Love in Beijing

By Wei Xi Source:Global Times Published: 2014-3-9 18:28:02

Yang Zhazha Photo: Courtesy of Yang Zhazha


Photo from Beijing in Love Photo: Courtesy of Yang Zhazha


Photo from Beijing in Love Photo: Courtesy of Yang Zhazha

If you love one, send him/her to New York, because it is a paradise; if you hate one, send him/her to New York, because it is a hell. This classic line from popular 1994 drama A Native of Beijing in New York seems very suited for describing the lives of many Beipiao, or Beijing drifters - a term used to refer to those who have moved to Beijing but are still struggling for a better life.

Independent photographer Yang Zhazha is one of these millions of Beipiao. Spending four long years on his photo project Love in Beijing he demonstrates the many love stories that exist in this crowded metropolis.

Beijing romance

Starting in 2009 Yang's project now consists of more than 25,000 photos of 52 couples. Expats, rock musicians, university professors, and lesbian lovers have all fallen under his lens. Most were introduced through friends, while some volunteered online.

Different from commercialized studio productions, the couples Yang has captured do not wear magnificent suits or dresses, but often just very casual T-shirts. Backgrounds are not of castles or a sea of flowers, but the untidy rental apartments where the couples live. Many couples in the photos don't even smile a lot, while some are half or even full-on naked.

Some explanations are added to each series of photos, such as the professions of the couples and their current living status.

Due to the unusual style of his photos, Yang faced some opposition when he first started. "Many lovers wanted to have their photos shot in a park or a cafeteria, just like what you'd see in an album. But what I look for are pictures with a deep feeling of life," Yang explained. "[With fake scenes and clothes, couples] may look good, but that has nothing to do with the real you."

To put couples, many of whom had had no acquaintance with Yang before, at ease, Yang said he would start sessions by chatting with them. This interaction proved invaluable as it enabled him to learn how to better present his subjects during a shoot.

Yang told the Global Times that he has been impressed by the different stories he has heard from time to time, one he particularly enjoys sharing is about a lesbian couple and an elderly grandmother.

"Lan (pseudonym) lives with her girlfriend and her 80-year-old grandma. The three have a very good relationship. What moves me the most is that such an elderly lady is able to accept gay love, while many young people still cannot," Yang said.

A Beijing drifter

A former graphic art designer, Yang said his idea to shoot love stories in Beijing actually stemmed from his own lovelorn story.

"I still feel strange about it. Why I came up with such a warm idea while at the lowest tide of my life," Yang recalled. "Maybe I was looking for some kind of sentimental comfort from other people." 

Probably more in line with his feelings at the time, he was also working on a darker project at the time - The Bloody Little Red Riding Hood.

"I think a person is always in a status of conflict, and I want to push both to an extreme point. The two clash thematically, but they have the same emotional affect - an emotional release," Yang explained.

Like many non-native Beijingers, the 1981-born Yang came to the capital for a better opportunity. His real name is Yang Qingbin.

Having worked in the advertisement industry for five years, he found his job as a graphic designer put him at the bottom of the food chain. Yang soon discovered that he was only able to follow customer demands instead of realizing his own personal ideas.

The same year that Yang lost his girlfriend, he quit his job and turned his hobby - photography - into a profession.

Although believing this the best way to bring his own innovative ideas to life, Yang said that these four years were also difficult and especially chaotic. Working as a freelancer for different companies, he sometimes goes months without a paycheck. At one point he thought about leaving the city.

Yang has always been very conflicted in his feelings about the capital, "I have the most freedom I have ever had and the greatest sense of ego in Beijing, but at the same time I've lost a lot, including a close relationship with my parents, relatives and former friends, all of whom live in a small town in Shandong Province and are unable to understand me."

The outsider

When I first met with Yang, he gave out an impressively different feeling.

The 180 centimeter tall man was wearing a cotton quilted dark blue overcoat, the kind which was very popular in China during the 1960s. Yet, he also wore a light brown plaid beret, a style popular in Western colleges, and a pair of mittens of the same dark blue color.

Yang doesn't communicate well face to face, especially with someone new. During our hour or so interview, he remained very passive when it came to conversation. He told the Global Times that he used to be very talkative as a kid, but he also had a problem with stammering. As he grew he gradually came to feel it was better not to speak at all than make a mistake.

Yet, he is quick of mind and is more than capable of conveying biting observations in his writing. Looking at his photos it is also very easy for viewers to see that he is also capable of sharing his thoughts through his photographs.

Yang said he likes to take photos with a certain theme. Like I Am A Crown, another work of his, which shows how people today wear different masks when living in society and meeting different people. Teenager, Teenager is a self reflection of his teenager years: about his dreams, experiences and restrictions.

Having spent three years on his Love in Beijing project, Yang is finally talking about exhibiting these photos with an art institute in Taiwan.

"If everything goes smoothly, two exhibitions will be held at the same time in Beijing and Taiwan," Yang told the Global Times. 

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