Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Song for Simon

If you are reading this blog it's largely due to a Chinese photographer you've likely never heard of.

In July 2003, after a gig shooting the Clinton White House for China's state news agency, Xinhua, Simon Song (Song Xiaogang) was a 38-year-old intern/journalism student from Hong Kong University working as an intern at New York's most excitable tabloid, The New York Daily News. He'd gone from photographing the likes of Bill and Hillary, Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat, Bob Dole, and Socks, the Clinton cat to daily weather pictures, Martha Stewart's court house visits, and various New-York-only style gatherings and protests.

I was in Boulder, Colorado in July 2003 mulling over whether I should take a blind leap to teach English at a summer camp in Shenzhen, China a city I'd never heard of until seeing a "Help Wanted - Native English Speakers" notice on the Internet. I was also reading the New Yorker faithfully and a Talk of the Town item grabbed my imagination. Filed under "Cultural Exchange Department" it was a graceful, witty write-up about a Chinese photographer named Simon Song and an English language blog he was writing about working and living in New York.

Mead described it thusly: "...a transformation of our more mundane comings and goings into exotic objects of anthropology." In particular she reprinted Song's reaction to seeing a black woman reading Sun Tze's Art of War on the NYC subway. "Oh," Song wrote, "Can you imagine seeing a foreigner, a girl, reading ‘The Art of War’ on a NY MTA?”

Well, yes, I could. But Song's sense of wonder as well as his droll observation that "I transmitted three weather pictures to the Daily News system. They like to have weather pictures" both moved me and made me laugh. I'd had an editor at a newspaper in Nebraska for whom The Weather was King. I could relate.

Shortly thereafter I decided to begin a blog about Shenzhen using the story as my inspiration. Fast forward to 2004 and I was working for The Standard and on an assignment with a soft spoken Chinese photographer named Simon. We were making small talk, getting to know one another and killing time. After some prodding on my part, he mentioned his White House experience, as well as the Daily News.

"That's cool!" I said. "You know New Yorker magazine?" He nodded. I kept babbling. "A great magazine! One of America's best! Anyway, I read a wonderful piece in it just before I came to China. It was about a Chinese photographer who was also working at the Daily News and the blog he was keeping. I can't remember his name but it really inspired me...Did you know him?"

Simon nodded slightly, but was silent for an almost unnaturally long time. Then he spoke. "Uh...that was me."

I went mildly batshit. "You? That was you? Man, that is so damn cool. The New Yorker! Do you still have the article?" Simon said he did but had neglected to frame it. He's a modest guy, as I have said. A mellow fellow who relaxes by taking classical Chinese music lessons and prefers to photograph antique furniture and architectural details when in Macau rather than hitting the casinos and bars. (This last observation comes from personal experience.)

Fast forward again to early this week. Simon had long since vacated The Standard for a better position for more pay at The South China Morning Post. We hadn't seen one another for awhile and agreed to short reunion in a small cafe/bar in Wanchai. Typically, he waited until we were about to part to tell me off-handedly that he had had just finished writing his third book, a translation of a self-help/inspirational work by a Chinese Buddhist nun.

"Your third?" I asked. "I know about the nun one now. And I know about the first one. What was the second?"

He happened to have it with him. It was a first-person account of his life overseas covering the White House and later in New York. I thumbed through the Chinese text looking at the pictures and saw one I had never seen before. It was Simon in the New Yorker office with Rebecca Mead. I kept turning the pages and saw the entire chapter was devoted to his moment of Talk of the Town fame, complete with an English reprint of Mead's story.

"Hey! New Yorker offices...what a great picture! Simon, you had hair then! Your blog! A whole chapter! How cool is this?"

Simon smiled and nodded. "Did the publisher get permission from the New Yorker to reprint the story?" I asked. The book was published by Xinhua and I already suspected that I knew the answer. Despite its aspirations to be a world class media empire, Xinhua isn't exactly universally known for high ethical standards, especially when it comes to publishing and copyright issues.

Simon winced just a bit. "No," he said. "That's okay," I replied. "No biggie. I'm just so glad to see this again. You know, we probably wouldn't be together here right now if it wasn't written."

