On International Women’s Day (8 March 2016), I received an email from photographer and filmmaker Gemma Thorpe about her current and past projects. I met her for the first time at the end of last year, where we chatted about our mutual work lives and links to China whilst sipping tea at Yorks Bakery Cafe in Birmingham. Since then we’ve kept in touch and supported each other in work (thanks for coming to the opening of ‘RareKind China’!) and as you will read, the context of her work is very appropriate to my current research interests (as it is to International Women’s Day).
Gemma is based in Sheffield, UK, a place close to my heart as my parents once lived there as do many family friends. Gemma specialises in what she calls ‘documentary storytelling with photography, video and audio.’ Her work is socially-engaged (a buzz word in my current research and curatorial practice) and focuses on interests in migration, identity and belonging, and youth issues.
‘Chinese Life in Sheffield’ documents how the city of Sheffield has become home to many Chinese people over the years where the first record of a Chinese name in the city’s archives dates back as far as 1855. In recent years, there has been an influx of students from Mainland China to Sheffield [Gemma worked on a project about this previously – see The Wanderers below] where with this new work was keen to learn about the more established Chinese community in the city.
“I met some of Sheffield’s older Chinese residents, who arrived from Hong Kong in the 1960s and 70s and established takeaways and restaurants across the city; some of these former business owners feature in the portraits here. I spent time at the Chinese Community Centre on London Road, Sheffield Chinese School (held every Sunday at King Edward VII School), Wanlin Dance School, Sheffield Live Radio during transmission of the Mandarin language programme, backstage at the City Hall during the annual Chinese New Year Gala, and with Qian Li, who has established the first Chinese hairdressers in the city.” – Gemma Thorpe
Another of Gemma’s projects is 游子 Yóu zǐ, a documentary storytelling initiative that explores the lives of Chinese students in Sheffield. 游子 Yóu zǐ translates as ‘wanderer’ and is from a well-known poem, Youzi Yin (Song of the Wanderer) This poem has a deep meaning for Chinese people living abroad, speaking of the bond between a mother and her son who leaves home.
As Gemma states, ‘Chinese students make up the largest group of international students in the city where currently more than 2,000 Chinese students registered at The University of Sheffield. China’s huge population makes competition for University places and graduate employment at home even tougher; studying abroad can offer new perspectives and the chance to develop fluency in English, a much sought-after trait in the job market. In China, many more families can support a child through overseas study due to the rise of the middle classes, but also events in China’s recent history can go some way to explain the increase in students from the the mainland. This generation’s parents experienced the Cultural Revolution, a time in China when creativity was effectively suppressed, and travel abroad banned; many Chinese parents want their children to have the opportunities they themselves were denied. The 游子 Yóu zǐ Project aims to offer more personal insights into this recent phenomenon; it is about sharing the unique stories of a number of students, to demonstrate the varied lives of young Chinese people in our city.’
Gemma has recently re-edited some of the footage to create a new film called ‘The Wanderers’. It offers an insight into people who are far away from home at a pivotal time in life – the lives of Chinese international students in Sheffield. Gemma meets five students: Yuan Shuai, a keen gamer; Qingqing, a devout Christian staying in a Gleadless homestay; Jack, who studies and parties hard, ambitious journalism student Zhuoer, and Nina, quietly reflecting on life as as she studies for an MA in Cultures of the British Isles.