‘Nowhere to Dock’

A Roundup of China’s Best Visual Journalism

In 2019, Depth of Field showcased stories covering a range of topics: Shi Yangkun’s nostaglic exploration of China’s last collective villages, Zhu Lingyu’s careful and artisitic portrayal of survivors of sexual violence, and cities seen through the eyes of food delivery men. In this work, we see photographers as well as visual editors’ efforts to find new ways to tell stories visually despite shrinking budgets and tightening censorship.

Together with our new curator Beimeng Fu, we are expanding our selection of stories to encompass video and interactive work.

Among our picks in this edition of our column: several stories on Chinese in their 20s—a funeral makeup artist, two people struggling with unemployment, and rural men finding success on delivery bikes in Beijing. We also explore how China’s artificial islands are built and follow two women traveling to the U.S. to have their eggs frozen.

A Boatman on the Bund | Arrow Factory
Director: Guo Rongfei—Arrow Factory

Guo Rongfei’s documentary short absorbs viewers in the quiet, intimate life of a three-generation migrant family of five, who work and live on their small family-run barge, cruising across and mooring alongside Shanghai’s Huangpu River day and night. “Every time we pass by the Bund, my entire family gets out to admire it,” says Wang Fuchao, the barge's captain, referring to the night view of the illuminated waterfront of the city. Over a dinner table set up on the barge’s deck, the Wang family reflects on the reality that it probably will never be able to afford to settle in the city, despite living on its water for over a decade. “It feels like we don’t belong,” says Wang Fuchao. “We’re like a boat on the river with nowhere to dock.”

The Bund often appears in images intended to showcase China’s prosperity. But the Wang family’s story offers a glimpse into how distant its grandeur remains even for people living closest to it.

The video is part of a non-narrative short doc series about The Bund and its human stories, sponsored by Signify, a spin-off of the lighting division of Koninklijke Philips N.V.

Three Delivery Brothers | Tencent
Lin Hongxian, Yang Yifan—Tencent

Coming from an impoverished village in Tianshui, Gansu province, Yang Cheng, Li Huijun, Zhou Xuxu work as food delivery men in Wangjing, a district in northeastern Beijing. The three men hail from one extended family. Although the hours are long and the working conditions are hazardous, food delivery work has provided opportunities for people like Yang, Li and Zhou to lift themselves and their families out of poverty. According to statistics provided by the poverty alleviation offices at the State Council and in Gansu Province, and a study conducted by Meituan, one of China’s biggest food delivery companies, 85% of Meituan’s delivery people who come from an impoverished background in Gansu province are already living above the poverty line, which means their families’ annual disposable income is above 3500 RMB/person (~ 500 USD/person), with safe housing, public medical insurance and free public education.

Laid Off from Internet Companies | iFeng
Cui Li, Lin Hongxian—iFeng

This story follows two people in their 20s, who were laid off from internet companies amid an economic decline that has affected many sectors in China since last year. Heli, without telling her parents who believe a stable elementary school teacher job is the best for her, starts to pursue a career in tarot cards reading. Wang Zishan picked up photography and started traveling after he was laid off. Their anxiety and loss of direction reflects a generation who just entered employment but already have to prepare themselves for uncertainty.

How Much Does It Cost to Build an Artificial Island? | PaperClip
Producer: Zhang Meiyang—PaperClip

China continues to construct facilities on artificial islands it built to increase control over disputed territories in the South China Sea. But how did China build these artificial islands in the first place? Using examples of the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau Bridge and controversial islands in the South China Sea, Paperclip explains the construction of artificial islands from engineering, commercial and national security perspectives.

The Life of a Funeral Makeup Artist | Jiemian
Cai Xingzhuo—Jiemian

This story by photographer Cai Xingzhuo takes us to the basement of a funeral home in Changsha and looks at the life of a funeral makeup artist. The moody images show a world we rarely see, and an occupation that’s still seen as a taboo by many Chinese people.

Superstitious beliefs about funeral homes have barred a Chinese mortician from attending her friends’ weddings, and often keep morticians from finding partners themselves because of their profession.

