Monday, 20 June 2011

In the mood for love: Maggie Cheung and children

Maggie Cheung and the young presenters, including Xi-xi (far left).
© UNICEF/China/2010/Martin Ye 
Child poverty is not solely a problem for poor countries. Although China is now the world’s second largest economy, having overtaken Japan in February, its spectacular economic growth has not yet reached the poorest children and communities. China still has 100 million children living on less than $2 a day and there are stark disparities between urban and rural areas. It is still a developing country and the poverty numbers are huge.

Wednesday 1 June was National Children’s Day in China, which made it the perfect time for me to visit Beijing. For the week leading up to Children’s Day, UNICEF China ran a campaign around the issue of child poverty in rural provinces. The face of the campaign was actress and UNICEF Ambassador Maggie Cheung. I studied film at university and wrote my dissertation on Hong Kong director Wong Kar-wai, whose films include Days of Being Wild and In the Mood for Love, both starring Maggie Cheung, so I was looking forward to meeting her in her UNICEF role.

To prepare for the campaign, a group of UNICEF staff and Government partners took Maggie and a film crew to see child welfare projects in poor communities in Liangshan, Sichuan Province. This already deprived area is now also affected by HIV and drug use, with many children growing up without one or both parents. UNICEF is working with the Ministry of Civil Affairs (MCA) to establish a child welfare system that can protect the most vulnerable children in China. Liangshan is one of the pilot sites for the project.

Sunday, 5 June 2011

Nepal: gurkhas and Ganesh

Nepal is a photographer's dream. Houses, temples and palaces are all adorned with beautiful and intricate wood carvings. Stone lions guard the dusty, potholed streets and crumbling buildings. Sacred cows wander unhindered among the tractors, rickety vehicles and women carrying baskets on their heads. The people are beautifully dressed in colourful saris and dauras, their children’s eyes rimmed with kohl to keep out evil spirits. Here are some of my favourite photos from the trip. Read my Nepal blog »

Saturday, 4 June 2011

Return of the King: Nepal's royal capitals

The author in Patan’s Durbar Square. © Joyce Lee/2011/Nepal
Nepal is both one of the most beautiful countries in the world, and one of the poorest. In the capital Kathmandu, both the beauty and poverty are very much on display. The city is an odd mixture of historic grandeur and modern squalor. Its medieval buildings and squares have remained unchanged for centuries. Houses, temples and palaces are all adorned with beautiful and intricate wood carvings, which cover doors, windows, pillars and rafters. Stone lions guard the dusty, potholed streets and crumbling buildings. Sacred cows wander unhindered among the tractors, rickety vehicles and women carrying baskets on their heads. There is a Hindu temple on almost every street corner and square, from small shrines to local spirits and sacred trees, to huge towering monuments to the major Hindu deities Shiva and Vishnu. And it is all marvellously intact – there are no office blocks, shopping malls or multi-story car parks to disrupt the historic skyline.

In the nearby cities of Patan and Bhaktapur, the historic scenery is even more magnificent. In Patan’s Durbar (Royal) Square, half a dozen temples are accompanied by two tall stone pillars. On top of one is a golden statue of Garuda, Vishnu’s bird-man mount. From his lofty perch he faces the temple of his master on one knee, his arms crossed and wings outstretched. On top of the other pillar a statue of King Yoganarendra, who ruled Patan in the 17th Century, faces the former royal palace. Above him is an uncoiled cobra, on top of which sits a small bird. Legend has it that as the long as the bird remains, the king may return. Accordingly, the palace door is left slightly ajar so he can enter with ease.

What spoils the view, unfortunately, is all the rubbish. Refuse lines the streets and piles up in squares and parks. People work, cook and eat amongst it, with women barbequing corn-on-the-cob over wood and bricks on the pavement. The smell of rubbish and occasionally urine mingles with the sweet and heady scent of spices coming from the food stalls. The only other place I’ve seen like it is Payatas, the slum town on the edge of Manila’s main rubbish dump. I saw one Kathmandu shopkeeper attempt to clear the space in front of his storefront, sweeping the street clean with a broom made from bundles of twigs. Others burned piles of rubbish in the evening, sending swirls of acrid plastic smoke across the pavements.

On the roof of the world: trekking in Nepal

Working on my blog, with four days’ worth of beard.
© Joyce Lee/2011/Nepal
Our reason for being in Nepal was to hike the Himalayas, so after exploring Kathmandu (see part one of this blog) we took a light aircraft to Pokhara, the starting point of our trek in the Annapurna mountain range. Tourism has saved this region from many of the ills that plague the Kathmandu valley. The streets are cleaner and the buildings in better repair, with even slum houses painted sky blue. There is also 24-hour electricity thanks to locally-produced renewable energy. Solar panels on houses heat people’s water and hydro-power in the valleys provides electricity for the villages. Houses here are painted with the words ‘Never End Peace And Love,’ the first letter of each word spelling out ‘Nepal’. “In Kathmandu, it means: ‘No Electricity Product, Always Load-shedding,” a local woman joked. 

We signed up to do a five-day trek through the mountains to Poon Hill, with a local organisation called ‘Three Sisters’ that employs, educates and empowers local women. Our guide, Kamala, had been working with them since 1999. We also had two teenage porters, Manuka and Danu. As soon as we set off, we started feeling guilty about letting the girls carry our heavy backpacks while we carried lightweight daypacks. Every time we stopped, Joyce and I would take something out of their bags and put it into ours. We felt less guilty, however, when we saw the other porters. One Dutch couple had a single 60-year-old man as a porter. Each morning he tied three large backpacks together with rope and attached them to a strap across his forehead. While Manuka and Danu often raced ahead of us, waving cheerfully back from the top of the next hill, the old man struggled along behind his group, taking slow and shaky steps up the steep mountainsides.

The thing that struck me most about the mountains of Nepal is that they are very much lived in, in a way that European mountains no longer are. There are bustling villages all along the trekking trail, where subsistence farming is now combined with tourism. Even the smallest group of stone huts now has a restaurant, a guesthouse, a general store and – bizarrely – a ‘German bakery’. Children in crisp school uniforms run up and down the vertiginous stone steps like nimble mountain goats. Women dressed in bright colours wash clothes in the river, work in the fields with babies strapped to their backs, or dry mushrooms on rooftops in the midday sun. Men drive trains of donkeys (“the mountain car,” Kamala called them) laden with rice sacks across rope and wood bridges over deep gorges. Others carried goods themselves, using the same forehead strap as the old porter. We saw one man carrying a cage of a dozen live chickens in this way. Strings of brightly coloured Buddhist prayer flags were hung in even the most remote locations.