Simon graciously gave me the book, signed it, we shook hands and went our separate ways. I read the English reprint twice while riding home on the MTR. A middle aged Chinese man near me noticed I was immersed in what appeared to be an entirely Chinese book and complimented me on reading it. "Very nice to see a foreigner reading Chinese," he said.

"Yeah," I said, closing it to hide the English text. "Uh...I, ah, actually I don't read it very well. But thank you. It's by a Chinese friend of mine. He wrote about seeing foreigners reading Chinese authors in New York."

Here's an (unauthorized) reprint of Mead's column about Simon courtesy of the New Yorker online archives.

If, in years to come, an average New Yorker is asked to recall the most newsworthy events of June, 2003, he or she will probably be stumped. The biggest story in town was the record-breaking rainfall, which, though significant in the context of global warming and footwear ruination, was soft news. We were not blighted by terrorism, or by political scandal, or even by any particularly egregious celebrity misbehavior, Demi Moore and Ashton Kutcher’s hookup notwithstanding.

However, to Simon Song, an intern on the photo desk at the News, June provided a parade of extraordinary sights and outlandish events. Song, a thirty-eight-year-old native of the People’s Republic of China who is enrolled at the University of Hong Kong, has been keeping an online diary of his activities and impressions, along with examples of his photography, at There, in slightly off-kilter English, he has chronicled his encounters with the city’s justice system (“We went to Court House to cover Martha Stewart. We stood in the chilly wind for nearly 4 hours”); the World Trade Center site (“I was deeply moved by what I saw. It gave me strength and power rather than tears and fear”); and the general cultural richness of the city. On June 4th, he recounted, his assignments included “Policemen issuing tickets, the raining day today and a naked demonstration against the animal leather clothes.”

While Song’s natural readership consists of his friends and his family, the site provides, for the New Yorkers who have stumbled across it, a transformation of our more mundane comings and goings into exotic objects of anthropology. Of the opening night of “Turandot” in Central Park, Song wrote, “It is not a Opera performance. It is more like a after-work big party.” And of a subway ride: “This morning, I saw a black girl reading a book ‘The Art of War.’ I told myself: ‘This is a nice book name.’ Then I saw the author of the book: Sun Tze. Oh, can you imagine seeing a foreigner, a girl, reading ‘The Art of War’ on a NY MTA?”

Song, whose résumé reveals that he was working in the Xinhua News Agency in Beijing during the Tiananmen Square crackdown, in 1989, recounts his surprise at attending an anti-police rally at City Hall Park. “It was a scene that seemed strange to me,” he wrote. “People shouted loudly against the police and the policemen stood quietly beside to keep the order and safety of the demonstrators.” The news judgments of his employer have also been worthy of note. On June 23rd, Song wrote, “I transmitted three weather pictures to the Daily News system. They like to have weather pictures.”

Not every New York moment has been easy for Song, who has been living at the International House, near Columbia University. His wife remained in Beijing, and loneliness has been a problem. After visiting Central Park, Song wrote, “The bad thing is that I don’t have a friend with me there,” and he has reflected on his incapacity for leisure. “No matter in the HKU or here near Columbia, I wonder why I don’t have time to make myself feel easy: sitting in the sunshine, drinking a coke, reading a novel. Or going to a beach, enjoying the breeze. Life is pushing hard for me.”

But Song’s New York is, over all, a place of enlightenment, amusement, and opportunity. Song attended the gay-pride parade, and declared himself amazed. “Thought I might see a bunch of people on streets. But it turned out to be such a big parade,” he wrote. “American people like to find themselves a lot of fun. People standing beside the streets cheered the parade. You don’t need to be gays or gay right activists to enjoy a colorful parade and the happy atmosphere.” Song’s photo of the day showed a parader wearing a rainbow-colored Statue of Liberty outfit, a sight that moved him to remark upon what, even in a slow news month, remains the undercurrent of all our daily affairs: “New York is a city full of surprises and wonders.”
Great post, great story -- and a great honor for Simon to be the subject of at least two very cool (sweet?) write-ups.
how do you feel about EMI closing up shop?

-Playing Chips from Shenzhen plz.
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