The street patrons of the Roving Exhibit

First of all, a word of thanks to all the folks who braved the torrential rain last Friday to attend my talk at the beautiful twocities gallery. I myself was caught in the downpour on the way over but the photo boards came in handy for shelter!

Special thanks to Eva, Chelsea and their wonderful staff for hosting me. Eva was a most excellant interviewer and I’m sure many twocities visitors will miss her when she leaves.

For those who could not attend, this is a short slideshow I screened at twocities, a compilation of all the places the Roving Exhibit has been to.

Roving exhibit Hongkou market 01

The Roving Exhibit started off as a curious experiment – taking street photography back to the streets in the form of show and tell. At the end of the day, the Roving Exhibit could not have been anything without its array of colorful street patrons – local residents, street sweepers, construction workers and street hawkers – that largely made up my audience.

Ahhh, what stories I have (and shared) and the various shapes and sizes they embody. So here I present to you, a snapshot of my average patron:

The art critic: When I first started out, a woman selling socks on the side of the street had bluntly told me to improve my photograhy skills. No, I’m not joking. Like her, I’ve had a few who spent more time telling me how to improve my work than looking at the photos.

Feedback has ranged from the friendly, useful and some bordered on plain old criticism. Some have been very useful, such as adding headings and context to the photos. Others preferred more color than black and white. Some had issues with the composition, framing, depth of field and more. I get it, it’s a rather Chinese way of expressing care which I am familiar, and I’ve taken all of them in stride. Rarely do critics border on being hostile. Disinterest is your greatest fear.

Roving exhibit Dongjiadu 04

The logistics guy: They have a million questions, not about the photos or exhibit but the set up. How much is your camera? What lens do you use? Do you know how much XX lens costs? How much do you earn? How much are these boards? (Proceed to finger and poke the board).

The docent: God love them. They are usually locals with a lot of free time and a love for attention. Once they grasp the concept and details, they’d take over with show and tell, often in Shanghainese. They’d draw crowds with their booming voices and large gestures and sometimes add a bit of their own narrative along the way. Rarely does the docent register my presence, it’s about them and their thoughts on someone else’s platform. I take what I can and appreciate them for their enthusiasm.

Roving exhibit Hongkou area 03

The archivist: My favorite. They are almost all older local residents who have lived in the neighborhood for decades. One was a retired civil servant of the local housing co-opt in Hongkou. He gave me an exhaustive list of places I should visit before they were completely demolished, and even gave me his contact number for follow up. Through their their wisedom, I learned a great deal of the various types of housing that used to pepper the old districts that no longer exist and the history of neighborhoods long past. I love that the photos gave them a platform to share their memories and intricate knowledge of the city. They have a firm finger on the pulse of old Shanghai, and are invaluable contributions to its living history.

The Roving Exhibit isn’t over though the sticky summer heat may be a bit of a challenge. If you want to sell lemonade alongside me to draw crowds, let’s talk. Enjoy the video if you haven’t already!



  • Reply June 23, 2011

    Tan Tien Yun

    Those are beautiful shots! Based on your narrative and photographs, it reminded me of shanghai of 7 years ago when the long tang neighbourhoods was still plenty around in Minhang District. I was staying right next to one of those old neighbourhoods, with one entire road that was particularly famous for selling copies from monte blanc pens to little pocket watches. The roads were not paved, and it was noisy, with plenty of bicycles (and cars that were unrecongnisable overseas)and being a pedestrian was really harzardous to your health ( I remember they had police men just to make sure the locales only cross the roads when the green man turns on !).

    But it was fun, from riding a bicycles en masse to ducking into the little eating places along those small houses for their local dishes (always rice noodles and dumplings) . They even had plots of land where they grew their own vegetables, and although brash, the locales back then were friendly country folk.

    Unfortunately in 2004, Shanghai was beginning to develop from its city center. The Bund was just a refurbished a few years earlier…and 2 years later from that stay in Shanghai I remembered reading about that particular road being torn down for redevelopment. Incidentally, I’m right now staying in the same area I was in 2004 and now there’s a Metro , a school and tons of public housing. It looks like the only time I could recollect those times are through the black and white film I took during those 3 weeks in 2004!

  • Reply June 24, 2011


    Hi Sue Anne,

    Thanks for sharing the link. My apologies if I hadn’t showed up at your event. Wish I could make it, but 7pm in the Moganshan Lu area is a bit too late for me as I really live far away.

    How much is your camera? What lens do you use? Do you know how much XX lens costs? How much do you earn? How much are these boards? (Proceed to finger and poke the board).

    Same here. I still wonder how I should improve my answers… … How did you manage to go over them? Sigh… … Nevertheless though, they’re quite open about these if you dare to ask.

    • Reply June 24, 2011

      Sue Anne

      No worries, Cintia. I completely understand. The weather didn’t help either.
      I tell them as is, they’re pretty set in the judgement you’ve got a very expensive camera. I’ve actually met a few people in the longtangs that work on cameras and are very knowledgeable about photographic equipment. I’ve had one guy tell me I shouldn’t settle for anything less than a “red ring” L lens. Seriously…

  • Reply June 24, 2011


    I saw the slide show, I recognized the place I have been shooting in the past few years too. That is really interesting idea to do so. I sometimes give some local few prints if they ask for it, other than that, I just like sometimes keep a bit conversation with them. I agree the people there are extremely friendly and you feel really good to document the history among them. This is such a contrast when I shot here is Germany. I am very looking forward to shooting more next time I visit Shanghai.

    • Reply June 28, 2011

      Sue Anne

      Ying, let me know when you come back to Shanghai, love to go shooting withyou.

  • Reply June 24, 2011

    Jonah Kessel

    Sue Anne – this is really fantastic. Amazing initiative you’ve taken here and fantastic to see you reach an audience that might otherwise be hard to find. Beautiful images and efforts here.


    • Reply June 28, 2011

      Sue Anne

      Thanks Jonah, I enjoyed the videos you’ve done on Beijing’s hutongs, perhaps I’ll master video to be able to replicate that in Shanghai.

  • Reply June 24, 2011


    Very nice. I like how you write on the different types of people who actually took time and effort to look at your pictures. It will be interesting to see if there are similar responses in Singapore if such a roving exhibition is made. Perhaps you can use the same pics or new pics you have taken around in Singapore too.
    How overseas people (Singaporean Chinese in particular) react to pics on life in Shanghai versus that of Mainland Chinese people….Play along that line or so…
    Should be cool!

    • Reply June 28, 2011

      Sue Anne

      That’s an excellant idea, Gina! Perhaps the older generation in Singapore may have an affinity where as the younger generaton may feel a bit more alien to the whole concept. Worth exploring…

  • Reply June 27, 2011


    Sue Anne – please continue the roving exhibit (selfishly because I haven’t caught it yet)! I notice the obsession with equipment too – not that I’m not guilty of the same thing – but the thousands of Chinese tourists showing up with sexy Canon white lenses . . .and then shooting on the program mode. “It’s expensive, so it must be better, right?”

    • Reply June 28, 2011

      Sue Anne

      I think you’ve hit the point right on the head, Terence.

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