Postcards from Beijing

Updated: 2011-01-21 11:26

By Patrick Whiteley (China Daily European Weekly)

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Danish Duo use old pictures to tell stories of China's past

When Simon Gjeroe was 10-years-old, he pulled a dusty box from the top shelf of his family's attic and was spellbound by what he had discovered.

It was a box of china that his great-great grandfather had collected from Danish sailors who had traveled to and from the far reaches of Asia. The patterns, designs and the intricate pictures on the plates and teacups were so delicate, and so different. Only a week before he had visited the home of a classmate, who had lived in China and had a room full of Chinese artefacts and curiosities.

Gjeroe had well and truly caught the China bug.

Postcards from Beijing

Above: Lars Thom (left) and Simon Gjeroe sold more than 40,000 postcards last year.
Top: Old pictures collected by Thom and Gjeroe. Feng Yongbin / China Daily

After military service, he studied Mandarin in his hometown of Copenhagen, continued further language studies in Kunming, in southern China, became a tour guide, and continued collecting old photographs and images of China's bygone era.

Gjeroe's passion for images of China's past has now become a business and together with fellow Danish Sinologist Lars Thom, he has been selling postcards, calendars, maps and old prints.

Last year their business, Beijing Postcards, sold more than 40,000 postcards, which feature street scenes and portraits from the 1890s to the 1950s. More than 30 percent of their sales features original prints, calendars and maps.

However, Thom, 36, considers himself more of storyteller than a postcard seller.

"I'm different to Simon because I didn't have the China dream when I was little but I always liked history and I liked telling people stories and the China story has always been a challenge because it is so different," he says.

And pictures, he says, are one of the best ways to tell a story,

The first photographic studios were established in Beijing in the early 1870s and by 1931 the city had 48 studios, including both Kodak and Agfa.

"People began going to photographic studios, usually during special occasions such as Chinese New Year or weddings where a serious, dignified atmosphere was observed," Thom says.

"The well-respected nature of photography, elegant studio furnishings and the knowledge that a permanent image was being created caused the atmosphere to be tense and the portraits to be rigid.

"But however the stiff and serious the subjects in the family photos may seem, they can still tell a story.

"Family photographs document the events that shape families lives. Much like family story telling, photographs indicate relationships and hierarchy within and among the family, attitudes such as favoritism toward those portrayed as well as power and passion."

Gjeroe, 37, says the studios always had to accommodate different tastes and be able to provide the latest fashions and trends as photographic props.

"These varied from prestigious foreign furniture and carpets, rickshaws, bicycles, boats and cars to the little details such as cups and saucers, flowers, stuffed animals or stunning backdrops," he says.

"With their extensive travels further and further inland, photographers even offered on the spot services in small villages in the Chinese countryside."

The memorabilia, which was an instant hit with foreign tourists, has now become popular among Chinese, too.

"When we first started in 2007, the Chinese didn't like our postcards because they thought it reflected an outdated China, they thought it was backwards," Thom says.

"But now a large part of our customers are Chinese and they come into our shop and show their children and grandchildren what old China was like."

Gjeroe says a majority of the collection was found outside of China because the pictures are taken, drawn or published by foreigners and some of the original prints and maps span back 300 years.

"Collecting these visual images of China's past has become a great passion of ours, some friends suggest an obsession," Gjeroe says.

Aside from the photographic collection the Danes also present exhibitions of their pictures and give talks on various subjects related to their collection.

One of their recent projects was a photo exhibition of Beijing's city layout and the theme was its distinct north-south axis, which runs perfectly though the city.

The city's axis layout was designed in the early 1400s but origins of the old capital can be traced even further back to the Mongol capital Dadu during the reign of the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368).

All Beijing's important architecture, such as the Temple of Heaven, the Imperial Palace and the Qianmen gate, were placed either directly upon or alongside the axis. In recent years, the Olympic Birds Nest stadium and the Water Cube, also were positioned along the axis.

An interesting picture was a bird's eye view of Tian'anmen Square as it looked in the 1930s and the Tian'anmen gate with the portrait of Chiang Kai Shek hanging on it.

"Small details like the Bell Tower being a cinema in the 1920s reveals themselves if you look close enough," Thom says.

The Danes have set up a shop in Nanluoguxiang, one Beijing's most popular and historical laneways, or hutongs.

Its also called "Centipede Street", because of the eight hutongs that trail off on either side of the 800-meter-long central lane.

Thom says he gained much information from old locals who were able to explain background stories to the pictures.

"Everybody is so open and the pictures help them remember such a rich history," he says.

"I hate the expression 'old Beijing' because what does it mean? Are you talking about the Qing Dynasty, or the Ming or the Yuan?" he asks.

"China's history is so long and there are so many differences and everything has changed.

"But the pictures tell the story."


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