The Shay Rebellion | Christopher Shay

Srimongol: Definitely My Cup of Tea

Over the weekend, a Bangladeshi hotel manager told me that Dhaka is like a child’s chair meant to hold a 100 pound boy. “But if sumo wrestler sits on it,” he said, “the whole thing collapses.”

One thing is clear from this trip: Over the past couple decades, a sumo wrestler has sat on Dhaka. Read the rest of this entry »

Old Mining Trails

Paul and I went on a beautiful hike in the mountains adjacent to the old mining town Jinguashi. The area has found new life as a tourist destination, but it doesn’t take much to get away from the crowds. Check out the photos: Read the rest of this entry »

Taipei’s Night Markets

When the Republic of China retreated from the mainland in 1949, they brought to Taiwan the elite culinary tastes from all over the country. Combined with delicious indigenous food, a Japanese occupation and terrific local ingredients and it should be no surprise that Taiwan has some of the world’s best food. In less than two weeks, I ate the best Shanghai dumplings, fried chicken, pulled noodles and Japanese pork I’ve ever had. Even just one of those meals would worth the plane ticket. The food is so consistent even 7-11 sushi is good.

As a Portlander, I’m very proud of my hometown’s food carts. They’re cheap, yummy and drive a lot of the culinary innovation on the West Coast. But Portland’s Cartopia has nothing on Taiwan’s night markets, the food at Taiwan’s carts are better, cheaper and open later. The markets don’t just have Taiwan’s wide-range food—some have hip clothing stores, cheesey fair games and stalls selling baubles. Walking around Shilin Night Market with a camera was terrific fun with all the different types of people enjoying the place. The only problem? It’s hard to photograph when you’re spending the entire time eating the street food.

Eventful Photos

As a journalist, you run around with a sense of joyful entitlement. This feeling of self-righteousness is usually what encourages journalists to sneak into places or to not be pushed around by the rich and powerful. You might be struggling to pay the rent, but when you’re holding a notebook or a camera, you can act like a little emperor. You get to ask the rude questions, to pop your flash in someone’s face and demand time with veryimportantpeople. Sure, it’s crucial to be nice as well, but you also get to be stubborn.

Being an event photographer is very different. I’ve started doing some event photography on the side, and it’s been fun to assume a different professional demeanor. If you acted like a journalist while shooting a party, you’d be a real jerk. One can’t constantly, rudely butt into an event’s most precious moments. Instead of being a little emperor, you’re a member of the waitstaff, anticipating the right moment to jump in. You’re always courteous, always smiling, and there’s none of that cowboy swagger I sometimes try to fake as journalist. Read the rest of this entry »

Cage dwellers

Some stories should be told again and again. The media usually does a good job covering a sudden calamity, but a slow moving tragedy or the static plight of a downtrodden group gets short shrift. Before I went home for the holidays last year, a friend and I started to look into a story on cage homes in Hong Kong. It’s a story that’s been done multiple times over the last three decades (watch a particularly moving version of the story here). The gist of the story is that Hong Kong has some of the highest real estate prices in the world. With long waiting lists for public housing, some people can only afford to live in cages and are stuck there for years at a time. In many places, the actual cages have been removed, making the densely packed residences (still called “cage homes”) the world’s most dilapidated hostels. Scores of people share smelly, filthy squat toilets that are often located two steps from the kitchen sink. Read the rest of this entry »

Consider the Bunny

There was no such person as Marilyn Monroe. Marilyn Monroe was an invention of hers. A genius invention that she created, like an author creates a character,” Richard Avedon

In the most famous portrait of Marilyn Monroe, she stares downwards and to her left; her mouth slightly open. Her shoulders slump, and a few errant blonde strands of hair stick out against the dark grey background. In contrast to her famous white dress blowing up, her dark sequined dress weighs her down as she takes an exhausted moment to collect herself. For that moment, she’s not the Marilyn Monroe of her own invention; she’s Norma Jean, the lonely woman whose mother was institutionalized and whose father was never there. Both the tragedy of her life and the strain and brilliance of her creation can be read into the Richard Avedon shot. She’s no longer just a pin-up; she’s fully human with all the accompanying the emotions and messy story-lines.

It was with this photo in mind that I decided to attend and photograph Macau’s Playboy Bunny Hunt. There would be 15 women trying out to be a bunny for the new Playboy Club in Macau. I assumed I wouldn’t need the genius of Avedon to capture the accidental candor of young women in the draining task of embodying a character that exists to excite men. I pictured a number of local girls eagerly and sometimes awkwardly trying to please everyone as they struggled to be a Playboy Bunny, an invention every bit as a much as Marilyn Monroe. Though Playboy’s characters are a bit—and I never thought I’d use this adjective to describe them—flat, without the decades of Playboy’s presence in the cultural milieu, it would’ve been very difficult for a local Chinese girl to perform the Bunny role.

