Getting to Chinese Cardplayers

Andy poses the question, how did I end up in Chinatown on this particular day, and what brought me to click the shutter at this time.  I also ask myself the same question.  As well as if this was the exact place to be standing, and I know I had to crop it on left and right…  In other words, I see many of the faults, whether real or imagined in the image.

It’s the reason I don’t have my own pictures hanging on my walls.  Or anybody else’s other than a poor print of Abbott and Costello.  That is a scan from a newspaper, and you see the halftones close-up; but it doesn’t matter.  Lou is carrying a baseball bat.

But let me try and remember how I – yes.   The first thing was that the more I wandered around the city, the more it became obvious that there were some very (to me) exotic places in this city.  I didn’t expect to ever have the money to visit China.  But for the cost of a token (that’s what they used then) you could sit yourself on a bench in the middle of a group of women in Chinatown and although you’d be stared at as an outsider, and as a male, they’d make you out for another one of those foreign tourists that are such a pain in the ass.

And since you knew you were going to Chinatown, you dressed the part.  Make yourself look like a tourist from the midwest.  Hang two cameras around your neck, and eat a stick of fried butter for chrissake.  Well, I was using a manual focus camera – the M – something – and did I have a 50mm? Lens.  Was I that close?  I don’t think so.  I think I had a 90mm on it.  I love the 3-dimensional feel the woman’s polka dot pants have.

But so that was the first thing that brought me there, the fact that I couldn’t afford a trip to China.  Also, of course that I was trying to follow in the footprints of HCB at that time (which maybe lasted a year) – but yes, I copied (or tried to) copy just about every photographer that I loved.

And the first time I was in Chinatown, in that park, I noticed how the women and men separated.  That in itself was foreign and as I say, exotic to me.  You saw it happen at parties a lot – especially if there was a big game on – how the guys would be in front of the set and the ladies were somewhere near the bar or the kitchen.

So then I was immediately out to try and photograph the women simply because it was more difficult.  I had already photographed the men on the other side of the park.  So that was the challenge.  Stand in the middle of a hundred Chinese women playing something – I still don’t remember what it was – but there was betting involved for sure.

I wonder why the Chinese, in my massive generalization, like to gamble?  I wonder if all cultures gamble about the same amount.  I doubt it.

Anyway – so I was pre-focused, but couldn’t stand off there with the camera to my eye, so I was trying to get the hang of the game.  Trying to figure out when something exciting was going to happen.  And yes, I got into the rhythm of it when they were slapping down one card after another.  And up the camera came to my eye – and they’re all excited so now they don’t notice me – and slam – click.  And that’s the picture.

Most of everything else I took that day was junk.

1 thought on “Getting to Chinese Cardplayers

  1. Thanks for this story, Dave, I always enjoy and get a lot out of your writing.

    I found myself nodding in familiarity when I read your final sentence. Welk, that one great one more than makes up for all that junk.

    I remember reading in Mike Johnston’s old column years ago that 95 percent of all his exposures were crap. But it didn’t bother him, he said, because the same was true of HBC and others, including Ansel Adams.

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