The Digital Journalist
China Obscura
January 2005

by Yang Lian

Perhaps it is only when you know a place so well that it can seem so strange.

I grew up and lived in China until the age of 33. After 1989, I experienced a typical Chinese destiny of exile, living in more than twenty countries. Now I hold a New Zealand passport. My face is obviously Chinese, but China has become my personal foreign country. I write my poetry in Chinese, but the language has become my own foreign mother tongue. There is no longer any question of going home. Now even when I set foot on Chinese soil, it is still another kind of leaving.

Mark Leong's photographs are also about homecoming as departure. For him, the native land of his ancestors is his own foreign country. His pictures bring to mind an image from a journey I made not long ago: I am standing beneath the frosty skies of northern China gazing upon an expanse of broken walls and piles of earth, buried speechless and silent beneath a covering of white snow and withered grass. This was Yellow Earth South Inn Village where I spent three harsh years at the end of the Cultural Revolution in the 1970s. These fields, where "class enemies" were once buried alive, nurtured generations of people, but also held back generations of people, detaining them as if in a prison. Here in the old alleys, beneath each crooked gatehouse, behind every earthen wall, were concealed so many stories; the stories we gave to them every day, each person listening to the others, each person overheard by others . . . .

Yet now I stare at this place in a mixture of shock and dumb incomprehension; am I drunk? The village is no longer there. It has vanished so completely that not even its name remains on the map. Soon a vast swath of concrete buildings will rise up from these fields, like a crop that can never be harvested. The future installments of those stories will take place in these hard concrete stairwells. The stories of the past now exist as ghostly spirits, formless in the air, perceived only by the eyes of memory.

Mark Leong has returned to China at a historic moment where an ancient way of life has met China's newborn future. His photographs layer the new upon the old, images permeating each other, as if printed from piles of negatives stuck together. These pictures—so many ordinary details of ordinary people's lives—remind me that China will never lack the poetry of beauty and pain. I see not just our past, but also a kind of beginning—thrilling yet filled with misgivings.

Both familiar and alien, these photographs are the hundreds of thousands of questions we ask ourselves every day.

© Yang Lian

Translated from the Chinese by Duncan Hewitt