Photography, poetry, writing and teaching: Twenty Years of China

On Wednesday 19 August 2015, Michael Powles, the President of the NZCFS Wellington Branch welcomed attendees to the monthly meeting. The speaker for the night was Madeleine Slavick, who lived in Hong Kong for 24 years as a teacher, fundraiser, campaigner, photo-journalist and editor. She has published several books of photography, poetry, and non-fiction, and travelled to Mainland China to document various anti-poverty projects. Madeleine has had two recent exhibitions in Wellington and Auckland: RED (photographic images of China) and Hong Kong Song (a retrospective of 25 years of living in Hong Kong). Her presentation focused on both her personal artistic work and professional work with Oxfam.

Madeleine first moved to Hong Kong in 1988 from Los Angeles when she was a 26 years old social worker, artist and photographer. She lived in a public housing estate with her Hong Kong born husband and inlaws in Northwest Hong Kong, in an area with few foreigners. Despite this, she felt very safe in the city and often walked alone at night, which was not as common in Los Angeles. During her time in Hong Kong, Madeleine expressed the society’s ‘can do, make do’ attitude, and the ease of interacting with institutions and companies. This included the ease of organising poem nights for local and international poets, and events around the city.

Michael Powles and Madeleine Slavick

Michael Powles and Madeleine Slavick

While in Hong Kong, Madeliene tried out a number of different callings. This included teaching English at an international school, being a campaigner for Friends of the Earth, writing and working as a social worker. It was through these experiences and interactions with locals that she was able to learn more about the culture and customs of Hong Kong. In 1995, Madeliene began work at Oxfam Hong Kong as the inhouse editor, which combined two of her passions; social work and communications. She was involved in a number of campaigns, including ones on anti-landmines, setting minimum wage, climate change and fair trade. She also helped produced the Annual Review of Oxfam Hong Kong and fundraised for the organisation, where the majority of funds came from donations.

In addition to this work, she travelled to a number of different countries to write pieces on Oxfam projects, including in Vietnam, Ethopia, India, Indonesia and Cambodia. She also visited Mainland China on a number of occasions. During this time, there was approximately 700 projects each year in Mainland China, focusing on agriculture, clean water, migrant workers and gender inequality. While visiting these projects in the rurals areas, Madeliene took a number of photographs and her experiences inspired a number of poems at this time. One small scale project that Madeliene helped establish was called ‘My Favourite Thing’. She talked to a number of people in Shimen, a tiny township near the crossroads of Yunnan, Sichuan and Guizhou provinces, and photographed them with their favourite thing – this included a young boy wanting a satchel for school and a coal miner stating time. An exhibition was held in Hong Kong to present their stories, and a company in Shanghai called L.O.V.E, expanded on this idea and conducted over 120,000 interviews across Mainland China, focusing on the people’s favourite things.

During her presentation at the NZCFS meeting, Madeliene shared with us a number of poems and images from her time in Hong Kong. The photographs were taken around the city, including during the Mid-Autumn Festival and at Victoria Park during the 4 June Memorial. She also spoke on her experiences and talks with the people of Hong Kong. To learn more about Madeliene and to see her work, please visit her online blog at: Below is the opening of one of her poems, Sheung Wan, 3 a.m, from the book, Something Beautiful Might Happen (2010).

Rain falls like flowers at my feet,

runs down the window of a parked car, effortlessly. I turn the

corner, every road has the shadow of a season I once loved.

About the author

Kirk McDowall (NZCFS Youth)
Kirk McDowall (NZCFS Youth)

Hi I'm Kirk, and I'm part of the New Zealand China Friendship Society. I've spent time volunteering in Mainland China and currently (trying) to learn Mandarin. As a result, I joined the Society to be more involved in the Chinese community in Wellington. If you want to find out more about NZCFS Youth please contact us.

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