The Displaced Nation

A home for international creatives

For this Swiss ethnographer with a fondness for remote parts of China, a picture says…

Gaetan in China Collage

Canon zoom lens; photo credit: Morguefiles. Gaetan Green doing fieldwork in Xishuangbanna, a region of Southwest China squeezed between Laos and Burma; photo credit: Gaetan Green.

Welcome to our monthly series “A picture says…”, created to celebrate expats and other global residents for whom photography is a creative outlet. The series host is English expat, blogger, writer, world traveler and photography enthusiast James King, who thinks of a camera as a mirror with memory. If you like what you see here, be sure to check out his blog, Jamoroki.

My guest this month is 33-year-old Swiss national Gaetan Green, who has spent the last 12 years between China, Europe and North America. After graduating university, Gaetan studied and conducted ethnographic research in remote parts of China. He went back to do field work in the country’s ethnic borderland when pursuing a master’s degree in geography at a university in Vancouver.

For the past three years Gaetan has lived in one of China’s mega-cities, but he always grabs the opportunity to travel in the countryside, where he can indulge in his current passion for the  ancient and ethnic villages of south and southwest China, with a “minor focus on Guangzhou and the Pearl River Delta.”

Gaetan keeps a fascinating blog, Travel Cathay. He posts about his off-the-beaten-path travels to parts of China most of us wouldn’t know existed.

* * *

Hi Gaetan. I have been following your blog for a while now and am very pleased to have the opportunity to interview you for the Displaced Nation. Let’s start with some background on you, shall we? Where were you born, and when did you spread your wings to start traveling?
I grew up in a ski resort in the middle of the Swiss Alps and I started travelling as soon as my parents would allow it. My first trips were to Southern and Eastern Europe with classmates—that started when we were around 16 years old. But my travels became a lot more serious when I left Switzerland for my first trip around the world, at age 20. This trip changed my life for good.

So your wanderlust dates from an early age. Why do you think that was?
There were essentially two things that inspired me to travel. The first was a map of the world that I discovered at home when I was an inquisitive eight-year-old. The map made me realize the world was much bigger than the valley surrounded by big snow-capped mountains where we lived. I was itching to discover the reality behind all the exotic place names. The second source of inspiration was my home country. With its pure air, snow-capped mountains, green valleys and quaint mountain villages, Switzerland is beautiful—but way too small. The boy I was then saw a world so big, I knew I had to leave.

Which countries did you travel to?
Besides southern and eastern Europe, I visited Australia, Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador, Malaysia, Philippines, and Singapore. And of course, eventually, China.

And now China has become a second home for you.
Although I have traveled to other countries, China is the one I know best because that is where I have spent most of my time so far, and I have only five provinces left to discover. My love story with China started at age 20: I spent three months of my round-the-world trip traveling within its vast terrain. When I returned home, I started to learn Mandarin (some of my friends thought I was seriously deranged!!). Then one thing lead to another: I studied for two years in Chongqing (a city of 15 million people in central China), worked as an ethnographer in remote parts of Yunnan province, taught English in Kunming, and conducted academic research between Vancouver and Xishuangbanna. Although China is a country, it gives the impression of being a continent because it is very diverse. Contrary to what many people think, China does not have a monolithic culture. I speak Mandarin, so that makes travel easier. I can venture into the countryside knowing I’ll be understood.

“Let’s all go up to the mountain to be close to the flowers and songs.” – Dong folk ballad

I’m sure that speaking the language gives you a huge advantage. Tell us more about the life you now lead in China.
I am currently working as a sourcing agent and living in one of China’s megacities. Recently I have developed mixed feelings about the megacity life. Megacities can be convenient places to live, providing easy access to food, entertainment, communication and transportation; but I find them overcrowded. Dangerous levels of pollution and food hygiene are growing concerns and also the reasons why some of my expat friends have already left.

Old woman in a Tibetan Catholic community; photo credit: Gaetan Green.

An elderly woman pushing barley alcohol in north Yunan; photo credit: Gaetan Green.

