Beijing artist captures hutong life

Hutong are a community of inner-city houses that run east to west through China’s capital.
First built in the Yuan Dynasty, they are the epitome of traditional Chinese living.
The typical hutong design is four houses facing a courtyard.
The term hutong is actually the name for the alleyways between the cluster of homes.
At one time there were more than 6,000 hutong in Beijing. But today the number has dwindled to less than 2,000.
For artist Kuang Han, these homes are the last reminder of the capital’s past. And he is passionate about capturing them in his work.
Han has sketched hutong for more than 10 years.
His distinctive drawings have become popular not only with Beijingers, but also with those who visit the city.
“Beijing has very few hutong painters… Some who live here just take for granted what is actually great beauty.”
What began as a hobby has become a way to cement these homes with the stories they hold.
“I lived for six years in hutong when I was young and began sketching it. Only then did I realize that Beijing has such a profound culture. In my own way I am collecting stories of time gone by.”
What is unique about Han’s work is that he only uses pencil.
He says it’s the only media that truly reflects the colour and texture of the hutong.
“I only had two pencils at the time, one was a carpentry pencil, the other a sketching one. I used to paint in watercolour but when you look at these hutong, their walls and bricks are grey. You cannot represent this kind of feeling using oil painting. It just doesn’t feel right.”
As more hutong feel the weight of the demolition ball, Kuang Han’s sketches have become treasured memories. For some, it’s the only physical reminder of their childhood home.

At one of my exhibitions three old ladies embraced me and cried and thanked me for keeping an image of their home. My drawings are very close to the life of Beijing citizens.”
Hutongs have become Han’s life. Although he is passionate about their preservation, he understands that a city is never static.
“It’s a contradictory problem. To the aspect of culture and history we should keep them. But to the aspect of this city developing we can’t stop it. Hutong life is a hard one and the facilities are extremely basic. But we really should think about how to repair them or find another way to keep the hutong.”

Having produced more than a thousand sketches, Kuang Han has captured the colourful history of Beijing life. It’s his way of giving the next generation a chance to remember the past on paper.