Tag Archives: beijing

A Not So Ordinary Night at the Beijing Opera

In the winter of 2011 I followed director Chen Shi-Zheng as he created a new take on a classic Beijing opera, Farewell My Concubine.

Trying to do new takes on traditional art forms in China can be a bit risky. A decade earlier, Chen made a modern production of an opera that was so wildly different than the norm, the government actually shut down the production.

Initially these videos were going to be part of the Times’ Culture and Control series, as a positive example of change. The Times’ Culture and Control series explore the struggle to shape the culture of authoritarian China.

Continue reading A Not So Ordinary Night at the Beijing Opera

Signs of Hope for China's Environment

HOPEFUL from Jonah Kessel on Vimeo.

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China’s history and reputation with environmental protection is far from positive.

However, in my experience in China over the past four years I’ve seen a number of examples of the next generation of Chinese starting to take action to start fixing some of the problems their parents’ generation have caused.

China’s youth will inevitably face these problems in a much more serious way than their parents. Compared to two decades ago, there is tremendous pressure from the outside world for China’s economic development to not come at the expense of the environment. But now, the pressure also seems to be coming from within China.

In many ways, China’s environmental problems become the world’s environmental problems. For example, China’s growing deserts affect communities across oceans and continents. At the same time, the world’s environmental problems affect China. Changing global atmospheres are causing glaciers to melt faster than they ever have.

Friend and colleague Sean Gallagher’s recent work from the Tibetan Plateau can help show the seriousness of this issue.

In the end, we live in one world with one connected environment.

However, the world seems to point fingers at China telling them to clean up their act, without the same act being reciprocated from China. But on the ground in China, I see signs of reform. Even signs of hope. Recently, one came across my desk.

Friends of Nature, China’s oldest registered NGO approached me a few months back about making a short film about their battle with an environmental criminal in South China.

In the past, these battles were not so easy for NGOs to take part in. But now, a new amendment to a law is helping to even the tables.

The new amendment states:

“In instances where the public interest is threatened, such as environmental pollution or violations of consumers’ rights, relevant organs or social organizations may file suit at the People’s Courts.”

The effect of this amendment means NGOs in China can now sue private or state owned companies in a court of law. And Friends of Nature is one of the first to try.

Instead of writing open letters, protesting or creating public awareness campaigns, the NGO is taking a factory to court after they dumped 5,000 tons of chromium six into a reservoir outside a town. They are suing for human and environmental costs.

This chemical, made famous from Julia Roberts and Erin Brokovich has caused cancer rates in this small southern Chinese village to skyrocket. Cancer rates are up, fatality from cancer rates are up and cancer rates amongst youth are up — although a lot of the numbers seem to be elusive and debated.

When this happens in China, villages often become labeled “cancer villages.”

But a grassroots NGO is still extremely out weighed in a court of law compared to a factory with a budget. In fact, the NGO’s budget is next to nothing. Their lawyers, are probono. The research, is done by themselves. Collected evidence, also on their own initiative.

Much to the demise of the factory, the NGO has been making regular trips to the village to collect water samples, dirt samples, taking photographs and talking to villagers. The NGO expressed very serious fears about repercussions of their actions from the factory. They have been threatened physically and have been told to stay away.

While trying to keep out of harms way, they need to be on the scene. At the same time, they don’t want to jeopardize their case and are attempting to get the necessary information they need to make their case in court, without being harmed by factory thugs.

The equation became more interesting to me when I met the whistle blower who first started calling media and the NGO about what they knew.

When I met him, we were on the side of the road in a city about four hours East of Kunming. A black audi with tinted windows, whom ordinarily I might assume to be a politician rolled up. Both the NGO and my driver didn’t want to be seen with a foreigner in this place so I stayed in the car and watched as the man stepped out of his vehicle.

A short, bald man with a gold chain and sunglasses talked to my friend from the NGO about how to get into the cancer village and avoid the factories thugs. Funny enough, this man looked a bit like a hired thug. I wondered about his motivation behind his actions and asked my Chinese assistant to keep his ear out for details.

While I didn’t find out any concrete information, it did seem he had some personal reason for putting the factory in a bad light. It wasn’t out of a love for the environment, or from a hope to help the village — but something personal. Perhaps revenge? Perhaps economic gain? I’m not sure. But his purpose was certainly different than the NGOs, whose goal is to actual help this place and these people.

And this is how environmental reform in China is working today.

It takes a lot of ingredients in the pot, to make the right soup. A new law; a smart NGO; a lawyer willing to work for no money; an citizen with a shady motivation … maybe even a filmmaker looking to help spread the word … its a little different than reform in the West.

And right now, the law suit isn’t finished. But regardless of who wins or what the outcome is I do believe it is a win for China’s environment. It shows the government is comfortable giving more power to the people to help protect their own environment. The case shows ordinary Chinese citizens care about their environment. And it shows that change can happen.

And this is “hopeful.”

Underneath Beijing: Mao's Underground City

Tunnel Vision - Mao's Underground City
Flooded tunnels snake beneath the streets of Beijing

Its hard to imagine a secret city built beneath a city — but in China, anything is possible. And Mao Zedong did just this. Beneath the booming Chinese capital that over 22 million people call home, is a city that has not had a single (legal) resident. Built just in case the cold war went south and people were to have to revert to a Futurama style post-apocalyptic subterranean life, the infamous Chinese chairman ordered the construction of a hidden city.

