The cab driver is staring at me in the rear view mirror. He pulls out into the line of very slow moving traffic. His eyes flick momentarily away from the mirror before returning to the exact position they had vacated.
I am jammed in the back seat next to my camera and tripod. On my lap I have my guidebook, a map and a notebook in which I have written the phonetic pronunciations of my intended locations. I have the distinct feeling I may not be improving the driver’s opinions of westerners. I carefully form the words:
“Yu Fo Si.”
“Yoooo Foe Sirrr.”
“Jade Buddha Temple,” I say, hopefully. The eyes blink.
I lean forward and point to the location. The driver looks at me and then looks at the map. Taxis in Shanghai are colour-coded according to the quality of the taxi service. Regardless of cab colour, pointing to my chosen destination has elicited pretty much the same response from all: a look of consternation, followed by a narrowing proximity of face to map, some finger tracing, shaking of head and, lastly, an expression of concern that I may well be mentally ill. This particular driver only slightly differs from procedure, pausing, at stage two to lift his glasses to his face so he can clearly misconstrue the cryptic document the odd westerner is showing him.
Perhaps a picture from the guidebook will help. I flick to a glossy image of the temple. The driver’s face lights up with recognition. Relieved, I sink back in the seat. The eyes in the rear view mirror, now happy, are still fixed on me.
“YuFoSi,” he says.
This is my first visit to The Jade Buddha Temple and the weather refuses to make things easy. After an hour, I have achieved little other than a strong friendship with a trainee monk.
As I leave, I notice the temple’s large colourful doors are still striking in the flat light. There is only one position for my tripod, across the road from the doors, directly above a mound of embers and burning incense. Setting up, I endure the smoke and the light covering of ash, which is progressively adorning my hair.
Before I am ready, a beggar with a tin cup and a walking cane hobbles through the shot. Something about his dress and demeanour lends itself to the picture. Without thinking, I find myself in front of him enacting the walk that I would like him to repeat. We both know that a discussion of finances will follow and settle on a 2 yuan fee.
When I return to my camera, I see we have a few spectators: a very attractive Italian looking lady sitting on a wall a few metres away, and a young Chinese man. Once behind my camera, I motion to the old man to begin walking. He seems unsure but progresses.
Looking up I note the man has shown a surprising burst of speed. Within moments, he is halfway across the road towards me, then before me with extended hand. I place the 2 yuan in his palm and thank him very much. He studies his palm for some time, looks at me, then at his palm, and then at me again.
“He wants more money,” the young Chinese genius helpfully offers from behind me. “10 yuan,” he adds.
I am not sure why, given the tiny sum of money involved, but I feel this has become a matter of principle. I decline and pretend to busy myself with important camera things. Hand shaking and protestations begin. They persist for some time and with increasing volume but my unflinching photographic concentration wins out. I hear him fading out as he shuffles off.
Through the viewfinder, I watch him return to the other side of the road. He stops, as abruptly as someone moving slowly can, turns, leans against his cane and stares disappointedly at me. I take the shot and my heart softens a little. I pack up my equipment, cross the road to find him still muttering and put a little more change in his hand, another 5 or 6 yuan. I anticipate a pleased response but am somewhat taken aback when a sharp increase in volume and gesticulation indicates he is affronted.
I am definitely not giving any more. I turn and walk calmly away. As I do so, it occurs to me that the volume of the shouting is not diminishing. Glancing over my shoulder, I see the beggar is keeping a steady pace with me. I increase my speed. I am not running, just walking normally; I have long legs and am a fast walker so this is a totally normal pace, human beings often walk at this pace. I look behind me. Oh good, he has been joined by a man who has no legs and is propelling himself along on a skateboard. Pack mentality; they have smelt blood, and are honing in. I am now walking quite fast but definitely not running. I could be in a rush, I might have somewhere very important to go, my non-existent wife might be in hospital. I overtake a cyclist. The corner of the road is within view. Bottomless skateboard beggar has overtaken walking stick beggar and is rapidly closing in on me. I turn the corner, out of sight, and I am now very, very definitely running. Perhaps I won’t talk to the Italian lady.
It is not always easy to keep motivated when conditions are not ideal but sometimes perseverance pays off. I felt I was on a limited time and understanding with the man in this shot so I left the camera mounted on the tripod. As I was running it occurred to me the camera was set to MF and I had not refocused from the original shot…I just about got away with it.
Technical: Canon 1DS III, Canon 70 – 200mm, ISO 200, F6.3, 125 th, Lowepro CompuTrekker