Myles ~ Photographer, Bartender & Humanist
This article is part of a series on The Chinese Changemakers, where I shine a spotlight on the young Chinese changemakers and community leaders. Today I believe we need a collaboration with the younger generation through their passion, their sense of duty to their families and communities and the urgency of our current climate crisis.
Through this series, you will follow my journey and go deeper into China and the wisdom she holds. How are the changemakers equipped for their future? How will they transform things for our common green future?
The journey is about friendship, passion, strong values, and authenticity.
When I arrived in Gansu, I met up with my friend Myles, whom I met in Shanghai years before. He's originally from Baiyin and agreed to travel with me through his province for the project.
With a new COVID spread throughout the country, our initial trip was cut short. This resulted in Myles and I having a lot of time to catch up and for me to see his hometown Baiyin.
This part of the trip was really important for me and the project. Myles is someone who is very educated on culture, literature, the arts, and more. He taught me so much through our conversations about China and that part of their culture.
He's curious, he finds beauty in the rawness of life, and he's a humanist.
To me, his photography depicts the human relationship to our environment, the connection or disconnection, the beauty of nature, and the simple life.
I hope you enjoy reading our conversation :)
🐕 🚌 🌱
Can we start by talking about the poem you shared with me when we were driving on the road?
This poem is written in the Qing Dynasty by a military general, Zha Weiren
Those 7 characters mean music instruments (more specifically a typical traditional Chinese instrument), chess, calligraphy, painting, poetry, alcohol, and flowers. People used to use these 7 things and they can’t live without them.
Now the 7 things have changed into firewood, rice, oil, salt, soy sauce, vinegar, and tea.
This poetry means that people used to enjoy life, they used to see the beauty in their life and they couldn’t live any other way. The poem was written in the Qing Dynasty, when life was difficult and about survival, so the 7 most important things became other things.
I came across the article during my research for university on the drinking culture in China.
This shows how Chinese culture has evolved and the culture is hidden because of our history. The true essence and beauty of our culture have been gradually hidden in the history of recent hundreds of years.
Can you tell me a bit about your background?
I was born in Gansu province, in the small city of Baiyin. I grew up in the most normal family, but my dad is not like everybody. He’s quite special.
Growing up he worked outside of the city for 10 years of my life and came back home twice a year. I didn’t get the chance to be with both of my parents for my entire childhood, like the other kids. But I don’t feel like I lost anything, because his influence was like seeds planted in my heart. He didn’t need to be there for the seeds to grow, they grew by themselves. He likes to watch movies, he’s a cinephile, so naturally, he introduced me to the world of cinema.
Besides that, his love for the game of football was also something he shared with me, but moreover, the well-being of the body and the mind.
My education was pretty normal up until my time in university. I was studying foreign languages, and after two years I felt like my studies weren't leading me to the future I saw for myself so I decided to drop out. I went to Shanghai to work as a waiter and bartender.
Since I had no diploma, working in Shanghai and life, in general, was not easy. I couldn’t see the hope anymore. On top of that, I had a serious car accident in 2020, which felt like a slap in the face: Wake up what are you doing? Get yourself together.
During that time I realized that my life doesn’t solely belong to me... I owe my life to my parents and those who love me. My parents are like most Chinese parents, they have great hopes for me. My generation is from the one-child policy, so I am the only child, in other words, I was their only hope.
I chose different paths from others throughout my life and I thought it wasn’t fair to my parents. Especially coming from a small city where everyone knows each other. I don’t want them to feel bad, or as if they failed.
So I decided to get back to school to get my diploma.
Give me some parts of the puzzle. What are you about?
As I said, my dad introduced me to the world of cinema and cinema introduced me to the world. I think that’s why I am a little bit different from some of my high schoolmates. I am always fascinated by what’s going on outside of this country, in other parts of the world.
When I watched movies they fed me with curious ideas, which expanded my ideas of how I could be experiencing the world around me.
The reason why I chose foreign languages in university was inspired by the movie: Inglorious Bastards. I really love the sounds and pronunciation of the German language. It’s organized. I really enjoy it.
Language is similar to the cinema I feel, it’s also a window to the outside world. You can see a lot through it.
I think in a nutshell, I care more about people, rather than science and math, the more rational sciences. I don’t mean that those are bad things, I think they’re good, but I need feelings, emotions, ideas, and the beauty of life.
