Sunday, 11 November 2018

The Diva | Using ON1's Black Background/Layer

Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy | All Rights Reserved
I'm one of those photographers that has a pathological dislike in being tethered to a computer, and spending more than fifteen minutes in post-processing an image is a task I just find intolerable. In some cases, I am naturally forced to...but I try to find ways and means to make it as simple as possible. 

In contrast with most of my peers, I seldom use Photoshop and have never used Lightroom. However, I rely on three post-processing/editing apps as my tools of choice...these are Color Efex Pro (originally of Google and now part of DxO Software, Iridient Developer (the raw image format processing software for macOS, and well known for its ability to process Fujifilm X-Trans raw files), and lastly ON1 Photo Raw ( a raw processor, photo editor and plug-in collection all in one).

Which editing app to choose and use depends on the processing I seek for the image I'm working on. With this blog post I will very briefly explain how I created a black background to the photograph of Gui Lian, the Hokkien Opera diva, who I met during her performances in Georgetown (Penang Island, Malaysia).

The original photograph (below) was cropped to a square format, and I used ON1 Photo Raw to process it as a first step.

Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy | All Rights Reserved
I wanted to black out the extraneous shimmering stage curtains and red tassels, and found such a task not too difficult nor time consuming using ON1's Quick Mask tool. Naturally, one has to create a separate black underlay which will be one of the image layers.



Once a black image is created, I clicked on File> Add Layer(s) From File, and used the Quick Mask tool (yellow arrow on left) to "paint" a line around Gui Lian. The Quick Mask tool wasn't sufficiently precise in blacking out all of the targeted areas, so I also used the Masking Brush tool (red arrow) and went over these areas on complete the task....a task that took me no more than 12 minutes; well within my range of tolerance. I then pumped up the saturation using Iridium Developer tools...a task that took under a minute.

Amongst the reasons I favor ON1 is its website which has many easy to understand and follow tutorials. For those wanting to learn how easy it is to use its layer tools, it has product training videos here.

Monday, 5 November 2018

POV | The Character Actors of Chinese Opera | GFX50s

Actor In Teochew Opera (Hong Kong)
 Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy | All Rights Reserved
As no doubt readers of this blog have known for quite a while, I've been working on building an inventory of photographs of the various types of Chinese opera performances and backstages which eventually will be featured in the production of a coffee-table photo book "Chinese Opera of the Diaspora". 

So far, I've photographed a number of performances at different venues ranging from New York City's Chinatown, Hong Kong, Kuala Lumpur, and Penang...most of which were held during Chinese festivals. I hope to do the same in Taipei and Bangkok later this year and early next.

Setting aside the eye-catching aesthetics of the costumery, the beauty of the performers, the intricacy of the facial makeups and the "live-in" atmosphere of the shows' backstages, I thought I'd share two of my environmental portraits made in the backstages of Chinese opera shows in Hong Kong and Kuala Lumpur.

These two portraits are of elderly actors; the type that the cinematic world calls' "character actors" (these are generally defined as supporting actors who play unusual, interesting, or eccentric characters). I found these actors to be much more visually interesting than the glamorous divas; not because of their rugged and wrinkled physiognomies but because they had presence...and must've been part of these troupes for as long as they could remember.


Actor In Hokkien Opera (Kuala Lumpur)
 Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy | All Rights Reserved
Although neither of these actors took the roles of "leading men" or "warriors" in the operas, they seemed comfortable in their skin to do less strenuous roles such as the elderly scholars, judges and other supporting roles.

Unfortunately, due the language barriers I wasn't able to interview either of these two actors to gain an insight on their lives and background. They also seemed reluctant to allow me more than a few minutes to photograph them, either because they were waiting to perform (as in the top photograph) or just uncomfortable with the the attention of a stalking photographer (lower photograph).

Both photographs were made with the fabulous Fuji GFX50s, the medium format mirrorless camera. Technical details are:

Top photograph: GFX50s. GF45mmF2.8 R WR Lens. 1/25th. f2.8. iso 800. Aperture Priority. September 4, 2018.

Lower photographGFX50s. GF 63mm f/2.8 R WR . 1/30th. f5.6. iso 800. Spot Metering. October 20, 2017. 

The top photograph was made during a Teochow opera performance at the King George V Memorial Park (Kowloon) during the Hungry Ghost festival.

The lower photograph was made during a Hokkien opera performance at the Tokong Kau Ong Yah temple (Ampang, Kuala Lumpur) during the Nine Emperor Gods festival.








Friday, 2 November 2018

Frederik Trovatten | The Day of the Dead


The Day of the dead by Frederik Trovatten on Exposure


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In the 16th century, the Spanish Conquistadores arrived in Mexico, and quickly considered the Dia de Los Muertos to be sacrilegious, and tried their best to ban it. The ritual, dating to the Aztec and Toltec people some three centuries back, was not easily stopped and the Spaniards' efforts only succeeded in strengthening it.

