So Long, China • Patrick Zachmann • Magnum Photos

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So Long, China

Patrick Zachmann's award-winning study of China and the Chinese captures thirty years of flux

Patrick Zachmann

Patrick Zachmann Shooting of the film "Liao Zhong Kai" by Tang Xiao Dan. The film is set in the 1920s. Shanghai, China. 1982. © Patrick Zachmann | Magnum Photos
Patrick Zachmann A group of Chinese watching "the Long Nose", a term which refers to all westerners, including the photographer. Beijing, China. 1982. © Patrick Zachmann | Magnum Photos
Patrick Zachmann Ah Sai, former member of secret society Sun Yee On. Kowloon, Hong Kong, 1987. © Patrick Zachmann | Magnum Photos
Patrick Zachmann A crowd in front of a Buddhist Temple during the Chinese New Year. Hong Kong, 1987. © Patrick Zachmann | Magnum Photos
Patrick Zachmann "The Walled City", has been an enclave of the People’s Republic of China, where Hong Kong’s police, not being authorized to enter, allowed all kinds of dealers and their Triads to develop their bus (...)
Patrick Zachmann Young member of a triad with his girlfriend. Hong Kong, 1988. © Patrick Zachmann | Magnum Photos
Patrick Zachmann Young woman in the front seat of a taxi, separated by a wire net as protection for the driver against aggressions. Guangdong, Canton, China. 1992. © Patrick Zachmann | Magnum Photos
Patrick Zachmann Gambling in Fujian province, China. 1992. © Patrick Zachmann | Magnum Photos
Patrick Zachmann Advertising arrived at the time of Deng Xiaoping, when the country became more open to the outside world. Guangdong, Canton, China. 1992. © Patrick Zachmann | Magnum Photos
Patrick Zachmann CHINA. Beijing. Chang An Avenue. May 17th, 1989. © Patrick Zachmann | Magnum Photos
Patrick Zachmann CHINA. Beijing. Chang An Avenue. May 18th, 1989. Lorries with students and workers move towards Tiananmen square to unite with the hunger strikers. © Patrick Zachmann | Magnum Photos
Patrick Zachmann CHINA. Beijing. Tienanmen Square. May 1989. A drama student who came with a couple of fellow students to show their solidarity with the protestors, perfoms "the pain of the Chinese people". © Patrick Zachmann | Magnum Photos
Patrick Zachmann Early morning. Tiananmen Square. Beijing, China. 1989. © Patrick Zachmann | Magnum Photos
Patrick Zachmann CHINA. Beijing. Tiananmen Square. May 14th, 1989. Second day of the students' hunger strike. © Patrick Zachmann | Magnum Photos
Patrick Zachmann Party in a private flat belonging to overseas Chinese people. At the time all nightlife activities were restricted and private parties forbidden. Province of Zhejiang, Wenzhou, China. 1991. © Patrick Zachmann | Magnum Photos
Patrick Zachmann Hairdresser and beauty parlour. Those shops often serve as cover for prostitution activities. Province of Zhejiang, Town of Wenzhou, China, February 1991. © Patrick Zachmann | Magnum Photos
Patrick Zachmann 18 year old boy from Canton, caught by Gurkhas (soldiers from the British Army). Man Kam To border area, Hong Kong, April 1995. © Patrick Zachmann | Magnum Photos
Patrick Zachmann "Super Five" night club. Shanghai, China. 2002. © Patrick Zachmann | Magnum Photos
Patrick Zachmann Dormitories of a construction site in which sleep up to 20 people. Chongqing, China. May 2007. © Patrick Zachmann | Magnum Photos
Patrick Zachmann Young prostitute, originally from Henan, in a massage parlour. Beijing, China. 2001. © Patrick Zachmann | Magnum Photos
Patrick Zachmann Zhejiang province. Wenzhou. China, 2007. © Patrick Zachmann | Magnum Photos
Patrick Zachmann Yu Hang, 25, owner of a skateboard and tatoo shop, lives with his grand-Ma Cha Xiu Zhen, 86. China, Dali, August 2012. © Patrick Zachmann | Magnum Photos

For over 30 years, Patrick Zachmann has traveled across China, a country he first visited in 1982 while reporting on the Chinese film industry, resulting in a major body of work entitled So Long, China.

From the triads of Hong Kong in the 1980s to Beijing’s transformation and the Tiananmen Square protests, Zachmann’s long term project brings together a contemporary view on a vast nation in constant flux. Spanning 20 trips to China, Zachmann undertook a persistent and thorough documentation life for the Chinese, both in China and abroad. Indeed, even his most recent work documents the Chinese community in France. Underlying the work, the issue of Chinese identity is explored, or rather, the young generations’ collective and individual loss of identity and its markers through the great pace of change of the country.

During his first trip, Zachmann wrote in his diary; “It is my first trip to China. I have prepared it for months. I feel attracted by this country and its culture,not knowing exactly why. I have fantasies and clichés in my mind, bound to this millenary culture, its strangeness, its mystery. Bound to unreachable things.”

He was to be the observer of a great many changes, most notably in May 1989 when he witnessed the events of Tiananmen Square:

“May 1989. I was working on the Chinese diaspora when I happened to be in Beijing right at the start of the Tiananmen Square movement. Nights and days, I am going to share the students’ enthusiasm while they challenge the authority of the old leadership. Nor I nor anyone could expect the tragedy of the 4th of June. History has kept that brutal act of repression, but ahead of it there was a fantastic impetus of dreams and hopes, something akin to a Chinese Woodstock. […] For who knows China, this wild enthusiasm, this joy, this desire for freedom, were astounding! Imagination, acted-out feelings, hidden for decades… ”

From his black and white reportage of a country where, as a European, he was perceived as “a long-nose” by Mao-suited curious locals, Zachmann transitioned to color photography in 2001.

His Chinese Nights series brings to life urban landscapes drenched in extravagant, artificial light, highlighting the deep and quick mutation of the urban space China is well-known for today – a mutation achieved by a veritable army of poorly-paid construction workers whose ceaseless work overhauled the country’s physical form, which Zachmann described as “the invariable mass destruction of the past for modern and unappealing new buildings” when he visited Wenzhou.

He recalls, “When I was working in China during the 1980s and 1990s, there wasn’t such a thing as a ‘nightlife’, properly speaking. Or, to be more accurate, there was one, only it remained underground, wrapped in secrecy. Nowadays, though, the night territory is in open daylight, if I may say so. All around the country, cities stay alive at night, either for intense work (particularly on construction sites) or for intense merriment in gambling, celebrations, shopping, quest for pleasure… A myriad young girls from the poorest provinces become, by means fair or foul, bar hostesses, masseuses or hookers, and they are the living force of the Chinese nights.”

Zachmann’s multi-generational portraits show the speed of change in China, contrasting the old generation with the young, photographed in spaces that bear the hallmarks of both ancient China and its traditions and the markings of a globalised youth society – a microcosm of this project’s broad endeavour.

His book So Long, China, published by Xavier Barral, brings together these three decades of Chinese contemporary history, and won the Prix Nadar on October 27, 2016.