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China Daily Global / 2021-05 / 04 / Page006

Photographer captures city's hutong history

By LI HONGYANG | China Daily Global | Updated: 2021-05-04 00:00

Longtime lensman incorporates beauty of nostalgia and humanity in his pictures

Over the past 37 years, Jia Yong, a Beijing resident dedicated to taking photos in hutong-the capital's traditional alleys-has been capturing and composing everyday life into pieces of art.

"People are more expressive than stationary objects in my photos," Jia said.

"People can represent times because in different eras, even only 10 years apart, people who live in the same alley would have a totally different living situation and attitude towards life."

In his alley-themed photos are residents at their doors enjoying the cool air, a deliveryman handing out the daily newspaper and a barber cutting a boy's hair.

Through his photos, bustling sounds on streets, vendors' hawking and giggles from children can almost be heard.

"I am always fascinated by the original states of people living in Beijing's hutong," he said. "These photos record pieces of memories at certain times."

Since 1984, Jia has taken more than 100,000 pictures of hutong in black and white.

"Colors of black and white express a sense of craftsmanship and history," he said.

The 58-year-old was born and raised in a hutong near Dashilan West Street, a well-known ancient block in Beijing.

His father painted ancient buildings and participated in the restoration of the Summer Palace. He was affected by the art atmosphere at a young age.

According to Jia, since the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), streets located to the south of the Forbidden City have been an area for entertainment-full of theaters, restaurants and bathhouses.

"In the 1980s, camera rental shops on the street began popping up as demand for photography surged, but cameras were unaffordable for ordinary people," Jia said.

"Visitors wouldn't want to leave Beijing without taking a photo, so they'd rent a camera."

With those circumstances in mind, Jia had a lot of chances to practice taking photos when he was a teenager, thanks to the shops around his neighborhood.

In 1983, Jia paid for a photography course to learn camera mechanics and used his income from peddling vegetables and driving a tricycle for tourists to support his hobby.

In the class, Jia's teacher taught him not to take pictures randomly but to find a theme. The teacher also recommended shooting the items and topics he was familiar with.

"The first thing that occurred to me was the hutong where I grew up," he said.

At first, Jia considered pictures of historical buildings in hutong valuable. But he later found people who resided in a place for a long time more representative of the hutong culture.

However, it was harder to take photos of people than of stationary buildings at the beginning.

"Residents would not wait there and pose for you," he said. "If there was nothing to shoot during my first walk around an alley, I would search for good scenes a second and third time until an image that I could tell a story with showed up."

Also, some people refused to have their photos taken and asked him to stop. Jia said he never got frustrated, though, and insisted on pursuing his hobby.

When more residents learned that they had a photographer as a neighbor, Jia's work became easier.

In 1997, he opened a restaurant selling luzhu, which is boiled pork giblets with baked wheaten paste, on the Dashilan West Street.

He displayed his photo collection in the restaurant, and his work attracted the attention of diners.

In 2006, a Korean senior who ate in the restaurant told him that he admired Jia's alley photos and invited him to take part in the 2006 Daegu Photo Biennale in South Korea.

"Although I suspected it might be a scam, I sent dozens of photos to him," Jia said. "Surprisingly, he later sent me back an award certificate, a collection of the biennale's works and a prize of $2,000."

His award­winning work Peizhi Hutong depicts a shirtless elderly man with a cattail leaf fan in his hand. The man is sitting on a threshold of a house in the hutong.

"It was a hot summer day, but most households in alleys had not been equipped with air conditioners," Jia said. "Seniors loved to enjoy the cool winds that blew through doors.

"The scene touched me strongly and reminded me of my own father and grandfather."

It wasn't until 2000 that Jia treated his hobby as a serious and urgent occupation because some old hutong started to be renovated.

"I suddenly realized that I am not only taking photos but recording history because some buildings in the hutong would disappear forever," he said.

"I also felt a sense of loss as seniors who lived in hutong for decades had passed away one by one. I needed to hurry up and take more photos of people there."

In 2010, Jia held his first photo exhibition at a gallery on Dashilan West Street, titled "Goodbye,Hutong". The gallery lasted one month.

His most recent exhibition, titled "A slice of the memory of South Peking", was held in 2019 in a photo equipment mall in Beijing. Jia said he is planning more exhibitions of this kind.

"As I grow older and travel to more places, I become more nostalgic. When I see old items used by the generation of my father and grandfather, I feel a sense of history," he said.

"I can't change the appearance of a city or stop it from being changed.But at least I have the ability to record scenes that will represent its history."


Jia Yong in Beijing in 1998. CHINA DAILY



Qianmen Street in 2006. JIA YONG/FOR CHINA DAILY



A barber cuts a boy's hair on Fenfangliuli Street in 1996. JIA YONG/FOR CHINA DAILY



Residents rest at a corner of Qingfeng Lane in 1994. JIA YONG/FOR CHINA DAILY



A resident buys a copy of a newspaper from a peddler in Tieshuxiejie Alley in 1994. JIA YONG/FOR CHINA DAILY



A wedding is held in Yunju Hutong in 1985. JIA YONG/FOR CHINA DAILY





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