Similar to other indigenous belief systems and rituals, the Dia de los Muertos merged with elements of the imported Christianity, thus achieving a form of syncretism with the invaders' religion. Originally celebrated in the summer, it moved to the first two days of November to coincide with All Saints Day and All Souls Day.

In 2008, the Dia de los Muertos was recognized by UNESCO which added the holiday to its list of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. It is an extremely social holiday that spills into streets and public squares at all hours of the day and night.

For the Aztec and Toltec pre-Hispanic cultures, death was a natural phase of life. The dead were still members of the community, kept alive in memory and spirit, and during Día de los Muertos, they temporarily returned to Earth. Nowadays, people flock to cemeteries to be with the souls of the dead, and build private altars with photographs of the dead, and their favorite foods and beverages. The gatherings are often joyous in tone, and the families remember the lives of the departed.

Frederik Trovatten describes himself as a Danish press and street photographer living in Mexico City. He's also an entrepreneur with 10+ years experience in digital marketing and startup, having started his career in Adwords and worked in Analytics, SEO, Email-marketing, Blogging and Social media.

Wednesday, 31 October 2018

Anthony Gueguen | Phuket Vegetarian Festival


PHUKET VEGETARIAN FESTIVAL by laostreetphotography on Exposure

Although I've photographed Kuala Lumpur's Nine Emperor Gods Festival, I haven't had the stomach (yet) to do the same at its "cousin"; the Phuket Vegetarian Festival in Thailand.

The Phuket Vegetarian Festival (also known as the Nine Emperor Gods Festival or the Kin Jay Festival, is an annual Taoist event celebrated by the Chinese community in Thailand, and its version as the Nine Emperor Gods Festival is celebrated over nine days in Myanmar, Malaysia, and Indonesia by local Chinese communities.

In comparison, the religious self-mutilations performed by the devotees during the Vegetarian Festival in Phuket are considered to be extreme and shocking. The entranced devotees who perform these acts of religious self-mutilation are called mah song. They wear elaborate costumes, enter into trances and ask the gods to enter their bodies. Men or women (they are usually celibate) puncture their faces with hooks, spears and knives amongst other sharp implements.


It is said that the mutilations are done without anesthetic, and are performed either inside or near the temples surrounded by other devotees. The wounds are treated with only iodine and petroleum jelly by attendants wearing surgical gloves as precautionary measures.

Other than his Exposure website Lao Street Photography, information on Anthony Gueguen is unfortunately sparse, however he is a project advisor with a French NGO based in Vientiane called Comite de Cooperation avec le Laos (CCL). His profession enables him to travel within Laos and to other Asian countries.


Sunday, 28 October 2018

Back Story | Canton Singing House | Hong Kong

Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy | All Rights Reserved
I'm periodically on the lookout for interesting locales that inspire my so-called fashion-travel audio slideshows (such as the water town of Xitang, near Shanghai for The Legend of Hua), and I may have found another in Hong Kong.

On Temple Street, in the Yau Ma Tei neighborhood, the Canton Singing House has been in existence for ages (metaphorically-speaking, but more factually since the 60s or thereabouts). It's technically called a 'singalong' parlor; a precursor to the modern karaoke.


Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy | All Rights Reserved
Some of these 'singalong' parlors still exist, faded and tired but otherwise unchanged, offering a taste of popular and cheap entertainment from a past era. How these survive in anyone's guess. The parlors usually have an organist (who can also play a guitar) and a handful of habitual customers who sing Cantonese songs...and occasionally Western oldies such as "Sealed With A Kiss" by the Canton Singing House organist.

My still-embryonic idea is to enlist the help of a local acquaintance who would wear a cheongsam (aka qi pao), and take the role of a sing-song girl. The photo shoot would take place in the streets of Yau Ma Tei, and in the parlor itself. Whether the parlor would allow it or not is an open question that will be answered when I'm there. The owners and clients seemed very laid back when I made these photographs.

The sing-song girls were the courtesans in nineteenth century China, but my story would much more recent than that era...perhaps almost contemporary.

Wikipedia tells us that "...before the founding of modern China in 1911, concubinage was legal. In Chinese custom, males carry the family name and the family's heritage after marriage. To ensure male heirs were produced, it was a common practice for an upper-class married male to have one or more concubines, provided he could support them."

Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy | All Rights Reserved
Similar to geishas, the "sing-song" girls (also known as 'flower girls' were trained from childhood to entertain wealthy male clients through companionship, singing and dancing in special sing-song houses. While the practice of concubinage was officially made illegal, it has recently been popular amongst the wealthy in China as a result of the country's prosperity.

