Filmmaker: Bruno Sorrentino
Kay Kay is the face of modern-day China – a bright, educated and ambitious 20-year-old living in the booming southern city of Guangzhou.
She represents a new generation of middle class Chinese ‘only’ children, benefiting from China’s economic growth as well as the single-minded dedication of her factory-worker parents.
This unique film has followed her for her whole life, filming her and her family every year since her birth in 1992.
It gives a rare, personal narrative to the decades of transformation that China has undergone. From her childhood and school days through to her university life where she struggles to get to grips with China’s economic imperatives in the face of environmental issues.
Kay Kay is a charming, engaging guide to modern China, its people and the country’s recent economic boom.
By Bruno Sorrentino
It was to become a life-long project and would mean filming at intervals throughout the 1990s and into the new millennium, capturing the big issues facing the planet through the unfolding lives of my chosen infants and their families. Twenty years ago I was lucky enough to be asked to travel the world, and start filming the lives of a dozen babies born in as many countries.
It was 1992, the year of the UN Earth Summit in Rio, and the brief from Television for the Environment and Television Trust for the Environment (TVE), the organisation behind the idea, was that each of the lives I was to follow would somehow trace the progress (or lack of it) on commitments towards a cleaner environment and more sustainable development in those countries.
That was the original idea. But of course each of the children’s stories turned out differently – real life is so much more interesting.
It was the ultimate ‘slow-burn assignment’, a rare chance to work outside of that box defined as the production schedule.
Filming at intervals over the course of their lives would mean developing a special rapport which would otherwise never be possible. There was to be no safety net of fallback stories to pursue in case some did not work out.
The discipline imposed by the project was to stick firmly to the same children and families picked at the start, no matter what the outcome.
Those outcomes, sometimes predicted, and others surprising or deeply shocking, together paint a moving picture: parallels and differences that are greater than the parts. Their life stories create a sort of time-lapse of the changing state of our planet.
Kay Kay: The Girl from Guangzhou focuses purely on the Chinese family. Baby Kay Kay was born in the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou (historically known as Canton), which, in the 1990s was increasingly polluted as the might of China’s modern industrial revolution gained momentum.
Its mantra seemed to be ‘get rich first and worry about the environment later’.
Guangzhou was one of China’s most rapidly industrialising cities. The impact on Kay Kay’s development and that of her family was to be the theme of my film spanning her first 20 years of life.
Her mother Cheung was (and still is) a truck driver for the Yangtang Dairy Farm Enterprise.
Like everything else in China, the company was growing rapidly and Cheung only stopped work briefly after her baby was born.
I first met Kay Kay in a narrow four-storey building which was home to four generations of the family. She had only just returned from the natal clinic and her grandparents and great grandparents were clearly thrilled with new baby.
“That is the best – having only one child,” Cheung beamed, in tune with China’s one-child policy. “Now we have got our baby, we are really happy.”
Her husband Liang added: “We hope that we all prosper under socialism. The country is urging us to catch up with the four mini dragons.”
Kay Kay’s family was a model family of communist China in 1992.
I would especially look forward to filming with Kay Kay as she grew up in the 1990s – she was as bright as a button and her sparkling humour kept me and my translator endlessly amused.
Meanwhile, the breathtaking speed of change all around her provided an engaging backdrop. The semi-rural area of her family home was sucked into the sprawling metropolis and covered in concrete and glass. Construction of the high rises would continue through the night, with no escape from the noise and dust.
Kay Kay and her parents had in the meantime moved to a small apartment of their own, away from their extended family.
In line with growing numbers of Chinese, they had become a nuclear family. But working long hours and with no one around to help, eight-year-old Kay Kay had to get used to spending her evenings at home alone.
When I returned in 2002, I was struck by the transformation of the living space in Guangzhou. It was indeed looking like the ‘Garden City’ I had heard about, with trees and shrubs seemingly planted everywhere.
Today, Guangzhou is generally reckoned to be one of the most agreeable Chinese cities in which to live.
But have they simply pushed the polluting industries out of town and out of sight? And what of the social changes taking place? Migrants are still arriving and for established residents like Kay Kay and her parents, it feels like the city is becoming too crowded.
Kay Kay is now 20 and in her first year at university. She is planning a career in banking. She knows she has had it easier than her parents’ generation but is under no illusions about the problems ahead, for both China and her own generation.
And after 20 years people are asking: “Is this the end of the story?”
Absolutely not – I want to be there to film what happens next.
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