Photo blogger on the Beijing beat

Emily Schreck's daily iPhone shots of China's capital have won 73,000 followers on Instagram

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 30 September, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 30 September, 2012, 11:22am

At first glance, "Beijingemily" appears to be a relatively normal online pseudonym. Nothing flashy. No puns. But when it appears on Instagram - a photo-sharing social media application - it is quickly recognised by tens of thousands of people.

For Beijingemily's photos have become an internet phenomenon, giving her 74,000 followers a glimpse of the streets of Beijing.

Emily Schreck, a 24-year-old American, moved to China's capital two years ago and, using an iPhone 4S, began taking pictures of life around her. Her passions are photographing hutongs - narrow alleyways in traditional residential areas - and the people who live there. Her images, captioned in English and Chinese, clearly strike a chord with the following she has built up in a few months.

Why did you come to Beijing?

I came to China right after I graduated from college in Atlanta, Georgia, in the fall of 2010. I took "women's studies" in college, and it was hard to find a job, so I came to stay with my brother who has lived in China for eight years. Now I'm an English teacher at a kindergarten.

Where did you learn Chinese?

I learned in China. When I first came, I had a language-exchange partner for a short period of time. I spoke English with her, she spoke Chinese with me. I learned a lot of simple things. And I got a seat in a band called Christmas, which was started by a foreigner who wrote all the songs in Chinese. They are simple and really silly songs, like there was a song about a trash can - "Trash can, trash can, don't put me in a trash can". Through that, I was able to learn Chinese, because I could memorise the songs.

Why did you start taking photos with an iPhone?

When I was in college, I had an iPhone 3GS. I made a project on Flickr - a 365-day photo project. Each day I took a picture with my iPhone and posted it on Flickr. It is a pity I didn't finish it. It was about six weeks short of a full year, because I moved to China. Last year, I had a new iPhone 4S, and then I got the free Instagram app. Instagram is a good place to share photos with friends or people you don't know. When I put photos on Instagram, I tag with "Beijing", both in English and Chinese. It's easy for people to search.

Why do you like to take photos of hutongs?

They're very special to Beijing. Not many other places have hutongs like Beijing has. I think that's my most favourite thing; that's what China means to me. In China, a lot of cities are like other cities to me; they are not especially Chinese, and hutongs are special. I think it is important to take pictures of hutongs because they are disappearing.

How often do you post photos?

I don't take photos every day, maybe two times a week, but I do post photos on Instagram every day. I take photos with the regular iPhone camera, then edit them [by using special lighting and colour "filters"] later on Instagram.

You caption all of your photos in both in Chinese and English, why?

I write different things in Chinese and English. Giving an example, for a rickshaw photo in the rain that shows a line of rain-cloth-covered rickshaws, the Chinese caption reads: "When you take photos of people in hutongs, are they nice to you?" Usually I keep my distance from people. I never take photos of people right in their face. I ask them in Chinese - usually these people are older people - and they say: "No, no," but they don't really care, because you can see from their response. While taking photos in hutongs, if somebody jumps out and says: "Hey, don't do that", I say "sorry" and leave.

What do your followers think of your photos?

They really like them. If they didn't, they wouldn't follow me. I get a lot of comments like: "Oh, thank you for showing how beautiful China is, because it's my own country, but I never stopped and thought that this is really special and beautiful, because it is just normal to me." I'm very happy to hear that. Generally I give feedback to the comments, but sometimes if I don't understand what they mean, I can't.

You now have over 73,000 followers on Instagram. Did you ever expect that?

No, not at all. I feel really good about having so many followers; I think my photos present China nicely. I feel good to share what I do. Last month, I organised a hutong photo walk behind Jiaodaokou, where there are many hutongs. About 25 people joined, both Chinese and foreign Instagram users. It is kind of challenging to lead a group of 25 people walking and taking photos in hutongs. We tagged all of our photos #hutong walk, so we could see what other people were posting. It was really interesting.

What are your future plans?

I published 17 iPhone hutong pictures in Photographic

Travel magazine's August issue. This month I published some hutong photos in the iLook magazine - they have an "iPhone Gallery" showing people's iPhone photos, so they asked me to give them some of my iPhone pictures. I started a Weibo [microblog] account in June and post photos regularly there,

aside from Instagram. Now I have nearly 1,000 Weibo fans.

All my fans on Weibo are Chinese, so I only put Chinese there, no English. I put more personal photos on Weibo, like my pet rabbit pet, or my new haircut.


Emily Schreck spoke to Simon Song


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