Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Sticktoitiveness

Performers at a Chinese opera wait for the evening performance to start at a small shrine in Bangkok.

Most of the stories I work on are ones I assign to myself. I read something in a local newspaper or stumble on something on the internet that piques my interest, do some research and start photographing. Sometimes it's a news event, like the exodus (and subsequent return) of Cambodian migrant workers in Thailand. Sometimes it's an issue related story, like drought in Thailand. Other times, it's just fun stuff. Sometimes it just takes a lot of "sticktoitiveness" to get the story done.

Chinese opera definitely falls into the fun category. This is Ghost Month in Chinese communities around the world. Thailand has a large Chinese community and Chinese holidays, like the Chinese New Year or the Vegetarian Festival, are usually cause for a big celebration here.
A man rides his scooter past the stage for the Chinese opera. 

Chinese opera, called "ngiew" in Thailand, is popular and I thought that Ghost Month would be a great opportunity to photograph some Chinese opera. The problem with photographing Chinese opera, though, is finding one. It's not that the operas are secret, but they're held at small Chinese shrines and temples and they are not usually advertised. They're as much religious as they are entertainment and announcement of a coming Chinese opera is usually limited to posters in the temples. The posters are frequently in Chinese, which for me is a problem because while I don't read Thai I can get it translated. But Chinese? It's all Greek to me.

I've photographed a couple of Chinese operas since coming to Thailand. If I can, I collect contact information from every opera I go to, but it's always been a challenge to pin down the exact time and location of a Chinese opera.
A performer smokes a cigarette before the show

Last month I started sending emails and making some calls on Chinese opera. I contacted an opera "source" who had always been very helpful. She told me there were probably no Chinese operas in Bangkok for Ghost Month because Chinese opera during Ghost Month was not a big part of the Thai Ghost Month tradition. She told me that most of the Thai Chinese opera troupes went to Malaysia for Ghost Month, but that a couple of opera troupes might be performing in Bangkok and told me at which shrines they might be performing.

So I put on my walking shoes and went on a research mission. I went to a Chinese shrine on the riverfront in the Dusit district. No one in the temple spoke English but iPhone to the rescue. I showed people in the temple pictures I had on my iPhone from other Chinese operas I photographed and used the Translate app to ask about opera. People in the temple liked the photos and thought the app was amusing. But said no, they had no opera for Ghost Month. They did say they had one coming in December. I added that to my calendar but left disappointed.
There are no dressing rooms at this opera. Performers put on their makeup where ever they can find room, sometimes in the middle of the street

Then I went down to Chinatown and Talat Noi and wandered through the alleys and shrines looking for evidence of a Chinese opera. It was nice but fruitless stroll. I found no operas.

My last stop was a small shrine in a neighborhood behind Chulalongkorn University, between MBK shopping center and Hua Lamphong train station. My opera "source" said there had been Chinese operas in the neighborhood for Ghost Month in years past but the neighborhood was being torn down (urban renewal Bangkok style) and she wasn't sure if the neighborhood shrine was still open.

On my first visit the shrine was deserted. It was open, candles and incense burning inside, but there was no one there and no sign of a coming opera. Although the shrine is still open, the neighborhood around it is being razed to make way for condominiums and shopping malls, which I took as a bad sign.

On a whim I went back to shrine over the weekend. There were a couple of new posters in the shrine in Chinese but more importantly there was a charming woman who thought it was quite nice that a foreigner had wandered into her temple. (This is way, way off the tourist trail.) I started the whole iPhone translate routine of asking about Chinese opera and she said, "you want to photograph a Chinese opera?" In English.

I told her that I did, that I was a journalist working on a story about Chinese opera and Ghost Month and asked if she knew of any Chinese opera. She said her shrine was having a Chinese opera in 18 days. That didn't seem right because it would take us out of Ghost Month so we hunted down a calendar and I counted ahead 18 days. While I was counting, she stopped me at August 18 and said "Here. In 18 days." And I said, "you mean on August 18?" She pointed to the poster (which was in Chinese) and said, "yes, August 18."
The opera starts with performers making an offering in the shrine.

Yesterday I went down to the shrine. There was a small stage blocking the street in front of the shrine. It was the Chinese opera I was looking for and the performers couldn't have been nicer. When I started photographing they thought I was just going to make a couple of snapshots and leave. After about 90 minutes, they realized that I was in this for the long haul. So they pulled up a chair for me, offered me dinner and regaled me with stories about their lives in greasepaint. Of course, no one spoke English and I speak neither Thai nor Teochow (Chinese) so our conversation was limited to my laughing and nodding but it was a great evening and good experience. All thanks to a healthy amount of sticktoitiveness.
A member of the audience relaxes while she watches the opera.

