The keeper of memories
Shen Jiguang’s haunting photographs capture Beijing’s vanishing neighbourhoods, writes Xu Donghuan
In many of the world’s cities, inhabitants can step back in time by visiting an often well-preserved old quarter. Residents of Beijing, however, have few places to go for such nostalgia – rapid development over recent decades has seen great swathes of the ancient city flattened and built on anew.
However, thanks to Shen Jiguang, a passionate photographer of old Beijing, locals can at least visualise how the capital once looked, through a series of black and white images.
“It’s sad to see our city end up like this,” says 69-year-old Shen, a fourth-generation resident of Beijing. “But even if one day the historical areas are gone completely, at least we have these photos.”
“They can plant images of old Beijing and its beauty inside us, here in our hearts,” he told a packed room of local residents, preservationists and students during a recent talk about his photography, titled “When Beijing Was Still Beijing”.
A few months earlier, Shen had published Nostalgia for Beijing – In Search of Yesterday’s World, a book of photographs taken between 1983 and 2007. Most of the centuries-old neighbourhoods pictured in the more than 400 photographs have since been razed to the ground.
“This book is my expression, my cry for old Beijing. I believe anyone who sees these photos will agree that the old Beijing should have never been demolished,” Shen says.
Besides those of buildings lining hutongs – a type of narrow alley once typical of Beijing – the book contains pictures of ancient household utensils, such as stone rollers for grinding grain, and wells in traditional courtyard houses.
“Beijing’s ancientness can be seen in the old walls, the old houses and the old utensils passed down through generations. When skyscrapers rise up everywhere, we can no longer call Beijing an ancient city,” he says.
Shen’s photographs are saturated in a nostalgia that has won over many fans since his first solo exhibition, in 1993. Shu Yi, son of Lao She, a noted novelist and dramatist whose work centres on old Beijing, for example, favours Shen over other hutong photographers because of the sadness inherent in his work. Shu, himself a writer, commissioned Shen to take pictures to accompany a 2004 book of his father’s work: Lao She’s Beijing.
After his first exhibition, Shen was approached by publishers who liked his work but not necessarily the melancholy in it. Shen says he told them, “I cannot change my style because that’s how I see old Beijing.”
Now, however, with very little of the old city left intact, Shen’s photos are starting to resonate with the public.
SHEN’S FAMILY HAS been living in Beijing since the 1870s, when his great-grandfather left Shaoxing, a picturesque town in Zhejiang province, to work in the capital’s postal service.
At college, Shen studied oil painting. After graduating, he worked as a stage designer at the stateowned Art Troupe, an affiliate of the Ministry of Railways, until his retirement, in 2005.
He began photographing old neighbourhoods in 1983, when he noticed something worrying during weekend painting trips.
“When I found the hutong that I had painted the previous week was no longer there, and the ancient stone grinders and stone horse posts that were in my paintings had been dumped and buried under a construction site, I felt I had to keep a record of them before they were gone forever,” he says.
Shen bought a Soviet-made camera for 200 yuan – four times his monthly income – from a secondhand shop and began “to use his lens to rescue pieces of old Beijing”.
A year later, Shen realised he was finding more meaning in his photographic pursuits than in his work as a stage designer.
“I remember it was on the night of my 39th birthday,” he says. “I locked myself inside my small study for three hours and wrote a pledge in my diary that I wanted to use my own eyes to see the world around me and take more photos of permanent value.”
For more than two decades, Shen remained faithful to that pledge.
“I do not have much memory of my childhood in the hutongs. But after I began taking photos and studied them, I felt like I belonged there and then I cared so much about the old city and its history and culture,” he says.
Shen says he did not make a detailed plan of what he wanted to photograph before venturing out.
“Some days, I combed through the hutongs one by one horizontally and other days I walked through them vertically. But when I saw something that I really wanted to photograph, I would stop and try different angles to get the best shot,” he says.
Late autumn and winter were Shen’s favourite seasons. “The snow and the bare trees fit in with my imagery of ancient Beijing.” People, however, are rarely seen in his pictures.
“I wanted none of the city’s hustle and bustle in my photos. In my mind, Beijing is old, serene and solemn,” he says.
Most of Shen’s Beijing photos were taken in the 1980s and 90s. In 2008, he stopped going to the hutongs because, he says, the old city had become too hard to find.
“Beijing used to have a very distinctive landscape. In the centre was the Forbidden City, with its red walls and yellow roof tiles. Around that was the moat and then came the hutongs in grey. Now it’s all changed,” he says.
“It started in the 1960s, when the city walls, the towers and [parts of] the moat were destroyed. Then came the second round of destruction, when the hutongs were demolished. Who is being held responsible for this destruction?” he asks, clearly angry.
These days, Shen, who recently underwent cataract surgery on both eyes, spends most of his time indulging in his other hobby, painting.
Since 1991, he and his wife have lived in a two-bedroom, high-rise apartment near the Second Ring Road. Their home is stuffed from floor to ceiling with books, photographs and oil paintings.
From time to time, Shen is invited to give a talk about his photography. Although he can get emotional about the demolition of old areas, he manages to keep things in perspective.
“Everything in the universe comes and goes,” he says. “So did the old Beijing. It’s fortunate that I have recorded the beauty of it for future generations.”