Friday, 26 October 2018

Michael Wolf | Portraits Of Cantonese Opera Stars

Photo © Michael Wolf | All Rights Reserved
Continuing my obsession with Chinese Opera, and showcasing photographers who have superlative work involving this ancient art, I am delighted to feature the work of Michael Wolf titled Portraits of Cantonese Opera Stars.

In this creative approach, Michael Wolf photographed locally celebrated opera performers by having them pose in front of Hong Kong buildings in their costumes, and adopting poses used during their performances. The old Hong Kong neighborhoods and its crowded streets added interesting -almost incongruous- backdrops to the portraits.




Photo © Michael Wolf | All Rights Reserved
A few years ago, some of these portraits were also installed (see top photo) in the grounds of the West Kowloon Bamboo Cinema; a temporary project designed to provide spectators with performances at nominal prices. Cantonese opera performed in the setting of a bamboo cinema is a traditional art form combining music, martial arts, drama and architecture.

Michael Wolf is a German photographer based in Hong Kong. His main work's focus is life in mega cities, and documents architecture and the culture of metropolises.  He worked for 8 years as contract photographer for Stern magazine, but since 2001, he has concentrated on his own projects; many of which have been published as books.

His work was exhibited in numerous locations, including the Venice Bienniale for architecture, Aperture gallery in New York,  Hong Kong Shenzhen Biennial, the Museum of Contemporary Photography in Chicago and others.


He won first prize in the World Press Photo award competition on two occasions (2005 & 2010) and honorable mention (2011). He was also shortlisted for the Prix Pictet photography prize. He has published more than 13 photo books. 

Wednesday, 24 October 2018

Robert "Bud" Glick | NYC's Chinatown |MOCA

Photo © Robert "Bud" Glick | Courtesy BuzzFeed News 

I seldom attend photo exhibitions -and particularly avoid previews of of any sort of exhibitions- however I made an exception with the interesting Interior Lives: Photographs of Chinese Americans in the 1980s currently at the Museum of Chinese in America in New York City. The exhibition will run from October 18, 2018 - March 24, 2019.

The story behind the exhibition is also very interesting. In 1981, the New York Chinatown History Project (now the Museum of Chinese in America) commissioned photographer Bud Glick to document the street life, people, and domestic scenes of NYC's Chinatown at a time when more immigrants from Hong Kong, Taiwan, and China were moving into Chinatown, opening up new businesses just as older shops were closing down. The photographs in the series were captured between 1981 and 1984.

The complete (52) photographs can be viewed on Mr Glick's website. There are also various links to his work and interviews. These can be viewed on BuzzFeedNews, Slate, and HyperAllergic.

My interest in this exhibition was not only for the admirable monochromatic images, but because I'm fond of photographing Chinatown's streets which give me the smells, the sounds and the feel of the exotic produce of Hong Kong or Shanghai. Viewing the exhibition's photographs in MOCA's setting gave me the same sensations. I also read in the many interviews by Mr Glick that he connected with his subjects by establishing a good rapport with them, which is the optimal way to photograph people...and a way of photographing which I share wholeheartedly.

The exhibition is not a large one, but is well arranged to the left of the entrance in the museum. I estimate there is about 40 framed photographs on the exhibition walls. My very favorite image is of the late Mrs Chiu (above) who photographed in her apartment in 1981 just exudes an air of regal serenity.


Photo © Robert "Bud" Glick | All Rights Reserved
The other image I liked a lot is the one of an elderly dapper gentleman sitting in a cafe watching the world pass by.

According to an interview with PetaPixel, Mr Glick shot all his images on Tri-X using either a Leica M4P, Leitz Minolta CL, Nikon F3 or a Mamiya 645, and used Photoshop just to bring out the blacks. Mr. Glick is also embarking on a project with MOCA’s co-founder to reconnect with the subjects of his photographs. 

Robert "Bud" Glick has been a photographer for over 25 years. His clients include: Assurant, Inner-City Scholarship Fund, United Hospital Fund, Visiting Nurse Service of New York, Hospital for Special Surgery, New York Presbyterian Hospital, Columbia College of Physicians and Surgeons, Columbia University, NYU Medical Center, NYU, Pace University, Fordham University, NJIT, New York YMCA, Gannett, Stein Communications, Pfizer, AT&T, Syms Clothing, Fortis, Smithsonian Magazine, People Magazine, hgDesign, Arnold Saks Associates, DeSantis Breindel, Suka Creative.

He has taught as an adjunct professor in the art departments of Brooklyn College, Queens College, C. W. Post and William Patterson University.