This weekend, journalist Kit Gillet and myself published a fun and creepy article documenting the remains of this enormous area that covers much of Beijing’s second ring road. This article published yesterday in South China Morning Post’s weekend Magazine Post.

Many people in Beijing have heard of this city, said to be able to hold over 300,000 people — but not many actually know too much about it, how to get down there or if its even actually there. At some points in time, a small area of the underground city was used as a tourist attraction, however now the entire area is blocked off and entrances have been boarded up or completely destroyed by Beijing’s expanding subway system.

While access to this area is a bit difficult to find, photographing is even more difficult. Here’s the situation: You are in a dark tunnel — 10 meters below bustling hutongs above. The tunnel is filled with icy cold water that changes in height from your shins to your upper thighs. The water is a bit brown or green in color and the only noise you can hear is dripping water and rats swimming in the stagnant body of liquid. Now, pretend your blind. There is absolutely no light. As you walk through, you might encounter various electrical chords hanging or spiderwebs blocking entire tunnels — but essentially, you are blind.

Now — take pictures, but try not to be distracted by that rat swimming by your thigh.

You can probably imagine this is quite difficult, but it does make for some interesting imagery. While this was a print story, we also have some incoming interest in video content from this area, which I believe might give people a better perspective on this massive area. More on that coming up …

And while I am not a wordsmith, I’ll let Kit give his take on Mao’s Underground City. Here is the article that appeared in this week’s Post magazine.

Blast Door
A large concrete door marks the entrance to the tunnel system

Tunnel vision

Beneath the bustling streets of Beijing lies an eery labyrinth of rooms that was built during the cold war to shelter 300,000 residents in the event of a nuclear strike

By KIT GILLET, May 08, 2011

Silence envelops our small group as we descend from the bustling street level into the cold, dark, flooded tunnels beneath the heart of the city. Peeling paint and mould flash before the solitary torch beam, as do rusty bicycles and broken pieces of furniture – all housed in a crumbling remnant of the mainland’s isolationist past. “There used to be lights down here but, now, because it is flooded, all the lights are gone,” our guide explains, as he points with his torch and leads us down the cracked steps into a warren of nominally off-limits tunnels beneath Beijing – otherwise known as the underground city.

As a local entrepreneur with the right connections, our guide, Todd (he prefers not to use his real name), was initially taken into the tunnels by a local official attempting to show off. Since then, Todd has befriended those living above the entrance and acts as an occasional and informal gatekeeper to one of Beijing’s lesser-known historical sites.

“Anyway, it would be too dangerous for us to use the lights – if one of the wires came down we would all die,” Todd says, as the icy water reaches up to our knees and the darkness swallows everything but the torch’s steady beam.

As the beam flicks from right to left, the three of us following him catch glimpses of tunnels stretching off into the distance, claustrophobic rooms left empty except for unusable light bulbs dangling from thin wires. Here and there, messages are scrawled on the walls pointing to emergency exits or extolling those below to dig deep and not spread secrets to the enemy.

Beijing Underground Labyrinth
Tunnels veer off in many different directions creating an underground labyrinth.

In architectural terms, the network of tunnels and rooms seems more like London’s Victorian sewage system or a long-flooded cellar in a French vineyard than a “city” built to house hundreds of thousands of refugees, complete with schools, offices, cinemas and hospitals. Yet that is what it is – or was, until the early 1970s.

In the 60s, Beijing was a city under threat. Already cut off from the world’s capitalist powers by its communist government and its cold war alignment with the Soviet Bloc, the mainland’s relationship with the Soviet Union disintegrated fast and, fearing the threat of a large-scale military confrontation, the country’s leaders ordered tunnels built beneath the streets of the capital, to provide refuge in the event of a nuclear attack.

At the height of the Cultural Revolution, amid widespread persecution and as students across the country were being sent to the countryside to learn about agriculture from peasants, hundreds of thousands of Beijingers were called upon to dig tunnels, often having nothing more than their bare hands or discarded pieces of wood with which to labour. The digging, which started in 1969, would continue for almost a decade, and the tunnels eventually stretched under a vast section of the city and into the hills beyond; from the central government district of Zhongnanhai to the countryside near the Great Wall. There was supposedly room enough to house 300,000 people for the several months that it was estimated the population would have to live underground before re-emerging to continue the fight or to pick up the pieces of Chinese civilisation.

Dig deep tunnels, store more food, don't seeking hegemony.
A sign from 1977 with one of Mao’s favourite sayings at the time: ‘Dig deep tunnels, store more food, don’t seeking hegemony.

The nuclear war never came, of course, and, with the gradual thawing of relations between China and the outside world, the tunnels remained unused except by those too poor to find accommodation elsewhere – as with old air-raid shelters in the basements of building blocks, sections have been turned into dosshouses for migrant workers and the so-called “ant tribe” of unemployed graduates – and the local government, for storage purposes. Large sections of the tunnels were destroyed to make way for the many subway lines that now criss-cross Beijing while others were swallowed up as buildings got taller and their foundations went deeper.

One section, near Tiananmen Square, was opened as a tourist attraction for a while – foreign visitors would be led by guides dressed as soldiers past busts of Mao Zedong to a silk shop (a common feature of mainland tourist sites) – but was closed a few years ahead of the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

The sections that have survived are now in danger of being sealed up by the government, which increasingly sees them as a hazard.

Torture Room?
Rooms that would once have been dormitories, hospitals, schools etc were long used for other (uncertain) purposes. Now they, too, are abandoned.

