Disclaimer: You will need at least Elementary Mandarin in order to read this book, even with the aid I provide at the end.
I’m setting aside my emptied plate and Starbucks drink, preparing to write this story when the Chinese lady across our shared table asks, “Do you mind if I look at your book?”
I’m caught off guard; what a pleasant surprise. And so I pick up my copy of 人在北京 (People of Beijing) and hand it to her. Her eyes light up as she scans the pages. Just then, she notices my translations. Are you studying Chinese? she asks. I’m a few sentences in when she most likely senses my struggle and continues the conversation in English.
Her: “Is it about Beijing?”
Me: “Yes, specifically about the people near the Lama Temple area. The photos are beautiful; I love the author’s writing. She’s Singaporean, by the way.”
Her: “Oh, she’s a foreigner… (pauses as she continues flipping through the book.) Foreigners and Beijing people see things differently.”
Me: “I know… like all this must be not so special to you, I guess?”
Her: “Yes. Foreigners notice all these small things that we Bejing people don’t always notice.”
Me: “Yeah… she really loves Beijing. Some of us foreigners… we love Beijing.”
Her: A smile, her eyes fixed on the book.
A few more questions and the conversation is over; she brings her gaze back to her unfinished book and I bring out my laptop. With Baidu Translate readied on my phone in one hand and Tan Siok Siok’s new book in the other, I begin a journey into a side of Beijing that I have always imagined but have never had the chance to experience first hand.
‘瞬间’ (Shùnjiān) seems to be the words most used throughout the book, which in English roughly means A Moment.
And that’s what this book is about: a collection of different people’s special moments captured on camera, all interconnected by the same route the author graces daily and now in this larger story of Beijing. Each photo is accompanied by the author’s reflection of the situation, of the individuals she photographs, of her own feelings and assumptions in that moment. I wonder how many of us really slow down nowadays to simply observe or even talk to our neighbor, get to know their story.
The photo book’s first story starts off with the author’s own “moment”, which is of her shadow against a wooden fence that was most likely along her path on her way to work. In the accompanying text, she shares of how her candid photos—all by phone—of people and of certain events slowly garnered a following on her Wechat Moments that has now led to the publishing of this book. The journey that lasted more than a thousand days has now found a new home in these pages.
Her photos are mostly taken along her daily route to work, but with each day comes a new story and even new characters. Her diligence and patience to wait for the right moments for her photos all stem from her personal interest in people, irregardless of age and social class. Simplicity and authenticity are what she seeks, not too unlike her Olympic-themed documentary “Boomtown Beijing”.
On one of her strolls, she readies her phone and snaps a few shots of an old man struggling against his bike, pedaling with all his might that one might pity him.
She stays in her spot, taking a few photos. And then she sees it: the old man isn’t just pedaling for himself. He has a passenger—an old woman just about his age. The author realizes that they must be a couple touring the area on their three-wheeled bike.
And I love how Siok Siok phrases it here:
Time became a bit slower,
Slow to the point that
In life, it’s enough to love one person.”
I couldn’t help but let my thoughts drift off to my own husband as I imagined the rest of our lives together. A photo of a moment of struggle from one angle becomes, together with the next scene, a celebration of devotion and togetherness.
And Siok Siok’s stories just keep on tugging at the heartstrings all throughout. The next story (one of my favorites) is about three old people holding onto each other as they walk along the sidewalk, as if they had a pact to stay together until the end, and even Siok Siok admits to her own heartstrings being tugged as she struggles to take her eyes off the trio.
But people of different ages and across different social stratas aren’t the only characters in her story. One of the stories she shares are photos of discarded items such as traditional Chinese chairs that still have some life in them and even a giant teddy bear, and she wonders why people would just leave them outside. Personally, I know I also wouldn’t throw these and instead would find someone to donate these items to.
But it’s not uncommon; I remember seeing tall shelves and seemingly-usable couches left on the front doors of Korean apartments waiting for the trash collectors to take them away. From what I remember, Koreans prefer to buy new ones rather than keep repairing old furniture. This baffled my friends and I while we were in Seoul but we simply accepted it as a local way of life.
Every page is a testament to her affection for Beijing’s common man and way of life; every photo is her gift back to the city that welcomed her with open arms. This story is her love letter to Beijing.
I’d like to end my post with my favorite short poem of all, which is about the shedding away of one’s past and the sadness of growing up, of moving on:
I watch as the lady across from me stands up. She walks towards the shelf that was behind her and scans the tall mugs lined up. I look at her, hoping to catch her eye just for a quick Bye. I wish I could ask her more questions. Do you like Beijing? How do you see it?
She turns towards the exit and starts walking, never even glancing back. It’s another cultural difference, I guess, this strange need to bring a sort of conclusion to that short connection with at least a Bye.
Suddenly, I wish someone had a camera nearby, taking a photo of this exact moment to give me after now.
Moments are so fleeting; I wonder if I’ll ever remember this day again.
Disclaimer: I received a copy of this book for review purposes. All opinions are my own.
I have rough translations and pinyins for many of the words and phrases that were used in this book. For anyone who is interested in these translations, I would gladly send you a copy as soon as I can. E-mail me here to express your interest (and also a proof that you have a copy of the book).
Thank you, and I hope you enjoyed the review! 🙂
人在北京 (Rén zài běijīng;People of Beijing) is available online at Amazon, Jingdong, and Dangdang. It is also available at The Bookworm Beijing, Sanlian Bookstore, Kubrick Bookstore, YAN Books and Coffee and 单向街书店 （Dān xiàng jiē shūdiàn; 。
If you liked 人在北京, you might also like visiting the Humans of Beijing site here which also takes a closer look at the people living in Beijing.
Read more about Tan Siok Siok’s book on China Daily here.