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Interview: Hong Mei & Tom Carter
A chat with the peripatetic author/photographer power couple ahead of the release of their latest opus this Saturday at Capital M...
By Sep 4, 2014 Arts
Tom Carter's one of those classic China success stories: arrive penniless, pursue your dream, make it happen by yourself, get some critical and commercial traction, become penniless again, pick another dream, repeat. After grinding the English teaching circuit in Beijing for a few years, Tom struck out on an epic backpacking trip through all of China (literally every province), landed a book deal, and then did the whole thing again with his (now) wife, Jiangsu-born Hong Mei. That resulted in CHINA: Portrait of a People, an astounding collection of 800 photos documenting this country's often under-represented ethnic and geographical hinterlands.

More recently, Hong Mei and Tom completed a similarly breakneck, unplanned backpacking trip through India. Like, all of India. Or, most of it (Hong Mei was excluded from some parts due to her passport). This wasn't your standard flag-waving, aircon bus tourist trip: Hong Mei and Tom took a deep dive into off-the-beaten-trail India, spending time amongst transgender prostitutes in Mumbai and Maoist rebels in Orissa in addition to all of their solo wanderings from coast to coast.

This Saturday at Capital M, the duo will release a new memoir — The Farther I Walk, the Closer I Get to Me — featuring Hong Mei's personal account of "India Through Chinese Eyes" and supplementary imagery filtered through Tom's lens. Ahead of that, I had a chat with the peripatetic power couple on China, India, Hijras, Naxalites, and all of the crazy shit you have to do to become a bona fide avant-garde traveler:


Hong Mei & Tom Carter, photographed on a 150-year-old camera in Jaipur

SmartBeijing: Let's start with 'CHINA: Portrait of a People'. The two of you backpacked across all 33 provinces over two years, is that right? What was the initial motivation for this project? Did you put a lot of planning into it, or was it more of an improvised, spur of the moment thing?

Tom Carter: I arrived in China with the intention of backpacking across all 33 provinces. I had completed a similar trip across all of Mexico, Cuba, and Central America and wanted to keep the journey going. I met Hong Mei in 2005 while working in Beijing to save up for my trip (I was utterly penniless upon my arrival). Then I split for a year by myself, which is how long it took me to travel the entire country. When I got back to Beijing, I started pitching a photobook proposal to different publishers, landed myself a deal, then, me being a perfectionist, decided I needed to go back and do it all over again. But this time I convinced Hong Mei to quit her job and come with. She had never been traveling before this, but together we found new places I never would have been able to go to alone – remote mountain villages and isolated indigenous tribes – which really made the book. None of it was planned out, though. Every day we’d wake up in some filthy luguan or whatever bus station floor we had slept on, look at a paper map, and just go there.

from 'CHINA: Portrait of a People'

SmBJ: The book includes over 800 photos, presenting a syncretic picture of China's ethnic and geographical diversity. Was this your goal going in, or did your experiences on the road shape your perspective over time?

Tom: I refer to myself as an “author,” but I had to look up the word syncretic (the amalgamation of different cultures). I’m flattered by the description, but no, syncretism was never my goal. I was just backpacking and taking photos for fun. My initial journey was a personal one, a combination of wanderlust and a desire to see China beyond the urban corridor of the eastern coast, which is where I had spent my first two years. And even by the time I departed on my journey I still wasn’t aware that West China was comprised of non-Han tribes, or that there was a growing pattern of regional and economic disparity. Everything I know today about China I learned from observing as I went along.

SmBJ: What are some of your personal favorite shots from 'Portrait of a People'? Can you share some stories behind individual photos?

Tom: So many photos, and each one holds a special memory for me, which made it all the more hard to distill 800 images out of thousands. Um…the various prostitute pictures were fun to take; I’d just hang out with these girls in the front of their little hair salons that I’d inevitably walk past in nearly every city I traveled through. They were tickled to have a foreigner in their company even if they weren’t making any money from him.

Tom: No but really, I think a snapshot I took of a bunch of out-of-work fellows standing around Yinchuan (the capital of Ningxia) is a really beautiful moment. Because of this photo I nearly titled my book “Watching Me Watch Them." Certainly most of them had never encountered a foreigner before, they started gravitating toward me until there were nearly a hundred men encircling me. In any other culture in the world, this would make a guy nervous. But they were all just so damn sweet. Asking me the most innocent questions, over and over again, because each one wanted the opportunity to have asked. It really was a moving encounter, and one I am so happy to have captured and immortalized.

