One of best things about being an expat photographer in China is pretty much everything you see is like nothing you’ve seen before. I grew up in Miramichi, New Brunswick which is a very small town that didn’t have any Chinese people. We had Chinese restaurants, but the food was anything but authentic Chinese (was run by a Vietnamese family I believe…great food, not Chinese). While living in Toronto years later I did see authentic Chinese styles, culture and languages but it still wasn’t China. Having lived in Guangzhou and being a photographer, I’ve been lucky enough to see things I’ve never seen anywhere else. One of these is the appreciation for keeping pet birds. I’m sure you’ve known people who had a pet bird, but did they ever take the cage and said bird outside for a walk? Did they ever meet up outside with other like-minded bird owners to socialize and admire their fowl? Did they hang the cages up in trees? Did they cover the cages in a white cloth? Well they do in Guangzhou.
I’d seen this before and have always wanted to photograph this spectacle but never had the chance. Finally, my chance arouse. I learned that large groups of men congregate in a certain neighborhood in Haizhu district. One Saturday morning at first light, I loaded the Hasselblad 500 C with FP4 and some Efke 25 (just in case), grabbed the 80mm and 150mm and headed out. They weren’t hard to find, you just had to listen for the harsh shrill of the birds.
Now, as interesting as these birds are to the locals, a foreigner setting up a medium format film camera on a tripod is for some reason way more interesting. I composed one image and then had to literally stand back for several minutes while all the men stretched their necks looking through my viewfinder at what I found so interesting. I had to help a few of them as they were looking at my film back wondering why there was no LCD screen (I tell my son the picture is sleeping and we have to wake it up with chemistry).
Most of the time, street photography in Guangzhou was quite difficult, the people did not like to be photographed, especially by some foreigner with a weird looking camera. But on this particular morning, because I was interested in the birds, these guys loved me. After everyone got a chance to look through the viewfinder and were satisfied they seemed to forget all about me and continued on with their conversations, tea drinking and smoking. Perfect. Now I am invisible and can get at the real essence of the scene.
The shot is not the birds, though it is somewhat unusual. No, the real shot are the people and how they react with eachother and the birds. So what’s up with this bird hobby anyway? I took at look at Chinaculture.org for some insight:
"The hobby of walking pet birds has been popular in China since the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) and this tradition continues with many people still taking pleasure from this simple outdoor activity. When the birdmen slightly swing the birdcages on the way to and from parks, the bird has to grip the perch tighter, then its feathers get tighter and smoother. If you don’t allow it to have such exercise, its feathers are easily shed. Bird lovers rendezvous daily at certain places with a lot of trees to provide their winged pets with a more natural environment and also give their birds the opportunity to show off their singing skills. Bird keepers will also compare their pets and exchange care tips"
In the end I got some good photography from the event and even a few smiles and waves as I left.