Luck

Hear Chase speak more about his journey and how mood changed his photography during his unplanned stint in Shanghai with a three course meal & wine pairing at Huxley by Executive Chef Manfred Wrembel. 

 

Shanghai is a big city: it has a population of 24.15M people. Back in March of this year Chase Newton, a photographer from San Francisco, was forced to become one additional member of that population.

Earlier this year Chase was on his way to Tokyo to join with five other photographers for a show. The cheaper route happened to go through Shanghai, with only a six hour layover. Sure he thought, an extra few hours will go by quick, especially with the switch from Pudong International to Hangzhou Airport. But trouble often finds its way into the mix in a foreign land, paired with a college-finals like 36 hours of being awake. “I had my passport in my left jacket pocket, I remember thinking that wasn’t smart but with Tokyo in mind I pushed that little thought back in my mind and closed my eyes to the sights of what life would be like the next morning.”

The next details are hazy at best. He figures either he might of been pick pocketed on a train that surpasses the imagination of a commuter at Powell BART Station during rush hour. Or perhaps it was lost as he frantically scrambled to change trains. This part is clear; stepping off the tracks at Hangzhou Terminal Two his left jacket pocket was now empty.

For the next few minutes, Chase’s mind raced for an eternity, tracing every possible location where he could have lost his passport. Onlookers were treated to repeated shouts of “oh shit, oh shit, oh shit," where the only reasonable response were looks of disgust and wonder thrown back at this 6ft blonde Westerner. His own look of panic probably didn’t help as he ran from person to person, “I lost my passport, where do I go?”

Chase did have enough mind to find and download a random app to translate English to Mandarin as China blocks Google, along with Facebook and other popular sites.

“After handing everyone my phone with translated symbols I would get the same response, it started with laughter, then "méiyǒu" which meant "no" or "I don't have" to be exact. I must have heard that word a million times. No sleep and nowhere to go, it was almost midnight now at an airport that closes after a certain time at night. "Where do I go?" "What the fuck do I do?" were the only thing my mind could think.”

 

With nothing but time on his hands Chase’s circle around the airport began to mimic that circling in his head, with questions of ‘if this’ and ‘if that’. In what he could only assume meant ‘get out’ in Mandarin, Chase was woken up from his secluded corner of the airport, a place that he had hoped was hidden enough to not be noticed on the quest to catch some much needed rest. “I would've gladly just slept in a bush if it wasn't somehow frigid cold, like any San Francisco night but probably 20 degrees colder.” Chase found his way to the other side of the airport where the last of the weary travelers were waiting for friends and family to rescue them from the cold drear.

Following a chain smoking brainstorm session while watching dawn break with the dance of red and yellow colors across the sky, Chase put to action getting in touch with his roommate in San Francisco, who had a friend that recently moved to Shanghai. “I finally met with Devin around 3pm that day at a metro stop near his work. He laughed at what had happened and said China could be a rough place to lose a passport, but I wasn't able to laugh at anything yet, I just wanted sleep”. Upon getting to the apartment, Chase immediately crashed in the spare room that Devin luckily had. He slept 13 hours, waking up at 6am with a pit in his stomach knowing he was just at the beginning of now trying to leave China.

China can be tough to navigate. Upon arriving at the US Consulate, Chase was promptly turned away by a Chinese officer because he had yet to obtain official documents from the Exit and Entry Bureau of Shanghai. Now the Bureau is an unhappy place. Chase spent hours in line his first go around, not making much progress. The second day in his new job, he met a colleague from Vietnam, he too had lost his passport. With nothing else do but chat while waiting in an endless line featuring equally depressed people, the two men exchanged their stories while looking over Chase's papers and his overall progress. “At least a month” he told Chase, he was destined to be stuck in China for a month.

Day 3 turned out to be a bit better. Chase was able to grab a passport from the US embassy, but was quickly informed that the next step was difficult. Getting an exit visa is maddening; the bureaucrats do not care about the time it takes to get through the lines or any subsequent stress, anxiety or breakdowns.

However, Chase’s little bit of luck continued; he met up with a friend of a friend who just happened to understand some of the cultural nuances of getting things done. Plus Shawn spoke Mandarin. It was now day 6 of this running around ordeal of just trying to get permission to leave China. Shawn and Chase started the day early to cut lines and make sure Chase was able to go through all of his interviews, take all of his many photos and shuffle paperwork across the desk of unimpressed bureaucrats.

It was now 3pm in the afternoon. The Bureau closed at 6. And Chase was just informed he only needed one more thing to leave the country; a letter from the police stating that he had supposedly been living at a particular address. Shawn figured his address would be the easiest to use, so they trekked to his neighborhood to ask the police to sign-off saying this was true. The twenty minutes of a loud exchange in Mandarin suggested to Chase the police had no intention of signing-off on his supposed six days of crashing at Shawn’s apartment. Not a gamble anyone at the police station was going to take without an official letter from the landlord. So they ran to Shawn’s apartment where they were immediately refused a formal letter. No reason to risk reprisal for an American lost in China.

“Luckily Shawn spots his friend who works in an office for the apartment building and finally convinces him to write an approval. The man writes down every single number and every last bit of information in my temporary passport.”

And then they were off. Racing through the streets of Shanghai, trying to make it to the police station for a quick sign-off and then back to the Bureau for that precious exit visa. Thirty minutes of intense Mandarin and plenty of head shaking ‘no’, the police finally handed Chase a piece of paper to sign. One more step to go.

Shawn and Chase rushed back to the Bureau where Shawn cut one line of thirty people to place Chase in position, while he cut another. The perfect set-up. They proceeded through three interviews, each taking place in a different room and each where Shawn navigated the process in Mandarin. Finally, with a big sigh of relief Chase took his last portrait and is told to hand over his temporary passport. Tomorrow, he is told, he can come back to the Bureau to pick-up his exit visa.

And just like that Chase was set to get out of the country he had inadvertently become a part of for six long and tiring days. His photography had changed along the way too; going from the bright focus of his work normally with focus on positivity to a glaring representation of the misfortune he had during what was supposed to be a quick change of airports.

The next day felt like an eternity in an ER waiting room; a constant check with the receptionist to see if the exit visa was okay and if it was going to make it out. Fifteen minutes past 3pm brought the good news: the exit visa was ready and Chase was getting out of China onto his show in Tokyo. As he was leaving the Bureau, Chase bumped into the same Vietnamese man who told him all this would take a month. Chase almost felt the need to make up a story; how he was still making his way through the bureaucracy of it all and how he wish he had some help of a friend to navigate through the process, instead of telling him he had the luck of jumping through all the hoops quicker than predicted. But he had a show to get to in Tokyo and a plane ticket to book.

The next morning in the airport Chase was stopped by the first customs officer he came across. The numbers he ran didn’t quite add up in his computer and he wasn’t buying the temporary passport with the chaotic exit visa attached. So he asked Chase to ‘follow him’ to his supervisor to again explain that he had no copies of his original passport, but the temporary passport and the exit visa was all legitimately obtained. After twenty minutes of back and forth in Mandarin both came to the agreement to let Chase leave China. “I felt like I had tricked them and was getting away with robbery or something. It was probably the best feeling I could ever imagine as I sat in the plane waiting to take off, I thought about everyone and everything I had encountered and it finally made me laugh for the first time in a week.”

When Chase landed in Tokyo he swore he must of been the happiest person in all of Japan, free to travel again as he pleased without worrying about a seemingly endless waiting game. “Ecstasy” Chase recalls, it felt like pure ecstasy.

 

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Reid Harris