Finally, most of the photos in my archive are available for editorial use or self fulfillment as prints. If you see something you'd like to use or just hang on the wall, click on the "Add to Cart" button and follow the onscreen prompts. 

Monday, August 18, 2014

Celebrating Krishna's Birth

Men at the Vishnu Temple in Bangkok during the Janmashtami celebrations at the temple. 

I went to the Vishnu Temple in Bangkok last night to photograph the temple's celebration of Janmashtami, the birth of the Krishna, the eighth avatar (incarnation) of the Lord Vishnu. It's an important Hindu holiday and a joyous one.

The services was supposed to start around 7.30PM. I got there about 7 so I could talk to people and make sure it was okay to photograph. The 7.30 start time was more a suggestion than an actual start time though and the service didn't really got rolling until around 9.
Early in the service, women pray at a crib that represents Krishna's crib. 

By 10.15PM the temple was packed and the service was really going. There was a band at the front of the room backing up vocalists who led the crowd in prayer through song and call and response. Hinduism is nothing like Christianity - the two come from completely different traditions and parts of the world - but the service reminded me a lot of revival meetings and evangelical services I've covered in the US.
Men pray during the service

As the night went on, the temple became more and more crowded. By the end of the night, it was full well past overflowing. There was no room left inside, people in Hindu temples sit on the floor, and the floor was completely full. There was a narrow aisle from the doors to the front of the temple, but even that was impassible as people overflowed onto the aisle. 

I was struck by genuine warmth and kindness people showed me through the evening. I was the only farang (Thai for European or white skinned foreigner) at the service, between that and my cameras I really stuck out.Throughout the evening I was treated as an honored guest. Even though people sit on the floor during the service, I was repeatedly offered a chair, which I declined because I was moving around the room as I photographed, and not one person looked askance at my photography. 
During the Janmashtami service

It was a great evening. There are more photos from Janmashtami in my archive
Finally, most of the photos in my archive are available for editorial use or self fulfillment as prints. If you see something you'd like to use or just hang on the wall, click on the "Add to Cart" button and follow the onscreen prompts. 

Monday, August 11, 2014

Feeding the Ghosts

Men burn joss paper, that symbolizes gold bars, on Charoen Krung Street during the Hungry Ghost Festival

The seventh month of the Lunar Calendar is called Ghost Month. The gates of hell are thrown open and ghosts come back to wander the earth. It's a time of piety and celebration in Chinese Buddhist and Taoist communities around the world. Thailand is home to a large Chinese community and the first days of the month, the Hungry Ghost Festival, is an important holiday. 
A man prepares to throw a stack of "hell money" into an incinerator. 

People burn joss paper, the paper represents the things ghosts need to ease their way through the afterlife. Suits, shirts, shoes, money, gold bullion are all incinerated. It's not a raucous holiday like Chinese New Year or the Vegetarian Festival, but it's widely celebrated and brings big crowds to the Chinese temples and shrines.
A man walks past barrels burning hell money and joss paper during the Hungry Ghost festival in Bangkok

A service to venerate ancestors at Wat Mangkon Kamalawat, a large Mahayana Buddhist temple in Chinatown.

There are more photos from Hungry Ghost in my archive or available from ZUMA Press
Finally, most of the photos in my archive are available for editorial use or self fulfillment as prints. If you see something you'd like to use or just hang on the wall, click on the "Add to Cart" button and follow the onscreen prompts. 

Friday, August 8, 2014

And So It Begins

General Boonsang Niampradit, a member of the National Legislative Assembly, arrives at the Parliament in Bangkok before the NLA's opening Friday.

Thailand started back on the path to civilian rule Friday when the National Legislative Assembly (NLA) convened. The NLA met Thursday to receive blessings from the Crown Prince and the Monarchy but they conducted their first business Friday.
Somporn Thepsittha, 89, the oldest member of the National Legislative Assembly, arrives at the Parliament Building. Somporn chaired the first meeting of the NLA

The NLA has a strong military flavor. There are 197 members. From the Royal Thai Army 40 members are Generals, 21 are Lt. Generals and 7 are Major Generals. From the Royal Thai Air Force 17 are Air Chief Marshals and 2 are Air Marshals. From the Royal Thai Navy, 14 are Admirals and 5 are Vice Admirals. There are also 6 Police Generals and 3 Police Lt. Generals. There are 187 men in the NLA and only 10 women. It's expected that the body's political reforms will attempt to severely limit the role of the Shinawatra family in Thai politics. 
NLA members stand during the opening ceremony - not many women in this picture. Only about 5% of the body's members are women

The first thing members did was elect their leadership. Happily, the results were unanimous. Pornphet Vichitcholchai was elected President of the body. Surachai Liengboonlertchai, former speaker of the Senate (who hosted a meeting with Suthep during the protests in the days before the coup) was selected as first vice-president and Phirasak Porchit as second vice-president. The voting took less than five minutes. 
Pornphet Vichitcholchai thanks his fellow legislators for electing him President of the NLA

Photographically, it was a frustrating day for me. 