When I was younger, I really wanted to become a film director. I asked my mom for a camera, which was completely out of budget for my family. But my mom did the best she could to grant me my wish. I didn’t start with taking photographs since I was still much more interested in moving pictures. I tried my hand and did some short movies.
When I was done editing it, I thought to myself, this looks like a collection of pictures, that is moving with some music. I felt like the essence of it was closer to photography.
So I started to use my camera to take pictures instead of videos.
The real turning point in my work was when I met this girl in Shanghai. She was working as a photographer and although she’s not famous, I see things in her photographs. Because at first sight, I didn’t feel anything special about her. We talked like strangers to each other. But after I saw her work, I was moved by them. She’s not very talkative, but in her pictures, I can feel the energy, emotions, feelings, and messages. So when I was looking at her pictures and I looked back at her, I saw her as a very different person.
I felt the power in photography and so I thought to myself: How did she do that? What is it that is so different between her photography and my photography?
I thought about it and I tried to make my photos more like hers. Gradually I felt like I found something new. I felt like photography has become a way to explore myself. It’s more precise to express yourself than words.
I became more and more like her, and less like myself. The girl is very cool, very different. She didn’t care too much about too many things. Photography was incredibly important to her.
I was walking into her world, and trying to understand it from her point of view.
I still think she’s one of the most important people in my life. She influence and helped me so much.
I am surprised to hear that you recognized the fact that you entered her world, and by doing so you became more like her and less like you. Which I find is interesting because through strong relationships we foster with friends, lovers, and partners, I believe, we are looking for a piece of their world to add to our own inner world.
And you realized that there’s a limit to that because even though they become part of you, they are in the skin, you have to come back to yourself. It’s powerful you are able to articulate it.
(Myles) When I think about what makes me who I am today, I think about the different paths I’ve taken, the school dropout, and instances like these.
Working and living in Shanghai broadened my life. I finally got a grip on the difference between reality and theory. Life became more concrete for me. In other words, I was given the full liberty of doing what I wanted to do, at simultaneously I had to be responsible for myself.
The car accident changed me a lot. Before that incident, I thought about death and suicide in an imaginary way. Like, you can’t go there. It was all very abstract. But as I was lying there, with pain all over my body, I didn’t know if I was going to survive or not. That was a scary time, it was as if death was next to me in my bedroom.
I thought to myself, if I survive this, I can probably survive anything. The girl I mentioned was the only one who could be there with me at that time. It was during that time that I realized that my life doesn’t belong to me entirely. I owe my life to my parents, to that girl, and to god. I took life more seriously than ever before.
Things that I saw as hobbies are now part of my life. Not like something I do on the side for fun, but truly shapes my day and my thoughts. In my job, I don’t believe that work is work and fun is fun. I think it’s all part of your life, if you don’t do it for the passion for life, you don’t do it right.
What is a mantra that you live by?
I came up with two phrases, it’s more precise in Chinese: 未知即本质, which means the unknown is the only true reality. This means that the known is always biased.
The second one is 生存即生活, which means to survive is to live. I think they’re equal. I say this because people always say that survival is to survive, and to live is something higher, more fun maybe?
Everything you do, everything in your life is not necessarily for fun. Sometimes you need to do it for its own sake. And you can turn the sentence around, to live is to survive. It’s not easy to explain in English.
I came up with those phrases 2 - 3 years ago and at the time it sounded so true to me.
What does legacy mean to you?
At first, the word didn’t ring a bell in my mind, but after some thought, legacy means “proof of life” or “once lived”. I believe the word is deeply associated with life itself.
Or even a memory of a group of people or a culture.
Memories are a fascinating thing, you need to remember them to remind you of who you are, but we can’t remember everything.
I guess my body is part of my parents' legacy on top of the passions and stories they’ve shared with me and the same for my grandparents. In that sense, I feel like I received a rich legacy from so many different people.
Can we end with what your name means?
(laughs) Sure, so my Chinese name is Chen Kaiang. Chen is my family name and it doesn’t really mean anything. Kai has different characters, and my Kai means happy and peaceful at the same time. Ang is a special character, it means to be proud of something or yourself, to raise your head. The character comes from the body movement to raise up your head, and the character of my name was derived from that.
All together my name means: there’s a man whose family name is Chen, he’s happy, peaceful, and proud of himself.
I guess that’s it.