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It seems as if there’s barely been an article or photo essay about Beijing in the past ten years that hasn’t gone on about the relentless demolition and construction taking place there. And yet, it’s impossible to ignore. When I visited in 2005, the Beijing Olympics were still three years away. The iconic “bird’s nest” stadium, aquatics center, and CCTV building were still under construction and had yet to redefine the cityscape. The process of demolition was far more noticeable than construction. I stayed in the Qianmen neighborhood of traditional hutong (courtyard houses), just south of Tiananmen Square, and half of it was already torn down. When I returned a year later, the area was barely recognizable—whole blocks were gone (and yet nearby the authorities had created a faux-traditional street for tourists).
This set of photos is the first in a three-part series on Beijing, Shanghai, and Lhasa, to be published over the next few weeks. Looking through the images I took in these cities, I see that the theme of demolition and construction runs throughout, but its significance changes in each place. Whereas Shanghai’s skyscrapers symbolize the future that Beijing aspires to, the ruined temples in Lhasa and around are a maddening reminder of the ruthless legacy of cultural colonization on which this nation-state—like so many others—has been built.
The most striking thing about the demolition of the Qianmen neighborhood was that the buildings had been only partly torn down, and then apparently just left there. It felt as if all the government wanted to do was just smash up the area so nobody could really use it, and not finish the job anytime soon.
These ruined streets had an ugly poetry to them—buildings sliced in half and piles or rubble covered with cascades of tarp.
This kid was spying on his friend (through the same fence you can see in the picture above).
Unlike those in Qianmen, the old streets in the central Houhai district are nicely maintained, as it’s already been established as a popular area for tourists.
The color palette in these streets is overwhelmingly gray.
Coming to Beijing from my home in Tokyo, the laissez-faire, let-it-all-hang-out attitude of people in this city was a breath of fresh air. Street scenes like this are almost non-existent in Japan.
One night, my friend Olly and I got a motorbike-rickshaw ride back to our guest house in Qianmen. Soon after we got on, we realized the driver was either drunk or on amphetamines, because he tore through the streets at a speed that clearly horrified everybody we passed. Here, we were racing between two massive trucks. The smart thing for us to do would have been to tell the driver to stop, but then it was just too satisfying to cut so quickly through Beijing’s otherwise impossible traffic.
Among the photos I took from the speeding rickshaw, some have a vague, gritty romanticism to them—somehow reminiscent of Daido Moriyama’s nighttime shots of Tokyo in the 1960s.
Meanwhile, these blurred colors make me think of Wong Kar-Wai’s Chungking Express—a bit of Hong Kong escapism within the backstreets of Beijing.
Late-night TV-watching sometimes ended with this. I love the bizarre, retro compositions of TV test patterns. This one reminded me of the completely weird image of the girl and the clown that would appear on the BBC at the end every night in the 1990s.
Dashanzi is a factory area of northeastern Beijing that, since 2002, has become known as the 798 Arts District, with hundreds of artist studios, commercial art galleries, museums, and shops. The area has since become overly gentrified, and many of the city’s best galleries have moved to other art districts, such as Caochangdi and Songzhuan. But in 2005, there was still some charm to 798.
Ducts snake throughout the whole 798 area.
Many contemporary Chinese artists have played with the aesthetics of social-realist sculpture, propaganda posters, and fashion advertising—to the point where, by now, it’s a terrible cliché. But at the time, these seemingly discarded, dressed up figures standing outside an artist’s studio made for an unexpected, unusual encounter.
Because artworks sometimes permeated the 798 area beyond the galleries, sometimes it was hard to tell whether what you were looking at was an installation or not.
Occupying a former factory built in the Bauhaus style since 2002, Beijing Tokyo Art Projects was the first gallery to open in the 798 area, before it was called 798. It’s run by Tokyo Gallery + BTAP in Japan, and I have a particular fondness for it because I used to work for the Tokyo branch. The original slogan on the glass reads “Mao Zedong Is the Light in Our Hearts.” The sunshine coming through this skylight was probably one of the few respites in a grueling life for those who used to toil away in here.
Tiananmen Square is invariably talked about in terms of the 1989 massacre—as the unforgiving political center of China. But in reality, it is a lively and quite family-oriented place. In the evening, people fly these long “centipede” kites in the square, and they sway gently in the night sky. But come 11 pm, the fun’s over. The police clear the square, guards are stationed at various points around Mao’s mausoleum, and the square becomes dead quiet.
Another thing that’s less well-known about Tiananmen Square is that in heavy rain, its minimal drainage system can’t keep up…
…and you soon find yourself walking ankle-deep in water.
Not far from Tiananmen Square, you can find the official entrance to the Underground City. It’s a network of tunnels that Chairman Mao had the people build during the 1970s in anticipation of a nuclear war with the USSR (though these bunkers wouldn’t have achieved much, given that they were only a few meters below the surface). The guide who shows you around says you’re not allowed to take photos, which, of course, only tempted me to snap one when he wasn’t looking.
Inside the Gulou Drum Tower. The stairwell recalls the tunnels of the Underground City, which is uncannily ironic because it was centuries-old city towers and gates such as this one that were torn down to provide construction material for the tunnels.
A brass urn in the Forbidden City. These urns held water to fight fires.
The Yonghe Lama Temple is Beijing’s Tibetan Buddhist temple and monastery. Crouched in the car park, this guy stood out as an unusual figure. I couldn’t quite place where he was from: maybe Xinjiang province, maybe Central Asia or South Asia. He was intensely lost in his thoughts.
The more I sift through the photos I’ve taken in the past ten years, the more I see how fixated I am with the patterns created by roof tiles. I loved the graceful, sweeping rise and fall of these roofs at the Summer Palace.
A window frame at the Summer Palace.
In China and various other East Asian countries, pale skin is a traditional sign of beauty, and women protect themselves from the sun by using parasols, wearing long sleeves, and, more unusually, wearing tinted plastic visors. It makes for some weird images.