In an ever-changing city like Beijing, it can be difficult to feel connected to history. This prompted long-term expat Lars Ulrik Thom and fellow Dane, Simon Gjerø, to co-found the company Beijing Postcards. In addition to giving talks and exhibitions on the development of modern Chinese society, Beijing Postcards collects pictures, maps, and prints of old Beijing and uses them to create products including calendars and postcards. It is research, however, that Thom enjoys most, especially interviewing lao Beijingren and listening to stories of long gone camel drivers, city walls, opium dens, tramways, and more. Thom shares some of his own history with Grade 7 and 8 students from Keystone Academy.
Vivian Wang, 12, China
What kind of difficulties do you face?
We face a lot of difficulties. For example, if I want to tell a story about a certain hutong or place, I might not find anything. Maybe no one took pictures of it or maybe no one wrote about it. Or maybe the Chinese I’m reading in a newspaper isn’t simplified. Or if I interview someone, maybe I don’t understand what they are saying because they’re speaking Chinese I’m not acquainted with.
Henry Fu, 12, China
What’s your goal of collecting Beijing’s history?
We want people to relate to history. If you want to relate to China, that’s 1.4 billion people, it’s difficult. But if you want to relate to China through Beijing and what’s happened to Beijing, it’s much more concrete. We predominantly focus on the last 100 years of Beijing’s history and use materials such as newspapers, photos, and maps so that people can connect to how Beijing has become the city that it is today.
Stella Folo, 11, Australia
What’s it like finding out all this historical information?
It depends on how you find it out. One thing I really enjoy is sitting across from a really old Chinese person and creating this trust where the person shares her memories and things she thought when she was a little kid. That feels very meaningful to me. When it comes to reading old Chinese newspapers, while it’s interesting and something I appreciate, it’s tiresome because when I do it, I feel that my Chinese needs improvement.
Olivia Gan, 12, China
Why are you interested in China?
China is very different than where I come from in Denmark: the way of thinking and the language. Every time we start a new project, we find whole new ways of looking at something. Chinese culture is very deep and there are a lot of things to be found out and shown to a predominately western audience. I think a lot of western countries don’t really understand China.
Jeff Qu, 12, China
What is the most interesting thing you’ve found out about China?
Pictures can make us realize that sometimes history is not what we perceive it to be. One example is the Drum and Bell Tower. We collected some photos of the tower in 1928 and at that point the Bell Tower was a cinema. It was this iconic, important time keeper for the whole city, and years later it became a cinema with people sitting inside it.
Danny Wang, China, 13
How do you get your photos?
We mostly collect photos abroad, mainly from Europe or the US. If you go back 100 years, a lot of people were coming to China and would take pictures to document their experiences. Pictures Chinese people took were more about representing the family. Why should they take pictures of things like camels and streets they knew already existed? We’ll come across photos during interviews as well and people will often let us use their pictures because a lot of older people think it’s a shame if their stories aren’t shared.
Henry Deng, 12, China
How do you determine when a photo was taken?
Take a picture we have of the Tian’anmen gate for instance. We looked at it and saw rickshaws and knew rickshaws were introduced to Beijing in 1900. We also saw a tramway, which was introduced just around 1920. We knew another thing; that the Tian’anmen gate was redesigned by a German architect in 1916. With that information mixed together, we can conclude the picture was probably taken between 1920 and1930. If we think a picture has a special story, we have an associate who goes to a huge library where they have old newspapers on micro film. This machine can read old newspapers from about 100 years ago and we’ll try to find out information about the photo that way too.
Eric Zhang, 14, China
What made you want to be a historian?
A big interest in history and a love of telling stories and making people interested. It’s difficult to relate to Beijing if everything old is either destroyed or rebuilt. If we lose our relationship to the past, we don’t know who we are. Sometimes, in China, with everything developing so fast, that disconnection feels like a real threat.
Blake Wang, 12, China
Why did you start Beijing Postcards?
My idea was to make history more accessible. I think history isn’t something you should only study at school; it should be all around you. I want is my company to be a bridge from the classroom to the outside world.
This article originally appeared on page 48-49 of the beijingkids August 2015 issue. Click here to read the issue for free on Issuu.com. To find out how you can get your own copy, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photo by Dave’s Studio