SmBJ: Tom: Last year you edited Unsavory Elements, a collection of short stories from old China hands on the "expat experience." I read elsewhere that you initially moved here for a job that turned out to be a scam, then did the English teacher grind before establishing yourself as a photographer. What about China — or Beijing specifically — inspired you to slog on despite all the obstacles? What key piece of advice would you give to a fresh arrival in Beijing, perhaps bewildered or unemployed but looking to stick it out for the long term?

Tom: I wouldn’t say I have established myself as a photographer. Far from it. The reason I conceived and edited Unsavory Elements in the first place is because, even after having a critically and commercially successful photobook to my name, I had failed to make a living from my photography and wanted to try my hand at something new. I had no prior editing experience either, it’s just something I had a go at because I could. And, as it turned out, I had a knack for it. But that right there is the example I’d cite to bewildered new arrivals, and what has inspired me to keep going – that in this new land of opportunity, we as waiguoren, outsiders, can so swiftly have our dreams crushed and yet simultaneously have so many new opportunities present themselves.

from 'CHINA: Portrait of a People'

SmBJ: Hong Mei: This Saturday in Beijing, and next weekend in Shanghai, you're officially releasing your debut memoir, The Farther I Walk, the Closer I Get to Me. It documents your year-long backpacking trek through India, which was also your first trip outside of China. Why did you choose India as opposed to a more familiar or popular tourist destination?

Hong Mei: It was Tom’s idea, really. He was living in Japan in 2008 while I stayed in Beijing to work. But it was obvious Japan didn’t hold his interests like China had. He started talking about traveling to India. He needed that dust and that danger. And so once again he convinced me to quit my job to go backpacking. We reunited in Delhi in March 2009. I would have gone anywhere he suggested, but I’m glad it was India. It was the kind of rough, eye-opening experience I needed as a Chinese to put the world into perspective.

SmBJ: It seems clear that your motivation was not simple tourism, but a deeper cultural and physical connection with India and its vast geographical and cultural diversity. How did you prepare for the trip before leaving?

Hong Mei: I didn’t. Like he said above, Tom and I both tend not to “prepare” for our trips. We just go and see what happens. The first far-away place I had ever been was Tibet, with Tom, which was a really touching experience for me. As a Chinese, to see so much spirituality out in the open really made an impression on me. India was very similar to Tibet in that regard, so I think that prepared me, subconsciously, for what was to come.

SmBJ: You spent a cumulative year in India, bouncing between Kathmandu and Shanghai every few months for visa renewals. What was your route? Seems you really covered a lot of ground in that time…

Hong Mei: We were going to stay much longer, indefinitely, until we had seen it all. But India was only giving me 2-3 month visas at a time because I’m Chinese. So Tom and I kept having to leave because of me. That ruined our budget and cut our trip short. But yes, we still managed to see more of India than most have. From Delhi we made our way to Mathura, then Varanasi, and then down to the southernmost point of India. We took our time wandering back up the western shoreline, Goa, Mumbai, Gujarat, Rajasthan, then over to the east coast, Calcutta, Orissa. And everywhere else in between.

SmBJ: Can you talk a bit more about the bureaucratic obstacles you faced, especially with visa and travel permits? From what I understand, you were the first Chinese person to receive an official permit to travel to restricted areas of Gujarat in western India. Why go through the extra trouble when there are so many other places to visit?

Hong Mei: The trouble was part of the fun! Actually getting the permit was just an extra treat. And finding out no other Chinese had ever been there, in Kutch, was like making history. But still, we left India the following year quite disappointed about not being able to see the far north and northeast. That’s one of the reasons why Tom never published a photobook about India as he originally intended; he’s such a perfectionist he didn’t want to leave out any place.

SmBJ: I visited India briefly earlier in the year, spinning through Delhi and Rajasthan in about eight days. Even within that short window I felt India to be far more chaotic and challenging — as a visitor — than China. Was this your experience? Were there any similarities between the more rural parts of India you visited and your hometown in the countryside of Jiangsu?

Hong Mei: In some ways India seems to be millennia behind China. But that’s the whole beauty of it. China is destroying its history and heritage. It’s unrecognizable from when I was a girl growing up here. Why are white-tiled buildings with blue windows special? Will they still be standing in 100 years? Even though India is a very challenging and, as you say, chaotic country to travel, we must appreciate that it’s because they actually cherish their past. And India is also proud of its agricultural roots. China is not. We want to pretend we are an industrial society, so we destroy all our villages and sell our farm land to factories. As someone from the countryside, in that regard I identify more with India. And ironically, it’s the Indian Maoists, not the CCP, who are fighting for the rights of marginalized farmers.