In December, a legion of subterranean hoteliers, some of whom have been in business for decades, emerged into the daylight to protest against government plans to eradicate accommodation that can be as cheap as 100 yuan (HK$120) a month for a bed-sized room. For millions of housemaids, labourers, waitresses and taxi drivers, the only affordable accommodation in a city where property prices have more than doubled in two years is to be found underground, in basements or in the tunnels. Municipal authorities say the clear-out is for health and safety reasons, but critics say it may be designed to remove a poor inner-city population.

Hundreds of hostel owners braved freezing winds to rally in Chaoyang Park and hand out leaflets that criticised the authorities for ruining their livelihoods and failing to pay adequate compensation.

“This is incomprehensible to everyone in our business,” said a petition in the name of Civil Air Defence Shelter Industry Workers.

Dark Tunnel
A side tunnel leads to a long-abandoned entrance. Above, the sounds of a family in their home can be heard.

“This is all people like me can manage. I tried to rent a place above the ground but it cost nearly all my salary,” said Xiao Lin, a migrant from Hubei province who earns 1,200 yuan per month at a nearby Korean restaurant. “If they ask us to leave, the only thing I can do is go back to my hometown.”

“It’s a shame,” said a hotel manager, who gave only her surname, Li. “In the past, officials from the civil defence bureau praised our contribution to the city because we make otherwise empty spaces profitable.”

The head of the municipal civil defence bureau, Wang Yongxin, has said that this year, accommodation in shelters will be phased out because the residents pose a security risk and sometimes create a disturbance. He said: “Civil defence shelters will become public facilities to meet the demand for parking and places for public activities.”

Years of neglect have left large portions of the remaining tunnel network blocked off, but some entrances have survived, hidden in nondescript buildings often only a stone’s throw from busy shopping streets.

Rubbish fills many of the tunnels.
Rubbish fills many of the tunnels.

It is through one of these entrances, hidden within a small, easy-to-overlook building housing migrant workers, that our group enters. The workers, resting on shabby bunk beds surrounded by a few possessions and pictures of girls cut from magazines stuck on the walls, greet our guide like an old friend. We make our way down a dark stairwell to a massive blast door.

Made of thick concrete, the blast door now stands immovably open, offering a view down the few remaining steps to the level below, roughly eight metres beneath street level. Electric lights are still in operation here and we can see long-dead trees in oversized pots, which brightened up the streets during the Olympics before being unceremoniously dumped down here.

It would be easy to become lost in the endless series of tunnels, passageways and rooms that are sprawled far beneath the surface.

Light fixtures hang dangerously in the damp abandoned tunnels.
Light fixtures hang dangerously in the damp abandoned tunnels.

“The Sino-Soviet split started in the early 1960s,” says Professor Zhang Xiaoming, a specialist in cold war history at the School of International Studies, Peking University. “The relationship took a long time to fully breakdown.”

Nonetheless, military clashes became increasingly frequent along their 4,200-kilometre shared border.

“There was also a serious incident in Xinjiang in 1962-63, when about 60,000 Chinese crossed the border into Soviet territory,” says Zhang. “They were all minorities wanting to migrate – they wanted to live in Russia and Russia let them in. The Chinese were not happy about that.”

It wasn’t until after the Zhenbao Island incident, in March 1969, when Chinese troops ambushed their Soviet counterparts and were bombarded in retaliation, and finally forced to quit the island, that Mao acted.

“It was from mid-1969, after the Zhenbao Island incident, that Mao released the call for the whole population of Beijing to start digging the underground city, though some digging had actually started at the beginning of the 60s,” says Geng Yongcheng, a professor at the school of civil engineering at the Harbin Institute of Technology. “Other cities also began digging their own underground shelters.”

Furniture, long abandoned in the damp tunnels, has developed thick layers of mould.
Furniture, long abandoned in the damp tunnels, has developed thick layers of mould.

People of all ages were called upon to dig.

“It started in 1969,” says Bai Shixiang, who was 12 when the construction began and still lives in the same hutong neighbourhood near the Drum and Bell Towers, a few miles north of Tiananmen Square. “We would use chunks of wood stripped from the city walls as tools to dig with, so by digging the tunnels we dismantled the old walls.

“I remember it being quite fun as I was very young and could help out. The local residential committees organized when to dig and where; we just followed their instructions. We mostly dug in the larger courtyards but we filled in nearly all of the entrances a few years later,” he says. “There were one or two main years of effort but I have no idea how much we actually dug.”

Furniture, long abandoned in the damp tunnels, has developed thick layers of mould.
Furniture, long abandoned in the damp tunnels, has developed thick layers of mould.

Few verifiable pieces of information about the full extent of the tunnel system, both at its peak and today, seem to exist, at least in the public sphere, and most discussion about the subject seems to be based more on urban legend than solid facts. Among some of the more persistent rumours – repeated by nearly every Beijinger who expresses knowledge of the tunnels but verifiable by none – is that, even to this day, there exist huge tunnels, four lanes wide, that can be used to transport vehicles the size of tanks directly under the heart of the city; that the tunnels covered an area of 85 square kilometres and stretched as far as the Western Hills, to the northwest of Beijing (so that government officials and military officers could escape in the event of an attack); and that the military used the tunnel system to move soldiers around during the night of the Tiananmen Square crackdown, on June 4, 1989.

Some truths may never be known but the tunnels that do remain and can be entered help paint a picture of what life might have been like had the worst happened.

