BEIJING – Everyone has a story. Especially here in China, with its ancient civilization.
By Cameron Hack
There are so many older Chinese who’ve seen such dramatic change over the years. All have amazing stories, like the tiny minority whose women have tattooed faces, or the few surviving grannies who’ve lived their entire lives with bound and broken feet.
While collecting such stories, I’ve come to appreciate HelloTalk in other ways. I already knew it as a language-learning app, but now see HelloTalk as an ideal platform to share culture with a larger audience.
That said, I didn’t start out intending to tell stories. Especially not about Chinese society. I’m from Portsmouth, England, a university town about 90 minutes south of London. The only thing “Chinese” about Portsmouth is how many Chinese students go to school there today – and that now I can find a restaurant that serves spicy “Chongqing hotpot” in town.
Growing up, I was a fortunate child. My parents took me traveling, quite often, to places like America, the Caribbean, India, Egypt, Africa and Brazil. That certainly ignited my passion. If I hadn’t traveled as much as I did back then, I wouldn’t be as adventurous as I am today.
My life abroad began at age 19, in 2012, when I worked for a year in Tenerife, for a company that taught outdoor activities to younger kids; stuff like swimming, football, rock-climbing, archery, canoeing and raft-building. Then I did the same in Cyprus, for another year.
In Cyprus, I heard about the chance to teach English in China. China was never on my list of places to visit. But this sounded like a good way to spend a year. If not, I’d fly home afterward – no problem. I later learned: of the foreigners who come to live in China, you either love it, and stay a long time, or hate it, and leave. I knew none of this when I arrived, in March 2014.
One more detail, about my life before China. In 2011, I joined Facebook, and maybe on that first day, I found this project: Humans of New York. They had cool stories of ordinary people. With photos. I never forgot that project. Once I moved to China, I knew it could work here, too.
For three years, though, I did nothing about it. Was I lazy? Nah. It was mostly the language barrier – I couldn’t speak Chinese well enough. But I was learning.
You can’t really understand a country unless you can speak at least some of the local language. It’s a huge part of culture. Click To Tweet
Meanwhile, in 2015, I came across a bunch of guys who ran a project called Humans of Hutong. They included a photo of each person, with a couple lines of caption from each: I’ve lived in Beijing since … I like X, I don’t like Y … It was a good exhibit, but with only about 12 photos. I thought there was much more that could be done with it. Still, I didn’t act on it.
The turning-point was 2018, and starting a new year. This idea had been in my mind, for three years. Fed up, I thought: ”If you want to travel around, recording stories, just do it. Worry about money later. Life is short – and you don’t know what’s coming.”
Finally, in late March, I launched my storytelling project: Humans of China – Exploring China, One Person at a Time. I posted the first story – on my Facebook page — about an old woman selling strawberries. I expanded the project in April, when a friend helped me create a similar site on WeChat, China’s most popular social network, used by hundreds of millions.
Humans of China Facebook page gallery is a snapshot of the variety of people whose stories Cameron portrays. You can follow Humans of China on HelloTalk (link opens on mobile).
My stories have gradually improved. The first time I traveled specifically to collect stories was to the southern island of Hainan. It’s home to a minority group — the Li people — where all the older women have tattoos on their faces, as well as their arms, necks, backs and legs. They were tattooed from age 10; when they married, their hands were tattooed, too.
No one knows why exactly this tradition was passed down from generations. Some say it was to stop outsiders from raping or stealing their women – others might see them as ugly. But the Li people considered them beautiful, of course.
The government banned this tradition in 1949, saying it was barbaric: women were tattooed with sharpened bamboo, digging painfully into their skin. It could cause infection, even death.
Today, many of the Li only speak their own language, not Mandarin. But I found one older woman speaking Mandarin, so asked to hear her story – and shot her photo.
I’ve now posted 60 such stories [as of September 2018]. Normal people, living normal lives, with normal jobs. Actually, they’re ordinary people with extraordinary stories. By sharing their story — in both English and Chinese — we not only learn about them, but can learn from them: what they’ve done in the past, their lifestyle, good and bad things, even their mistakes.
Some have long stories, with lots to say; if I don’t have enough time, maybe it’s three, four, five sentences. The stories are unbiased; I only write what they tell me.
China is great in many ways, but can also be a very unfair place, with discrimination, poverty, and so on.
For example, I want to tell more stories of street-sweepers. They’re looked down upon, as uneducated, doing this easy job, or not quite there, mentally. But maybe they’re fantastic cooks or artists, or never had the opportunity to do anything else.
A story is nothing without a photo. It humanizes them. You can tell a lot about someone from their facial expressions – happiness on the face, sadness in the eyes. But I also need a photo for the audience. I could make up a story, right? The photo is supporting evidence, too.