Sunday, 21 October 2018

Mindy Tan | Teochew Opera


“As long as the Chinese shrines exist and people continue praying, any Chinese Opera can survive”
Continuing my obsession with Chinese Opera (and for photographers who show work that resembles mine), I discovered the lovely work of Mindy Tan who produced a video-slideshow of her images of a Teochow (aka Chiu Chow) opera troupe called Sai Yong Hong.

The Sai Yong Hong Chinese opera troupe has been performing in the Bangkok area for over 10 years. Considered as the most well known Chinese Opera troupe in the country, Sai Yong Hong has 34 actors in total. Five members come from China and the remaining 29 actors are from Thailand. There are about 20 Chinese opera troupes in Thailand, but they are reputed to be the most professional.

There are almost 10 million Thai Chinese in Thailand, making it one the largest Chinese communities in the diaspora, however the opera is not as popular as it once was.


Chiu Chow opera is a traditional art form with more than 500 years history, and is currently enjoyed by 20 million Chiu Chow people in many regions and countries. Based on local folk dances and ballads, this type of opera formed its own style under the influence of Nanxi Opera; one of the oldest Chinese operas and originated in the Song Dynasty, and originated in southern China's Chaoshan region. Clowns and females are the most distinctive characters of its shows, as well as fan-play and acrobatic skills.


Mindy Tan is a documentary and Street photographer focusing on Singapore and other Asian countries. Mindy began her career as a newspaper journalist. She won the Society of Publishers Asia (SOPA) award for excellence in Human Rights Reporting in 2007, before becoming a successful commercial and documentary photographer.

She worked for brands like Shell, Uniqlo, Mini Cooper and Huawei, and produces commissioned work for various editorial clients including Reuters, the Associated Press and Die Zeit.

An ambassador to Fujifilm on its international team of X-photographers, she has exhibited with Fujifilm in Cologne, and presented at Fujikina 2017, in both Kyoto and Tokyo. 
She is currently on artist residency with the Exactly Foundation.

Friday, 19 October 2018

Back Story | The Lost Diva of Penang

Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy | All Rights Reserved
As I was planning my two weeks photo trip to Malaysia's Penang Island and Hong Kong to photograph the Hungry Ghost Festival, I started thinking of another fashion-travel-historical storytelling project to add to those already done in Shanghai and Kuala Lumpur such The Legend of Hua, The Girl of Nanjing Road, and The Red Qi Pao.

After a few false starts, I decided to concoct a story that would dovetail perfectly with the Chinese public operas that were to be held in Penang during the festival and a qi pao wearing opera diva, returning to earth from the afterlife. I don't want to divulge too much of the story line at this time, but it will merge fashion, culture (through the festival and opera) and to a certain extent history as well, due to the proximity of the Malacca Strait that was, and still is, a haven for pirates.

To that end, I enlisted the help of Venisess Hui, a Georgetown-based makeup artist, and bounced the concept off her. The only props I had was a black qi pao bought online from Taobao and a red paper fan. At my request, Venisess ordered a Chinese opera headdress which was also available online.

We agreed that Jinru Lee, a student and a resident of Georgetown would be ideal for the role of the Chinese opera diva that I had in mind. 

We met at my hotel on Lebuh Leith where Jinru got her makeup, dress and headdress. After an hour or so breaking the ice and a photo shoot, we drove off the some of the streets of Georgetown scouting for appropriate locations and decent light.

Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy | All Rights Reserved
Decent outdoor light in Georgetown at this time of year is virtually impossible, since it's either monsoon rains or blinding sunshine, however we found decent spots under the colonnaded sidewalks in some parts of the town. Most of the spots we chose were facades of old shophouses and colorful and freshly painted walls. 

The heat was oppressive, and having had no sleep because of extreme jet lag and fatigue caused by the 20 hours flights travel time, I wasn't as sharp as I would've liked...and it's only when I view the images made during the photo shoot that my recollection of details returns to a certain extent. I suspect that my directions to Jinru and Venisess were not as precise as I would've liked. 
But no matter...the photo shoot was completed and I'll be working on stringing some of the images together to tell the story of the opera diva returning to her birthplace. I recorded Jinru's narration which, along with appropriate music, will accompany the images.

Ah, yes...the audio slideshow will be called "The Phantom of the Chinese Opera". Not entirely original, but it's descriptive.





Tuesday, 16 October 2018

Zarni Myo Win | Traditional Dance Troupes In Myanmar

Photo © Zarni Myo Win | All Rights Reserved
Due to my involvement in a long term project documenting Chinese opera in the Chinese diaspora, my "radar' is finely tuned to discover similar examples of music, drama and dance in Asia...and I discovered Myanmar's traditional dancing form.