“Some rooms were hospital rooms, some offices – they were all designated for different uses,” says Todd, as we pass several differently shaped rooms, all now dark and most filled with traffic signs, discarded rubbish bins and long-rusted bicycles. “I would guess that this was a government official’s room,” he says, flashing his torch around a dark space that, with a few steps leading up to it, has so far escaped being flooded.

A more recent bathroom shows that at one time locals lived or at least utilized some of the space.
A more recent bathroom shows that at one time locals lived or at least utilized some of the space.

Enjoying the chance to escape the icy cold water we have been standing in for 20 minutes, we spend a few minutes poking around the 10 metre by five metre room. It is hard to imagine the realities of living underground for several months with no natural light – and perhaps no light at all, for periods – many other people and little or no fresh food, all the while waiting for the dust to settle above to see if there is a world to return to.

The survivors were apparently to be fed from vast storage rooms and fungus cultivation and were to drink water supplied by 70 wells dug deep into the earth. Living quarters would have been cramped for all but the top officials.

“It has a living area plus an office space and also a way to get out,” our guide says of the room we are standing in and pointing to a small chute leading to a traditional courtyard. “This would have been his living room,” he says, waving his torch around the nondescript dark rectangular room. “And this would have been his office,” he says, pointing to an equally dark and nondescript room, albeit a slightly bigger one.

Thick mould has grown on the few items of furniture that look like they have been here since the tunnels were functional.

Rooms that would once have been dormitories, hospitals, schools etc were long used for other (uncertain) purposes. Now they, too, are abandoned.
Rooms that would once have been dormitories, hospitals, schools etc were long used for other (uncertain) purposes. Now they, too, are abandoned.

We stumble further into the labyrinth, stepping gingerly to avoid the occasional large holes under the water and passing dozens of rooms. Most are filled with nothing but water and cracked bricks and paintwork. Door signs have long since gone – as have many of the doors – so it is hard to tell what most of the rooms were intended for. In fact, beyond the occasional sign pointing to an emergency exit, the only one we see is dated 1977 and extols citizens to, “Dig deep tunnels, store more food, don’t seek hegemony,” a popular slogan during the Cultural Revolution.

Following one emergency exit sign leads us to a small stone staircase that ends with a padlocked and rusty trapdoor. Listening carefully we can hear people talking above. The tunnels continue to stretch off beyond the range of the torch beam in a disorienting yet still claustrophobic way, although many end abruptly in piles of wood, presumably placed there by government workers to prevent people from getting lost under the city.

“The tunnels go on longer down there,” Todd says, pointing down a path. “But I wouldn’t recommend it unless you want to get lost or you have brought a ball of string with you.”

Flooded tunnels snake beneath the streets of Beijing.
Flooded tunnels snake beneath the streets of Beijing.

We have no string, so we head back to the surface.

A few weeks later I enter another section of the underground city, this time taken by friends, who found the entrance by chance next to a popular hutong restaurant. Sneaking around stacks of soft-drink crates and down steps leading past several doors, behind which, by the sounds of it, are people, I’m led to a large, pitch-black space that resembles an industrial warehouse and that was clearly dug more recently, as storage space. Beyond porcelain toilet bowls and piles of smashed glass doors, on either side of the vast room there are small entrances leading back into the much-older tunnel system. These tunnels, similar in design and their state of disrepair to the others, are several kilometres from the ones I first entered, highlighting the fact that, despite the building boom that has taken place above, Beijing’s bomb-shelter tunnel system remains extensive.

More officer quarters are apparent as we make our way down one side of the tunnels, as is what could be another possible layer of tunnels above, visible through a large, empty shaft held open by a skeleton of wooden beams. Soon we reach a downhill section that’s submerged in water. Piles of rubbish block other tunnels and we are forced to imagine what might be ahead of us.

A side tunnel leads to a long-abandoned entrance. Above, the sounds of a family in their home can be heard.
A side tunnel leads to a long-abandoned entrance. Above, the sounds of a family in their home can be heard.

The underground city belongs to an era that many people would sooner forget and, as such, there seems to be little desire to preserve any of it as a reminder of those uncertain times.

“The site’s numerous fire hazards, cracking walls and leaking tunnels pose a great threat to the safety of anyone entering the area,” an anonymous official was quoted as saying in the state-run Global Times newspaper recently. “The [underground city] finished its mission as an underground bomb shelter in the 1970s. We’ve long since upgraded the standards for building bomb shelters.”

Tunnels veer off in many different directions creating an underground labyrinth.
Tunnels veer off in many different directions creating an underground labyrinth.

“Nowadays the Sino-Russian relationship is very good,” Zhang says. “Though it is unpredictable; no one knows what could happen.”

Whatever does happen, though, it is unlikely the residents of Beijing will make use of the cracked and flooded tunnels that, for now, serve as a reminder of more volatile times.

Additional reporting by Guardian News & Media

Backstory — The Fate of Old Beijing: The Vanishing Hutongs


After some long delays, I now present to you — The Fate of Old Beijing: The Vanishing Hutongs. About the movies:

In the face of China’s rapid modernization, the world’s most populous country is struggling to preserve its cultural heritage, and nowhere is this more visible than in the ancient alleyways and courtyards of Beijing.

