Howie Snyder is a New Yorker who first came to China in 1981 to study Chinese.
At the time there were so few foreigners who could speak the language that people crowded around him every time he walked down the street. And being the Jewish New Yorker he is, he thought there must be a way to get people to pay for tickets to see a lao wai speak Chinese.
So with the aim of becoming the host of a Chinese TV show, Snyder came back in 1996 to study xiang sheng (相声), or stand-up comedy with young kids at the Cultural Palace in Beijing with Ma Laoshi.
Every weekend the then 34-year-old would come to the rundown classroom with his classmates and learn the art of xiang sheng which involves talking, singing, and mimicking in order to induce laughter from the audience.
And while learning xiang sheng, Synder got to see up close the lives of his eight-year-old friends, the first generation of only children and the transformation of Beijing and China.
He went into their homes, met their parents and found out about their hopes and aspirations.
In the process Snyder made a short film about it called My Beijing Birthday, where he returns 12 years later for the Olympics, working for Coca-Cola. He finds Ma Laoshi who in turn helps him locate his classmates.
He shows them the old footage and asks them how they have changed in the dozen years, some with very deep observations. One young man remarked in the film that he cannot relate to his own peers who seem so caught up in foreign brands that they have forgotten what it is to be Chinese.
Another young woman cried after watching the film because it reminded her of how simple things were back then, and how much has changed.
In the intervening period, many of the classmates' homes were demolished to make way for high-rise apartment complexes and their parents complained that $10,000 was not enough compensation for them to buy a big enough home like their old one.
The film also gives a peek at Ma Laoshi's life. She was an orphan when she was adopted by her parents, who were then in their 50s. However, during the Cultural Revolution, her parents made a mistake while copying down slogans celebrating Chairman Mao that they were punished for it. But because they were already in their 70s when Ma was a teenager at the time, she offered to bear the punishment for them, which meant being sent to Mongolia for five years.
She recalled the hardest part was the loneliness, but it was her love of xiang sheng and songs that kept her company. And when she came back to Beijing she started teaching children as young as four the art form, and now she is probably the only teacher left in the capital who teaches children xiang sheng.
Ma is disappointed the government doesn't appreciate xiang sheng more, and that people are only concerned about buying cars and apartments, not appreciating their culture. To her, it took a lao wai like Snyder to bring attention to the art form and make the public realize it's a dying art.
Unfortunately none of the students from Snyder's class have gone on to become xiang sheng performers, but it's partly because of people's perceptions of people in this industry as not being educated, and also the pressures of having to find a steady job to support their families.
These now early 20-somethings feel young people today have even more pressure on them to succeed than they themselves. They feel at least when they were children they had the opportunity to study and do whatever they wanted, whereas kids now are expected to do even better than their parents. As one of Snyder's classmates, who is now a teacher says, while today's parents put so much of their hopes and dreams into their one child, they are not educators, so there is a disconnect between the parents' hopes and the child's abilities.
Snyder is still in touch with his classmates and Ma Laoshi, who unfortunately is struggling to keep her classes going financially which is why Snyder is doing a bit of fundraising for her.
Nevertheless, he hopes to continue his documentary project in the next few years, following his classmates as they enter adulthood and beyond, seeing contemporary China through their eyes.