Peeking behind Asia's bamboo curtain

IT WAS in a back street restaurant in Hoi An, deep in the heart of Vietnam, that Desmond Burdon spotted her: a wizened old woman, years past the age when the West would have pensioned her off, stooping over the cooking pots, writes Michael Greenwood.

"I was 30km south of Danang, and she was a 93-year-old grandmother working in a little family restaurant. Having just cooked my lunch she got on the back of a little moped with her granddaughter and sped off, it made the Queen Mother look like nothing." The resulting picture is one of several by Burdon which feature in an exhibition of images of Asia to coincide with the Asia summit. The 30 exhibitors, including Peter Arnold, Martin Westlake, Peter Hince and Jonathan Brade, celebrate Asian culture as well as architecture, streetlife and landscape. All of them have travelled extensively in the region - from Malaysia and Singapore to The Phillipines and Thailand and India. Desmond Burdon's work captures the humour and contradictions of the Asian people with intense portraits. The vibrant colour of clothing and skin illustrate the humidity and texture of an eclectic land. Burdon, who works in advertising, says that a trip to Vietnam was a chance to get away from the commercialism of his work. "It stopped me in my tracks, it is so picturesque, but you soon realise that out there they would sell you their grandmother, they have been exposed to television and they want it.

"We were in a hotel in Hanoi when this tiny weedy man came in dressed in a tacky shell suit and wearing a diamond watch and enormous tortoiseshell glasses. It turned out he had gone from planting rice in fields to winning the contract to put plastic toys inside chocolate eggs. He had made his fortune, that is what they want and it is happening. At the same time there is poverty, you see these massive hotels being put up between shacks where people are starving. Those problems are inevitable but it is their time - we have had ours."

ASIA opens at The Gallery of The Association of Photographers in Domingo Street, London, on 31 March and runs until 11 April. Admission is free. 0171 608 1445.

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