Despite the discrimination, Wang Dandan, the main character in the photo story, believes that her job is crucial. At the morgue where Wang works, 60 bodies are brought in every day. Wang tends to their bodies so that their loved ones can remember them at their best, and the dead can leave with dignity. Her sense of professional duty helps her cope with confronting death. “Especially when I see the body of people who die from accidents… it makes me feel it’s good to be alive. I’m lucky to be alive. It’s important to live in the moment,” Wang says.

Playing for Whom? Female Footballer Wang Shuang’s Loneliness and Anger | Vice China
Director: Sybil Liang—Vice China

Wang Shuang is one of the biggest stars in Chinese soccer. In August 2018, Wang signed with the Paris Saint-Germain women’s club, becoming the first Chinese soccer player to join the prominent French club. Signing with Paris Saint-Germain has significantly elevated Wang’s reputation both domestically and internationally. This video documents Wang’s journey to Paris and her struggles to learn a new language and training style. Wang's performance for the French club has garnered her more publicity and fame, something she didn’t experience when she played in China. A member of the Chinese national team, Wang abruptly canceled her contract with Paris Saint-Germain in July and returned to China so that she could better serve the Chinese national team after its poor performance during the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup.

The documentary, part of a series about Chinese football, was made with a sponsorship from Nike.

Crossing an Ocean to Freeze Their Eggs | Arrow Factory
Director: Guo Rongfei—Arrow Factory

In 2015, after actress Xu Jinglei revealed on Weibo that she had had her eggs frozen in the U.S., giving rise to heated debate in the media, the fertility procedure entered into China’s public consciousness. Although the service has been available in China for a decade, it is currently available only to married women. A recent lawsuit against a hospital for refusing to freeze the eggs of an unmarried patient could potentially change that, but until then, single women who want to undergo the procedure must travel abroad for it. Fees range from $11,000 and $16,000, excluding annual storage costs of between $450 and $600. But the lofty pricetag is deemed worthy in the eyes of many affluent, educated women because the procedure buys them a rare chance to postpone marriage and pregnancy without sacrificing their career and affords them more time to find a suitable partner. Arrow Factory’s 30-minute documentary details the lives of Guo Lei and A Bu as they begin their egg freezing process that eventually leads them to a fertility clinic across the Pacific. 

The Rise of Hanfu in China | Caixin
Liang Yingfei—Caixin

The number of people who wear hanfu, a traditional style of dress that ethnic Han Chinese wore before the Manchu-ruled Qing Dynasty, has increased rapidly in the past few years. According to a report conducted and published by Hanfu Information, an account that aggregates information on hanfu, the number of hanfu fans grew from less than 500 thousand in 2015 to more than 2 million in 2018, with the hanfu industry valued at 1 billion RMB (~ 150 million USD). The rise of hanfu is driven by a mix of consumerism, individualism and nationalism. Young people view the garb as a form of self-expression and a way of connecting with traditional culture and their identity in an increasingly globalized world. Photographer Liang Yingfei photographed a hanfu Festival in Xitang, an annual event where hanfu enthusiasts gather to see hanfu fashion shows, watch performances of traditional rituals, shop for hanfu and accessories and meet and make friends. Hanfu’s growing popularity coincides with a government emphasis on preserving and promoting traditional culture. Although it’s hard to say how many hanfu enthusiasts join the movement out of a sense of nationalism, it’s notable that, unlike other youth subcultures imported from foreign countries, such as hip-hop or cosplay, hanfu is a local movement that takes pride in Chinese tradition.

Smog Town | Tencent
Directors: Han Meng, Du Hai

Beijing’s infamous “airpocalypse” in 2013 prompted the Chinese government to declare a “war against pollution,” putting forward initiatives to clean up the air. Today air quality in the capital city has been improved, but the battle for blue sky is far from over, especially for the people in charge of fighting it. In an 18-minute documentary by Bingdian Weekly, a small crew of journalists embedded with a group of environmental experts who work on controlling air pollution alongside the local government of Langfang, the closest prefecture-level city to Beijing. By gaining rare, city-level access, the film sheds light on how local governments near Beijing work to control the air pollution problem that has brought the central government heavy criticism and embarrassment both domestically and internationally.