When I arrived at the Sands Casino, however, the potential bunnies were hid away for most of the night while Playboy had shipped in Bunnies from their Las Vegas club. Dressed up in the once iconic ears, fluffy tail and fishnet stockings, these Bunnies were true professionals. It’s a classic photo trick to take a smiling—often boring—photo of a group, and then wait a beat or two for people to relax and take another shot when they’re not expecting it. But these Bunnies never let down their guard. Often looking back at an event, you realize that you missed the moment that would’ve made that killer shot. Not this time. These were objectively gorgeous women, but I didn’t get a single interesting shot of their faces since I didn’t once see them out of character. The Bunnies were machine-like in their charm.

How did Avedon capture the Marilyn moment? After all, she was the ultimate pro at continuously living out her character. There’s one—almost definitely apocryphal—story that he had one of his assistants burst into the studio and say he had just runover a puppy. The moment she heard the sad news, Avedon snapped the photo.

War Games

On the Oregon coast, there’s a giant sand dune conveniently located next to a microbrewery where kids and families slog up and then roll down, before climbing back into their mini-vans dizzy and with sand in their shoes. As a kid though, I enjoyed the backside of the dune—a warren of sand paths in coastal greenery—even more than sledding down the sandy slope. You could crawl through a maze of plant tunnels, sneak up and spy on the other kids. You never knew what was around the corner. There could be nothing, or you could find yourself running into a suburban dad or a white-tailed deer. You were always close to others, but if you were stealthy, they couldn’t see you. I got a certain mischievous thrill when they had no idea you were crawling circles around them.

Crouched in the Hong Kong foilage near the border with China holding an automatic weapon, I remembered how exciting that feeling was. When you’re crawling around trying to remain hidden, you become aware of every movement and every sound around you. Even if you’re just waiting in the bushes, time seems to stretch out, and you’re aware of every moment.

A couple of weeks ago, a few friends and I got roped into playing war games. I’d imagined something akin to the paintball experiences I’d had: We’d run around a small field, getting shot at by teenagers on birthday parties. But when we got to the bus stop, we realized we the people shooting at us wouldn’t be rank amateurs. Everybody was in full fatigues and many wore genuine military helmets with built-in radios. When we got the field, everybody took out their guns and lovingly assembled them, comparing sizes and models with the people around them. We were the only people—out of about 80—without our own automatic rifles. We just referred to as ‘the rentals’, and with our inferior gear we made easy targets for the military hobbyists and their high-powered BB M-16s and sniper rifles.

The BBs don’t hurt a great deal unless you’re hit at really close range. Of course, we didn’t know this in the first round when we were dumped into a labyrinth of forest paths. There was no team strategy or goal. We were just told to shoot the enemy. We’d recognize the them, we were told, because they’d be shooting at us. Fair enough, I thought, but the reality was you’re almost always in total confusion about who’s around the corner. In the fog of war, one constantly wonders, ‘If I crawl down the path, will I find myself staring down the barrel of an enemy rifle?’ Usually, when you crawl around a corner, you meet an empty path, but enough of the time, you find yourself getting shot in the face that you became hyper-sensitive to the sounds around you, listening for any clue about who’s in the neighborhood.

In the end, I don’t think the world’s armies will come recruiting me after my first effort as a foot soldier, but I didn’t do half bad either. Maybe crawling around the Oregon coast spying on other children taught me a thing or two after all.

Hong Kong Phooey

I’ve left Cambodia and the Phnom Penh Post, and I’ve landed back in Hong Kong with Time Magazine. By and large, it’s been an easy transition back to a city with mass transit, dumplings, and the rule of law, but I’ve really struggled to explain my last year to people.

When people ask what was it like in Cambodia, it’s difficult to whittle it down to a few statements. Sometimes I ham it up for people, and Cambodia has provided enough adventures good bar talk.

I tell people I lived in a coldwater flat that overlooked the spot where a Scottish teacher was shot. I mention that I was punched in the face twice protecting a woman after being pushed off a scooter next to an old torture chamber. I sip my own drink and tell them about downing homemade whiskey with former Khmer Rouge soldiers while trying to smuggle myself across a border. I say that I once woke up to find a tarantula in my toiletries bag, that I rode on the back of strangers’ scooters to go places, that I lived in a house without internet (the horrors!), and that for fun I partied in abandoned mansions with felons.