Once a ubiquitous feature of Beijing, the hutongs are more than simply housing; they are actually a way of life. Entire families live in single, crowded courtyards, often with no bathrooms. Yet despite the lack of modern amenities, the communal aspect to life within the hutongs means that few want to leave – even as their neighbourhoods are being demolished and redeveloped. UNESCO estimates that more than 88 percent of the city’s old residential quarters are already gone, most torn down in the last three decades.

In a three-part series, filmmakers Jonah Kessel and Kit Gillet explore the vanishing world of Beijing’s hutongs, the realities of life within the narrow streets, and the future for these culturally-irreplaceable areas of China’s capital.

Now, for those interested — some backstory:

This project started ages ago (first mentioned on this blog, May 2, 2010), with a single photograph I took of a friend’s former neighborhood after it had been half-demolished. From a photograph, to a photo series, to some video clips, to a video, to a video series, to an interactive package the content developed over the course of a year and grew like a snowball falling down a hill. While Coverage of the hutong issue had been widespread in the East and the West, I was often offended at the quality of some of the journalism I was seeing. Especially since these stories were about the area where I have been living in for almost two years. I saw things in Western newspapers that said things like “The Chinese government wants to Disney-fy Gulou.” I was like … well, that type of editorializing doesn’t help tell people what’s going on. However, particularly the multimedia I had seen produced in a bilingual format seemed to be leaving out the most important part of the story – the residents.

I wanted to give them a voice — but I also wanted to give the voice of their reality. The area of concern here has tremendous cultural value; however, the living conditions of the area are not that of a modern society. The real question is: how can you modernize at such a rapid pace and preserve your culture. In answering that question there are a couple agendas that you can see:

  • You have the developers and the officials who seem to be holding hands down the aisle — they have a clear agenda to create revenue – quickly. However, the government does invest millions of RMB ever year into the old city. But how that money is spent is an elusive and questionable topic.
  • Then you have the residents. Most of their agendas are to have better living conditions. They want hot water, kitchens and indoor toilets. They want access to emergency vehicles. They want homes which contain heat so they don’t have to rely on coal throughout Beijing’s harsh winters. However, they do hold dear the communal atmosphere of the hutongs.
  • Then you have conservationists, whose agenda is to keep old Beijing — real. However, they do understand the reality of the residents. Beijing Cultural Heritage Protection Agency’s (CHP) approach to educate the population on the value of the culturally significant area has been very effective. They have gained media attention on the subject which puts more pressure on the government, developers and officials to think twice before gentrifying Gulou.

So I began shooting and filming attempting to give all parties involved a voice, while keeping my opinion out. We talked to current residents, past hutong residents, city planners, professors, activists, NGOs – even lawayers who deal with displacement cases.

As a foreigner living in China, it can be hard to really understand how complex issues can be, especially with such an enormous population. And I think over population is the real key to this problem. There isn’t enough space. For example, if you want to have an indoor toilet in your house, someone will have to move out. And for most of the residents living there, moving isn’t financially feasible.

The hutong issue goes far beyond Beijing. How Beijing deals with the problem will be a model for other cities in China. This problem exists throughout the country and the developing world. When you think about how to deal with the problem, a couple options jump out right away:

Should the government Renovate, Redevelop or gentrify? We found almost all Beijingers were against gentrification. Person after person told us how much they disliked fake hutongs and particularly the Qianmen area. Residents were also against redevelopment, but at the same time don’t have money to renovate. Many felt economically trapped in the hutongs. They want better living conditions but feel powerless unless the government relocates and compensates them.

Compensation was another big issue. With rising real estate prices, the compensation isn’t enough and residents are often forced to move to areas far outside the city center. Ten years ago, the money was enough, but now residents feel cheated.

This project was a large collaboration and the community really got behind it. Journalist Kit Gillet and myself spent hundreds of hours trying to piece this together along with the Asia Society who financed and coproduced the project with us. However, without the help of others it wouldn’t have been possible — including music by the unfathomably talented composer and guzheng player Wu Fei, historic imagery from Beijing Postcards, audio post production work by Jules Ambroisine and countless hours of translation work by Ami Li and Xiaoming Wei. Beyond this tremendous support from the Beijing Cultural Heritage Protection Center (CHP) and Beijingers of all kinds, sizes and sorts made this possible.

The greater project includes three videos, a digital hutong tour, two slideshows and an interactive package that can be viewed here.

Blackout Beijing: Earth Hour 2011

Earth Hour - Beijing


My apologize in the delay in the India photo series — busy as a bee back in Beijing. However, before commencing again in Rajasthan I wanted to give a public awareness announcement tonight is the World Wildlife Foundation’s Earth Hour. What does this mean? It means everyone should turn off their lights in a glorious global blackout to promote environmental awareness of our massive energy consumption. For the event I’ll be helping WWF shooting the massive blackout in Beijing. We did a test run last night, which gave me access to some high ground in Beijing’s CBD, which can be a bit difficult to access.

If you were unaware, one of my most common things I say is “If only I had a helicopter right now.” While no commercial or private helicopters exist in China yet, I’m still always looking for a high point to shoot from. To demonstrate the black out in Beijing’s Central Business District I put out the wild idea of getting on top of the roof of the China World Trade Center. When I asked, the response that came back was — “we’ll see.=,” with the typical tonality you would expect to actually mean “no.” So, I made this small very technical diagram and sent it to along with my request:

Diagram of Shoot

Lucky for me, the WTC actually granted me access to the massive structures in the city of 22 million people. While the real earth hour is tonight, I got to check it out and do some testing last night.

