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Memories of Hutong Remain Alive in Kuang's Pencil Drawings

It was once a common scene in Beijing to see residents queuing in line to buy Chinese cabbages, one of the few vegetables available in winter. Greengrocers helped people load their tricycle trailers with piles of cabbages.

Seldom do Beijingers have to store cabbages nowadays. Locals have a variety of choices of fruits, vegetables and other foods both in open markets and in the supermarket.

But you can still see such vegetable stalls along the narrow alleyways (hutong) of Beijing. Alternatively you could recreate these images from past lifestyles through Kuang Han's pencil drawings.

In one of his works, Kuang depicts several residents waiting aside a cabbage stall on Caishikou Street. Paying attention to small details one can see a board in the painting reading 0.12 yuan per jin (3 cents per kilogram).

At his solo exhibition, running permanently at the Wan Fung Art Gallery in downtown Beijing, Kuang presented nearly 30 such pencil drawings depicting the daily life in ancient hutong.

The exhibition, entitled "Preserving hutong," is the second of its kind after a previous series along the same theme in 2002.

During the past decade, Kuang has been dedicated to holding people's memories of the vanishing hutong by taking photos and producing pencil drawings.

Kuang's drawings offer the audience the chance to get an insight into hutong by selecting those most representative of those from past times.

In a novel way, his art works attract eyes not through rich colors, but through broad-line pencil sketching.

In recent years fewer painters would use solely pencil sketches in their artistic creations, since the art form arguably looks less attractive when compared to colored works. But in the eyes of Kuang Han, pencil is the best expression of the antique hutong and the life they contain inside.

"Simple lines do not mean a monotonous content. We know that Chinese paintings normally apply few colors to demonstrate unlimited themes. So it is similar with my pencil drawings," said Kuang.

"In a plain and similar way, pencil brings out the very graceful side and the cultural spirit of the hutong," Kuang said.

The artist usually devotes his efforts to completing the delicate and expressive outline of every piece. He likes to adopt heavy lines to present a rhythmic contrast between light and shade.

Though perhaps not glamorous, his paintings generally take on a pure appearance of black, white and grey against the dull yellow background, and reveal a beauty of old times.

"It is a beauty not belonging to pure nature, but to the realistic life, through which I'd like to communicate with the audience the wisdom of our ancestors," Kuang said.

Kuang's pencil drawings tend to lead you into a world of hutong filled with hustle and bustle.

Dappled sun casts its light on mottled walls through grape vines. On thick trees hang several bird-cages and embroidered bed sheets. Small paper ads cover tightly closed wooden doors. Big Chinese characters saying the word "chai" are seen in a white circle on the wall representing the up-coming end of another period of old Beijing life.

Kuang not only presents his audience with artistic pleasure, but also expresses nostalgia for a time he experienced and treasures.

Born in Jiangxi Province, Kuang came to Beijing in the late 1980s after graduating from university. He lived in a single-storey, courtyard house (siheyuan) in the Beixin Hutong in the following seven years, and developed a strong fondness of the diverse life that exists in those historical alleyways.

"There used to be six or more families sharing a siheyuan (enclosed courtyard) at that time. We often sat by a stone round table in the courtyard, chatting, appreciating the moon, and dining. It felt so quiet and peaceful. Though sometimes, you had to deal with naughty children playing and running from one household to another," Kuang recalled.

Those sweet memories reappeared in his mind so many times after he moved into a multi-storey block of flats, and he felt hurt by the demolition of so many hutong in order to give way to skyscrapers.

"It is true that people may lead an inconvenient life in hutong. But I find it difficult to dismiss these houses and communities from my heart. The hutong is from where Beijing grew and where its roots are," he said.

Kuang has made countless trips to almost every hutong and has collected nearly 5,000 photos.

"When drawing I usually sit in a corner with the canvas in my hand listening to the shout of things like "Potatoes on sale" or "Beers and erguotou (a kind of Beijing liquor)" from deep inside the alleyway. It is so enjoyable for me," he said.

Kuang would sometimes receive phones calls from visitors to his exhibitions, who are pleased to have found the exact hutong depicted in one of his pencil series.

(China Daily December 21, 2005)

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