Among the delights on the Wellcome Collection website are these images of China in the 19th Century.
As the elegantly written introduction tells me:
“The photographs shown on this website are a small sample from the collection of nearly 700 photographs in the Wellcome Library which the photographer John Thomson (1837-1921) took on his foreign travels, brought home to London and offered at the end of his life to the collector Henry Wellcome.”
Asked to write a post about them for this blog, I wondered: what do these images – taken by a Scot of Chinese people in China, bought by an American living in England, and part of an exhibition put together by Englishmen and re-exported back to China – mean to me, a British-born Chinese of Malaysian-born parents?
Thomson travelled throughout Asia, including Malaysia, China and Hong Kong, the three nations that make up my complicated heritage. Only the latter two feature in the photographs. I’ve only visited either of them once, yet looking at them gives me a comforting feeling of familiarity.
Mao Changxi reminds me of my Dad, looking comfortable and commanding (in that order) with his armchair and bald head. An Old Cantonese Woman looks like my grandmother: “Her hair has grown thin and white, but she still dresses it with neatness and care”. The Manchu Ladies remind me of Chinese New Year, my mother and Aunts sitting in the kitchen, having a natter over a banquet of leftovers (though the Manchu ladies probably didn’t have EastEnders on in the background).
A Knife-grinder reminds me of the backstreets behind my family’s main home in Malaysia, full of the noise and smells of hawker stalls selling delicious, heart-attack inducing foods. Muslim Butcher reminds me of my first girlfriend’s disgust as we passed Chinese restaurants with ducks, pigs and other charcoaled animals in the window. The View of the Great Wall at Badaling reminds me of my only visit to China, where I climbed part of the Great Wall only to find it full of Chinese graffiti.
Other photos remind me that some things are the same, East or West. Magic Lantern tells me “To attract customers, many presenters also included a few images of naked women in the middle or at the end of a show”. I learn from A Cantonese Mandarin Official, “Although his salary from the government might be small, with bribery and extortion he could earn up to ten or even 100 times the amount of his official pay.” Camels are camels in any picture, though those in the Gobi desert remind me of my father’s bedtime stories of the Silk Road, which always made me thirsty.
In A Manchu Bride, Thomson describes a gloomy view of marriage. He reckoned she was headed for a life of slavery, in which the wife “is even liable to be beaten by her mother-in-law, and husband too, if she neglects to discharge her duties as general domestic drudge”. I’m lucky to a) be male and b) not to live in such strict times or family. Such a life is something I’ve only glimpsed through films and literature. I wonder, how do such traditions fit with the newfound individualism of the citizens of today’s Beijing or Shanghai?
Some things don’t change. Cantonese schoolboys are known for their “diligence and aptitude… and their capacity in acquiring knowledge”. Chinese labourers are “much in demand in South-east Asia because of their willingness to undertake the hardest work. For these economic migrants, the main attraction of working abroad was the pay. At two or three dollars a month, their earnings were much higher than what they could receive back home”. And Chinese women have a “natural beauty” (“they never used makeup and always dressed simply; they were the prettiest and most attractive-looking women he came across in southern China”).
Thomson captures many different things in his pictures: podiatrists, monks, artists, gamblers, temples and rivers, villagers and politicians, dusty streets, roadside shrines and colonial gardens. The variety reminds us that though we speak of ‘China’ as one, often amorphous, entity, it’s a huge country that in itself was created out of three distinct kingdoms and many very different regions.
He takes a traveller’s eye to his subjects, a combination of culture shock and curiosity with the unknown. It’s a fascination that brings a beauty and insight to things that I’ve often taken for granted when visiting ‘home’.
In a letter to Sir Henry Wellcome, Thomson wrote that “each photograph was taken to represent something peculiar to the lands and to the people I visited.” How curious that this still rings true to me over a century later.
Mun-Keat Looi is a Science Writer at the Wellcome Trust.