China World Trade Center - Earth Hour

So although this was a practice, the World Trade Center cut off power (almost completely) to the main tower to help setup the shot and their systems for the actual event tonight. I’m hoping to get similar shots to the above (shot with a 24mm prime) – however, with the rest of the city blacked out along with the massive trade center tower. While I can only be in one place at once, to help out – we’ve positioned photographer Gabriel Clermont at the Water cube and Bird’s Nest to show other iconic spots of Beijing.

Beijing usually doesn’t feel like a big city to me. In fact, if you stay in the old cart of the city you won’t ever see a skyscrapper. However, from on top of these buildings its a little easier to see that Beijing is in fact — one big F-ing city.

CCTV Tower Beijing

Above, you can see the iconic CCTV television building (or as I like to refer to them as – “the legs”) from above at night. If you look behind “the legs” the sprawl hits the infinite mark of the depth of field.

Beijing Lit Up

While I stood on top of the building last night trying not to freeze my a*s off, it was hard not to look around and actually be overwhelmed by the energy used on a nightly basis — just to light the environment of 22 million people. Photographically this makes things fairly difficult to show darkness. The light pollution which I’ve seen as far away as Hebei province, is extremely strong within the city center. Strong enough to light up the sky.

Beijing - looking West

With the advise of Jane Goodall earlier this year, I’ve been trying to not take elevators as a method to save energy. In this scenario, the 50 odd floors with the enormous camera bags warented it – but this is my small goal this year. No more four story elevators.

So while everyone should shut down their tweet decks (although there is an Earth Hour Twitter application which will turn your Twitter profile black for the hour), living room lights and televisions for an hour at 8:30 pm, in the meantime we can get a perspective of light in China’s capital city. Here is the release from WWF on Earth Hour:

What is Earth Hour?
It is the biggest environmental awareness campaign ever seen!

When is it?
Earth Hour takes place once every year. On the last Saturday of March.

What’s the aim?
To raise environmental awareness and get us doing small things in our daily lives that together can have huge impacts.

What does it involve?
Simply turning off your lights for 1 hour. Earth’s hour.

How useful is this?
Earth Hour is a highly “visible” symbolic act.

One that millions of people can easily join in with. And one that allows you to have fun while sending out a serious message to our politicians and governments, that says: “I care about my planet!”

Beyond the Hour
Earth Hour 2011 will go beyond the hour and beyond climate change, marking a moment where every individual, government and business can make their commitment to environmentally sustainable action for the forthcoming year. Homes, offices, government buildings and iconic landmarks will go dark to acknowledge the actions of people from all corners of the globe that go beyond the hour.

CANCELED or CENSORED? The Fate of Old Beijing: A Vanishing World Documentary Screening & Dialog

Hutong Screening Delayed


Sadly today’s event “The Fate of Old Beijing: A Vanishing World Documentary Screening & Dialog” has been canceled or perhaps censored. This event has come during a politically sensitive time and although I don’t have all the details, local press has been proving us with some information from some unknown sources.

Today was suppoesed to be a screening of the hutong project I’ve been working on:

On Saturday, March 19 I am excited to present a long term project I’ve been working on with journalist Kit Gilllet. This project, co-produced with the Asia Society will be published shortly at their site at which time I will go into more detail on the subject and filming; however, for those in Beijing there will be a live screening next week.

Global Times picked up the event with a feature last Monday:

Two Western journalists, annoyed by what they saw as sensational and sloppy reporting about the destruction of Beijing’s old neighborhoods, have shot a series of three short videos intended to add nuance to the issue. The resulting project, A Vanishing World, portrays the dilemmas faced by residents who are reluctant to leave their old single-story courtyard homes, but at the same time crave conveniences such as modern heating, hot water, and indoor toilets.

Unfortunately, the event was canceled after similar articles appeared in both Chinese and English press. The organizers of the event said:

“There was too little time and we rushed too much with the planning,” the center’s PR manager Wu Qiong told the Global Times Wednesday.

Later in the week, Global Times reported some other details:

“After announcing the event, the police requested a review of the film before it could be shown to the public. The police will not give an answer (yes or no) in the current time frame for Saturday’s screening,” the source told the Global Times by e-mail. “The films take on a neutral perspective, with the filmmakers giving a voice to many parties. What those parties say may or may not be what the government wants published or presented without their opinion interjected,” the source said.

While I am sad this event was canceled as it functioned as an educational forum, the full project which includes more media will be published this week on the Asia Society’s Web site.

I hope all who could not attend today’s event will help share the films next week upon release.



The Fate of Old Beijing: A Vanishing World Documentary Screening & Dialog

Tu Zhengpei, 83, can't imagine a life away from the area she has called home since 1952.


On Saturday, March 19 I am excited to present a long term project I’ve been working on with journalist Kit Gilllet. This project, co-produced with the Asia Society will be published shortly at their site at which time I will go into more detail on the subject and filming; however, for those in Beijing there will be a live screening next week.

One hutong resident enjoying the sunshine and a quiet smoke on the street outside of his home.

The screening will include three videos which document China’s fight to preserve cultural heritage in the face of rapid modernization. This project started a long, long time ago — in fact, if you’ve followed this blog you’ve seen some posts concerning the hutong issue in Beijing. While the screening will happen on the 19th, the Asia Society’s release will include an interactive platform from film maker and producer Michael Zhao and David Barreda as well as two slideshows, three videos and a a digital hutong tour.

55-year-old Bai Shixiang has lived in this same crowded courtyard his entire life.

