The moon was nearly full and the evening hummed with the sound of engines, horns and breaks being used all too suddenly. In a city as large as Beijing it is hard to get away from traffic and the constant acceleration towards the future. I was walking south past the old observatory tower. It must have once sat under a vast expanse of stars. Now, with its outdated infantry, it lies redundant under a blanket of light. The city engulfed by its own orange haze; stretching out along its roads and from its buildings to cover every corner. Fenced in along one side of the tower is a thin strip of lawn and beyond that runs a flower bed along the foot of the tower’s tall, steep walls. It was spring and looking over at the freshly planted flowers guarding the wall I saw a weasel, with a beautiful golden coat, bounding from side to side across the grass. Lit up by the street lighting it appeared completely unaware of its audience as it continued to search for something. I called to it. Its ears pricked up and its head turned and when I called again it hopped over in my direction stopping a couple of meters before the fence that separated us. It stood still for a moment or two staring at me and having satisfied its curiosity it turned and disappeared off across the flower beds and into the shadows. It was my first sighting of one of Beijing’s Siberian weasels.
In Chinese folklore, they are sometimes described as wandering spirits and depending on who you talk to they are either good or bad luck to see. But the most common reply you will get if you ask someone in China about weasels is
“黄鼠狼给鸡拜年” – the weasel offers the chicken presents at New Year – the Chinese equivalent of “Beware of Greeks bearing gifts”. In fact it seems all Chinese sayings appear to paint the weasel in rather unflattering light. At a local shop that I used to pass by daily the owner once told me how they were pests that relentlessly tormented his chickens. I looked around at his shop that doubled as his home yet all I could see were boxes of fruit piled up outside, he mumbled something about his father’s home town as he moved off to find a lighter for his cigarette.
Like many things once you know weasels are there they become much easier to see in Beijing. Time and again I saw them all over the city, running over rooftops and across alleys. I had wanted to photograph one for a long time but it was always chance encounters. Moving mainly at night and not hanging around longer than necessary, even with camera in hand they proved too quick to capture. As a friend pointed out they are an animal you stumble upon as opposed to go out to look for.
But then early one morning I was awoken by what sounded like someone outside my bedroom window. At the back of the apartment I was living at the time, there were three windows, all of which looked out to give an expansive view of a grey brick wall. In between the windows and the wall was somewhat of a void. A long narrow strip of unused land, perhaps a foot and a half wide, that ran the length of the courtyard I lived in and was sealed at both ends offering no entrance or exits. The vacant ground simply collected falling leaves, and at night you could see part of a red neon sign, from the hospital to the south, lit up rather eerily through the trees. So in a space you might expect to find the protagonist from a Murakami novel sitting, contemplating a lost cat, I found myself being stared back at by a weasel that looked just as confused at the sight of me as the first one had and it too disappeared in a similar manner.
Leaning out the window I set up my tripod outside in the sealed passageway. I linked it to my computer so that I could operate it remotely, using software that had come with the camera. Knowing it might be a long wait for the weasel to return, I had a look online for motion censoring software and found EosAutoShooter. So now so if the weasel returned it could effectively take a picture of itself. Next was how to ensure there was enough light for the motion sensor to operate but without deterring the weasel. Online I found a chap in Sweden who had set up an infra-red camera in one of his cupboards so that he could see if his cat was hiding there without having to disturb him. So I decided to follow suit and the next day bought a webcam, took it to pieces, removed the infra-red filter and put it back to together with a couple of bits of old blacked out camera film instead so that it would now only allow infra-red light in. I bought a set of infra-red LEDs at electronics market and after a lot of tinkering with torches, soldering and rewiring linked it all up with the webcam, computer and the camera sitting outside on the tripod.
The whole process was stretched out over a few weeks. I would regularly meet with a friend for a drink after work and fill him in on the progress but with the set up complete the wait for weasels return began to stretch out and there was less to report. In the evenings I would go through the process of setting it up and testing to see if the webcam and camera were aligned on the same spot and each morning I would take the camera in, recharge the battery and use the computer for work. Weeks past that way. Occasionally falling leafs would set the camera off, but no sign of weasels.
One night, having arrived home late and having headed straight for bed, I was awoken again by a rustling outside. Even in the dark I could see my camera lying lifelessly on my desk. I leant out the window, camera now in hand, only to hear two weasels disappearing off in different directions along the passage. I took a few speculative shoots, but was well aware I had missed the boat. I waited in a vein hope that they may return. One was calling to the other, with a low chuckle, though that might have been directed at me, and after this had long since died down I reluctantly went back to bed. It was not until a few days later that I realised that in one of the photos was a small pair of eyes lit up by the flash. I had my first photo of a weasel but it was one that if I were to show it to a anyone would leave me in a similar position to an astronomer trying to point out a little known constellation on a cloudy night.
In a job interview I had around the time I was asked if I could give example of personal development over the past two or three months. I told the story of how I had been trying to photograph a weasel, and the fact that after all the effort the one thing missing was the weasel itself seemed to work as a punch line. While the story appeared to go down quite well it did not help with getting the photo, or as it turns out the job.
A week or so later a friend of mine visited Beijing. It had been a couple of years since I had seen him and although the autumn was in full swing, with winter just around the corner, we sat outside in the square between the Drum and the Bell towers with a couple of beers. The square was empty. We chatted about the different things we had been up to but it was not until I mention the weasel hunt that he really became quite animated. Once he had stopped laughing he asked me “What are you using for bate?” and seemed surprised when I said I hadn’t been. With the nights getting colder and the lease on the apartment nearly up I decided to try it. I put out some cat food. In the morning I found I had pictures of a cat. The same cat I fed outside the front door. I couldn’t help but laugh at his bemused face when the flash went off.
I went back to hoping the weasel would return on its own, until one day I dropped a piece of bacon on the floor while cooking. “Why not give it to the weasel” I thought. I put it to one side and that evening cut it up into pieces and put it outside the window making sure it was in the line of focus for the camera. I also raised the tripod up a level, to give a clear path along the passageway. And as if it were as easy as that, that night the weasel returned.
I was woken by the flash going off outside the window, and thought at first it was the leafs again but when it continued I went through to look at the computer in the other room and watch on the screen as a weasel searched around in the leafs for the bacon. She seemed not to care about the flashes and in all took 31 photos of herself. For some reason I expected her to return the following night but until the day I moved she never did.