Images shot with Super-Takumar 55mm f1.8
The Chinese city of Chongqing, nestled in its own Scotland-sized municipality next to the more visited Sichuan province, is primarily known among the country’s people for three distinct features (if we agree the Himalayan gradients on most streets and awful pollution are secondary considerations).
The hellishly spicy food comes first. And I can personally attest to its not inconsiderable piquancy.
Second come the mei niu. The beautiful girls. Chongqing’s ladies are said to be the prettiest in China. Being a gentleman, I couldn’t possibly say. Unless one of them asked me to my face. Then I’d be a gentleman and say yes, of course you are.
As if they would ever talk to me.
Before visiting Chongqing, I’d heard about the food and ladies. However, the final part of the city’s triumvirate of things to blog about, sensibilities and audience depending, was something completely new to me.
After spending some time walking around the city, I began to notice the unusually high number of people walking or waiting around with bamboo poles and rope.
It’s probably worth noting here that anything over, say, two people walking or waiting around with bamboo poles and rope would be an unusually high number in most places.
But not, as it turns out, in Chongqing.
What we’re observing here is a remnant of simpler times. An ancient Chongqing trade and tradition that coexists with the shiny new skyscrapers while others, nationwide, have become extinct; it’s the crocodile to the rickshaw and sedan chair’s Diplodocus and Stegosaurus.
While those erstwhile staples of Chinese dynasties past have been usurped by a desire (or direction) to not demean people by employing them to carry richer folk about the place, Chongqing’s bang bang men (and women) remain.
And, despite the apparent propensity to sit around, they keep this rapidly developing city moving.
Centuries ago, Chongqing’s first bang bang men found work as water carriers. A product of the city’s hilly geography, they brought water from the Yangtze and Jialing rivers up the undulating streets and into the homes and businesses of those who needed it.
Which would have been everyone, really.
Later, as the cargo and transport boats began to arrive and depart from the city docks, Chongqing’s bang bang men found themselves with a whole lot more work.
In return, the city found itself with a whole lot more bang bang men.
As the city has modernised to its current state, the work opportunities for Chongqing’s bang bang men has also developed.
Now not confined to mainly carrying goods and personal effects to and from waiting boats, they can be seen transporting pretty much anything that needs moving by an increasingly hands-off population.
The luggage of travellers, the market produce of vendors, the groceries of a local family, the worldly possessions of a house mover, or the newly-bought appliances (that the average bang bang will most likely never be able to afford themselves) of newly-rich Chongqing residents.
With taxis more expensive than elbow grease and the city streets infamously steep, Chongqing’s bang bang men are as ubiquitous today as they ever were.
The name bang bang comes from the bamboo pole they use to ply their trade; a trade that over 100,000 people are said to rely on for income in Chongqing.
It’s tough work.
Chongqing is one of China’s so-called Furnace Cities; a name given due to the relentless summer heat.
If I had to carry a refrigerator up and down the city’s streets in temperatures of 40 degrees C, I think I’d be turning it on and getting in it once I got to where it was going.
No such luck for the real bang bang men of Chongqing, however. Most of whom are migrant workers who only do the job because it provides a better life and/or better money than anything in their home town, village or hamlet.
A better life and/or better money that most likely still means sharing cramped dorms with fellow bang bang men while earning less per week than many residents of Chongqing would spend in a night on one of the city’s famous hot-pots.
Portraits of Chongqing’s bang bang men
After a while, stalking the bang bang men around Chongqing and trying to shoot them candidly got a little tiring. And not just physically.
I felt a little bad for not engaging with them. A little like I was taking advantage, or being a little disrespectful. Certainly, the last thing I wanted to do was annoy anyone; and not just because they were all carrying solid bamboo poles.
I’d also been reading a travel photography e-book that had explained the benefits of including portraits in your photo sets. Inspired, I decided to ask some of Chongqing’s bang bang men if they would mind.
Armed with an awkward smile and the knowledge of how to say take photograph? in Chinese, I went in.
And, that’s it.
I’d been shooting with the Super-Takumar 55mm f1.8 all day anyway, as I’d wanted to be able to keep some distance for the candid shots. The focal length had meant missing a few shots by not being wide enough, but there’s always a trade-off when using prime lenses.
However, it was perfect when it came to the portraits.
The two men I took pictures of were pretty cool and didn’t mind posing while I got a few shots of each.
I guess they don’t often get asked for their portrait on the street by some white guy, although I’m very glad that I did. Doing so made me feel a bit better about taking all the earlier candid shots without having connected to those people.
Less importantly, I think these shots add something more to this set, too.
Street portraits aren’t something I typically do. I’m not keen on asking strangers. I know I should try more often, though. And when I do, probably more than just two shots.
But, you know, it’s a start.
As a city, Chongqing continues to develop. Shiny new skyscrapers keep being built and a lucky percentage of the population are becoming wealthier by the day.
However, some things will never change.
The food will always be spicy.
The girls will always be beautiful. So I’ve heard.
Chongqing’s bang bang men and women have been here for centuries. With the sincere hope that living conditions and pay will gradually improve for them, it looks like they’ll continue to be as needed as ever and around for the foreseeable future too.
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