He laughed when I asked how long he and his wife were living in this house.
“She’s not my wife. She’s my mother-in-law.”
It was only after a closer look, I realized that he was indeed younger than her even though both had a shock of white hair. He was probably in his 60s and comfortably retired. In the afternoon I spent with him and his neighbors, and for the following two weekends, he would read, cook, nap, patch old clothes or shoes, and sometimes just relax on his chair and stare at his surroundings as it were being demolished.
He was a soldier, I assumed with the Red Army, and was originally from Beijing. He landed in Shanghai after “jie fang” or Liberation, which is the term most Chinese people use to refer to 1949 after the victory of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
His mother-in-law was born and bred in Shanghai, looking like she was sliding into her late 80s. She didn’t speak much Mandarin, only Shanghainese, or was very coherent for the matter. So our conversation was a little rudimentary, like two kinds of foul quacking and crowing to each other. But she was incredibly kind and even insisted I stay for some steamed corn.
I’ve been overwhelmingly touched by some people that I’ve been photographing. It takes a bit of time to penetrate the curiosity, sometimes hostility but after a few probing questions, they tend to open up a little. With a touch of warmth and familiarity, they can be generous with what little they had on hand, and unfailingly, with parental concern that was second nature. Are you cold? Are you hungry? Are you married?
I returned recently to give him this photo as a farewell gift. He was very pleased as was I, and insisted on giving me money, which I simply could not accept.
“I didn’ think you would actually give me a photo! You kept your word,” he exclaimed.
Eyeing his portrait, he sighed, “You don’t get much of that nowadays.”