When I was nine years old I watched on TV as tanks rolled through Tiananmen square. At that age I wasn't sure what the implications were but two decades later going to China I knew this place would be tough. What I didn't take into account was how tough it would be to travel as a film shooter.
The trouble for me began not at departure, but upon arrival. After disembarking from the plane, and breezing through customs I found myself on a train headed towards the city of Beijing. Before boarding the train there was a security checkpoint, which in my post flight daze I neglected to pay attention to, so my film got scanned once.
A day or so later I was walking through a tunnel near the Forbidden City and a check point caught me off guard. Again, my film was scanned. If you're traveling to China you should note that all of the trains, at least all of those that I rode within a 1,600 mile swath of the country that I traveled have security check points, complete with x-ray machines. In addition, a number of public places of interest to travelers will also have x-ray machines.
I carry my film in a pencil pouch when I travel and found that the best solution to the x-ray conundrum was to simply remove the pouch and the camera from my bag at every check point. Without exception I was allowed to pass through each and everyone while avoiding the dreaded x-ray machine and there was no need to ask for a hand check.
Like everything in life there are two sides to every story. Perform a Google search to see if x-rays are harmful to film and you'll see what I mean. Some swear that x-ray machines are the Anti-Christ, while others are rather nonchalant about it. Having never personally suffered the ills of the x-ray machine I am neither here nor there about it.
One thing I do know is that just being on a plane at altitude exposes you, and your film to an increased amount of radiation. When I’m traveling with film I use a lead lined bag to protect the film from the increased radiation, but I can’t always provide my film with safe passage. Although I live in Japan I still have my color film processed in ‘Merica, and I ship it via air.
You’re thinking I’m crazy, I know, but my point is that in two years of sending film back to the states for processing I’ve never seen an effect from midair radiation. It could be luck, so I’ll keep my fingers crossed, but so far so good.
If you’re traveling to China, and shoot film you should plan accordingly. In Beijing I did not see anywhere selling film. I am not saying that there is nowhere to buy it, but I’m saying that with my own two eyes I didn’t see a roll. The internet seems to label the Wukesong Camera Market as the place to pick up gear, so it seems like a likely starting point if you’re planning to buy film in country.
While in Shanghai I stopped by a similar market called Xing Guang, often referred to as Luban Lu Camera Market. This place had film on the 3rd or 4th floor. Not only did they have film, the had FP3000b, FP100C, and pretty much anything else you could ask for. In addition to having film you can swing by and check out the full line up from the folks at Shen Hao cameras on the 5th floor.
A couple of notes in closing. First, if you’re reading this with a tin foil hat on because you’re scared of aliens listening in to your thoughts Kodak has an excellent label you can print and adhere to film being shipped abroad for processing. It should hopefully keep it from any unnecessary x-rays. Second, the photographer Oleg Novikov has compiled some excellent resources for traveling in China, including a guide on where to have film processed.