Just Passing Through

Day 7, 500 words, 31 days.

This morning we found ourselves taking another visiting friend to see the Clan Jetties. These historic waterfront settlements are literally water villages built on stilts. To this day they are still occupied by Chinese residents representing the familial clans from which they are named.

We frequent the Chew Jetty when we have guests – as it is the most populated strip of houses along the water, many of which have converted part of their properties into little shopfronts selling a variety of tourist-friendly knick-knacks.

As much as possible, I try to walk quietly and carefully on the rickety wooden planks of the walkway. Less so because I fear losing my footing, but mostly to be respectful. I just don’t want to cause a scene. There are plenty of other obnoxious tourists brandishing their big cameras and long lenses and shooting everything that is moving along the jetty.

I don’t need to be another one of those people, taking tourist-type pictures inconspicuously, with no sense of shame or discreteness whatsoever.

Most the time, I snap a photo here and there, almost never of any of the residents, and if I would – they’re sure to be candid pictures. I don’t have the gall to ask someone’s permission for a portrait. Everything I witness, and capture, happens in a few seconds – a woman washing her clothes by hand in the corner, a mother carrying her son while tending the store, an old man sitting on his balcony, bare-chested and smoking a cigarette.

I don’t take pictures of any of these things. I just keep a mental log of what real life is like here, and move on to the edge by the water and take that typical, sweeping, panoramic shot of the sea. Best not to bother the locals here, so I do my best to be the least intrusive as I can be.

The appeal of these settlements makes sense. These families still choose to live by the water, or rather, on top of it. Every sunset, they boast a a magnificent view of the water and the ferry terminal nearby. These jetties have been around for what feels like ages – and the “clans” are still here – working, living, and dealing with constant visitors invading their home.

There’s something unsettling about the whole thing for me. Perhaps this same quality prevents me from ever becoming a bold photographer, but I simply cannot muster up the courage to document the way they live without regarding their privacy. Everything I do shoot, I shoot quickly, and as secretly as possible.

We are the voyeurs in their village. We, the visitor, on one hand, are a source of revenue for their makeshift businesses. However, we come in droves, we make noise, we shoot pictures indiscriminately, and we take up their rightful space. I can’t imagine how frustrating we must be.

I assume they want our money. Equally, I assume they want us out of their hair. Maybe they just want us to make it quick – this “transaction” of sorts – the experience of their unique living quarters for an increase in public attention, which in turn, may mean more money put into preserving their homes.

It’s a trade-off I’d never wish I’d have to make, if I were in their shoes. If it were up to me, I’d just want to be left alone. Or maybe, ban cameras altogether. At least the big ones. No one needs to bring a telescope into these places.

What we ought to bring, is grace. Respect. An appreciation for how these families have lived on with very little. As well as an admiration for their tolerance for some unique smells. I prefer not to imagine what could be in the water after all these years, and it’s best that I reserve my judgments.

At the very least, I’m just thankful that we, the visitors, are afforded even more grace than we give. Yes, perhaps, they look at us suspiciously, and rightfully so. The least we can do is tread lightly, shoot sparingly, and be on our way. A donation would be even better.

Maybe there is simply no dancing around this delicate interaction between locals that have developed a business by “selling history”, and the visitors willing to pay to take it all in. Maybe there isn’t anything wrong with it at all.

All I know is, it’s never that comfortable. Not for me. I can only imagine what they must be feeling about us.

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