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China Obscura    by Mark Leong order for
China Obscura
by Mark Leong
Order:  USA  Can
Chronicle, 2004 (2004)
* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

Mark Leong arrived in mainland China, searching for his 'inner Chinaman' the day after the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre. Leong gives us an exhibit in a book - over 140 black and white photographs of everyday life in that great country, taken over fifteen years. As poet Yang Lian says in his Foreword, the photographer captures 'a historic moment where an ancient way of life has met China's newborn future.' Reporter Peter Hessler's Afterword speaks of news coverage in China, saying that 'events didn't create a narrative, but people's lives did.' Rather than the postcard prettiness of familiar icons like the Great Wall or the Forbidden City, Leong's images show a grim and gritty daily reality.

But Mark Leong's images are hopeful too, because they're pictures of people living their lives, and often enjoying themselves, as in the front cover picture of a schoolgirl happily climbing an ancient city wall in Nanjing. There's the cheerful celebration of a 'Gravesweeping Festival', shoppers in long lines at a Carrefour (French supermarket chain) store, and kids playing on the street in Shanghai. We see high tech stores, a restaurant specializing in rat dishes, and a heroin addict. Acupuncture dolls are sold at a medical supply store, there's a Woodstock style 'Snow Mountain Music Festival', and people play mah-jongg while their houses are demolished. Everywhere, life goes on.

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