A New Year's in a Rickshaw

by Caren Duane | 1/15/15 9:59pm


Devoid of sparklers, Anderson Cooper and Martinelli’s, New Year’s Eve 2014 was unlike any other for Lisa Luo ’15. Instead of watching the ball drop from the comfort of her living room in Boston, Lisa rang in the new year in a rickshaw hurtling through Beijing’s congested streets. The closed tin box pulled by a guy on a motorcycle made for a strange and claustrophobic celebration of the New Year. Luckily, the rickshaw had one small, plastic window for Lisa to gaze out.

Lisa’s tin-box fête marked the beginning of her four-month-long solo journey through China. She left her home in Boston with two themes in mind — filmmaking and childhood. Lisa planned to travel around both cities and mountain villages to interview family members, culminating in a documentary about her family’s history. One of her primary goals was to explore the story of her father’s side of the family in an effort to understand what motivated her paternal family’s immigration to the United States. More than just an expedition into filmmaking, though, Lisa’s travels in China had another purpose — she wanted to experience a Chinese childhood.

“I wanted to be able to live with my family that I’d never met as a kid while I still had time to be a kid,” said Lisa. There was an entire side of her family — her mom’s side — that she’d only heard about in stories. Lisa yearned to “meet them, live with them and see their way of life.” Splitting her time amongst Shenzhen, Guangzhou, Beijing, Xingning, Luogang, and Hong Kong, Lisa was able to deepen her understanding about her family’s day-to-day life in different parts of China.

The country, and the villages especially, had changed tremendously since Lisa last visited as a young child.

“Back then, there were no roads, no skyscrapers and it took a whole day to get between two cities. We had to take a train, motorcycle and rickshaw, and the roads were old,” she said. “Every morning if you wanted milk you had to bring your glass bottle and line up at the village cow.”

Growing up in the U.S., Lisa spoke what she believed to be a make-believe language — a language that she only spoke with her mom, dad and brother. She sometimes wondered if every family had their own language. Upon arrival in Luogang, the mountain village where her family lives, the “Luo language” became real. For the first time in her life, Lisa could speak her parent’s native language, Hakka Chinese, with people outside her household. A language of migrant people who moved from the north to the south, Hakka Chinese became known as the migrant or guest language. The Chinese characters for Hakka mean “guest families.” Linked to Mandarin in the way that English shares similarities with French, Hakkanese uses the same characters as Mandarin with different pronunciations. Although Lisa is fluent in this dialect, she still encountered communication barriers during her travels. Hakka Chinese is slowly dying due to governmental attempts to unite the country under Mandarin.

“Everyone my age speaks Mandarin, and it’s rare for you to move out of the small village and into the big city and not take up Mandarin,” Lisa said.

Improvising her way around China, Lisa could only communicate in depth with her grandparents and older generations, as she does not speak Mandarin.

Many of those in the older generation were bewildered when a five-foot-10 foreigner donning neon Nike running shoes could speak their language.

Her parents had lived in China until 1992 when they migrated to the United States. The decision to leave China was not difficult.

“There was no ‘if.’ I made my decision, and I never looked back,” remarked Chan, Lisa’s mother. Born in the midst of the Cultural Revolution in China, Lisa’s parents’ childhoods were defined by the policies of Chairman Mao Zedong. Lisa said she believed that Mao tried to rewrite Chinese history, burn libraries and censor books. Lisa’s paternal side of the family was composed of historians and professors. They were subsequently thrown in jail.

The Cultural Revolution, of course, occupies a complex position in Chinese history. Not all Chinese people experienced the Cultural Revolution as Lisa’s family did.

Lisa’s first stop, Shenzhen, was once a site where some who wanted to leave China during the Cultural Revolution fled. When Lisa had visited Shenzhen as a child, the city felt like little more than a small village. Now, it is home two of the 30 tallest skyscrapers in the world.

After spending a month in Shenzhen occupying the upper bunk in her 12-year-old cousin’s room, Lisa gained insight into the life of a Chinese child. She harbored an aching back, the natural product of her sleeping arrangement — her “upper bunk” was really just a wooden board in disguise.

Lisa found childhood in China to be solitary.

“Every family is the same — two parents, one child. Kids have a lot of hobbies to distract them from not having siblings,” Lisa stated. “It’s lonely and interesting.”

Consequently, her little cousin was quite happy to have an American cousin around.

Upon embarking on her trip to the mountain village, Luogang, Lisa hoped to focus on capturing what the old villages looked like.

The transformations that had taken place in China since her family left made it difficult to accurately capture the village through the eyes of her parents, as roads were paved right through old clusters of houses.

Lisa traveled around with her camera and unsteady tripod to interview family members. Once resorting to using a broken car seat as a makeshift tripod on the side of a mountain, Lisa had to make due. Filming only on days when the sun was out, as she did not have lighting equipment, Lisa often had to beg an aunt in Xingning to drive her — via motorcycle — on bright days to film. Her family was unaware that she would be filming them until she arrived, as they did not have email.

“They’d all be really confused about why I wanted to film. It was interesting and hard interviewing your own family members because I’d have to try and be really professional while also trying to live with them and be a kid with them,” she said.

Once Lisa returned to campus, she had a store of footage to process later. She has not finalized a film yet, but the shots she took and memories she shared persist.