On Assignment | China Celebrates its 60th Birthday | Globe and Mail

Hangzhou. Flags fly in the city. 2009
Hangzhou. Flags fly in the city. 2009

Today marks the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China. Here in Beijing, Tiananmen Square has become awash with parades, both military and civilian, as the populace celebrates Mao Zedong’s founding declaration, exactly 60 years ago here in China’s capital.

The build up to this event has been quite something. Beijing has come to a standstill at regular intervals over the past couple of weeks as dry-runs of today’s celebrations have taken place. Tanks have once again graced the streets of Beijing, fighter jets have zipped above the city and and army of yellow-shirted volunteers have descended on every street corner throughout the city.

In the build-up to this anniversary, I have been on assignment for Canada’s Globe and Mail, covering various facets of the country’s preparations and photographing various people who have a close connection to what the country has gone through in the last 60 years.

Two weeks ago, myself and the Globe and Mail’s Mark Mackinnon headed to the city of Hangzhou, which lies just west of Shanghai. We visited this city as it has been deemed to be one of the city’s in China that has changed the most since Mao’s declaration in 1949. Hangzhou is a pleasant city, sitting next to the beautiful West Lake which dominates the center of the town. When we were there celebrations were in full swing. Chinese flags were everywhere, special ‘pillars’ has been erected next to roads to remind passing motorists of the anniversary, and people sported t-shirts with slogans celebrating the upcoming day.

Hangzhou. Father Bao Lu, in his church in central Hangzhou. 2009
Hangzhou. Father Bao Lu, in his church in central Hangzhou. 2009

Whilst witnessing the obvious fervor and excitement surrounding the 60th birthday party, we also spoke to people who offered us much more sobering accounts of where China had come from in the past six decades, offering us thoughts and memories that seem to have been ‘swept under the carpet’ for most. Bao Lu, for example, is a priest that we visited in Hangzhou. He recounted stories of how all religions were prohibited during the Cultural Revolution and how his church was commandeered by the local police to be turned into a temporary prison. Yu Hua, a controversial author who is openly critical of the country’s failings during its early development, spoke to us in Beijing and told us of his worries for China’s social future.

One of the most interesting people we met for me however, was an 85 year-old lady called Hou Bo. This remarkable lady was Mao Zedong’s personal photographer before and during his rise to power to lead China. She is famous most famous here because of an iconic image she took of Mao, announcing the founding of China to the masses on October 1st 1949. She recounted that standing just a couple of feet away from Mao, she cautiously snapped away with only 8 rolls of film in her pocket. When questioned about whether she remembered the exact moment taking the picture, she replied she was more worried about falling off the balcony she was on, as she was pressed against it in order to get the wide shot of Mao.

Photographer Huo Bo in her home in Beijing. 2009
Photographer Hou Bo in her home in Beijing. 2009

Flicking through her book of black & white images, I was stunned to see that this lady had been by Mao’s side through everything. Through the long march, the continuous fighting with the nationalists, through the founding of China and beyond. I was looking at quite epic photography and I had previously never heard of her. At a time when Henri Cartier-Bresson was flitting the streets of Paris searching for his decisive moments and Robert Capa was on the beaches of Normandy, Hou Bo was creating equally amazing work in China. You can view more images on Hou Bo here.

Needless to say, this has been another eye-opening assignment. A unique chance to see what China has become (or is becoming) and to listen to the voices of some of the people who have experienced the change first hand. To see the video that Mark, Mark’s assistant Yu Mei and I produced on this story please go here to the Globe & Mail’s website.

Next Front Page of the Globe and Mail – 1st October 2009

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