From the Photographer’s Eyes

Monday, December 13th

by Alan Lai

We are home. Luggage is put aside until the next time. Going back to the usual routine of work is hard. This trip wasn’t a vacation; on the other hand, I wish vacations could give me this kind of lasting motivation to love and to act.

I had tasks to do in this trip. They were to take photographs and create videos. I said very little when activities were underway. I was busy taking photographs and taping videos. I tried to capture significant moments, interesting spots, and the team’s moves. I had in mind images of videos and publications the church can produce later. I tried to be useful.

Tiananmen Square 3
Brother Liu, our host in Beijing, walking with Dr. Ray Whitehead to the Forbidden City – photo by Alan Lai

When I inserted my cards onto my computer, I had to sit through an hour of downloading more than 3000 files of photographs and video clips. When it was finally done, even a quick browse through was enough to create emotion and bring tears to my eyes. Twenty-two talented individuals gelled together as one group for an intensive 12 full days. I already miss them. The power of memory is not to be underestimated.

I cannot say I don’t know China. I was born in Hong Kong. I left Hong Kong when I was 19, and came back to the Mainland as a Canadian.  Who can tell me my emotions are not mixed? After China re-opened its door in 1979, I was a teenager. I had visited China several times. Except for Shanghai, a city I have never been to, I have previously visited three other cities that were part of this trip. However, those visits were more than 30 years ago. I found those cities unrecognizable. Much has changed since I first visited.  Yet China to me is as familiar as much as it is foreign. Canada is now my home. I speak English and Cantonese. My Putonghua is of limited supply. Yet, I understand every written word on display.

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One of the main city streets in the area called “The Bund” in Shanghai – photo by Alan Lai

I have images of China from 30 years ago still imprinted on my mind. It is hard to locate them now. But the past is not disappearing. If I look closely, modernization hasn’t replaced ancient heritage and characters. I was still able to spot ancient architecture, albeit overshadowed by modern buildings and billboards. China as well as Chinese Christianity anxiously stands at the crossroad. On this trip, I encountered people who are generous, churches that are vibrant, and cities that are striving. At the same time, I also encountered poverty, social dysfunction, and economic hardship. I am loaded with images of a new China and a new church juxtaposing with my previous understandings of China and Chinese Christian church. The paradox is deep. Despite all these, I begin to see the Holy Spirit is at work in the official, registered Chinese Protestant churches.

Chongwenmen Church 6
An opened Bible sitting at the pulpit of Chongwenmen Church, Beijing – photo by Alan Lai

Amidst this complexity, I was confronted with the sad news of my father’s passing in Hong Kong while the delegation was in Beijing. I had a moment of confusion and sadness. I felt blessed to be surrounded by many wonderful colleagues. Our time on earth is limited. I treasure the experience to be with all these people whom I cannot be with all the time. Our lives are enriched by interactions we have with them. We shouldn’t forget the simple things in life, one of which is friendship.

Human beings are memory-making creatures.  Photography lends a helping hand in this making of memories. As a post-colonial practical theologian, I understand that location isn’t a neutral site, nor is the permission to stand in a location politically free. Location determines what a photographer sees; what kind of theology a theologian does. Knowing where you stand is no small skill a photographer must acquire. And I must say, it applies to many serious Christian thinkers and practitioners. Knowing where you stand, why you stand there, and why wouldn’t you stand somewhere else are important for both theologians and photographers. When I am doing photography, often I feel I am doing theology. Photography helps me understand life.

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The Forbidden City, Beijing  – photo by Alan Lai

Photography has created a memory bank that I can go back to every day. It allows me to not forget the good and bad of our experiences.  Memory shapes me as a living human being, constantly reaching back for clues for the challenge of the present. Memory is our tour guide, our link and our best friend, constantly inviting us to bridge two worlds: the world of the past and the world to come.

This trip was outrageously rich and loaded. This paradox is deep. No easy answer or simple theological position can unpack it. But instead, it needs to be treasured, reflected upon, and embraced. I witnessed doors opened; bridges built. Sure, the paradox remains. But this is the moment of joy when mutual respect is being practiced and treasured.  We come so far to give deepened relationship a chance.

There are times I just call myself a Canadian.  But this time, I am proud to say that I am a Chinese-Canadian.

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Looking northeast from the Great Wall – photo by Alan Lai

You can find more pictures of the China Delegation visit on Alan Lai’s personal photography site.

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