In the summer of 2012 I was chatting with one of my oldest and dearest friends who had recently moved back to Hong Kong. He’d become involved with a not-for-profit charity dedicated to helping schools and orphanages in some very remote mountains in rural China. We talked about ways I could help and as a result of our conversation, I boarded a flight a few months later to join an exceptional group of volunteers called the “Warm Hearters”.
The images in this soon to be available book describe a generation of children caught in limbo between the vastly different cultures of the near by towns and cities while they grow up in remote rural communities.
My traveling companions were volunteers and I learned that they all work exceptionally hard to deliver focussed help, so that these forgotten mountain children don’t get left behind by the relentless march towards industrialised progress that drives the rest of the country. They do this by providing essentials like bedding, text books and by raising money for additional out-houses and kitchen blocks so that the children and their dedicated teachers can prepare meals better protected from the elements.
Getting to the mountains was not easy, but after several days of traveling we arrived in Yunnan and found a wonderful local driver who owned a rather battered and bruised old “Beijing Olympics” bus, which was to be a big part of our transport for the next week. We were heading into the mountains on roads that seemed to be composed of a powdery bright red dust. Roads that during the rainy season emulsify into rivers of mud that render whole towns and villages inaccessible for months at a time.
The pace of change in China is nothing short of incredible. Construction equipment is everywhere and the inevitable road side mounds of earth and the thick industrial clouds we drove through were dense reminders of a landscape undergoing a remarkable transformation. An endless procession of tall metal cranes rose up from the horizon no matter how far we seemed to drive. However it was only by traveling to the heights of Yunnan that the region gave up its secrets and it became apparent that many pockets of cultural isolation still existed. Small village schools are often located near the tops of mountains so as to stay safe during the floods and it was the children at these schools and orphanages that we aimed to photograph on this trip.
This meant that each day we wound our way up steep and stoney tracks to breath-shortening altitudes. These hill-top communities often experience brutally extreme temperature changes ranging from 35ºC plus at midday and dropping to a numbingly cold -10ºC at night.
Many of the children in this book live in their schools sparse dormitories during the week. At the weekends, after long days of study, they must walk up to four hours on muddy hillside paths to reach a relatives farm or their parents isolated homes. The journey is often dark, wet and cold.
We asked each child we photographed that age-old question “What would you like to be when you grow up?” and although many answered in a seemingly well rehearsed way, some children gave less guarded, beautiful and surprising answers.
One little boy quietly but confidently declared “I want to be the Moon”.
His friends laughed but when asked why he replied, “When I walk home I like it when the Moon is full and bright because I can see where I’m going. I’d like to be the Moon so my friends can see too.”
These photos and the accompanying captions of each child’s dreams are a document of an ancient culture undergoing powerful and rapid change.
I was lucky to capture this generation that is experiencing a sense of freedom and hope that their parents and grandparents didn’t.
The smiling and unsure looks on their faces as they encountered their first foreigners will be some of the last such expressions that anyone will see in that vast country.
These children are a snap-shot of a culture at a tipping point between then and now.
Change is happening around these isolated communities for better or for worse and this book and its images have been crafted to raise the money needed to make sure that these children don’t get left behind.