passion passport | chinese street photography
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“Erm, this is not what it looked like on Google!”
The bright neon lights of Fenghuang’s nightlife had taken over, giving the famous Chinese karaoke bars the go ahead to turn up the music and start screaming Mandarin at you to get you off the street and into the bar.
While it’s a somewhat lazy characterization, and simultaneously being true of every single country in the world, China is an extremely diverse country. The people of the rural villages live off the land, buy produce at local markets, and with the exception of smartphones, have changed very little about their daily lives in recent decades.
Red chillies and bright yellow sweetcorn hangs from the curved roofs to dry in sunshine; fishermen drift along rivers wearing their traditional bamboo hats; and noises of animals dominate the background noise at the start and end of every day in these predominantly farming based communities.
When visiting Fenghuang, I thought this is what I’d signed up for. Google searches had teased us with stunning images of old rickety wooden buildings with ornate red roofs hanging over the vivid green river that bisects the ancient village. It is a beautiful place and is extremely photogenic, however the sunset brought another side to the village that I was not expecting.
I don’t know if you’ve ever watched the Tarantino film “From Dusk till Dawn”, but Fenghuang is like that. An hour into this slow burning Western film, Salma Hayek finishes dancing with the giant snake, and then out of nowhere the entire cast turns into vampires and starts trying to kill each other. That quite ridiculous contrast sums up Fenghuang, and highlights how different city life is for the rich Chinese tourists who flood to the countryside, and now the street nightlife, to visit.
China has eight cities with a larger population than New York, many of which I suspect most readers will have never heard of (Dongguan? Chongqing?), and are growing rapidly. Over the last 20 years, the population has grown in these cities by nearly 50 percent.
While very different, the cities themselves provide their own charm, and thankfully it’s not all as garish as Fenghuang’s raucous nightlife. Every morning will start with group stretching and community wide workouts in the large public squares or parks. Communities like Beijing’s hutongs (narrow alleyways) still preserve this fine balance between tradition and city living, with local markets sprawling onto the streets during the day, and the elderly singing and playing board games together as the day draws on. What remains after sunset in these hutongs are dark, quiet lanes lit only by the occasional sign, creating a peaceful atmosphere that is often hard to find in one of the largest cities in the world.
Sadly these atmospheric hutongs are decreasing in number as they are being knocked down and replaced by high rise flats and shopping centers. Their enviable locations in city centers mean the land is incredibly valuable, and I fear it may only be a matter of time before the Chinese cities lose them completely. However, who am I to insist the Chinese preserve their historic communities for tourists like me, and deprive them of development and better infrastructure?
Nanjing Lu in Shanghai is at the complete opposite end of the spectrum, compared to the rural farming communities. Every inch of the sky high buildings are covered in neon lights and blaring out loud music, each competing for your attention. The biggest brands in the world pay high prices to get their shops on a famous Chinese shopping street and in front of the eyes (and wallets) of the ever growing Chinese middle class.
Shockingly, Google doesn’t provide you with all of the information you need to make informed decisions, as I found out in Fenghuang. Every community has their own intricacies and traditions that deserve to be explored and understood in depth, rather than Googled and summarized.
Stay in the big cities to marvel and the lights and try the array of foods that converge on your doorstep. Leave before the neon lights give you a headache, and escape to a rural community to drown yourself in a quieter way of life and follow the rhythms of the farming day.