The Birdsville Races

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I wrote this piece for the book “World Party”, after a weekend at the races in 1993. Looking back, there are no photos of the races themselves, or even a horse. Oh well. Come September, locals flee the dusty desert township of Birdsville, as a six-thousand-strong crowd descends for a weekend of hard drinking – and, if they sober up …

Rams, Cabbages and Murder

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On 17 November, 1874, the Peking Gazette – which published official statements from the Chinese court – made the following announcement: “The Court of Censorate forwards another appeal lodged on behalf of a woman of the Yuhang District in Zhejiang, complaining that her husband has been falsely accused of murdering a man named Ge Pinlian, the accuser being his wife, …

Cicadas, paper horses, and Chinese gods

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Here’s some background to my first ebook, “Paper Horses: Woodblock Prints of Chinese Gods from 1930s Beijing”, which you can find via Amazon or Apple Books. In 2020 I bought an album containing seventy-nine “paper horses” (紙馬) – simple woodblock prints of Chinese folk deities – from a dealer in the United States. Each print was numbered with a sticker …

Across Guangxi By Boat

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In March 1879, after spending nearly two years on the road between China and Europe, Mesny left the southern metropolis of Guangzhou to head home to his wife in Guizhou province, a journey of perhaps 1000km. Renting a roomy daobazi (刀把子) or “knife-handle” houseboat, named after the shape of their sterns, Mesny followed the Xi river to Wuzhou before turning …

Cats, Rats, Marriage and Messages

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“The Rats Marrying Off Their Daughter” (老鼠嫁女) was a popular theme for Chinese woodblock prints during the nineteenth century, and different designs were produced by studios all over the country. The title of this one, from Yangjiabu in Shandong province, translates freely as “A misfortunate rat got married in town; The groom was a cat, who swallowed her down”. The …

Lockets, locks and longevity

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In 2018 I bought this antique child’s locket (鎖片) in Dali, an old walled caravan town in China’s Yunnan province. Today Dali has become a bohemian holiday retreat for China’s urban middle class, but from the seventh to the thirteenth centuries served as the capital of the Nanzhao and Dali kingdoms, whose borders reached from Tibet to Thailand, and at …

Xiage’s yangong deity shrine

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I took this photo in 2010 at Yangong Ci (檐公祠), a wayside shrine in the Dong hamlet of Xiage, two kilometres uphill from the popular wooden village of Zhaoxing (肇兴). Yangong Ci translates literally as “Lord Eave’s Ancestral Shrine”, but yangong is in fact a Chinese transliteration of the Dong term for something like “home of the venerable grandfather”. The …

A Japanese Map of Qing China

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A while back I bought this map of China, hand-drawn in ink, from a dealer in Japan. Other things also point to it being a Japanese-made map: the translucent, resilient paper, typical of Japanese manufacture; an emphasis on marked routes from Japan (a country that China showed little interest in until recent times); and the general style, similar to Japanese …

Miao embroideries

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Southwestern China’s Guizhou province is home to the Miao (Hmong), an ethnic minority who originated a thousand miles away in the Yellow River valley and migrated here millennia ago after being chased out of their homelands by the Yellow Emperor, ancestor of the Chinese people. Miao from different regions of Guizhou have developed their own distinct dress patterns. Both men …

China’s First Rollercoaster

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During the late 1880s, a new craze swept foreign colonies in southeast Asia. Switchback railways – an embryonic form of rollercoaster – had appeared in the Philippines, Japan, Singapore, Java and Hong Kong, and were raking in huge profits (well, except for Hong Kong’s, which somehow managed to go bankrupt within a year). In 1890 a French consortium, led by …