A row of babies sleep inside rough bamboo baskets at a rural nursery in 1980s southern China; workers struggle to preserve the ruins of a factory destroyed during the 2008 earthquake that devastated southwest China’s Sichuan province; a lonely figure plants trees in the middle of the vast Tengger Desert.
These are just a few of the haunting images from “China Adagio” — a new book collecting the work of the photographer Andrew S.T. Wong, who has been documenting China’s rise for nearly 40 years.
Wong started his career as a photojournalist for the American news agency United Press International in 1983, before joining Reuters when the companies merged two years later. Over the next two decades, he would travel on assignments all over China, documenting the country’s transformation as it integrated into the global economy. He led the team that recorded the funeral of Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping in 1997, and eventually rose to become Reuters’ chief photographer in the country.
However, Wong eventually began to chafe against the conservative aesthetic style used by Western news agencies. The framing of every photo had to be exactly horizontal, and there was enormous pressure to produce work that sold well. So, after the 2008 Beijing Olympics, he decided to take the plunge and become an independent photographer.
Since then, he has continued to travel widely around China, trying to capture the country’s extraordinary diversity. As a Hong Kong native, he feels his work differs from that of his foreign colleagues. He has a knack for candid shots, which show his subjects during relaxed moments.
“I have my advantages — I’m a bit Eastern and a bit Western,” Wong tells Sixth Tone. “I can look at China from a Chinese perspective, using the Chinese history, culture, and art that I have studied.”
Wong has a particular passion for observing the lives of people in China’s hinterlands — the parts of the country that are rarely covered by the media. In recent years, he has participated in several public welfare projects, including an afforestation campaign in a remote, arid part of northwest China. These trips left a deep impression on him, he says.
Films of children visiting the Temple of Heaven, Beijing, 1986. Courtesy of Andrew Wong
“China is a very big country. The local culture of each province, county, and village is different. The gap between the rich and the poor is astonishingly huge, and the education gap is very severe,” he says. “When I went to the most grassroots places and saw some people trying to change the status quo, that’s very impressive.”
China has undergone immense changes from the impoverished nation Wong first began covering in the early 1980s. For Wong, however, the most profound change he’s witnessed hasn’t been economic, but psychological — the growing sense of confidence and national pride that has spread through China in recent years.
“In the past, many people thought that the best culture and technology was in the West, and they hoped to learn a lot from the West,” says Wong. “I think the last 20 years have seen the fastest development. Chinese people’s self-confidence has become stronger, and they have begun to look at the West with an equal eye.”
A maid looks after toddlers sleeping in hanging baskets at a nursery set up to take care of farmers’ children in a village in Guangdong province, 1988. Courtesy of Andrew Wong
A group of children look at a toddler sleeping in a hanging basket at a nursery set up to take care of farmers’ children in a village in Guangdong province, 1988. Courtesy of Andrew Wong
Travelers wait at a long-distance bus station in Jiangdu, now part of Yangzhou, Jiangsu province, 1984. Courtesy of Andrew Wong
Visitors check their Polaroid instant photos snapped at the Great Wall near Beijing, 1986. Courtesy of Andrew Wong
A woman listens to her headphones as she travels on the subway in Beijing, 1986. Courtesy of Andrew Wong
A couple and their son enjoy a quiet afternoon in the Shenzhen Special Economic Zone on the border with Hong Kong, 1987. Courtesy of Andrew Wong
A man carries a Japanese-made TV set outside Shenzhen Railway Station in the Shenzhen Special Economic Zone, 1987. Courtesy of Andrew Wong
Villagers carry boxes of eggs in Xingyi, Guizhou province, 2018. Courtesy of Andrew Wong
Workers try to salvage the ruins of a factory in the Shifang Earthquake Memorial Park in Shifang Town, March 2011. An 8.0 magnitude earthquake struck Sichuan province on May 12, 2008. Courtesy of Andrew Wong
Elderly men walk past a collapsed building at the Beichuan Earthquake Memorial Park, April 2011. Courtesy of Andrew Wong
An afforestation worker prepares bales of straw in the desert areas of Minqin County in Gansu province, October 2016. Courtesy of Andrew Wong
Elderly women exercise at a park in Shanghai, August 2012. Courtesy of Andrew Wong
A porter, or “bangbang jun,” waits for customers at a market in the Shibati area of Chongqing, April 2011. Courtesy of Andrew Wong
Women in traditional clothing enjoy a night cruise on the ancient canal in Wuxi, Jiangsu province, July 2021. Courtesy of Andrew Wong
A young pianist holds a certificate after performing at a concert in Beijing, Nov. 21, 2010. Courtesy of Andrew Wong
A couple poses for photos outside the Potala Palace in Lhasa, Tibet Autonomous Region, September 2016. Courtesy of Andrew Wong
Local villagers leave an open-air theatre after a performance of the local Gan opera in Poyang County, Jiangxi province, November 2017. Courtesy of Andrew Wong
Editors: Dominic Morgan and Ding Yining.
(Header image: Travelers wait at a bus stop on a main road in Jiangdu, now part of Yangzhou, Jiangsu province, 1984. Courtesy of Andrew Wong)