Narrow stone paved lanes wind their way through Lijiang’s old town, the alleyways, and buildings so tightly packed that the only way to transport your bag of rice was using a hand-drawn cart and muscle-power.

The gentle scene of day to day life scarcely changed over centuries and photographed quarter of a century ago has since been overtaken by hordes of tourists, souvenir shops and backpackers’ hostels.

Glasgow geography teacher Bruce Connolly didn’t realise as he lifted his camera to frame his shot of higgledy-piggledy buildings, laden wheelbarrows, weary women in their field caps and aprons, and men with their pushbikes, that he was capturing a tiny slice of a nation on the brink of radical change.

The image of Lijiang’s old town is just one of hundreds that Bruce has caught in over three decades spent crisscrossing China and which document the dramatic changes as towns and cities morphed into modern metropolises.

He’d first arrived in China in 1987, a 40-year-old teacher interested in travel but with just a hazy mind’s eye image of what China might be like – probably neon-lit skyscrapers like Hong Kong, he thought.

But as he travelled, China’s secrets unfurled before him: the wonder of the Great Wall, the bustle around the Forbidden City, a beautiful sunrise of the Yellow River in the north and a breath-taking crossing of the Yangtze River.

China, with variety of landscapes and bustle of one billion citizens – usually by bike, train or on foot pushing a handcart - the duck farms, rice fields, fruit plantations, the arid plains and the lush, subtropical south with stunning beaches, offered him countless opportunities to lift his camera and snap.

On his first trip he had travelled by train from London to Russia and then on through China. By the time he was boarding a British Caledonian fight back from Hong Kong, he was planning his return.

Over the following 35 years he explored the country in depth. Now based in China as a photographer, broadcaster, writer, tour guide and educator, the photographs he took during those early travels now offer a beguiling glimpse back in time to a nation on the cusp of radical change, with the modern world around the corner and old skylines, cultures and modes of travel still intact.


Such as one image of Pudong district of Shanghai, taken in 1996 and with the landscape dominated by the newly built Oriental Pearl Tower, a television and radio tower which in its day was the country’s tallest structure.

A more recent shot, taken from almost the same spot three years ago, shows the scale of development that has swamped the district, turning it into the country’s financial hub and trade zone.

Now regarded as a shining example of China’s modernisation, what in the mid-1990s was mainly farmland, warehouses and wharfs, last year was on track to record a gross domestic product of over $145.4 billion and contributes to around a third of Shanghai’s entire annual economic output.

Another shows the Jiefang bridge in Tianjin, northern China. Spanning the Haihe river, it was constructed in 1927 when the city was in the grip of an economic and financial boom driven by European arrivals. But, as shown in Bruce’s 2004 images, it was far from over-developed.

An image captured just last year, however, shows the cantilever bridge now dominated by glitzy skyscrapers and neon lights.

While in Sanya, the most southerly city on Hainan Island in Hainan Province, Southeast China, in 1993, locals in conical rice hats and on bikes and rickshaws create what might appear to be a typical Chinese scene.

Now one of China’s liveliest tourist hotspots, where once there were rice fields, thatched shacks and bustling markets are now Russian tourists packed into towering plush hotels and high price restaurants.

The scale and speed of change has transformed spots which charmed Bruce on his 1980s adventure, a time when travel in China was often still achieved by steam train and getting from A to B involved confusing maps, crossing language barriers and hoping for the best.

“My early travels were all pre-digital, pre-smartphones - that was a real travel adventure,” he says. “Now the country, certainly in the cities, has gone almost totally high-tech.

“Living without smartphones, 4G/5G, Wi-Fi, would be extremely difficult today. Everything now done digital. I am ‘cashless’ - we pay for all daily transactions using WeChat Pay or Alipay.

“It has been a fantastic benefit during COVID-19. My health status is constantly updated using WeChat QR code and I use that going into restaurants, malls, on buses and metros.”

He had been inspired to visit China after dashing into a Glasgow travel agents on a wet February in 1987 in search of some escapism from the rain. He found a brochure about travel in China and was intrigued.

“Any preconceptions I had about China came from images from magazines, often old and monochrome. There was very little information to go on,” he says. “But very quickly discovered a quite different country to what I had imagined and which is at times sadly still thought of negatively.”

As luck had it, he was given an unexpected opportunity to return in 1992 when Strathclyde Regional Council sought two teachers to travel to Guangdong in southern China for an educational exchange programme.

In the city of Guangzhou he found just one Western-style bar and spent hours photographing the city’s old boroughs, many now lost to progress. Today Guangzhou has a population of around 15 million and considered one of China’s most prosperous cities.

He returned to Glasgow after his teaching role ended and became Chairman of the Glasgow branch of the Scotland-China Association. But he returned to China every year until 1997 before settling there for good, going on to become a regular broadcaster on Radio Beijing, writer and photographer. His photographs hark back to a different China, with shots of cities before skyscrapers arrived, untouched beaches which are now lined with lavish hotels and a way of life overtaken by progress.

“My early travels to Lijiang in 1995 were fantastic,” he recalls. “Then fairly remote in the highlands of Yunnan with very few tourists, people dressed in their traditional ethnic costumes. It was real travel,” he reflects.

Now based in Tianjin, birthplace of 1924 Olympic Gold Medal winner Eric Liddell, the Covid-19 pandemic has provided the chance to reflect on his travels and sift through his photograph collection. It is, he says, like looking back on history.

“At that time there were many relatively unknown parts of China that I got to, thankfully with my camera.

“Now they have all become hot tourist spots.”