How photos from 1980s China are having a renewed impact

By Damian Meduri, Westpac Scholar, 2016 Asian Exchange

Imagine yourself forty years from now. You’ve experienced all the highs and lows of life, and you’ve even managed to settle down in a new country. You're lying in bed one evening, flicking through your phone reading the news and social media. You come across an article about your home country and suddenly you not only recognise your youthful self in a photo but that the photographer who lives on the other side of the world is trying to find the people in these photos. This is a story that is being played out in real time by the subjects of British photographer Mike Emery.

In 1980, Mike was on The Aquamarine, the first American passenger cruise to visit Mainland China. He was 23 years old at the time and did not have any previous experience with China. He travelled to Beijing and Shanghai with a desire to broaden his horizons. He captured the atmosphere and culture, taking snaps not just of places but of people. His photographs are those of cherub-cheeked children, groups of elderly men laughing and playing chess, and street vendors selling their wares. His work captures a moment in time when China was in the midst of undertaking great change.

Mike’s visit to China occurred not long after the policy of Opening and Reform was introduced, and Western foreigners by way of tourists were still a seldom seen sight. Throughout the streets of Shanghai, Beijing’s Forbidden City, and Tiananmen Square, Mike’s work portrays a human element that would have been previously difficult to find. At the time, it was a bridge that helped close the gap of understanding between East and West. Now, it has the potential to deliver an even more powerful and lasting impact. 

Do you recognise me?

As time went on, Mike reflected on his photos (links in Chinese: 1, 2, and 3) and often pondered on who the children in his photographs were.

Where are these people now? What are their lives like? Do they remember being photographed by a strange foreigner?

With these questions in mind, Mike has launched a personal crusade: a mission to locate and contact as many of the people in these photos as he can. In 2020, he published a book called China 1980 and started a campaign on Chinese social media to try and identify these faces. 

This effort by Mike is one he has decided to take up voluntarily and the book itself is a vessel to fulfill this mission. He has found allies that can aid him, from handling websites, coordinating digital campaigns, and even reaching out through the media. Mike’s work represents what is greatest about human culture and spirit. During a time where international tensions are volatile, these photos defy borders and penetrate to the heart of what it means to be a global citizen. Since the 1980s, China’s international diaspora has grown immensely. What would it mean for someone who grew up in China and is now living in Australia to chance upon a photo like this from their childhood?

Luckily, we already know the answer.

At the time of writing this piece, Mike has already been contacted by two of the children that feature in his book, one who lives in the United States of America. The woman, now 44 years old, has said:

“Seeing this old photo is the best birthday gift that I have ever had! It is like a time machine that has brought us back to 40 years ago.

The full exchange is personal, emotional, and it is clear that the impact of finding this memory is deep. 

The power of human connection and understanding that a medium such as photography can achieve is a strong reminder of how important it is for us to go outside of our comfort zones and understand other cultures. He didn’t anticipate this when he originally took these photos, but Mike’s adventurous spirit over forty years ago is still having positive impacts today. We should endeavour to keep that spirit of inquiry alive and remind ourselves of the human stories that connect us across cultures.

Ultimately, Mike’s work is a testament to photography and the role it plays in building bridges of understanding between people and the cultures they represent. For those in my circles with an interest in or connection with China, you can assist Mike in his effort by sharing his story, especially on Chinese social media platforms like WeChat and Weibo. 

Currently, Mike's book can only be bought in China here. If you know someone who was in Beijing or Shanghai in 1980, they might very well be featured! He can be contacted at mikewemery@gmail.com or WeChat ID MikeEmey_China1980.

Video message from Mike Emery: https://vimeo.com/515612540