I can’t say what got me started, but I was rummaging around my attic full of memories of China and came across this image, which I really love. This group of students is getting ready for the Spring Festival holiday – the lunar new year – dateline January, 1988. They’re ready to head back to their homes in the rural counties surrounding the city of Beijing. They are part way through a two year teacher training program offered at the Beijing Foreign Languages Normal College (北京外国语师范学院). In fact it has been so long, I am not sure I have the Chinese name of the institution right, not that it matters, the program has morphed and been absorbed by some enormous university level entity that is part of the Beijing Municipality. I was there as an exchange Chinese student / language teacher in an afterthought of a program connected with University of Massachusetts at Boston. I had been in China for several months and would be heading for my first trip to Hong Kong in several days. At the time this college was far from being a prestigious school and none of these students were particularly looking forward to becoming poorly paid teachers in rural public schools. Of course even a two year teacher training program from a low end college gave these young people considerably more education than the vast majority of Chinese their age. These were exciting times in Beijing 1988 – China was opening up and for these students, the sky was the limit, or so most of them believed. A year and several months later, the excitement and optimism came to an end on June 4, 1989. I have not seen or kept in touch with any of these people. They’re all around 50 now – I wonder how life in China has treated them over the years. For those of you old enough to remember, this is from a scan of a Kodachrome slide shot with a fully manual Nikon FM2.
Kampong Phluk village sits on the banks of Tonlé Sap Lake, the largest freshwater body in Southeast Asia. Water levels in the lake vary enormously between the dry season from roughly November to March and the rainy monsoon season from May to October. The Tonlé Sap River connects the lake to the Mekong River and water flows back and forth between the lake and the Mekong in a complex relationship determined by annual rains. The village is set on stilts to keep houses and other structures above the water line during the rainy flood season. I visited in late March when water levels are at their lowest. The woman on the stairs is bouncing back and forth – literally – between different levels of her house, apparently gathering the things needed to make lunch.
Between the north and south shores of the Bassac River as it flows by the city of Châu Đốc, there is a floating wholesale market every day. Ethnic Cham people who live on the north bank of the river bring fruits and vegetables from their farms to the market. Ethnic Vietnamese townspeople from Châu Đốc on the south side of the river buy produce for sale in land borne retail markets in the city.
The family in the photo is fishing in the Bassac River as is flows through Châu Đốc, a Vietnamese city of about 160,000 people on the country’s border with Cambodia. These are ethnic Cham people who live in a village built on the water – the houses in the photo are part of the village. For close to 1000 years Cham kingdoms controlled much of what is today central and southern Vietnam. As ethnic Vietnamese expanded south from the Red River area around Hanoi – the original home of Vietnamese civilization – there was both interaction and conflict between the Cham and the Vietnamese. The Vietnamese eventually prevailed, destroying the last Cham kingdom and assimilating the Cham people into the rather complicated ethnic mix that today makes up the population of modern Vietnam.