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Memories of the city

Wang Kaihao
Updated: Aug 9,2016 9:18 AM     China Daily

Traditional architecture and people’s daily lives are the focus of photos taken by Bai Hao, which are now on display in Beijing. [Photo/China Daily]

At a library in a Beijing hutong (small alley), Bai Hao is seen talking to children from the nearby neighborhood in Xicheng district.

“Do you know why the area is called so? Do you know what it looked like before?” he asks them.

Apparently, the smiling children don’t know the answers.

Bai, a 54-year-old Beijing native and photographer, seems to be always ready to tell people about the past. Not always in words though-he prefers pictures.

The library is hosting a show of Bai’s works. The 40 exhibits offer glimpses of modern history, parts of which may have been forgotten by many people living in the capital.

“I don’t remember how many photos I’ve taken-maybe hundreds of thousands,” says Bai. “As someone living in Beijing, I’d better do something to save the city’s memories.”

Life in the hutong and siheyuan (quadrangle courtyard houses) is a major theme of his photography, which he says reflects the city’s “urban ecology”.

His systematic recording of Beijing’s traditional neighborhoods started in 1998, when massive urban construction began to dramatically change the lives of people living in traditional houses.

At the beginning of his project, Bai intended to take photos of tombs of former nobles of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) rather than the hutong areas.

“When unrolling a map of Beijing, you will find many places in the city named after tombs,” he says.

“But it was difficult to trace the origins of the tombs.

“Unlike the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), when emperors gave land to princes and nobles anywhere in the country, most of the Qing royals and officials lived in Beijing. That has left many tombs in the city.”

The 1950s witnessed large-scale urbanization in Beijing after the city became the capital of New China and many such tombs were gone.

“I found that it wasn’t enough to focus only on tombs. I saw that many residences were demolished due to lucrative real estate development at the time and some changes were irreversible,” he recalls.

“Some hutong areas were developed in the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368), and are older than the Qing residences and tombs. They are the roots of today’s Beijing.

“So I decided to widen my scope.”

Old residences of Qing nobles, for example, comprise a major part of his research.

Though Beijing has no official statistics on how many Qing noble residences survive in the city, Bai estimates there are nearly 40 with only prince-level mansions accounted for, but four have been demolished since 1998.

Other than Prince Gong’s Mansion in the city’s Xicheng district, none of the houses are open for tourism. Most such premises are used by the military and such public institutions as schools.

As a technician of China Central Television, Bai sometimes has easier access than the public to such spots, but he is often confronted with locked doors. Security guards even mistakenly turned him over to police.

Bai’s cultural exploration coincided with the fall of Beijing’s hutong areas.

According to the Beijing Institute of Survey and Mapping, there were 2,242 alleys in Beijing in 1990, but the number was 1,353 in 2005.

“I like the snow and rain,” says Bai. “You can feel the serenity of this city on such occasions.”

Until recently, he stuck to film photography rather than digital devices because the film rolls are suitable to capture history, he says.

All the exhibited photos were taken before 2008, when the Beijing Olympics was held.

“After the Games, consciousness about the protection of hutong and siheyuan rose greatly. The layout of the ancient city has been basically kept. Many sites are well preserved,” says Bai.

“A pity is that old Beijing-style architecture isn’t always visible in the renovated works. The alleys are still there, but they look different.”

Traditional architecture and people’s daily lives are the focus of photos taken by Bai Hao, which are now on display in Beijing. [Photo/China Daily]

Traditional architecture and people’s daily lives are the focus of photos taken by Bai Hao, which are now on display in Beijing. [Photo/China Daily]

Traditional architecture and people’s daily lives are the focus of photos taken by Bai Hao, which are now on display in Beijing. [Photo/China Daily]

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