'You cannot return to the old state': celebrating the hutongs before it's too late

Meet the student leading the charge to capture the spirit of the hutongs

As Beijing’s hutongs continue to be cleared out, the myriad small businesses and cafés affected have replied in a variety of ways, from improvising side entrances to innovating novel ways to reach their patrons. The hutongs have also been a fertile site of creative activity for almost a decade, and the artists, curators and aesthetes that call the hutongs home have likewise responded in a number of ways.

The latest is the Hutong Art Project, led by Beijing Normal University student Liu Qilin. What started as a WeChat group initiated by Liu — who goes by the English name Jady — out of his love for the hutong has now snowballed into an event platform and an online meeting place for artists, Chinese and foreigners alike, united in a desire to express their reflections on the current program of hutong renovations through photography, illustration, film, song and verse.

Hot off a string of successful events, we caught up with Jady to learn about his motivations and next moves.

Can you introduce your project?
I founded an organisation called the Beijing Hutong Team, and a project called the Hutong Art Project. It includes photos, illustrations, documentaries, poetry and articles about hutongs, especially the renovations there. I'm trying to find people to read aloud their pieces to the public, and hold some lectures about the hutongs, to find the value of the hutongs, and the effect of the renovations.

How did you get the idea?

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I've been in Beijing for just [under a year], and I really love the hutongs. I got the idea after having dinner with a friend of mine, Cheyenne, at Ramo, and months later befriending another collaborator, Shui, [and also from] wandering the hutongs with friends, seeing exhibitions, attending lectures and so on. Time flows in hutongs, with history and reality intersecting. Traditional couplets and stone carvings, modern shops and art galleries, the breeze on the rooftop and the shades of trees in the courtyard… I will tell those stories in detail if there is a chance. However, many hutongs are facing changes, and many are ugly or difficult to recognise now. Therefore, I came up with an idea to hold an exhibition in memory of the hutongs we love, to reflect on what the hutongs mean to us and the effects of the renovation. Of course, we [also] want to figure out what hutongs mean to residents, shop owners and tourists, but ultimately, the participants of the Hutong Art Project are comprised of youngsters, and most of them are foreigners. I thought this was a shortcoming, so I contacted and visited Hutong Pi, the CHP (Beijing Cultural Heritage Protection Center) and the Shijia Hutong Museum in the hope that we could learn some traditional hutong culture. I'm very sad about these renovations, and want to record them.

Are you an artist yourself?
Yes, I write poems, and I created a performance art piece called 'Scan Me'. It's a box, you put the box in front of your face and there's a QR code on the front. I want to reflect the atmosphere of Chinese people's modern society. People are dominated by technology and social software.

Outside the art world, what do you think the average Chinese person living in the hutong thinks about these renovations?
You have to consider that many parties are involved. As for the residents, the old Beijingers, I think most of them will be happy about this. Because these shops did not originally exist in the hutongs, and they created noise for them, and garbage, bad smells. But when I was walking in the street near Aotu Studio recently, I saw a very old Beijinger whispering to himself. With a very negative attitude, he said, 'the government wants to take away our property,' and he said, 'I'm old, so I don't care.' But in fact he did care. And when I was with another member in our group, working in a hutong near Andingmen, another old Beijinger said the slogan, 'Return to the Old State of Hutong'. You can see, it's totally fake. You cannot return to the old state. The time of the old state is vague as well. The other day I met a migrant worker when I and my friend were taking pictures in the hutongs. She thought the campaign aimed to cut the population in Beijing, but she also liked the new look of Guijie.

In part it seems like it's a return to making the hutong housing for wealthy or connected people.
You know, the gap between rich people and the poor is very big in China now. And I think the renovations also aims to clear out or cut the population in Beijing, and move them to another region.

Do you think this is being done to 'beautify' or 'clean up' the actual appearance of the hutong?
I think that's not likely. Because you can see some very modern and classy shops are also being torn down. And Guijie, you can see it looks very new, very modern now. People don't like it. I think the government wants to create a new Beijing planned by themselves, not a new Beijing made by others.

How have your events gone so far? What do you have planned next?

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In July I held a photography exhibition called Vitality Remains at 27 Yard, participated in another photography show at nc:space, and screened a documentary called Spray Paint Beijing at Yue Space, Camera Stylo, and nc:space. On July 29 at Luo Space I'll host a photography and illustration exhibition, a screening of five documentaries (including Spray Paint Beijing), and an open mic for poetry and articles. In September there will be at least four events if everything goes well and more people join us.

Anything else you want to add about your project?
It's just started, I hope that more people can join our team, spread the word, and share their responses to the renovations. Beijing Hutong Team welcome artists, scholars, volunteers, sponsors and every hutong lover! We want to hold free events, so sponsors are also very important!

To learn more or get involved, follow Beijing Hutong Team on WeChat: @BeijingHutongTeam

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