As an avid amateur travel photographer with a keen interest in the minority groups of the Southeast Asian Massif, I was extremely intrigued by the work of Shanghai-based documentary photographer Hong Qi (Carl) Ye. Carl spent four and a half years driving thirty thousand kilometers across five provinces, twelve regions, and eighty-five villages to photograph the Chinese Miao people.
The Miao (苗) is one of 55 ethnicities officially recognized by the government of China as a minority group. Better known as the Hmong in Laos, Thailand, Vietnam, and the United States, the Miao primarily live in China’s mountainous southern provinces of Guizhou, Yunnan, Sichuan, Hubei, Hunan, Guangxi, Guangdong, and Hainan.
The Miao people have a unique culture and are well-known as artisans and craftsmen. Traditionally the men work with stone, wood, bamboo and steel to build homes and produce hand tools, knives, baskets, and various other types of farming implements. The women of the region are also skilled artisans who weave cloth, produce natural indigo dyes and excel at batik and embroidery work. Silver, in the form of jewelry, is highly prized by both the Miao and their neighbors the Yao. Silversmiths can be found in most of the region’s towns. In addition to producing simple items, such as ring and bracelets, local craftsmen painstakingly create large intricate pieces that are worn during festivals and weddings.
The decision to visit Guangxi Province came easily to me, and I started the necessary research to plan a trip along a fairly common tourist route that included well-known destinations such as Guilin and Longsheng. At the same time, I began corresponding with Carl who I had initially contacted after viewing his work on Instagram. He was very generous with his knowledge of the area. He patiently answered my questions and with his help, I made a basic travel plan and purchased plane tickets.
To my great surprise, just days before I was to fly to Shanghai, Carl invited me to join him on a trip to Guangxi Province. Who would do this? Invite a complete stranger, from the other side of the globe, on a road trip? That question was answered clearly when I met Carl, a warm, friendly, and compassionate man whose enthusiasm can best be described as contagious.
I had read Carl’s magazine article “In Their Own Space” and seen his striking images. But I did not have a full grasp of the depth of his project. Carl is a consummate professional whose technical knowledge and skill are superb. The ability to connect with one’s subjects is a key part of creating meaningful images and this is another area in which Carl excels.
Our journey started from Nanning where we picked up a rental car and drove 453 kilometers west to De’exiang, (De’e) a small town in Longlin County. The majority of De’s residents are minority people from the Miao, Yi, Gelao, and Zhuang ethnic groups. We used De’e, a typical rural market town, as a base to visit the remote villages scattered around the county.
Few foreign or domestic tourists visit De’e apart from during lunar new year when the town hosts the well-known Tiapo Festival. Tiapo (跳坡节), or Tiàopō Jié in pinyin, translates to “leaping on the hillsides” and features music and dance performances by both local Miao people and other minorities from around the province. It is estimated that up to 40 thousand people attend the annual festival.
I was very fortunate to receive a second invitation to travel with Carl during Lunar New Year 2019 and attend the Tiapo Festival. Festivals and weddings are the best times to visit many of these remote regions and see people in their full costumes. Traditional clothing is time-consuming to make, or expensive to buy. In many areas’ minority people have given up on locally made clothing in favor of mass-produced, inexpensive western-style dress.
In many communities, one only sees the older folks, grandmothers, and grandfathers, still wear traditional clothing, or at least bits and pieces of what was once daily attire. I fear that in another generation or two the distinctive clothing that differentiates various ethnic groups and clans from one another will only be found in museums.