Thursday, May 21, 2009

Two Chinas

I experience two Chinas.

The obvious China brims with the economic prosperity. People hustling everywhere to make a Yuan. Shoulder-to-shoulder businesses
lining busy Beijng streets hawk everything from police car red lights to Darjeeling tea; building cranes silhouette the sky in every sizable city I've traveled; three-story high video screens on buildings portrait active young people dressed in upscale clothes alongside government infomercials; a sign in the window of a newly built office tower advertises, "the California wine club meets here" hinting at the growing prestige of the heavily-taxed imported elixir. And China holds the mortgage to the United States due to the one-sided trade balance.

While the masses seem so focused on capitalism bent improving their living standard, they seem to meekly accept a government fist controling politics. I experienced that control first hand. In the Beijing area I had no problem using Skype to call my wife every day. Suddenly, in Shanxi Province while visiting Grace Vineyard, Skype wouldn't work. It was blocked. I couldn't call my wife. I was also redirected to nowhere when trying to reach certain web sites. A quick internet research revealed that lots of people had similar problems in various parts of China. Fortunately, I was able to figure a way around the Skype block and only missed one call to my wife. I kept wondering how all of those smart Chinese computer geeks deal with blocks. Perhaps the government simply hires them.

Later I heard that the goverment shut down Twitter and some of the other social network sites known for political discussion.
It seems the government was being cautious with the approach of the 20th-year anniversery of Tieneman Square massacre. Obviously, this not-so-subtile control grated my American sense of freedom like fingernails on chaulkboard. But right now that's how business is done in China and I want to do business here to improve my own standard of living.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

A Gig in the People's Republic of China

I went to China with the idea of doing a book on Chinese Vineyards and Wineries. I'm coming away with not only ample material for that book, but also with an assignment from Chateau Junding, probably China's most upscale winery. It's basically a partnership between a government company and a private developer.

The whole experience was surreal. I kept telling myself, "Have fun, you have nothing to lose here."

Chateau Junding was the third winery to visit on my list. I had made arrangements, but somehow, while here in China, my status must have been elevated. At first, Ma Fei, a PR person on the job for only a few months, was to meet Houghton, my interpreter, and I at the Yantai airport. Suddenly we find out that Ms. Lin, the head of marketing and brand development was meeting us. This is serious. And the emails we received from her implied that the Chateau would comp all meals and rooms. OK. That wasn't too unusual in other countries when wineries find out which magazines use my photos and writing. But here in China, it seemed unusual.

During the drive to the Chateau, I gave Ms. Lin my most recent book, Oregon: The Taste of Wine
as a gift. That night, during the 20-course dinner, she kept going through the book. She was obviously impressed and kept showing her favorite photographs to others. It turns out, the book, my creditentials and a foreign photographer was exactly what she was looking for.

By the end of the third day at the Chateau, Ms. Lin was talking about contract details, usage rights and flying me back in September to do additional photography. As this was all unfolding around me, usually at multi-course dinners and mostly in Chinese, I couldn't believe it. Getting a gig in the People's Republic of China. And the wine was fine.

But sealing deals in China is not a stright line. First, I had to be approved by
Mr. Ji, the Penglai Winery Association Director. Over another huge dinner, which included whole fish, duck liver, some things I didn't ask about and enough wine to sink a ship, Mr. Ji and I kept toasting each other. He liked the Oregon book and was delighted to find that I had grown up in Napa, California. His dream was to make the Penglai region the Napa of China. Gambei (Chinese for bottoms up). And he kept saying that I really knew the vineyard. He also liked the Oregon Pinot noir I had brought.

Please note that the sun rises in Shandong Province about 4:30, that's 4:30 in the morning. So like an idiot photographer, I'm out there every morning, hoping that it is raining so I can go back to sleep.

