, its urbanization and industrialization, its move to center stage in global affairs. Lucking into several mainland outlets for these ruminations has enabled me to begin building a Chinese readership, as well as an audience among the increasing numbers of Anglophone ex-pats and temporary residents studying and doing business here on the mainland.
To my surprise, China in turn has begun to produce responses to me; this professional initiative of mine, compounded by my marriage to Anna and parenting of Jacky, strikes them as newsworthy, so interviews with and profiles of me have begun to appear in the press. Anna and Jacky, as part of all this, add their own flavors to the mix.
Middle Kingdom Journal will serve as a collection point for these materials, which otherwise could prove difficult if not impossible for anyone outside the PRC to locate. Dynastic China used to consider and call itself the "middle kingdom," halfway between earth and heaven. Though not much used by the Chinese anymore, the term still seems applicable: Post-dynastic, post-Maoist China stands poised between its complex past and its potential futures.
As an outside observer and world citizen I too occupy a "middle kingdom," somewhere between the country and culture into which I was born and those where I now locate myself. So the title of this feature of The Nearby Café has numerous resonances, all of them relevant to the images and texts and other content gathered here.