As in many other Asian countries, music, dance and drama in Myanmar are a part of everyday life in the country, performed on makeshift stages by the side of the road rather than in elegant venues, and with an audience of chattering and cheering locals gathered for the occasion. Fairs and festivals are often cultural as much as religious in appeal, with traveling troupes of artists performing pwe, a distinctive Burmese blend of theatre, song and dance, mixing slapstick comedy with stories from the great Buddhist and Hindu epics.

In contrast with Chinese opera, which is struggling to survive in certain regions of Southeast Asia, a large number of Burmese troupes travel around the country's villages and during pagoda festivals, staging performances throughout the countryside during the dry season. They perform on temporary bamboo stages, whilst audiences sit on mats spread in front of the stage. 

Although the traditional dance-drama in Myanmar is said to have originated from Siam (nowadays Thailand) through the conquest of Ayutthaya in 1767, when a Burmese king returned with royal Siamese dancers, the similarities (at least backstage) with Chinese opera are striking.

It is such troupes that Zarni Myo Win documents in his wonderful Behind The Curtain project. 

Photo © Zarni Myo Win | All Rights Reserved
Zarni Myo Win is an award-winning photographer from Yangon (Myanmar), who travels around his country to document its culture, lifestyle and heritage. He is currently working on a long term photography project on Myanmar's traditional dancing troupes. His passion is to document the lives of Myanmar traditional opera performers, real life of Myanmar people, and patterns and lines in landscape.

I met Zarni in Kuala Lumpur in 2017 when he received the Overall Winner Award in the Travel Photographer Society competition. He also won many photography awards such as Third Place Winner, National Awards, Sony World Photography Awards, First Place Winner, Portrait & Travel Category of Mobile Photo Awards (2017), Second Place Winner, Others Category, IPPAwards (2017) and iPhone Photographer of the Year, IPPAwards (2018).

Unassuming but exceptionally talented, Zarni epitomizes the new and young talent that is emerging from Myanmar, and it is with considerable impatience that I'm waiting to see more of his work...and that of his peers.


Sunday, 14 October 2018

My Photo Book | Rice University's Religious Studies Reviews


A Labor of Love by Tewfic El-Sawy on Exposure


I was pleased when I learned that Rice University in Texas published a review of my photo book Hầu Đồng : The Spirit Mediums of Viet Nam  in its June 2018 issue 2 Volume 44.

The review was written for Rice University by Dr Jeremy Jammes, Associate Professor at the research Institute of Asian Studies (Brunei), and co-editor of the Book Series 'Asia in Transition'. 

Here's the text of Dr Jammes' review (noting that there's an error insofar as my time spent in Vietnam to research the subject matter. I traveled to Vietnam 6 times for fieldwork over the period from September 2014 to August 2016).  

Another error: The “Mother Goddess Religion” (Dao Mẫu) was inscribed in UNESCO's list of Intangible World Cultural Heritage in December 2016, not 2006.

While pleased my photo book was to be reviewed for RSR, I stressed to the Rice University's interlocutors that it was just that; a photo-book...and not academic research into a religion. They insisted, so I acceded to their request.

"HU -DNG: THE SPIRIT MEDIUMS OF VIETNAM. By Tewfic El-Sawy. San Francisco: Blurb, 2015.Pp.169; 103 illustrations. Paperback, $89.99; eBook, $8.99.

As a reaction against anti-superstitious neo-Confucian and colonial taxonomies and policies, Vietnamese spirit mediumpractices kept a low profile until the 1990s. Len dong (to mount the medium) ritual, also known as hau dong (to serve the medium), experienced a renaissance and gained international recognition through the folklorist work of Ngo Dc Thnh. The renamed Mother Goddess Religion(Dao Mu) was eventually promoted to the status of an indigenous Vietnamese religion and entered UNESCOs list of the Intangible World Cultural Heritage in December 2006. In this context, the New York Citybased freelance photographer El-Sawy attended hau dong ceremonies in MarchApril 2015 in Hanoi and northern provinces. 

His photo coffee-table book is original in giving access to a visual diary, which includes color pictures, personal comments, ethnographic description, and the personal background of mediums. The book has both strengths and weaknesses: rough data full of details, sympathy with and naivety of the observed object, curiosity, superficiality, errors. In Barthess terms, El-Sawy provides here his denotedmessage, which is focused on the photogenia and the aestheticism of the ritual, which is amplified and justified by its place in the world inheritage.

Hau -Dong practitioners are here described and interviewed as artists. One can appreciate the artistic prowess to master the light condition and the art of maneuvering a foreign eyein this chaotic ritual. Short bio-data of mediums provide context for the competition between mediums based on artistic-like creativityand their symbolic efficiency (reputation). 