This project was a large collaboration and the community really got behind it — including music by the unfathomably talented composer and guzheng player Wu Fei, historic imagery from Beijing Postcards, audio post production work by Jules Ambroisine and countless hours of translation work by Ami Li and Xiaoming Wei. Beyond this tremendous support from the Beijing Cultural Heritage Protection Center (CHP) and Beijingers of all kinds, sizes and sorts made this possible.

Du Yanxia, who moved to Beijing 13 years ago from the countryside, cries at the thought of the wholesale destruction of Beijing's hutong districts.

While I hope all who are available in Beijing can come and support this cause and see the films, I also help those in cyberspace, realspace or outerspace can help share these videos and project to help create greater awareness and education of an issue that touches so many hearts in not just in Beijing, but in all of the developing world. When the Asia Society releases the films I’ll go into further detail about how you can help. Mostly, its by pressing a ‘share’ button.

Below is the press release from CHP today:

Hutong Graveyard

The Fate of Old Beijing: A Vanishing World Documentary Screening & Dialog

CHP is thrilled to present The Fate of Old Beijing: A Vanishing World Documentary Screening & Dialog as the first event of our 2011 documentary screening series. This three-part, 30-minute documentary depicts China’s challenge in preserving its rich heritage while maintaining the rapid pace of modernization. Following the documentary will be a short dialog by CHP Founder He Shuzhong and one of the award-winning filmmakers, Jonah Kessel, on Beijing’s preservation challenge and the fate of Old Beijing.

About A Vanishing World by Jonah Kessel & Kit Gillet:

In the face of China’s rapid modernization, the world’s most populous country is struggling to preserve its cultural heritage, and nowhere is this more visible than in the ancient alleyways and courtyards of Beijing.

In a three-part series, filmmakers Jonah Kessel and Kit Gillet explore the vanishing world of Beijing’s hutongs, the realities of life within the narrow streets, and the future for these culturally-irreplaceable areas of China’s capital.

Jonah Kessel (www.jonahkessel.com), is an award-winning visual journalist based in Beijing. Between 2007-2010, Kessel took home over 40 awards for photo, video, design and Web projects. He has previously worked as the Creative Director of China Daily.

Kit Gillet previously worked for the South China Morning Post as a features writer. His work regularly appears in the likes of Forbes, Foreign Policy, and CNN, among others.

Language: Chinese and English with subtitle
Date & Time: Saturday, March 19, 2011 | 2-5pm
Venue: Studio-X Beijing, Room 103, Building A, No. 46 Fangjia Hutong, Andingmennei Dajie, Dongcheng District
Ticket: RMB20 for non-members; free entry for CHP members
Register: Via chpnews@163.com or 6403 6532, including your name, number of attendance, and contact information. Registration accepted until Friday, March 18 at 6pm.

All proceeds to benefit CHP’s Cultural Heritage Trail program.

The Beijing Cultural Heritage Protection Center (CHP)
Supporting communities to protect their cultural heritage

How do you feed a city of 22 million people?

Feeding Beijing


As a freelancer I often find myself chasing ideas before they become stories. A lot of these ideas pop up just from simply living and working in China.

Recently I noticed that a lot of my favorite Xiaochis (小吃 ) were increasing their food prices. For those not in China, a Xiaochi literally means “small eats,” refering to hole-in-the wall restaurants often run by mom and pop. I eat at these type of establishments frequently – both because I like them and also because its a fantastic way to save money. Eight steamed dumplings in my hutong normally cost RMB 4 (about 61 cents). However, last week I noticed there price went up to RMB 6.

While I’m still happy to give my local neighbors RMB 6 (91 cents) for a meal — percentage-wise it is in fact a huge increase in price. This got me thinking about photographing food in Beijing and specifically raised the question — how on earth do you feed a city of 22 million people? Where does the food come from, and what would one of these large food markets look like?

Xinfadi City

After working primarily with video as of late (3 more videos on there way soon!), last night I got a burst of motivated to go take some still photographs at one of the world’s largest wholesale food markets — officially known as Xinfadi Agri-product Wholesale Market, but known locally simply as Xinfadi.

Above, is this massive market which looks like a city itself.

I’d been by this market once before but hadn’t really spent time there when it was at its busiest. Interestingly enough, this market is most crowded at around 4:00 am; when restaurants, families and markets travel to the far south of Beijing to get their supplies from what appears to be a self-sustained city filled with produce, fruit, meats and grains. Xinfadi never sleeps: according to state-run China Daily the market is open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. It is also said to supply up to 70 percent of Beijing’s vegetables and 80 percent of its fruit.

Xinfadi Agri-product Wholesale Market

So — I figured the best time to go was at 4am. Fortunately for me, it (or perhaps the state) decided it would be the best time for Beijing’s first snow of the year. I decided that was not going to stop me and so I jumped in a cab to travel an hour south of the city and started snooping around.

Xinfadi Vendors

The maze of food spreads in all directions. In the dark, it has a seemingly shady characteristic — as if everyone was doing something illicit. In dark corners, behind trucks, vendors and customers slyly exchanged large stacks of bills. People whisper as they bargain so as not to let other customers know the price they are getting.

Some vendors were asleep in their vans, while others chop endless piles of meat. In short, this is how Beijing feeds 22 million people.

After collected these images and also some video — its clear there is a story here, whether it is on the city of produce itself or rising food prices.

We’ll see if what started as me chasing an idea, can turn into a story … stay tuned.

