China for Le Monde d’Hermès

Sean Rocha lived in Hong Kong for three years in the early-1990s, traveling often to the then-Portuguese colony of Macau nearby.  At the time, as now, Macau was most often thought of as a gambling destination — and there are, to be sure, monstrous casinos built on fantastically ugly reclaimed land — but its historic center is one of the few in Asia not to have been substantially changed by the economic boom of the last few decades.  There are few places in the world with more emotion embedded in the landscape for Sean than in Macau: every small alley, tea shop, and pastel building seems to connect to some memory of time spent there in the probably forty visits he has made across nearly a quarter century.

In 1994, Sean made his first visit to Yunnan province in southwestern China, which at the time was populated mostly by ethnic minorities like the Bai and Naxi rather than Han Chinese and felt very much at the margins of the great China growth story.  He returned thirteen years later on assignment for T, the style magazine of The New York Times, to write about the provincial capital Kunming.  The elderly still gathered in the parks to sing opera or practice ballroom dancing and among the young there remained a giggling joyfulness rare in China.  Still, the comprehensiveness of the change was astonishing, even by China standards: as one woman said of her childhood in Kunming, “I am not even old and the roads, the alleys, the cinemas, the stores, all the little places I remember are gone.”  Of the once-extensive old quarter of Kunming, with its wooden houses and sloped tile roofs, only a single block of signmakers remained; in its place, an ersatz Old Street of Kunming® complex was being constructed that would look little like the actual old town it replaced.

More recently, Sean went to rural Fujian province on assignment for Le Monde d’Hermès to photograph (and write about) a very different vision for the way that contemporary architecture relates to historic preservation.  A Beijing architect, Li Xiaodong, built an inexpensive, attractive and unabashedly modern bridge across a small river in the village of Xiashi that doubled as a schoolhouse, though it has since been converted into a library.  The bridge was a symbolic to construct a common ground between the two sides of the river, which were home to unfriendly rival clans, the Shi and Lin.  Each clan originally occupied its own round, fortress-like tulou, the remarkable centuries-old, mud-walled communal housing unique to the Hakka people of the region.  With their residents moving away or dying off, the tulou are either being transformed into tourist destinations or, as in Xiashi, abandoned to decay, so by the time the bridge opened its role was as much to revive the tulou at either end as to overcome the enmity between the clans.

Click here to see the tear sheets of the article about the Bridge School published in Le Monde d’Hermès in Autumn 2011.  Some outtakes from that assignment are below, along with photographs from earlier travels in China, Hong Kong and Macau.

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The bridge connects two rival clans, Xiashi, China, photo by Sean RochaTulou viewed through Bridge School entrance, Xiashi, China, photo by Sean RochaThe Bridge School in context, Xiashi, China, photo by Sean Rocha