However, from an academic perspective (that this book never pretends to have), spirit possession is much more than a lavish and extravagant” effort of performance. The UNESCO branding of religious rituals as immaterial treasuresand their aesthetization are problematic in our understanding of these practitioners and their motivations, and it would require further ethnographic investigation to challenge the objectification of Vietnamese society and the aestheticization of its religious rituals. Visual ethnography is more than capturing an instant image of social life (initiation, groupies” around mediums, circulation money, and gifts). It involves a methodical unveiling of the context and discourses of the informantsaccounts of their particular rituals. A coffee-table book fails to do justice to these dimensions.

Jeremy Jammes
Universiti Brunei Darussalam

Thursday, 11 October 2018

The Hungry Ghost Festival | Hong Kong

scroll down on the right....or click The Hungry Ghost Festival.

Following my earlier post on the Hungry Ghost festival in Hong Kong, I am now publishing my own gallery of the festival...with an interesting explanation as to the reason for street Chinese Operas starting and ending their performances with a sacred baby wooden doll.

It is one of the most popular rituals for the street operas, and is called the rite of "The Heavenly Consort Presents a Child" where the Heavenly Consort (one of the Seven Fairies) in the person of a made-up and costumed actress, who descends from the stage, bearing her "child", Hai Ji, represented by a wooden doll in her arms. The doll is dressed in red, and represents the godly essence of theatre in a wooden image.

During my few days at the site of the Hungry Ghost festival in Kowloon, I and a Hong Kong-based friend Ms Laura Donini-Rafee, met with a handful of volunteer officials, who were not only glad to see me as a non-Chinese photographer, but proceeded to quiz me on the tradition and helpfully correcting my insufficient knowledge. 

Posing with Mr Ma and Mr Cheung, officials at the Hungry Ghost festival (Kowloon)
Photo © Laura Donini-Rafee
While the Hungry Ghost Festival has weathered decades of decline, it's been sustained by grassroots sustenance from the tight-knit Chiu Chow communities in Hong Kong and beyond. Hong Kong has a very large number of Chiu Chow (or Teochew) people and their intense sense of kinship created powerful Chiu Chow networks across the Southeast Asian region.

The Chiu Chow community are responsible for over half of the 100 celebrations that take place around Hong Kong. Whatever their origin, each of these Hungry Ghost rituals serve similar purposes: to pay homage to the gods and ancestors, to sooth wandering spirits, to care for the living by giving away goods, to bring good luck to the neighborhood and to join people together.


Saturday, 6 October 2018

Gary 'Gaz' Jones | Hungry Ghost Festival

Photo © Gary Jones | All Rights Reserved
Readers of this blog know full well of my current 'obsession' (photographically-speaking) with Chinese Opera and its various incarnations, especially when performed during religious festivals and events.

I've posted a number of posts on this blog on the Hungry Ghosts festival during my recent trips to Penang (Malaysia) and Hong Kong...so it's with pleasure that I found the lovely work of Gary 'Gaz' Jones documenting Chinese Opera actors and performers during the festival in his city of Hong Kong.

A combination of color and monochrome images in his gallery Hungry Ghost Festival show us the versatility of these actors, and the various roles and types of make-up. 

Equally interesting is Sunset Survivors; a book project in which Mr Jones is involved along with its writer, Ms Lindsay Varty. The book tells the stories of Hong Kong’s traditional tradesmen and women through imagery and interviews. It covers a number of curious professions that are quickly falling into obscurity, from fortune telling to face threading and letter writing to bird cage making in the streets of old Hong Kong.

For those interested, here's the South China Morning Post article that includes a sample of the photographs and interviews.

Gary Jones has lived in Hong Kong since 1990. He has been in the creative business since 1978, working as a designer and creative director both in London and Hong Kong. He currently runs his own creative consultancy in the city, which he set up in 1992. Fascinated by photography from his years at Art College in Hull, Gary now specializes in food, portrait and documentary photography, predominantly in black and white, using both film and digital cameras. He is a member of the Royal Photographic Society and holds an LRPS Distinction.

Tuesday, 2 October 2018

The Unseen | Backstage of a Hokkien Opera



The Unseen is a gallery of monochrome photographs made backstage of a Hokkien Opera troupe during Penang's Hungry Ghosts Festival. 

Chinese opera - in all its various types - is known for the saturated colors of the actors/performers make-up and flamboyant costumes, but I chose to process my photographs in monochrome/black and white to avoid the facile seduction of color, and to accentuate the facial and body characters of the individuals depicted in them. 

The title of the gallery 'The Unseen' obviously refers to the backstage activities of this particular Hokkien opera troupe. It was obvious to me whilst photographing that there was a strong cohesiveness amongst its members who -in essence - live and work cheek to jowl. The Hokkien opera troupe hails from the Chinese south-western province of Fujian, and some live in Zhangzhou city which is about 450 kilometers from Hong Kong. 

