Around China with a Movie Camera is a lovingly-edited compilation of newsreel, documentaries and home movies mostly from the silent era. It takes the form of a journey from Beijing to Shanghai via the Great Wall, the Grand Canal and the Yangtze River. It is a magical double-whammy combining history in film and film as history.
|Beijing in 1910|
We begin in Beijing in 1910 with a single, tinted roll of film from the end of the Qing dynasty shot by an unknown British cameraman touring China on behalf of producer Charles Urban. The faces and the streets…
Then home movie footage of a bustling market in the Dongsi district of east Beijing from 1925, the walls of the Forbidden City shot by Reginald Stanley Clay in 1933 and the Qianmen gate in Liulichang district from Sidney Howard Hansford in 1939 - the British are present along most of the journey. Back to 1933 for a home movie from Mrs SK Eng, showing Beihai Park and the Temple of Heaven - part of the only known film shot by a Chinese-British family at this time.
|The Temple of Heaven in 1933|
The footage may quote from many diverse sources but there’s a geographical and textual coherence aided by a smartly-eclectic score from Ruth Chan who uses a mix of traditional and contemporary, Eastern and Western tones and musicians. In her essay on the music Ms Chan reveals that the project gave her a chance to reconnect with her cultural backstory and the score is intimate and sympathetic, sparked by an emotional re-connection with a world her family left behind a generation ago.
We see and hear the grandeur and romance of The Great Wall as shown by precious footage from a honeymooning couple in 1928… It is a dirty great wall and the sight of the Brits looking out on this uncanny structure resonates – this culture is so ancient and its mark is visible even from the great heights of the British Empire.
|Hard to overlook|
Back to 1910 and a Pathe newsreel showing the camels at work around the Great Wall and local workers enjoying lunch al fresco: street food is a feature throughout and this film really should be accompanied by vouchers for Gerrard Street.
Now onto the Grand Canal in 1908 and a 1000-year-old waterway that stretches the 1775 kilometres between Beijing and Hangzhou – more astounding engineering from a time - the oldest sections are Fifth Century - when Britons still lived in wattle and daub.
|Birds on a boat|
Suzhou in 1920 is where the lost art of cormorant fishing is revealed… This is exactly as you’d imagine, birds tied to a boat, all trained to release their catch rather than swallow it – aided by well-aimed prods from fishermen’s sticks. It doesn’t look very efficient even though the turtles and fish keep on coming. But when did the birds get to eat?
At the end of the Grand Canal Hangzhou’s Gong Chen Bridge is revealed in glorious Pathecolor – a system that mechanically stencilled dyes onto film to create the effect of true colour. This section is just lovely but I am a sucker for stencil!
|Gong Chen Bridge|
We go with the flow to the Yangtze River filmed in 1930 by John Cuthbert Wigham whilst on a Quaker mission and then to Chongqing at the confluence of the Yangtze and Jialing rivers filmed by British Screen Tatler, a cine-magazine for the open-minded colonialist of 1928.
To the remote Yunnan province for a glimpse of the lives of the Miao people in a film made for the Methodist Missionary Society in 1948 and then back to 1902 to see Miao training as soldiers, smoking opium – love the wonky music Ms Chan! - and performing an opera all filmed by French consul Auguste Francois. The Miao are now one of 55 offically recognised minorities in China a bewildering range of culture and tradition.
|Guangzhou in 1920|
Back to city life, with footage of Guangzhou which has a huge riverfront not unlike the Bund in Shanghai… a woman works on the boats her baby strapped to her back: no maternity rights in 1920.
Hong Kong is shown in a 1927 propaganda film from British Instructional Films, A Gate of China – it looks so different from the other cities and the presence of a church confirms the western dominance even as the cultural mix is revealed by street theatre and a dragon boat race in Aberdeen Harbour.
There are more colonial flavours in Shanghai, even in 1933 a colossus… and back in 1900 on the cosmopolitan Nanjing Road within the International Settlement where there are European women on bikes, German soldiers and the famous Sikh police. On to 1927 and footage showing the Shanghai Defence Force arriving in the days before the massacre of 12th April… newsreel from the 7th April shows mounting panic in the days before Chiang Kai-shek declared martial law…
|Germans soldiers and Sikh police share the Nanjing Road in 1902|
By 1929 in newsreel from Topical Budget Shanghai sees the Great World Amusement Park – “Shanghai’s Coney Island” and probably Blackpool as well.
1936 films from Lady Dorothea Hosie of the Shanghai-Life… then 1937’s The Face of Shanghai shows the famous buildings of the Bund and a trip to the races… it could almost be Newmarket or Ascot.
|A day at the races|
The film concludes with what might well be the oldest surviving film to be shot in China which has remained unseen for over 115 years… a candid window on a world I’d scarcely knew existed but then, for me, this whole picture is a magical mystery tour.
The digital media is available on Monday 18th July from the BFI Shop – it’s another immersive compilation of early cinematic wonders that leaves you wanting to watch more of the source materials.
The BFI are screening the picture with live accompaniment on Thursday 21st July – tickets available on the BFI site. A splendid time is guaranteed for all!
There is more about Ruth Chan's music on her website.