Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Capturing Beijing's Past

Kuang Han is a 46-year-old artist who is passionate about hutongs, the narrow alleyways and homes many Beijingers live in.

He does fantastic sketches of them, some in detail of doorways, others impressions of neighbourhoods that recall a simpler time.

We met him this afternoon in Hou Hai and he explained that as a person from Jiangsu Province, he was fascinated by hutongs when he first came to Beijing. He couldn't help but start sketching them and has done so for almost 20 years.

"When I sit there and draw the hutongs, the residents come over and tell me who lives in the house that I'm sketching, and tell me about their lives," he explains. "That inspires me to capture more of them on paper."

He has sketched hundreds of them, often going back to the same area only to see it change. With the demolition of hutongs a hot topic in Beijing these days, Kuang says it's a dilemma. On the one hand he thinks they should be preserved, but on the other knows that these old living areas are not properly equipped with running water and sanitation, making them barely habitable.

What's interesting is that Kuang only uses graphite pencils and paper. "Originally I started painting them in watercolour. But I found that the hutongs are more monochromatic than colour so I turned to using pencils instead. They help me capture the feeling and the gray colour of the hutongs."

In his studio, Kuang uses a graphite pencil and shaves it to create a straight edge like a screwdriver. He uses this pencil to draw broad strokes on the paper. Then he will use a traditional pencil for more detailed work.

His large pieces take over a month to complete and sell for some 180,000RMB (almost US$24,000). He's sold most of his work over the years to both Chinese and foreigners who appreciate his passion for hutongs. When asked how he feels when he sells his pieces, Kuang puts his hand over his heart and replies with a pained look on his face, "tong ku", "it's painful".

But he seems to be doing well with his art. I discovered him through his artwork published on the cover of blank notebooks sold at the Capital Museum gift shop. He has allowed a Hong Kong-based company to print them on notebooks, postcards and bookmarks that are sold in museum giftshops.

When you look at his work, you can easily see the passion and care he takes in capturing the hutongs, a piece of Beijing that hopefully will not be soon forgotten.

1 comment:

ks said...

raymond chow is a vancouver painter specialized in painting color sketches of old buildings around the strathcona area. i think kuang han is the raymond chow of beijing. i agree using graphite pencil enhances the classic look of the grey block hutongs. it will achieve a better effect than with color. i have a graphic print of the old library of u.b.c. to demonstrate what i mean. it is gratifying to know there are people who care about the old hutongs which are fast disappering. in fact i am glad to see the renovations of the hutongs on my recent visit to beijing. also the rickshaw tours provide a venue of tourism and employment.