“You can’t shoot here!” she yelped as she saw me setting up my tripod.
Wrapped in a glossy pink jacket, the child was a little over 10 and rushed out of the wee store that stood in the growingly desolate neighborhood of Xingping Lane (星平里). With the surrounding houses slowly flattened, the family who owned the store was packing up as well.
As the neighbors mentioned later, the girl’s parents worked during the day and she was cared for during the day by her grandparents.
“It’s much too bright here,” the plucky girl pointed at the sky. “I know, because the light will spoil the photo.”
Surrounded by a few elder aunties, the typical crowd in any dying neighborhood, she repeated herself firmly like an expert addressing an audience.
“I know because I’ve used a camera before. I know how to photograph.” She concluded authoritatively, hands on hip.
Wearing a pink towel turbaned around her head, she looked adorable and I told her so.
Her grandmother laughed and said the young one had gone swimming earlier. She coaxed the child indoors to dry her hair.
That’s when things got ugly.
“Get away from me! I don’t want to take it off! Leave me alone!” the girl shouted at her grandmother, running indoors.
The group of us stared through the store window at the spectacle.
Her grandmother argued that walking around with wet hair was not healthy, a common Chinese belief and tried to tug the turban off.
The girl shoved at her grandmother and screamed. “Who cares what you say? Get out of here! Get out of here!!”
Her grandmother chuckled in a helpless way and ambled out. Defiant, the girl glared at all of us.
Riled by this act of complete disrespect, I snapped uncontrollably. You can’t speak to your elders like that, I said. A neighbor shook her head, clucking at the child’s behavior.
The petulant child vibrated in anger at my remark and the general disapproval of the adults. In retaliation, she pushed over a nearby bicycle into a heap and stormed into another room.
“Always like this. Uncontrollable,” muttered a neighbor as she walked away.
The grandmother settled into a chair, lit a cigarette and smoked quietly.
A half hour passed by, I photographed the sole shikumen standing and took several portraits of curious residents. The girl, hair toweled dry and tumbling, strode out toward me.
“I want to take a photograph,” she demanded, insisting she knew how to operate a camera.
I looked at her pale face where hot tears had dried, recalling her trembling lips as she absorbed our earlier censure. Her innocence and vulnerability softened me.
“Maybe if you apologized to your grandmother for shouting at her.” I said quietly.
Eyes flashing, she stared at me coldly, her shift in expression so swift it was unsettling. I feared she would habor this resentment for years to come.
Without a word, she stepped back into her home and slammed the door in finality.
Meanwhile, her grandmother lit another cigarette and continued smoking in the bright sun.