Monday, 5 June 2017

The Red Qi Pao | The Back Story...


Readers of this blog will know that I've been interested in adding another arrow to my quiver -photographically speaking- for quite a while, and I'm now earnestly starting a "chinoiserie" phase in my photographic trajectory.  As I wrote in an earlier post, "..it is not really about fashion and/or attractive models (although it's obviously nice to include them), but about a theme. The theme of "Shanghai-1940" is one that I seek to recreate through still photography and audio, and weave a narrative into stories...akin to short movies."

Whilst in Kuala Lumpur in 2016 participating in the annual Travel Photographer Society event, I was introduced to The Old China Cafe; an old café-restaurant that serves a combination of Straits Chinese and Malay dishes, and whose untouched pre-war ambiance and large traditional feng shui mirrors gave me the idea of constructing a fantasy story about a beautiful Chinese woman dressed in a clinging red qi pao or cheongsam appearing to an habitual customer and opium-addled Western photographer. This idea, refined on my return flight to the US, was conceptualized and led to producing The Old China Cafe audio-slideshow. I enjoyed this tentative experience of fantasy storytelling...quite a branching out from my previous involvement in factual "photojournalistic-travel" and "telling-it-like-it-is" documentaries.

On my return to Kuala Lumpur last month for another Travel Photographer Society event, I was eager to start some sort of sequel...a continuation of The Old China Cafe in which the woman in the red qi pao would appear to viewers and speak of her "relationship" with the drifter...the Western photographer who would be known as "gweilo" (鬼佬) in the sequel.

I enlisted the help of Stanley Hong; a resourceful talented part-time photographer in Kuala Lumpur who eventually introduced me to Tracy Yee, who was happy to take the lead role in the production of The Red Qi Pao. 

So on a rainy Saturday afternoon, off we went to The Old China Cafe near Petaling Street despite the ominous thunder. The restaurant was'nt too busy but we decided not to immediately start photographing Tracy in her red qi pao despite the inquisitive stares of the waiters and patrons, and wait until it got quieter. Unfortunately, that was not to be because of two events: the power suddenly went out, and the drainage system backed up from the incredible volume of rain and flooded the restaurant. 


Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy | All Rights Reserved
I knew of the Precious Old China in Central Market which also had a Chinese ambiance, old furniture sourced from Guangzhou, and 19th Century Chinese lattice painted panels. This place had no rain seepage and few customers...so I was able to photograph Tracy with little interference.

We decided we would return the following Monday (it being a national holiday) but that we would give up on The Old China Cafe which must have been damaged by the rain water. The Precious Old China was deserted when we did return that Monday afternoon, and we had the place to ourselves for quite a while. Sensing that we had overstayed our welcome, we then drove off to the Thean Hou Temple for more photo shoots. 

Incidentally, all the photographs during the shoots were made with the Fuji X-Pro2 and the Fuji GFX50s medium format camera.

Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy - All Rights Reserved
The work was not finished. I still needed Tracy's narration. A few days later, we all spent time recording the narrative late into the night until we all felt it was a wrap. The drfiter-photographer's narration was recorded on my return to New York City.

Finally...I reflect on how I got into this "chinoiserie" phase, and realize its seeds were probably sown during my many trips to Vietnam, and while I believe that my two years work on my photo book Hầu Đồng: The Spirit Mediums of Viet Nam influenced my aesthetic appreciation for Sino-Vietnamese ethnic fashion (whether ao dai, cheongsam and the resplendent tunics worn by the spirit mediums during the ceremonies, I also dabbled in photographing friends willing to pose for my camera, such as Trần Hiền Trang standing in the courtyard of a Chinese Assembly Hall in Hoi An (below).


Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy | All Rights Reserved