Some friends of mine have recently moved to China to work in Shanghai but they refuse to live in the city for the same reasons you mention. But let’s get away from the megacity and take a look at your first three photos, which take us far away from that scene. Can you tell us what makes each of these photos so special?
This first photo reminds me of the time when I was doing ethnographic research about Tibetan Catholic communities in remote regions of north Yunnan province. On that particular occasion, I had the opportunity to witness a ceremony during which villagers prayed that it would rain on the graves of French missionaries who’d been assassinated at the beginning of the 20th century during anti-Christian violence in the region. There was a steep hike to reach the graves. At end of the ceremony, this woman started giving everyone barley alcohol in a paper cup. I remember going back to the village half-drunk after she challenged me to a second glass of firewater.

Wind and Rain Bridge, Tondao. Photo credit: Gaetan Green

Blown away by the Puxiu Wind and Rain Bridge in Tondao; photo credit: Gaetan Green

The second photo was taken after I’d missed the last afternoon bus and got stuck in the small town of Tongdao (southwest Hunan province), which I’d never heard of. I eventually ended up hiring a taxi driver for the afternoon to show me around. We went to a few ethnic villages and by 4:00 p.m., we had arrived by this amazing covered bridge, which is an example of a “wind and rain” (fengyu) bridge common to the Dong ethnic minority region. Missing my bus was the best thing that happened to me that day.

Taoist Temple, Macau; photo credit: Gaetan Green.

The Jade Emperor’s generals on their joss paper thrones; photo credit: Gaetan Green.

The third photo records the time I got lost in Macau somewhere between the Ruínas de São Paulo and the Camões Garden, I went to a Taoist temple. In one hall, I noticed that some statues had uneven stacks of joss paper (spirit money) under them. I asked the temple caretaker: “Why?” He explained that there were, in that particular hall, the statues of the 60 heavenly generals who help the Jade Emperor to supervise human life on earth. There is one heavenly general for each birth year, and the more joss paper there is under the statues that matches your birth year, the luckier you will get. I decided to boost my luck and bought stacks of joss paper to boost my heavenly general higher. The temple caretaker gave me three sticks of incense to burn; he said a long prayer in Cantonese and gave me a red talisman. I definitely enjoyed doing business with the gods, though I didn’t feel any luckier afterwards.

“Who can rob me of the songs I learned?” – Dong folk ballad

I love all three photos, and, yes, you are right, missing the bus and staying in Tondau must have been divine providence. Now, I’m keen to know where your favourite places to take photographs are, and why these places inspire you and how that shows in your next three photos?
Now that I live in a big Chinese city, the places that inspire me the most are the ethnic and ancient villages. In the cities, many historical buildings and old streets have been knocked down to give way to shopping malls and skyscrapers. Ethnic and ancient villages are real windows on the past and the cultural diversity of China. I chose the next three photos to make this point.

Cizhong Catholic Church; photo credit: Gaetan Green.

A Roman Catholic Church in an unexpected spot: by the Lancang (Mekong) River at Cizhong; photo credit: Gaetan Green.

The first is of the Catholic church at Cizhong, a remote village of north Yunnan province that is home to a community of Tibetan Catholics who were converted by French missionaries more than 100 years ago. The church seems out of place in this land of Buddhism. The mountains surrounding the village make it a picturesque spot.

Yunnanyi Gaetan Green

If these walls could talk: Yunnanyi village on the Tea Horse Road; photo credit: Gaetan Green.

The second photo is of Yunnanyi village, in Yunnan province, which was an important stop on the Tea Horse Road that linked Southeast Asia to the Tibetan plateau. Horse caravans carrying tea, spices and other goods stopped in Yunnanyi. In 1936, the communist armies of Mao Zedong stopped in Yunnanyi to rest during the Long March. Then, during WWII, the rice fields behind the village were transformed into a U.S. airfield. Planes that had flown from India over the Himalayas (to avoid the Japanese-controlled Burmese airspace) landed in Yunnanyi with supplies for the Chinese armies. The history of this unknown village is inspiring. The mud-brick courtyard houses have seen a lot. I wish these walls could talk.

