By Kim Kyung-hoon
Showing the great contrast between China’s rich and poor in photos should be simple. After all, both exist just a few blocks away from each other or sometimes in the same place in any city. A poor family rides a rusty tricycle as a shiny Ferrari passes by. Just around the corner from an expensive restaurant, poor migrant workers eat cheap meals and take naps on the street.
But trying to get people to agree to be photographed was much more difficult than I expected. In six months of roaming around Beijing, visiting places where the rich congregate, such as luxury brand fashion boutiques and cocktail parties at fashion shows and even a luxury car maker’s promotional event, I tried all sorts of things, hoping that someone would open up their lifestyle to my lens.
But no rich person welcomed me and my camera. No one invited me to record this growing reality in China. Perhaps some were afraid that news of their wealthy lifestyle might go viral. Rich Chinese have reason to be shy of the cameras and interviews. The country’s new leader, Xi Jinping, has told people to cut out displays of ostentation. Moreover, the spending habits of wealthy Chinese have often sparked the ire of China’s microbloggers.
One rich family considered my proposal seriously for a couple of days. I met them at a party for the opening of a fashion boutique. They were dressed like celebrities. The daughter had been studying abroad, first in Britain and then in the United States. She spoke perfect English and displayed perfect ‘Western’ manners. The family talked of their plans to visit a resort in Thailand soon. They did agree to me shooting photos, but with unacceptable conditions. They would allow me to photograph the guest room of their luxurious house but ruled out anything that might associate them with the terms “wealthy lifestyle” or “rich lifestyle”. They also wanted to review my picture story before it was published.
The poor did not welcome my camera either but for different reasons. Many felt ashamed of their life and had anxieties about being reported on by the news media. Nonetheless, I spent a lot of time in wealthy and poor districts located in the eastern part of Beijing. The distance between the areas was just a 30-40 minute bicycle ride but the wealth gap I could see through my camera was much wider.