A Spaceship, Hot Wheels, And Imaginary Happiness

A photographic journey into children’s fantasy lives.

Under the baking sun of a lazy Sunday on one of Shanghai’s labyrinthine market streets, vendors loudly hawked their wares to the few shoppers passing through the Nongtang alleys.

“Welcome aboard Magic Spaceship No.1. Me, the captain, will bring you to the magnificent galaxy!” a sporty nine-year-old boy informed his three fellows. Surrounded by chaos and noise, they circled a dilapidated motorcycle with a broken headlamp covered by plastic tape.

“The earth is burning! We have to take off the land right now. Come on, let’s go!” said the captain. He wiped sweat beads off his forehead with the dirty sleeve of his jacket as he hopped on the front seat. His jacket is emblazoned with Transformers leader Optimus Prime.

The passing housewives and grandmas passed by unaware of the upcoming launch or their own impending doom.

“Yes, sir!” Two chubby boys quickly hopped on the “spaceship.” One of the chubby boys giggled when he protectively tried to take over the entire back seat and their weight caused it start tilting back on its kickstand.

“It’s overloaded! Someone has to get off,” said the intrepid captain authoritatively.

“Don’t leave me alone on the earth! I want to move to the Mars too,” the third boy cried out, he anxiously clambered up and clung to the frame like passengers hanging on outside of over-packed trains in India.

His efforts and added weight tilted the motorcycle further towards the brink of toppling over. As the boys wildly shifted their weight to avert a real life disaster, they burst into peals of delighted laughter.

“Only ten seconds left! Ten, nine, eight, seven…” as the captain counted down the number, a kid who was about two years younger than the other boys meekly approached the vehicle. In an accent of Anhui province, he mischievously delivered a message, “Brothers, sorry but my dad said to get off his motorcycle. He needs to make a grocery delivery.”

In China, millions of migrant workers contribute to metropolitan work in a wide variety of professions from being a construction labor to running hometown-style restaurants. Many have their children in tow as the family drifts from one city to another.

While the adults bear the burden of making a living, their kids are the pursuers of great adventures. They discover fun with the power of imaginations set free.

At 9:30 p.m., the sound of sizzling meat drew attention of commuters emerging from a nearby metro tunnel to the vendor stationed at the mouth of a quiet alley.

While most of them marched forward, eager to be greeted by cozy apartments, a female dressed in neat white-collar fashion in her late twenties was attracted by the enticing smell of barbecued meat. Under a dim streetlamp, she saw a couple from Xinjiang province were barbecuing lamb skewers.

The smoke from the barbecue stand hung over the couple as fat dripped onto the glowing coals. As they generously added sprinkled cumin upon the juicy meat, the office lady walked over and ordered three skewers as a reward for her long, hard day.

Tired, she yawned and looked around the sleepy alley. Next to the barbecue stand, two Xinjiang girls at ages five and three, both dressed in overalls, were energetically running back and forth with two discarded bicycle tires in their hands.

These were clearly the vendors’ children, she noted.

Bright smiles shone forth from their faces, round cheeks blushed with genuine excitement, an emotion not common among white-collar people, she thought.

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As the elder Xinjiang kid lowered the tire to the ground, she surprisingly whispered to the tire, candidly, as if making wishes over a birthday cake. After giving an adept push, she continued chanting to herself while attentively watching the tire rolling along.

The tire traveled about five meters before wobbling. The elder kid hopped up and down with exhilaration. Following her sister, the younger one imitated the action, but her tire failed to go as far as her sister’s.

As the office lady inhaled the smell of enticing barbecued meat that relaxed her senses, she overheard the elder sibling giggle, “You have to say the magic words, Hot-wheel!” She could not help but think of Nezha, a mischievous god that rode on wheels of flame.

The office lady sat on the street curb and started nibbling on the barbecue. Observing how delighted the children were by this simple game provided a chance for reflection and a momentary relief from her office stress.

The kids noticed her glancing at them.

“Nice wheels, I wish I could play with you,” she said to the inquisitive adventurers. The kids beamed with wide grins and, taking her literally, ran to her eagerly. While she was not sure she could beat five meters, she knew the magic words. “Hot wheel.”

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Creativity Team:

Photo & Fictional Storytelling by: Jude Jiang,

Editing by: Richard Trombly,


The Deafening Silence Beneath The Noise

It was a brisk sunny afternoon in October, 2015. Amid the incessant stream of traffic in downtown Shanghai, the 755-meter-long Dongtai Road, a pedestrian lane, seemed quieter than the surrounding streets.

A solitary man was fixing the handles, clasps and zippers on two care-worn suitcases. As he deftly switched between using pliers and tweezers from a tool bag, he pondered if these might be his last sale of second-hand goods on this once-thriving antique haven.

The clattering of nearby demolition crews woke a stray tabby cat from its afternoon nap. The tin shack’s rooftop had recently become the safest remaining shelter in this rapidly-disappearing neighborhood block.

A property giant bought this prime land that once contained a world-renowned antique- and flea-market district covering not just Dongtai Lu but encompassed the adjacent streets as well. 

The market used to be flooded with tourists from around China and from all over the world, and more than 100 antique store owners. They aggressively bargained for sales of antiques or reproduction items ranging from an ancient porcelain to Mao Tse-Tung’s little red book. 

A middle-aged former antique dealer wandered on the street, strolling past the seeming endless row of vacant stalls and empty shops. In his hand, he held a local newspaper which reported the latest urban development of this city. 

Most of antique dealers had accepted compensation fees and moved out by June. He contemplated doing the same thing and returning to his hometown in Anhui province.

The sounds of suitcase repairs, the strolling vendor and the cat’s meow were drowned by an excavator starting its engine, sending a plume of diesel exhaust skyward. 

Avid antique dealers Mr. Yang (right) and Mr. Du (left) stared bleakly at the vanishing world that had nearly been a second home to them over the past two decades.

They spoke in subdued and gentle tones with recollections of times past, commenting on the pace of change or alternately, they shared long glances that communicated without words. While Du sipped home-brewed tea from a glass jug, itself almost an antique, Yang gently sighed. 

The sound of something shattering made them recall a day three months earlier, when many shop owners, including their close friend Mr. Ma, made their exodus from the antique street.

On this final day, he and his family faced the monumental task of sorting through and packing up thousands of items he had carefully collected from homes in the nearby neighborhoods. 

Many of these items that Ma treasured were regarded as worthless by his family, who tossed them upon a trash heap. 

As some discarded ceramics shattered on the ground, the gentle octogenarian became cross and lost his temper as he clashed with his families’ harsh judgments.

Yang quipped that they might become grumpy like Ma in their old age and Du pointed out the difficulty folks like them already have in communicating with younger generations.

While they were immersed in pondering the future, another dealer intently typed on the keypad of his smart phone. He seemed untouched by the sights and sounds or the brisk breeze of the autumn afternoon.

Creativity statement:

Facing the information age, we have warped our lives into those small boxes on the screens of phones that we call apps. Even as they make us more connected, we also feel our existence becomes more cluttered and isolated.

I discovered photographing displays a certain power of amplifying single moments that otherwise will be lost to the rapid flow of time. My aspiration is to preserve and shed light on sincere moments and human interactions.

Photo & Storytelling by: Jude Jiang,

Editing by: Richard Trombly,