The formal name of the troupe is “Southern Fujian Opera”. The members flew in from China to Penang on July 20 and will return in December, spending almost 5 months away from their families. Annually, during the seventh lunar month, makeshift stages made of old wood planks and bamboo scaffolding appear all in certain locations in Penang. It is on these stages that Chinese opera performances are held every night. 

Two types of operas are held in Penang; in the Hokkien and Teochew (aka Chiu Chow) dialects. The Hungry Ghost Festival, known as Yu Lan, is a traditional Buddhist and Taoist festival held in a number of Asian countries; many of which have large Chinese communities. 

According to traditional Chinese belief, the seventh month in the lunar calendar is when restless spirits roam the earth. It is believed the gates of hell are open throughout the Hungry Ghost Month. It is believed many hungry and wayward ghosts come to visit the living. Many Chinese people make efforts to appease these transient ghosts, while ‘feeding’ their own ancestors. As entertainment for these ghosts, Chinese operas are performed in public places and alongside temples. 

The annual observance of the festival stems from the tale of Maudgalyâyâna, a disciple of the Buddha said to have saved his mother from the harrows of hell with ritual chants. The story spread rapidly through local opera performances under the outward-looking Tang dynasty (618-907), when Buddhism peaked in the Middle Kingdom thanks to imperial patronage and deepening cultural and trade links with South Asia. 

The Hungry Ghost Festival is officially listed as part of China’s intangible cultural heritage.

Saturday, 29 September 2018

Beyond The Frame | Guo Gui Lian | The Diva

(Guo Gui Lian as Xu Wen Jen)
Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy | All Rights Reserved 
I spent around a week in Penang during the latter part of August while the Chinese Yu Lan (Hungry Ghosts) Festival was being celebrated in various sites on the island. My purpose was to photograph the Chinese opera shows -and their backstages- that are an integral feature of the festival, in order to glean material for my work-in-progress photo book "Chinese Opera of the Diaspora".

(My black & white photo gallery The Unseen takes you behind the stage's curtain of this talented troupe).

One of the two main sites where Yu Lan rituals where to be held was Lim Jetty in an area called Pengkalan Weld. It's the site for the famous Sun Moon Temple dedicated to the Lim Tai Cor deity, the Lim clan patron deity. The Chinese opera (in this case, Hokkien) would be performing there on a makeshift stage of wood and thick bamboo.

The troupe performing on that stage was the “Southern Fujian Opera”, whose 16 members are mostly from this Chinese southeastern province. As I speak no Chinese, I initially communicated with Abao, one of the two male actors, using a translating app...and was able to obtain a few introductory nuggets of information, however it was with Guo Gui Lin, a lovely actress with whom I connected on stage and subsequently on WeChat on my return to New York City, that I was able to get additional information on the troupe and herself.

(Guo Gui Lian as one of the military generals)
Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy | All Rights Reserved 
Guo Gui Lian is a 30 years old single mother with a son. She hails from the port city of Zhangzhou (漳州) in Fujian. She started her career at 18 along with her sister. Her parents are farmers, and she has four siblings back home.

Through ensuing WeChat conversations, I gathered interesting -albeit sometimes conflicting- details about her troupe's involvement in the Yu Lan Festival. She arrived in Penang with the “Southern Fujian Opera” troupe on July 20 and will return to China in December. They traveled by ship from Fujian to Brunei for two weeks' shows; the sea trip took a day. It was then a flight to Penang to perform during the Hungry Ghosts festival month, and in other venues in Malaysia till year end.

Guo Gui Lian has no favorite roles. Her versatility allows her to take parts of heroic warriors, evil people, elderly and wise scholars, young boys and more. I noticed that no actor has a set role...but there are a handful who seem to take the leading roles, while others take supporting ones. Lian is one of three who took martial roles, which include some spear-sword sparring.


(Guo Gui Lian as Zhao Qing) 
Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy | All Rights Reserved 
The troupe's costumes, headgear and various accoutrements are stored in Penang; presumably by the temple authorities, until it returns the following year. The amount of these items as seen backstage precludes traveling back and forth with them on flights....so I gathered they initially traveled by boat. The troupe's manager is paid by the temple(s) and provides lodging for the performers and their salaries. The actors, sound and stage hands are paid for each show...so if there's no performance, my understanding is that they do not get paid, although I may be mistaken.

Brought by Chinese traders, Chinese opera arrived in Malaysia in the mid-16th century, and was very popular in the late 19th century. Nowadays, this ancient art form appears to be largely ignored and/or unknown by the younger generations, although efforts are made to repopularize it in Malaysia, Singapore and Hong Kong...especially during the Chinese festivals.