When I was working for newspapers in the US, my bread and butter was covering politics. Photographing the first day of the NLA was a bit of a throwback to those days. Back then I would have been covering the first day of the state legislature and I had access to the newspaper's inventory of long lenses. I would have been working with either a 300mm f2.8 or 400mm f2.8, Canon's ridiculously expensive (the 400mm f2.8 is about $12,000 US) L series telephotos. 

I don't need those lenses now, this was the first time since I've left the paper that I really needed anything longer than my 200mm f2.8. But when you need a 400mm lens, you need a 400mm lens. I ended up using my 200 and 1.4X teleconverter (for an effective focal length of about 280mm at f4). 

Using the teleconverter in the dimly lit Parliament was a challenge. With the 200mm lens I could get away with working at ISO3200. But with the teleconverter, which both takes one stop of light (my 200mm f2.8 becomes a 280mm f4) and requires a faster shutter speed (because the longer lens is more prone to camera shake) so I ended up working at ISO12,800. 
Peerasak Porchit thanks members of the NLA for electing him 2nd Vice President of the NLA. Made with my 200mm f2.8 & 1.4X teleconverter. Effectively a 280mm f4, ISO12,800, 1/250th at f4. This is the first time I've used ISO12,800 for anything serious.

I was checking my work on the camera's back screen and I was not impressed with what I was getting. So when I thought it was over I left in a hurry. Big mistake. 

When it was over, the leadership stood in the middle of the chamber with their hands clenched over their heads in a victory pose. And I wasn't even in the room. It wasn't really a very good picture (none of the photos from the day were really very good photos) but it was THE photo. The one everyone used from the day. 

The only good thing to come out of the experience was the knowledge that I can work at ISO12,800 and still get usable images. I still remember the old days of film, when ISO800 (for color) was a big deal. Those low ISO habits are hard to break. 

Finally, most of the photos in my archive are available for editorial use or self fulfillment as prints. If you see something you'd like to use or just hang on the wall, click on the "Add to Cart" button and follow the onscreen prompts. 

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Always Carry a Camera Redux

Cooked rice ready to be distributed to people at Pek Leng Keng Mangkorn Khiew Shrine in Khlong Toei Market

I had to run an errand to Khlong Toei earlier today. I expected it to take a couple of minutes - I left our apartment about 8.30AM and thought I would be home by 10. (It says something about Bangkok traffic that an errand that should take a couple of minutes and is only a few miles away would take 90 minutes, but that's another story.) Although I was not going out to photograph, I never leave our apartment without a camera, even when I'm running errands. 

Traffic in Khlong Toei was even worse than normal and people were wandering around in the street. We passed a small Chinese shrine, one I've stopped into several times but never photographed because there was never anyone there, and it was packed. 
People line up in the street to get into Pek Leng Keng Mangkorn Khiew Shrine

My errand was across the street from the shrine, so I took care of it and walked back to the shrine to see what was what. As luck would have it, I happened to be passing by the shrine on the one day of the year it's packed. 

The seventh month of the lunar year is known as "Ghost Month." It's when the gates of hell open and ghosts can return to wander the earth. It's an important time of merit making and many Chinese shrines hand out food and children's toys to community members. I knew that Ghost Month was coming up, but it doesn't start until August 10, so I wasn't expecting the shrine to busy three days early. 
People pray in the shrine after making donations of rice and food. The food was distributed to the poor a couple of hours later

I photographed for a couple of hours while people waited for the food distribution to start. People started lining up before 8AM for a program that didn't officially start until 1PM. Several groups came down to the shrine and set up small field kitchens and served up everything from noodle soups to curries to satays. People lined up for whatever was being served and then went back to their spot in the big line to wait for the staples to be distributed. 
People flavor there noodle soup with chilies and sugar.

Volunteers stack sacks of rice before handing it out

I didn't go out expecting to photograph this morning. But I grabbed my cameras because you just never know and I ended spending most of the day at the shrine. 

There are more photos of the food distribution in my archive or available from ZUMA Press
Finally, most of the photos in my archive are available for editorial use or self fulfillment as prints. If you see something you'd like to use or just hang on the wall, click on the "Add to Cart" button and follow the onscreen prompts.