Former residents of the Xiaofangjia hutong.Photographer Xu Yong has a special affinity for Beijing's hutong. Fascinated by them since his youth, he has spent a large portion of his adult life observing and documenting their gradual disappearance on film.
Xu's first impression of Beijing's storied hutong dates back to 1964, when he and his parents moved to Beijing. As a child, Xu was struck by the hutong's organic layout and multi-dimensional magic. "I could see heaven and earth once I stepped out my door, and in the open patios they seemed to change with the seasons," he recalled.
Upon his return to the hutong many years later, Xu could still find shelter within their twisting corridors. His austere documentary of black and white images unintentionally revealed the powerful emotions linked to the passage of time in the summer of 1989. Behind the lens of his ordinary 35-millimeter camera, the empty scenes of urban life in Beijing hutong perfectly reflected the artist's own loneliness.
These photographs, later published as a collection entitled Hutong 101 Portraits, gained him international recognition and laid the foundation for his artistic career. His work has also been included in A World History Of Photography by Naomi Rosenblum and collected by former US President George H. W. Bush. Now, 20 years later, Xu's photography is historically priceless, as most of the hutong he shot have vanished amid the capital's blitzkrieg of urban development.
Xu's fascination with hutong led him to try and share their beauty with a broader audience, hoping that he could help to protect them by promoting awareness of their rapid disappearance. In early 1993, Xu launched rickshaw tours of the old Shishiai and Houhai areas, introducing many foreign and domestic tourists to the city's hutong.
Despite his efforts, Beijing's hutong continue to dwindle in number. Hutong have existed in Beijing for 700 years, declining from more than 3,000 to only several hundred today, as the one-story structures have been forced to make way for an increasingly vertical Beijing. In Xu's opinion, pre-1949 Beijing resembled the old Peking depicted in ink and wash paintings. "But modernization has destroyed that picture," he lamented.
In 2002, before Xiaofangjia hutong near the old Beijing railway station was to be torn down, Xu organized the neighborhood residents and covered the whole area in a single day, snapping photos of each resident holding a card telling their name, date of birth and occupation. Two and a half months later, Xu returned to the ruins and took one last picture. He wrote solemnly, in the preface of the collection, "to memorialize the vanished hutong and the 312 families evacuated to the suburbs."
The resulting Xiaofangjia Hutong was awarded Best Photography at the 2003 Pingyao International Photography Festival. "He raised awareness of a problem still unresolved, and has shown his deep humanistic sympathy," said Er Dongqiang, a Shanghai photographer and judge at the festival.
Xu has since retired from his business ventures, letting go of his hutong tourism company about two years ago. "Now I am quite relaxed," he said, "I'm not a professional artist, nor a business man, I'm just a Beijinger."
But Xu has not stopped finding ways to address important social issues through art, even if his style has changed from plain documentary to proactive experiments. "As digital cameras have enabled everyone to take pictures nowadays, it seems photography doesn't have the power it used to," he said.
His 2006 project Solution Scheme boldly explored the lives of China's sex workers. Shooting nude portraits with accompanying text written by his subject, Xu documented the life of sex worker Yu Na, his exhibition not only raising awareness of China's sex industry but also raised money to help Yu start a new life.
"My style has changed, but my work is always steeped in modern society," said Xu, "Unlike self-absorbed twenty-something artists, people my age have a stronger sense of responsibility, because the human experience and social welfare are the most important things we care about."
This April, Xu curated a weeklong exhibition of photos taken in April 1979, when 51 young photographers volunteered to display their snapshots of everyday life in Zhongshan Park. Although the photography was met with strong criticism for being too bourgeoisie, the exhibition was a landmark in modern Chinese photography, as it represented a departure from the political and ideological themes that dominated the art until then.