Júlio de Matos Photography


FADING HUTONGS (2005 - 2008)


Suddenly, without warning, I entered another dimension in space and time. I was no longer in the Beijing that I had known for almost a week. The great avenues had vanished, the memories of an Imperial past were not here. Instead of mirrored-glass skyscrapers, I found single-storey houses. Ten minutes earlier, I was crossing wide avenues with hundreds of anonymous people, but in this place I saw a village of neighbours with their street market, buying and selling chickens, fish, fruit, vegetables. As a Westerner, I still shudder to think about this sensation of travelling in time just around the corner. It was a Beijing still not enchanted by the foreigner or with progress, still jealously guarding its banal, everyday village life, which is ever more rare these days. I had the distinct impression that I was witnessing the end of an era that had inexplicably survived until now; that this type of place was incompatible with the other experiences of modernity and progress I had seen elsewhere in Beijing; that this place, with its peculiar form of physical and social organisation was threatened. So this was my first contact, in August 2005, with the Hutongs of south-east Beijing.

The Hutongs, the traditional Beijing streets, and the Siheyuan, the houses with their square patio that remind us of the urban vision of Kublai Khan, a contemporary of Marco Polo, are quickly disappearing. Beijing is going through an unequalled phase of rapid urban transformation due, above all, to the urban pressures caused by the accelerated economic development and by the approach of the 2008 Olympic Games. This very special landscape, and this unique, ancestral way of life are rapidly being obliterated forever. As an architect and photographer, the need to contribute to counter a loss in the collective memory in a personal, subjective way, became urgent and imperative for me; to visually glimpse the past before it gave way to the threat of an urban reality insufficiently valued in the present. This phenomenon is nothing new and has been felt in various ways on a global scale.

Returning 5 months later, the market had already gone. Demolition was advancing rapidly. Just a few almost deserted streets and a handful of inhabitants remained. I went back twice more, in September 2006 and more recently in February 2008. I traipsed across and photographed Beijing and the Hutongs from North to South, from East to West. Now, where they survive, they are islands surrounded and camouflaged by new houses on the edges of the ocean of wide avenues. Where before, for centuries, the most eminent classes lived in grand detached houses, the normal inhabitants of Beijing today live in respectable but difficult conditions. Close to the Lama Temple I could observe the refurbishment of the various Siheyuan, and again a new change to the social landscape of the inhabitants of the Hutongs.

Times have changed. Young people’s faces reflect their urban contemporaneity, and their potential purchasing power takes them far from the Hutongs, to the suburbs, where they find houses more compatible with their aspirations for the future.

The May family lived in a Siheyuan. It had no luxuries, and was the most agreeable and harmonious house I had entered. They courteously agreed to be photographed. Recently, forced by a shared inheritance, they had to sell it and moved to an apartment in a high-rise tower. The father no longer plays chess in the street with his neighbours, and the mother’s only contact with her old friends is in an Internet chat room.

Despite its apparent modernity, this family, like all the others caught in this “time warp”, suffer with the move. An inner emptiness has settled in, that will take time to heal.

Júlio de Matos, 2006