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Oct 2002 / expatriates :: email this story to a friend

Eastern Exposure
By Mac McCowan

We miss St. Louis. I lived there on my own for a couple of years on Botanical, two blocks from the park and close enough to the Hill to shop easily. I was married in '91 and we lived there until we bought a house on Bellevue in Richmond Heights. It was love at first sight with the house and we still miss it a lot. It was beautiful on the outside but the inside was all small rooms and painted green, even painted over the wallpaper. The more walls we took out and wallpaper we tore off, the better it looked; the final touch was to take up the wall-to-wall carpeting in the living room and dining room, blessed many times by several large dogs, and it started to smell and feel like home.

My wife is from Shanghai, China, and even though I was born in Columbia, MO, I lived all over the place (Europe for over ten years) and decided that St. Louis might be a good place to live. When my wife first saw the city, she said it was a nice, small town and compared to the city of Shanghai, with seventeen million people, it is.

We remember many good things about the city: we did photo murals for Ellis Island there, made photographs on top of the Arch on the outside (great view), enjoyed the parks and the Central West End — and of course, we miss our friends whom we visit once a year when we come back for a visit.

Shanghai In '95, my wife was offered a position with a joint venture company in Shanghai for Warner Music, and I went along to see what was happening. After about two months I happened to call an advertising agency and was told by the creative director that there were no Western photographers in Shanghai. That was ten in the morning and by two that afternoon, I became the first Western commercial photographer here.

We have been here seven years and it is a great place to be. Business is good and I get to do a lot of interesting things, opportunities that I would not get in the states, like doing photos of Kissinger, Ted Turner, Madeleine Albright, Pavarotti, Secretary of Commerce Daly and others, plus annual reports and commercial work for Fortune 500 companies. My favorite story is that the Ritz-Carlton hotel called me one Friday afternoon and asked if I could be at the hotel Monday evening to photograph President Clinton when he arrived. I said I would pencil it in.

When I first visited Shanghai in 1991, the airport had two gates; now we have two airports. It is strange to watch a city grow so fast and change from day to day. At one time I could count over a hundred building cranes for buildings over twenty stories from the window in our apartment, and that was only one side of the house.

The old neighborhoods are being torn down to make way for high-rise apartment and office buildings. I have spent a lot of time in the last seven years trying to record the life in these places; it is lost forever and to me one of the most interesting things in Shanghai. Some are over a hundred and fifty years old and meeting the people that have lived there for generations has been very interesting.

One of the great things about the city is that I can go anyplace, at anytime, and not worry about safety. I go to the old neighborhoods on my own and receive a warm welcome. Sometimes when I stop for a break, someone will offer me a cup of tea and a chair in the shade.

For most of the expatriates living here, home is wherever they hang their hat; most of us have lived all over the world and will continue to do so. I would like to go back to France when I leave here — the food and wine would be great on a daily basis and it is even good for the health.

But there is one thing I will always miss about St. Louis that you cannot find anyplace else in the world: the Sunday Post with comics and breakfast outside at the Botanical Garden.

Mac McCowan and his wife, Yu XiaoLi, run the photographic service China Pic.

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