(Guo Gui Lian as Xu Wen Jen)
Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy | All Rights Reserved 
In Penang, Lian and her Southern Fujian Opera troupe performed its shows in Hokkien; the Chinese dialect of the south-eastern part of Fujian Province and Taiwan, and spoken widely by the Chinese diaspora in Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, the Philippines and other parts of Southeast Asia.

Hokkien opera is one of the most influential art forms in Malaysia and Singapore. This regional genre originated from Taiwan and flourished in Fujian. Of the more than 300 types of Chinese opera, only about eight varieties made it to Southeast Asia, the most popular ones being Chiu Chow (or Teo Chow), Cantonese, Peking and Hokkien.

The Southern Fujian Opera Troupe
Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy | All Rights Reserved



Friday, 28 September 2018

Michael Benford | Ancient China

Photo © Michael Benford | All Rights Reserved
China's southeastern Guizhou Province region has for centuries been home to 49 of China’s 55 ethnic minorities, including the Dong, genetically connected to the Thai and to the Lao, as well as the Miao minority, who are believed to be among the country’s first rice farmers (their villages are often 3,000 feet up). 

The region has a number of ancient villages, in which traditions have been preserved, although this may be changing due to the influx of tourists.

Michael Benford's lovely images Ancient China and its sister gallery Creatively Recharging -China introduces us very generously to the region's villages and ethnic minorities with remarkable color and monochrome images. In the latter gallery, he tells us that he finds it necessary to escape from daily routines, break out from comfort zones, and unplug from technology by exploring new countries...in his case, it was far flung provinces of China.

For those who are curious as to the locations of the villages and the ethnicities of those photographed Mr. Benford's galleries, here's what I found:

Qingman village is not far from Kaili City, the capital of Qiandongnan in Guizhou Provinc. It's described as a Miao people village with primitive simplicity. The Miao build houses along mountains and rivers in order to not occupy farmland. The village is a well-preserved Miao ethnic village, and has over 300 families with a total population exceeding 1,600.

Matang village is also an ancient village populated by the Geija, an ethnic subgroup of the Miao minority. The Matang villagers are easily identifiable in the colorful clothing they wear as their daily dress code and their fancy and colorful hand-fabricated adornments. 

The village of Zhaoxing, also in the Guizhou region, is one of the largest Dong Villages in Qiandongnan area. All the buildings in the village are wooden-stilt houses.

Michael Benford describes himslef as creative director and photographer with almost 20 years, developing innovative design and brand strategies. He currently oversees the creative direction for AMB Sports + Entertainment, which includes the Atlanta Falcons (NFL), Atlanta United (MLS) and Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

Wednesday, 26 September 2018

Hat Boi | VN Express | Thanh Nguyen

Photo © Thanh Nguyen | Courtesy VNExpress
After many weeks of silence on this blog; due partly to the need to take a time off to focus on photographic projects, travel...and just for a summer break, I'm back with an interesting article and images of a Vietnamese ancient art form called hát tuồng or hát bội.

The origin of this art form is truly fascinating. I had learned from scouring the internet that this classic opera is the Vietnamese adaptation of the Chinese opera that has been enjoyed by kings and provincial mandarins, and performed as a court art (as well as for popular audiences) especially in central Vietnam. The introduction of Chinese opera is attributed to the capture of a troupe of performers attached to the Mongol army that invaded northern Vietnam in 1285, and the actors’ lives were spared in return for teaching their art to the Vietnamese.

As in Chinese opera, makeup color and dress indicate the character type of each character: black for boldness and bravery, red for anger or rashness, white for treachery, and gold as the color of the gods.


And also as with its "parent" art form, hát bội is kept alive by poor artists afraid it will die with them. While the Vietnamese government is anxious in promoting its indigenous culture such as Hầu đồng and Ca trù, I suspect that hát bội will not receive the same governmental push, but who knows?

The article that appeared in the VNExpress newspaper introduces us to Ms. Nguyen Thi Hanh, a hát bội actress, who lives in a small rented apartment in My Tho, capital of the Mekong Delta province of Tien Giang. 

At 67, she is the senior actress of the Ngoc Khanh troupe, one of the best known htroupes in the south of Vietnam (by the way, the art form is called hát tuồng in the north of Vietnam, and hát bội in the south.

My interest in the Vietnamese form of Chinese Opera started in 2012 whilst leading a photo-expedition-workshop to Vietnam in 2012. It was there in Hanoi that I took my group to a theater near Hoan Kiem Lake to photograph a hát tuồng show. Aside from us, there were less than handful of tourists in the audience. I had a limited time to photograph backstage, but it was enough to upload a few images unto a gallery.

Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy | All Rights Reserved