Capturing the Hutong | Liu Cong’s “Wandering”

Hutong, the gridlike alleyway neighborhoods most prominent in China’s capital, are an interesting part of Beijing life. It’s here you’ll find the city at its most raw: a mix of residential homes and small community eateries and shops, people going about their day without a care for passerby and visitors. Its here, too, you’ll find some of the city’s oddest of personal and public vehicles.

If you’ve been here long enough, its easy to not give the scooters, ebikes, trikes and other contraptions a second glance. But for one Shaanxi native who calls Beijing home the modes of transport have become something worth documenting through art.

I meet Liu Cong upon entering the Shijia Hutong Museum, nestled deep within the neighborhoods in which the artist finds her subject matter. Whisked into the space housing her depictions of vehicles and the people upon them she’s documented, I’m overcome by an immediate sense of whimsy. Liu tells me the images she does are mainly done with pen and watercolor, laughing “it’s what I had on hand at the time.” It’s a perfect combination, though, as it brings the subject matter to life with playful bright tones and colors.

Liu started drawing from an early age, encouraged by her parents, both musicians and inclined to the arts. She attended an arts academy in Xi’an, and later went on to study fine arts in Paris and Bordeaux in France, eventually graduating from a school in the latter city.

For a time, Liu worked in the arts industry in a different capacity, focusing on exhibition and art residency organizing. She tells me she eventually started to feel the urge to create on her own, switching to part-time job in the company she works for one year ago to focus on her art. In this time, Liu ended up moving into a hutong apartment. It was here she found the inspiration needed to proceed with her project.

As for why Liu chose to use hutong transport as subject matter, it’s simple: “I’m amazed by the design and the creativity of the vehicles” she laughs. Liu tells me the exhibition only covers a portion of her work on hutong vehicles, all of which started with a simple photograph.

Liu was walking along the road one day when she saw an old man whizzing by on a peculiar trike-like scooter, replete with a songbird cage hanging from one of the handlebars. What made the piece special came later, when she moved to the hutong and happened across her new neighbor: the same elderly man who had been on the scooter, parading about without his shirt.

During our conversation, I noticed it wasn’t just tourists and youngsters entering for the “daka” of the place, but also a number of hutong residents themselves. All here to catch a moment in time, but one quickly changing. Liu explains developing traffic rules are changing things. “For safety reasons, you can’t [theoretically] drive a scooter with an adult on the back,” and certain elements — she says pointing to a rounded sun visor that residents will often add to their vehicles — are also considered potentially dangerous. Yet, it was also something in flux. “A few years ago, we didn’t have kuaidi or waimai delivery”.

In the small room in which the exhibition is housed, there’s also a map Liu designed, showing the area around Shijia Hutong Museum, with major roads, landmarks, and even subway stations, all marked. Upon the map, Liu put sticker versions of some of her pieces here and there; seemingly zooming along roads and lanes to whatever their destination might be. A reminder, perhaps, that this part of hutong, and indeed, Beijing life, can be captured anywhere you might be, when you least expect it.

Photos: Liu Cong

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