Looking for photography assistant in Beijing


I’m looking for a bilingual (Chinese/English) photo assistant looking to join me on assignments around Beijing. This is a great opportunity to learn about photography, video and multimedia production at a grassroots level while earning some money.

This is an on call position, not a full time job.

The job will vary greatly pending on clients, assignments and locations. I work with both editorial and commercial clients, shooting still photographs and video production.

This job also includes translation work, both pre and post production. This might mean transcribing interviews conducted in Chinese into English, or creating subtitles using Motion, Final Cut Pro and LiveType (don’t worry if you don’t know how to use these programs now — I’ll help you learn!). In other cases, this might be translating live during an interview or finding Chinese sources.

On a photography level, you’ll be helping to setup shoots, finding locations and in some cases — you will be able to shoot yourself. Other times, you will help with camera and lens changes as well as transporting gear.

Pay rates will be based on your experience and our clients. Bonuses will be given for jobs well done.

I’ll also help you with portfolio reviews and helping to find you outlets to publish your photos. If you are interested in learning about social media content aggregation and software I can help you with this too. Time spent with portfolio reviews and software training won’t be paid but you’ll have the opportunity to expand your photographic view and learn about a wide array of visual communication softwares including:

  • Adobe Photoshop CS4
  • Adobe Illustrator CS4
  • Adobe Flash CS4
  • Adobe InDesign CS4
  • Adobe Acrobat 9 Pro
  • Adobe Dreamweaver CS4
  • Adobe After Effects CS4
  • Adobe Premier CS4
  • Apple Final Cut Pro
  • Apple Motion
  • Apple LiveType
  • Apple Sound Track Pro
  • Quark Express 8
  • Soundslides Plus
  • Action Script 2, 3
  • Camera Bits Photo Mechanic
  • News Edit ProBaseview
  • Adobe Audition CS4
  • Canon Digital Professional
  • GarageBand
  • Adobe Bridge CS4
  • GIMP
  • Saxotech Publicus Brightcove Publishing
  • Experienced with HTML, XHTML, CSS
  • Flash Video Encoder

Interested in this job? Do you meet these requirements?

  • Must have strong desire to learn more about photography industry
  • Must have strong desire to learn and practice about strong journalism values
  • Must have a working knowledge Mac OSX operating systems.
  • Must have a working knowledge of Photoshop CSx
  • Must be able to hold and carry weight
  • Fluent in English and Chinese (writing, reading, speaking)

Beijing natives with a knack for finding sources and getting access to places and people will be given preference. Email me here with a link to your portfolio for consideration. To learn more about me and what I do, visit my site here.



Santarchy in Tiananmen Square

Beijing Santicon 2010


Note from Jonah: Beijingers — are you in one of these photos? In the Christmas spirit I would like to offer high resolution photos for personal use (no commercial use please) to anyone who might want one. For Web purposes, feel free to grab (save as) any of the images here. Please credit and link (Jonah M. Kessel / www.jonahkessel.com) — email me here for high res photos.

On December 12, 2010 Santas all over the world gathered in mass to take over streets, squares and bars. Beijing was no exception.

Starting in two locations, groups of over 50 Santas paraded through the streets singing, drinking and confusing a lot of Chinese people. Known as Santicon, this global event shows many different sides of Saint Nicholas.

SantaCon is a mass gathering of people dressed in Santa Claus costumes parading publicly on streets and in bars in cities around the world. The focus is on spontaneity and creativity, while having a good time and spreading cheer and goodwill.

Sometimes known as Naughty Santas, Cheapsuit Santas, Santarchy, Santapalooza, and Santa Rampage, SantaCon incorporates elements of a flash mob in the context of cheerful bawdy and harmless behavior, the singing of naughty Christmas carols, and the giving of small gifts to strangers.

Yesterday, I had the privilege of seeing some of these varying Clauses. Here are my picks for Beijing’s top 20 Clause moments of 2010.

Kung Fu Santas
Kung Fu Santas

Hobo Santa
Hobo Santa

Tuk-Tuk Santa
Tuk-Tuk Santa

Corporate Santas
Corporate Santas

Santa Go
Santa Go

Subway Santas
Subway Santas

Santa Boyce
Santa Boyce

Alcoholic Santa
Alcoholic Santa

Kid Rock Santa (Santa Daze)
Kid Rock Santa (Santa Daze)

Tiananmen Santas
Tiananmen Santas

Salacious Santas
Salacious Santas

Ethnic Santa
Ethnic Santa

Beijing Santas
Beijing Santas

Urinal Santas
Urinal Santas

24-hour Santa
24-hour Santa

Zhou Santa
Zhou Santa

Commuting Santas
Commuting Santas

Lonely Santa
Lonely Santa

Santa Sobriety
Santa Sobriety

While only one Santa was arrested during Beijing Santicon 2010, a good time was had by all and many Chinese people were freaked out. It should be no surprise, this strange tradition which freaks out squares, started in San Francisco.

1994, the Suicide Club in San Francisco staged the first “Santarchy”, which was later adopted by the Cacophony Society as SantaCon. Influenced by the surrealist movement, Discordianism, and other subversive art currents, the Cacophonists celebrated the Yule season in a distinctly anti-commercial manner, by mixing guerrilla street theatre and pranksterism. SantaCon has since evolved, spawning many different versions and interpretations of the event throughout the world.

Below are more pictures from the moving celebration of Christmas Cheer.