Stepping back in time in Qianyang; photo credit: Gaetan Green.

Stepping back in time in Qianyang; photo credit: Gaetan Green.

The final photo is of Qianyang, in Shaanxi, an ancient regional political centre that has been forgotten in China’s rush to develop. The streets are lined with dozens of temples, an ancestral hall, and courtyard mansions that belonged to local officials. Most of the city’s walls and four out of fives gates are still standing. There were no tourists when I visited. It felt like stepping back in time and taking a walk in China’s past.

What I find amazing in these pictures is the beautiful architecture and the pristine condition of such old buildings and the cleanliness of the streets. Tell me something, I notice that many of your photos are of buildings or streets. Do you feel reserved about taking photos of people, particularly when they are conscious that you are doing so?
I do feel reserved about taking pictures of other people so I rarely do. The exception is when I have the opportunity to witness a ceremony or special event.

I know this is a similar question but do you ask permission before taking people’s photographs and how do you get around any problem of language?
Since I now travel mostly in China, I ask in Chinese. If I am in a region where people do not speak Mandarin, a hand gesture is usually enough.

Would you say that photography and the ability to be able to capture something unique which will never be seen again is a powerful force for you?
It is indeed. I would add that photography also has the ability to monitor change. In a country like China where everything is growing and changing so fast, photography can be a tool to record how the landscape is transforming.

That’s a very pertinent point, particularly when applied to China. Was there a particular moment when you realized that?
I thought about it a lot while on a business trip to Ningbo, a city of nine million people that is just a couple of hours by train from Shanghai. I had been able to take an afternoon off and wander in the city. I discovered an entire neighbourhood of stone houses built during the late Qing Dynasty (late 19th century), all of which were empty. They were going to be knocked down to build a shopping mall and high-density residential buildings. In China I am constantly thinking that what I see today may be different or not even exist tomorrow.

If someone wants to learn from me, I’ll teach him songs as melodious as cicadas.” – Dong folk ballad

I know exactly what you mean. It almost feels like you are running out of time. I have many old pre-digital photos (35 years old and more). I didn’t realise until now how precious they are. Moving on to the technical stuff (I’m not too good at tech but getting better). Some of our readers will want to know what kind of camera and lenses you use.
I use a very simple point-and-shoot Sony camera.

I must say it works really well and the shooter has a good eye! Finally, do you have any advice for wannabe photographers who are traveling or living abroad?
I think I am in the same position as you. I need advice.

Gaetan, I’d like to thank you for taking the time to tell the story of your exciting journey and for sharing so much interesting information. You may not consider yourself to be a good photographer, but your “point and shoot” pictures embellish your narrative beautifully. Keep following your way and I am sure you will inspire other young people to travel the globe as you are doing. I, for one, will be checking your progress.

* * *

Readers, what do you make of Gaetan’s experiences? Do you have any questions about his photos or his travels? Please leave them in the comments!

And if you want to know more about Gaetan, don’t forget to visit his excellent blog, Travel Cathay. You can also follow him on Twitter: @TravelCathay.

(If you are a photographer and would like to be interviewed by James for this series, please send your information to ml@thedisplacednation.com.)

STAY TUNED for tomorrow’s fab post!

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4 responses to “For this Swiss ethnographer with a fondness for remote parts of China, a picture says…

  1. wanderingeducators March 21, 2014 at 1:29 pm

    LOVE this. What a great interview, and lots of food for thought!

  2. jamoroki March 22, 2014 at 8:38 am

    Thank you for your comment. I was lucky to have a great subject. I just had a quick look at your website. Not 100% sure of your focus. Perhaps you can fill me in a bit. Regards James

  3. Gaetan Green April 2, 2014 at 8:10 am

    Reblogged this on Travel Cathay and commented:
    Here is a post written by James King for ‘The Displaced Nation’, a blog which focuses on the expat community. This is not a post about some ancient village of China, but about me (and why I endure hours in Chinese buses to visit ancient villages). Hope it’s not too pretentious to re-blog a story about me. Visit ‘The Displaced Nation’ and James King’s blog which focus on Southeast Asia (links in the post).

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