Jon McLeod - General Journalism Projects in China
Infamous for its absence of press freedom and until recently relatively shy on the global stage, China is admittedly a curious setting to seek experience and insight into the exposing world of journalism. Sterile though, it is not.
With the Olympics coming in 2008 and the world expo in 2010, underpinned by dramatic economic growth, there is a buzz and expectancy surrounding the Communist country formerly cloaked in privacy. Not least it’s most international city Shanghai. The pomp and showcase of the 1930s, when the iconic Bund was the face of western decadence in the East, is returning and with it the intrigue on which the media thrives.
A three month internship with That's Shanghai Magazine proved a thrilling, frustrating and ultimately very valuable experience. The most important aspect was the opportunity to write. Writing short rounds ups on the month’s happenings, writing restaurant and bar reviews on a heavy stomach and light head, writing about upcoming music, theatre and opera events, and a sporting feature. The role booted me beyond comfort zones of sport and news into the unknown and perturbing territories of books (an uneasy admission given my placement) and opera (yet to convert). But there is nothing more satisfying than to see your piece in print, nor sometimes more sobering, but actually beneficial, to read an edited copy.
Though not as exasperating as external editing. Despite an increasingly open society and liberalizing of moral codes, censorship of the press is still entrenched within politics and popular culture. Fittingly, the censors objected to an article on the development of the press in China. An interview with the author of Gutenberg in Shanghai revealed the irony that European missionary’s importation of print technology (intended to, but unsuccessful in spreading the word of God) had aided the assumption of the Communist Party and the consequential crackdown on religious freedom.
Further roles included editing, transcribing, interviewing and attending press conferences for Luc Besson, an Italian film festival (with obligatory beauties) and the latest Bond film, Casino Royale. For which I was cast as photographer; charged with shooting 007 and his leading lady. As the occasion was Bond’s first outing to mainland China it was a concept largely lost on the local journalists and hardly an interrogation. Banal questions dripped in. From Daniel Craig’s day to day choice of clothes to his sightseeing itinerary and bizarrely his ideal man (the not so rare Chinglish).
I had the opportunity to sharpen my questioning skills also. Interviewees included a wily painter determined to retain his artistic mystique by giving the vaguest possible answers, and an animated theatre director who ran out of energy after ten minutes. Both cases required a translator; a great reminder of the obscure setting.
Two months of Chinese lessons had armed me with only the basics, as the novelty wore off the motivation began to haemorrhage and the simplest of phrases were still left hanging awkwardly in the air. Or worse causing a breakdown into utter confusion leaving me wondering whether anyone in China actually spoke Chinese? There are over 50 dialects including Shanghainese and the official Mandarin.
Beyond work and the intoxicating lifestyle of Shanghai (I will recover but my bank account won’t) trips to Hangzhou, Beijing and Tibet afforded a wonderful insight into more traditional and historical elements of Chinese and Tibetan culture. From the imposing and communistic feel of Tiananmen square to the distinctive colour and vibrancy of Lhasa; all a powerful contrast to the intensely unique and fruitful setting of Shanghai.