This is all true, and these stories might impress the person on the bar stool next to me, but it doesn’t really capture what it was like living in Phnom Penh. Between my home and my office, there were four places to buy gourmet muffins. Danger does not lurk around every corner in a city with so many muffin options. I labor on this point, because if you understand Phnom Penh’s muffins, you understand its expat life.

There’s the all-white Fresco’s. With its sleek, minimalist interior and high-prices, the Frescos stand out along the dusty streets of Phnom Penh. It represents the Phnom Penh fabulous life. If you don’t look out the windows, you could be in a posh coffee shop anywhere in the world, and then there’s the Living Room, where all the NGO consultants and freelance journalists go on their laptops. Closest to my apartment was Jars of Clay that was always full of nice old British ladies talking about church. Finally, there’s Java Cafe which doubles as a gallery. Each stands for a different part of the expat scene: the moneyed who miss the luxuries of home, the small army of consultants and freelancers, the religious groups, and the art lovers.

At different times, I frequented all of them. My life in Phnom Penh is better described by its muffins than its muggings. But then again, muffin-shop monologues rarely make good bar talk.

Whitman and Journalism

In Walt Whitman’s first version of Leaves of Grass, there’s an engraving of the young author. He stares out from the page with a dark, scruffy beard. His hand is on his hip, and his black felt hat is tilted—he has the brash, cocksure attitude of a Harrison Ford character.

But on my paperback, there’s another image of Walt Whitman: a photo of him with a scruffy, white beard—a sort of proletarian Santa Clause. In it, the face of youthful rebellion has been replaced by a pensive gaze.

Whitman spent a decades editing and adding to Leaves of Grass, and the two different images of the iconic poet represent more than just his physical aging. As he got older, he experienced the world differently.

In the first version of Leaves of Grass, he wrote:

I think I will do nothing for a long time but listen,
And accrue what I hear into myself …. and let sounds contribute toward me

And in the much later version, the poem reads:

I think I will do nothing for a long time but listen,
To accrue what I hear into this song, to let sounds contribute toward it

Only four words changed, but Whitman changed the focus of his experiences. In his youth, his listening and learning is directed only to his self. As he became older, he’s still listening and learning, but it’s directed towards a creating something new, his ‘song’.

The life of the young Whitman and the old Whitman both involve learning and experiencing the world, but the later one adds meaning beyond the self while sacrificing the joys of experiencing the world for its own sake.

Now as a reporter, I’ve become the old Whitman, constantly trying to accrue experiences that could contribute to an article. I wish sometimes I took more time to do nothing but listen, but when I do, it has become impossible to turn off the journalist. Off hours, reporters are constantly listening to the world with an ear out for a story. Being a reporter becomes part of one’s identity, permanently affecting the way one experiences the world.

And what happened to Whitman between his first edition and his ninth?

I’m no Whitman scholar, but after he published his first version, he became a Civil War correspondent.

Unrest in Xinjiang

A year ago to the day, I met a Uighur shoemaker in Kashgar (read about it here and here). He loved foreigners, because a few years ago, a Westerner found him, a drunkard living on a park bench, and helped him set up a small shop where he now lives.

But he also loved foreigners for the simple fact they weren’t Chinese. Until the Chinese government hires white Americans to spy on its minorities, I was one of the few people he could safely complain to. Like many Uighurs I met on the trip, he was bitter and frustrated. The city he grow up in was being destroyed and replaced by Chinese suburbia. He wasn’t religious, but he felt the only people helping Uighurs were the Islamic groups and an occasional foreigner.

The English-speaking shoemaker spoke about (and sometimes embodied) the disorders like alcoholism and physical abuse that go hand in hand with social disintegration, and Chinese policies are only making the situation worse.

Mäshräps—grass-roots, Islamic social groups designed to supply substitute activities for drinking—were banned in 1995, and today, China banned group prayer in Urumqi, Xinjiang’s capital. Underemployed, oppressed minorities with nothing to do can lead to violence anywhere in the world, and it shouldn’t surprise anyone that riots broke out, though I would’ve expected it to happen in cities like Kashgar or Yarkand where tensions were much more palpable a year ago.

I’ve found myself these last few days since riots erupted in Xinjiang imagining what the shoemaker is up to. He’s a sick middle-aged man—not someone you’d think would get involved in something so rowdy as a protest. But he also has nothing to lose. His happy years of playing in Uighur rock band are over. Last year, I saw Chinese troops march through the centre of Kashgar’s Old City everyday, and the shoemaker told me the sight never ceased to anger him.