This easy migration of people from city to city is still hard for me to get used to. Seventeen years ago when I was traveling between Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou, they all had a ring of policemen around them checking identity papers. I was in China trying to get through those rings of security during the Tiananmen Square uprising. I remember traveling with wire service photographers and driving through those checkpoints at 90 mph and seeing the policeman jump up and down on the dais—literally hopping mad—but there was nothing they could do because they did not have guns or radios. After being absent 17 years, I made (technically) five trips to China in about a one-year period. The growth is so fast paced I could feel the energy and the stress on the street. It makes you realize that our empire is over, but you can’t really understand that without being there. Even though the NYT has multiple stories, every day, on the growth and complexity of the Chinese economy, the average American has little idea what this means other than a fear that increased Chinese fuel consumption will somehow affect what they put in the tank of their SUV. Robert Frank photographed twentieth-century America, recording our coming of age—the baby boom, the start of television, car culture, modular housing, and relative wealth distributed throughout the middle class. His photographs are of progress, technology, plenty, but also the weary faces of waitresses and elevator operators who were desperately trying to join the economic party. Those 1950s faces remind me of a line in Leslie Chang’s story about modern China: “What looks like freedom just feels like pressure.”Buy This Image
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