The next night, after a more casual outdoor BBQ dinner, Ms. Lin invites me to a secret entertainment room downstairs. The walls are covered with massive flat panel screens all showing videos. Colored lights flash to the beat of loud music. It's karaoke time. On the ring of couches sit the Penglai mayor, regional Communist Party chief and two handfulls of other dignitaries. I'm not a real party guy, but had read that this is the way business is done here. After dancing with Ms. Lin and her daughter, I was invited to sing. No way. My wife laughs when I sing and I've had only one-half glass of beer. Hands pushed me out onto the floor. Fortunately, they paired me with Ms. Lin, who sings like a nightingale. I just hoped that the dignitaries were impressed that I was sober enough to help them out to their black limos.

Fortunately, I didn't take any photographs at the karaoke event.

Dinner meeting with Penglai Winery Association Director, Mr. Ji (center with blue and gray shirt) at Chateau Junding. I keep worrying about gaining weight on this trip.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Why Chateaus in the Land of the Great Wall

Two things about wineries in the Land of the Great Wall were a shocker.

The first is scale. While I've photographed wineries around the world, my backyard is Oregon, where many of the wineries are home-grown operations often in wooden barns. I was shocked about the enormity of the Chinese wineries I visited. They're supersized both in concept and scale. The photos show Chateau Junding near Penglai in Shandong Province. Besides the winery production building, Junding has a hotel component and housing for workers. In fact, there is a whole separate village and two off-site apartment towers just for the hords of vineyard workers.

But then everything in China is supersized. Instead of just builing one new 25-story apartment tower in Beijing, they build three or six look-alikes at the same time. A resident told me that during the week of Chinese New Year, 500,000 people used the public transport system. That's almost time and a half the total population of the United States. No wonder the wineries think big.

My second shock was actually a disconnect I'm trying to understand. Over and over I asked why the wineries emulate Europe in name and winery architecture? Chateau Junding, Chateau Bodega Langes, Chateau this and Chateau that.
And the architecture fits Europe. For example, the owner of Treaty Port is building a Scotish castle. A new Chateau near Beijing is like a European village. In my preconceived mind, China has history, culture and architecture going back thousands of years. Why not honor it in the winery? It's like they want to transpose a Western culture onto the Chinese landscape. For me, the feeling is like the Disney atmosphere in Napa Valley winery architecture. Why?

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Illusion at Grace

Does this image give you a sense of two-three dimension tension (illusion) as it does me? It's of the guest house lobby where we stayed at Grace Vineyard winery.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

The Big Transformation

When I arrived in Taiyuan I expected the city to be covered with a gray blanket of coal dust and industrial pollution. As China's coal production center, this once was one of the most polluted cities in all of China, if not the world. But now check out the blue sky. Even Houghton, my Hong Kong interpreter was surprised.
I suspect that Disney is not getting royalities from Mickey's image here in China.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Trusting the Inner Voice and Serendipity

One of my main photographic goals in China was the Yellow Valley. I had seen bad photo of a Grand Canyon-like valley. So here I was, but for the two days I had been staying at the nearby Grace Vineyard winery guest room, it rained continuously. Finally on the third morning it started to clear. I ran out to an overlook before 6:00 in the morning. Between cloud cracks I took the first shot. I felt that I probably got the shot. Then I had to run 25 minutes back to the winery for an interview with the vineyard manager I had scheduled the night before.

After the interview, back to my room to respond to emails and Skype-call my wife. Outside now it was mid-day bright sun. But there was something that was calling me back to the overlook. My interpreter Houghton suggested that I take the car. No, I wanted to walk because from the car I might miss something. I put on my camera backpack and took off on foot. I had two hours before I had to leave for another interview in another town. On foot, half of that time would be spend just getting there and back.

Nearing the overlook, I heard a shout. Looking down into one of the tributary canyons was a shepard with his flock. Here was just what I needed, the human element in a huge landscape.

As I'm exposing digits like crazy, I marveled that: first, something called me to come back to this spot and second I insisted in walking. From the car I would never have heard or seen the sheppard.

