John Cardenas, aka John Dkar, 50, grew up in the jungles of Peru, eventually following in his father's footsteps to become a traveler. A job as a language teacher landed him at a university in Chengdu a decade ago, and since then John has ridden his motorbike up and down the city and province countless times, his camera on, filming everything he sees. In his home country he's filmed breaking news for TV, and his footage of the 2008 Wenchuan quake was featured worldwide on CNN. We've been following him for a long time and have been itching to interview him for a while. After the Cookin' Chengdu party where John was—you guessed it—filming, we finally got our chance.
How did you get into videoblogging?
I have a beautiful daughter in Peru, but I don't have a stable way of living, I live like a gypsy, so it's better for her to stay with her mother. As I couldn't see my daughter for a long time, I started making very short funny videos for her—I turned out to be a cyberdaddy. I started teaching my daughter how to make videos and we exchanged videos. I used to send the videos via e-mail and I started to look for video sites, and then on these sites the videobloggers started contacting me and John Dkar became a brand name and others started asking for more videos.
And you are making money with it?
I spend years and all of the sudden it changed from being a hobby—I got into ways of making earnings. For a lot of pioneers the dream of making money with videoblogging came true, even for me. Generally bloggers make money with advertising, and the more the clicks you have the more money you make. The other way is requests from publishers, but you have to be visible. Being visible means you have to post in a daily routine. Something will come up. Maybe you are not interested in cats, but there are hundreds and thousands of guys interested in cats.
In Peru I started working with media much more. I lived three years off photo and video blogging. But I love teaching and it's my main source of income. I'm a disciplined teacher, that's my career. Videoblogging allows me to perhaps explore a bit of my artistic side, attachment to music and art.
Did you ever get into troubles with filming?
Yeah, especially the small towns, when you're the only foreigner. My camera or footage never got confiscated. I just by accident got into restricted areas. I've been to police stations, but I have nothing to hide. My life is public. I don't cheat. If you are honest you don't have to be afraid of anything.
It looks like you take your camera with you all the time.
Everywhere, all the time. Things just happen. My life is so intense and colorful every fricking day. Sometimes I don't want to leave my house because I know something will happen especially to me. Wherever I go whatever I do there are details that others cannot see. The trees, the plants, the insects, the birds are talking to me: Hey I have a story to tell. It's crazy.
Do you know other videobloggers in town?
Sometimes I'm so isolated, I'm like in a bubble. Very few people can get into my bubble. I'm not really that much of a social person. I just do my own stuff. As a cameraman, as a photographer you don't have time for that, because you keep recording. Some people ask when do you get a life? What does life mean? If my life is this way, I'm happy with what I do, with my life, my bubble.
But you are notorious for your attachment to Chengdu's nightlife.
Many people want to know about Chengdu's nightlife scene. They got some snapshots from travelers, but they didn't see the evolution. The other thing that geared me to nightlife is I like the music. I come from a family of musicians, my uncle played guitar and my grandpa, violin. In Peru I know all the famous singers and bands and they grant me access to their concerts, I grew up that way. I like to see live shows, people performing, not just music. I like to see a DJ, whatever he's playing, he's into his thing. And also the bands. A lot of people say, "Oh they play like shit." I say they just started, they put in lots of effort, how many hours has he practiced day and night for this? I'm usually the guy who's the only one applauding. I'm always looking for shows.
Do you remember your first nightlife experiences in Chengdu a decade ago?
The cage girls in an infamous disco on the First Ring Road—Kakadoo. It was amazing. In those cages, there were like four, five girls dancing. Wow. Sometimes they allowed me to go behind the scenes where they change. It was close to my college, and I met a crazy guy who brought me around the discos. When I came here from the U.S., I was fat, and I remember in three months I lost more than 20kg, dancing and sweating. And this guy would go out every single night. That's why we didn't have money, because we were spending all the money there. It was the time of beepers. You must have your beeper and your notebook. Our beepers were really busy with dates and so on. And when you come here, if you like girls and nightlife, there's plenty of them. You're like a little kid in the candy shop, you don't know what to pick up.
And the first rock party was one of the first performances of Proximity Butterfly on a big truck on Second Ring Road. That really impressed me. I was checking the videos last night. People around and neighbors looked scared. In those times I played with the zooms a lot. Like crazy.
Are you aware of your zooming and editing critics?
I usually don't read my haters' comments or when they quit following me or whatever because I don't care. You do your things because you believe in the things you're doing and you're not doing it to please others. I do it because mainly I feel there is a way to communicate with each other in one way or another. Even if you get negative points you're still on the scene. What should worry you is when nobody talks about you. If they talk good or bad you're still visible.
What's your favorite local band?
Many of them, Ashura, I like Tongdang, Mosaic, Standing Pee Dog. Proximity Butterfly from the mixed foreign bands, Armissan and Red Water—they play a lot of covers but they have a lot of energy. I've been a bit out [of the scene] since I came back [from Peru]. I'm stuck to the old ones. I haven't seen promising new ones. I'm looking for a sponsor to pay my expenses for me to go to the Little Bar and film. The Little Bar is the window to China rock 'n' roll bands. They got nice lights, you can record without any trouble.
Where do you usually go to hang out?
I really like to have fun, relax. Carol's—I know these guys for years and they proved to be good friends, kind of like a brotherhood, when I have troubles, any kind of troubles. That's great. I like to play pool, I can spend hours playing pool in the bar, I usually go Tuesdays and Thursday for the salsa. I'm very fond of my Latino roots. Even if I don't go dancing very often listening to that music makes me feel close to South America.
Before I come back home from the salsa I pass by the Jah Bar for an hour. I don't want to meet anyone, I just grab a beer and listen to the guys. Some say it sounds like shit, but in one way or the other it's a kind of music factory. Why? When they are jamming, maybe 1 percent is new music, and when you record it you can find the start of a new good song. Sometimes if the vibe is good, I grab my camera and upload to Facebook. The beer is 10 kuai so you have no excuse not to stick around. Of course sometimes they don't play well, but I like the energy, the natural flow of someone who really likes music. There are memorable nights, sometimes the jams last 'til 4 a.m. I also like to go to Shamrock—they usually have live events—and the Hemp House.
How do you see the development of the music and nightlife scene?
I don't know. There are circles now, the Chinese customers, now you have the amazing huge complex Lan Kwai Fong. You can find anything there, you name it. In the expat music scene I haven't experienced a lot, I felt it went down a bit. I remember the old Café Paname days with [former owners] Chloe and David— we regulars were like a pack, running wild parties. And from there, many different parties came up. It's like the community is gone. There are isolated groups. My opinion is it's going down, but the Chinese scene is growing.
You're big into gadgets. What's your latest?
Eye massage mask. I used to have another mask, but they last like five years. Since I work a lot with camera and I'm usually in front of the computer my eyes get tired. If your eyes are tired or you get a bit irritated you should stop doing whatever you're doing and turn off, power off.
And the next?
I'm planning to buy a helmet massage. Maybe in the future we'll have a [massage] jacket. Maybe I'll get the chance to buy the Google glass. I have a prototype, but you cannot see what you're recording and usually it films up because of the shape of my nose.
This article by Dan Sandoval was first published in CHENGDOO citylife Magazine, issue 68. Photos provided by John Dkar. To view his video footage of Chengdu scenes, language-learning lessons, and more, search John Dkar.