SmBJ: You had some pretty intense experiences, including being kidnapped in a slum and running up against the Maoist rebels you just mentioned in Orissa. What was going through your head at the time? Obviously you're OK now, but did you ever second-guess your decision to backpack through less-traveled areas of India when faced with potentially life-threatening situations?

Hong Mei: Many Indians believe that China is supplying the Naxalites (Maoists) with weapons. They think China wants to encourage civil unrest for economic reasons. We encountered a Maoist strike that shut down the southern part of Orissa, which brought in the military, so I had to be extra careful about identifying myself as a Chinese. The slum story was our fault; we were trespassing to get a photo, an entire caravan of police vans came and took us to the police station. But I should point out that we faced as many threatening situations in China: we were nearly arrested here many times for taking photos, too… I think the kind of experiential form of travel that Tom and I pursue opens us up to these situations. The tourists on the packaged tours are never going to have similar stories. And I think it’s because they don’t want to be put in those situations. When they are happening to you it feels like the worst thing in the world, but looking back we can laugh about it.

SmBJ: Less dangerous, but no less crazy from a typical tourist perspective: you spent time among Hijra transgender communities in India. How did you become involved with this group? Where do the Hijras you befriended fit within "mainstream" Indian society? I would assume they'd be ostracized, as in my experience Indian society is fairly conservative with regard to sexuality…

Tom: This was my fault. I kept dragging Hong Mei to Mumbai’s red light district, on Falkland Road, to take pictures of prozzies. In a nearby vicinity there were these decaying old colonial buildings that we were walking past, which turned out to be Hijra brothels. It wasn’t immediately apparent to Hong Mei what they were, but being a San Francisco native I knew right away what I was looking at. They were nice, they let us hang out with them inside their rooms. We took photos, which we printed out and gave to them later. But when they are not hooking, they roam the streets and trains in little mobs to shake down locals for a “tribute.” They just walk right up to vendors, or passengers on trains, and clap their hands, and they pay up. It’s really funny to see. Years after our trip, the Hijra were officially classified as India’s third gender.

SmBJ: Did you encounter many Chinese people in India? Many of my friends here have a vague interest in India but little knowledge about its history or culture. How entrenched is the Chinese diaspora over there, and where is it focused?

Hong Mei: We met some Chinese restaurant owners in Calcutta, which is like India’s China Town. Didn’t see any Chinese anywhere else. But in nearly every restaurant all across India you can buy hot-sour soup and veg “chow chow” (chow mein), so obviously some Chinese culture has made an impact on India. And there’s also the Chinese fishing nets in Kochi. But nobody ever believed I was Chinese; they all thought I was Japanese or Korean.

SmBJ: China and India are often grouped together as rising production and tech powerhouses, poised to assume a central role in a shifting global economy. On a more cultural level, where do you feel the relations between these two countries stand? Do you see a growing interest among Chinese people in India, and vice versa? Why is it important to present this picture of India from a Chinese perspective?

Hong Mei: It’s multi-faceted, starting with Sino-Indian foreign policy. Trade between China and India is uneven. China hasn’t bestowed “approved destination status” on India, so India is not on the radar of Chinese travel agencies; India is missing out on the world’s largest outbound tourism market. There’s also a general lack of knowledge about India among Chinese, which is tragic considering India’s vast history and rising global status. All I can do is hope my book will play a small part in inspiring tourism and bridging our cultures.

SmBJ: Now that you've had time to process the entire experience and condense it into a book, what are the most vivid memories or lessons you took away from your year in India? Do you plan to go back?

Hong Mei: A Chinese journalist who recently read my book said, “I don’t get the impression that you love India.” She said that like I was supposed to. And that’s just it; my book isn’t a love letter to India. My book is just an honest account of our year in India, the good things and the bad. We love to travel, and Tom loves to take photos, and the book is the result of that, nothing more. But we do really like India, and we want to go back and visit the regions that I was excluded from the first time because I am Chinese, and maybe Tom will finally get to publish a photobook, and maybe that trip will also be the sequel to this book.

Hong Mei and Tom will officially launch The Farther I Walk, the Closer I Get to Me on Saturday, September 6 at Capital M. The event will also include a slideshow of Tom's photography from the expedition and a bilingual discussion of the couple's experiences off the beaten trail. Find full event info in the listing.
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