HelloTalk is now one of my most important platforms. A friend told me about HelloTalk last year, because he knew I’m learning Chinese. But to be honest, I didn’t use the app often, at first.
This June, though, it hit me: “Why aren’t I using HelloTalk, for my project? Asking for help, there?” Not just because my stories are bilingual, but to find more interesting people. There are thousands and thousands of Chinese HelloTalk members; I knew they’d be interested in these stories – and willing to communicate with me. In the first week, it blew up: I had like 1,000 followers. They’d correct my Chinese, and use my English text to improve their own skills.
It also feels good to hear positive comments. One member wrote how my subjects touched her heart. “They seem so nice and friendly. If I see them, I’d want to talk to them.”
For every 100 positive comments, I receive one that’s negative. Like, “Why the hell are you doing this?” Some people think my stories aim to show China as a terrible place. I reply that I’ll share any story that others tell me. History should never be forgotten. We may want to think only great things about our own country, but every country has its good and bad.
Other Chinese members encourage me: “It’s great what you’re doing” or “I’m proud of you.” In China, most people have too much work pressure. They probably don’t have enough money or time to devote to a project like this. So, they tell me: “Keep doing what you’re doing!”
I now have more than 2,000 followers. Some are great resources, too. One of my passions is women with bound feet. The last recorded case was in 1957. In Beijing, I’ve asked a million friends, a million times: “Do you know anyone with small bound feet?” They answer: “Before, before, before” – like it was long ago. I even ask taxi-drivers, who laugh at me: “What a stupid question to ask! You won’t find one!” But if you never ask, you never get.
I’ve now found and interviewed four of these women, including one who’s 102 years old — she’s probably the oldest woman in Beijing with bound feet. Imagine when she was young: no televisions, no mobile phones, no cars, everyone rode bikes. She grew up with grandparents who were born in the 1850s — almost two centuries ago! It’s unbelievable how much she still remembers about their stories, her own childhood, and how much China has changed since.
Click here (on mobile) to read full stories and follow Humans of China on HelloTalk.
Her feet, though, are bound and no bigger than my hand — four or five fingers across. She says she was in such agony as a child, she couldn’t go outside to play. That’s why women like her, home all the time, were taught to make clothes, shoes or cook.
If you’ve never seen bound feet, the toes are broken and curled under; the big toe sticks out to the side. It’s kind of ugly. She said I could look; just took off her shoes and socks, crossed her legs and showed me. Even her own husband never saw her feet — she thought it was ugly, and didn’t want him to see. But I guess that once she hit 100, she no longer cares.
However, I didn’t take a photo. It’s quite a personal thing and I let her keep her privacy. But she probably wouldn’t have cared about that, either.
Maybe I should have asked, to preserve it for history’s sake. Those photos could wind up in a book, even a museum.
For each category of Chinese people I interview — whether it’s street-sweepers or women with tattooed faces — I want at least five stories per category. One story could be unique. Two could be a fluke or coincidence. It’s important to get a good range of stories.
That’s why I’ll head down to Yunnan Province, later this month. I’d posted a request on HelloTalk, for help finding more women with tattooed faces. I learned about the Dulong minority, whose older women were tattooed at a young age. I was told of one village, where 11 of these women are living. I hope to interview them all!
For women with bound feet, I have a larger goal: interview 50 of them. Last weekend, I was in Inner Mongolia, running around like a lunatic, trying to meet as many ladies with small feet as possible. I spent a solid amount of time with each, learning as much as I could. One woman was 89, very lonely, basically sitting there, waiting to die. Her story was sad — but amazing.
Next Monday, I’ll visit the grandmother of one HelloTalk members. They live in Hebei Province, close to Beijing: I can wake up early, jump on a train or bus, have an interview, then return home. On HelloTalk, I had randomly approached this young woman in Hebei: “I have a strange question: I want to come there, to meet women with bound feet.”
Surprisingly, she replied, “My grandmother has bound feet. If you have time Monday, you can talk to her.” I bought a train ticket. She even gave me a list of what food her Aunty could cook for lunch! I chose my favorite dish: braised pork with mushrooms, ginger and garlic.
Through my project, future generations will also have stories — to learn more about Chinese culture and history.
I know this isn’t a normal hobby, like darts or football. But in 20 years, I’ll be happy to say I was able to speak with these fascinating people, eat with them, even sleep in their homes.
When I think about my future, I don’t want to any regrets, wishing I’d done something when I had the chance. I now have the time, money, health and support. I’m doing what I want to do, seeing what I want to see — and sharing it with others.
Interviewed and written by Michael J. Jordan.
Learning Chinese? Read Cameron’s story on WeChat.