With your digital magnifying glass. you might see that tiny blue speck at the bottom of the photo. That's the sheppard. The white specks are his sheep.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Four Words

People here are absolutely great. Even with my extensive Chinese vocabulary of 4 words, somehow we connect. These two guys followed me around the Bodega Langes vineyard for a couple of hours. I would pretend to poke them with my tripod or flip them into a ditch and we would just laugh and laugh. Finally, I asked to take their photograph, for which they gladly obliged.

Bicycles are the chief means of vineyard transportation.

Even this guy was impressed with my extensive Chinese vocabulary.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

The Vineyard/Winery Scoop

At Bodega Langes they grow the vines low so that they can be covered with insulating earth during the freezing winters from November through February. Otherwise the cold would kill the vines. And you vineyard guys will ask what the heck is the white stuff? The best I could understand through my non-agricultural interpreter, it's some sort of disease prevention chemical that they mix into a paintable paste, maybe like a Bordeau mix or sulphur or....?

No, these Alice In Wonderland-sized stainless tanks are not for a low production winery. They are for the special VIP clients at Bodega Langes who want to make their own wine.

Bodega Langes

Bodega Langes. It was overcast and rainy all day. Just as the sun was falling behind the mountain, the sky revealed the light. Since I took a variety of exposures, this photograph is a candidate for HDR (high dynamic range) treatment when I get back to the studio. No time now as it's time to catch my ride back to Beijing for a flight to Taiyuan.

Workers here continue their tasks until they can't see anymore. No such thing as 8 to 5 for the field workers. You ask what is that pollution-like stuff in the sky, it's diesel smoke from the tractor.

France, Hungary and America watch out, these guys are making barrels in China. In fact, all of the barrels used by Bodega Langes are made by their own factory. The oak comes from the northern part of China. Even though the owner is Austrian, he seems to subscribe to the Chinese idea that you do everything in the homeland.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Washing The Dust at Dinner

"In China we have a tradition of inviting a traveler to dinner to wash off the road dust," explained Houghton Lee, the Hong Kong businessman who volunteered to be my China vineyard interpreter so that he could learn more about wines from his own country. Houghton is on the right. On the left is Ma fei, the PR person for Great Wall, the largest winery in China.

We did notice that all the tables were taken in this large upscale restaurant, yet only one other table ordered wine. Everyone else had beer. Ma fei has lots of work ahead for Great Wall to achieve their goal of more than doubling volume in the next five years. Lots of wine, lots of people, lots of PR.

We also noticed that there were lots of young people who could afford to come to this restaurant. "In China parents can only have one child; so the parents often spoil their child," explained Houghton. Our host went on to explain that when he studied in Minnesota during the 1980s, Chinese students there received a $5000 scholarship each. But they lived frugally and would send $4000 back home. I wonder what we saw in the restaurant means for China's future?

As I'm eating fish head in some sort of tomato and garlic sauce, roast duck on a thin burrito-like bread, fish head soup, lots of thinly sliced vegetables and a list of other epicurean delights, suddenly comes to my mind a rough-hewn tavern/restaurant in Konso, Ethiopia. It was the last shred of "civilization" before we headed into the remote Omo region. There the main course was local beer and very loud music blaring because they had the luxury of electricity. For some reason, I couldn't get that restaurant out of my head as I sipped Viognier wine from France.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

This Isn't Your Mother's Beijing

Wedding photography is big business in front of this Catholic church even though they didn't get married there. At this moment there two other couples being photographed by other cameramen.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Forbidden City

Beijing hutong

Hutongs are small alleys off the modern main streets where regular people live.

Delivery guy on bicycle riding through the neighborhood meat and vegetable market. Check out the workers efficiently catch a quick wink between customers.

Photographing the nice refurbished door on a hutong.

Heritage trees, generally more than 300 years old, are preserved.