Every Day, We Pass Through
Artistic Practice (22/24)

Every Day, We Pass Through

A 24 hour chronicle of the dramatic and sudden transformation of a close-knit urban community in the Cold Mountains of western China.

I’ve lived in Xichang, the capital of Sichuan’s Liangshan Yi Ethnic Prefecture, since 2018. I’ve always been drawn to the simple lifestyle it affords. Unlike the Old Towns of Dali and Lijiang (in neighbouring Yunnan Province), whose charm and tranquility were overwhelmed long ago by tourism and commerce, Xichang Old Town still belongs to, serves, and is served by locals. The small, shabby, decades-old stores; the slanting, vacant houses with classic architectural flourishes; local farmers selling fresh produce; neighbours and relatives hanging out on sidewalks chatting; children playing cards; old men playing Chinese chess or poker; the shoe-repair man; the sewing women; the one-dollar haircut…every aspect of life unfolds on the streets.

It was 2021 and I was a year into my 24 Hours: Xichang photography project when the government began renovating (tearing down) and rebuilding Old Town. By the end of November 2022, around sixty percent of the town’s core had been refurbished and re-designated as a commercial sector that government officials rented out to high-end restaurants, tea houses, and fashion boutiques. They also offered nationalized bookstores, brand name coffee shops, and privately-owned art galleries a period of “free rent,” which allowed wealthy investors and business owners to carve up the new development. Suddenly, a cup of coffee cost at least 30 kuai ($5) and few longtime residents could afford the inflated rent. It took around 18 months for the local flavour of Old Town to be nearly wiped clean.

Entire neighbourhoods were modernized and gentrified to accommodate shiny new shopping centres administered by local authorities who adhere not to the rules of a liberal economy, but rather to a form of social capitalism in which the economy is centralized and codified to the extent that there are established requirements and standards for everything, from store designs and decorations to signboard placement and annual economic performance.

24 Hours: Xichang is a documentation project that spans the three year period before, during, and after the transformation of Old Town, but the timing of the photographic series offers a parallel narrative in which the potential for unimpeded commercial development is accelerated and exacerbated by the pandemic. Xichang’s geographic location and manageable population meant that life remained relatively unrestricted during the pandemic, except for mask mandates and occasional lockdowns. According to a business who travelled often this past year, Xichang was considered to be “thriving compared with other large Chinese cities.”

Over the course of three anxious years, I have anchored myself in the 24 Hours project, examining the changes taking place in my chosen city and how I, too, had transformed during my time here as a transplant. Truths that I’ve uncovered about myself, I can’t express logically in words. For this I must count on the photographs themselves, although photos can contain harmony and contradiction, leading to various complex understandings.

Every discovery, observation, experience, thought, and sentiment is inspired by taking photographs; my life and the world around me become more expansive, wider, clearer. I go back and take photographs in Yushu, Qinghai; Liangshan, Sichuan; and Ruili, Yunnan again and again. There, on the peripheries of western China, I feel a nostalgia for the 1980s and my childhood return. So following instinct, I release these photos in a linear timeline. Instead of isolation, they can talk to each other. Their words are like the pigeons over the trees, the sound of wind in various seasons, and the fluctuation of the river.

woman walking with bags toward man jogging at night
One hour before the sun gets to work, like deja-vu, a motorcycle passes me, streaking its headlight, when the pole-carrying lady appears, almost out of nowhere. At first, I mistake her for the lady who sells vegetables that I saw this time last year. A moment later, I realize they are not the same person, they only share a similar demeanour and posture earned after a lifetime burdened by hard work and heavy lifting year after year.

When she reaches the middle of the crosswalk, a car slowly approaches, its headlights shining upon her. At that moment, she stares at the sudden light, leaning forward, her knees bent, hesitating as if asking herself whether she should walk toward the left or the right. I guess she always gets these ridiculous shocks, and she’s used to waiting for the others to make decisions first.

After a few minutes, a jogger runs past the corner where she stands frozen seemingly towards a destination that he’s familiar with and certain of.
modern construction above old city gate
One hour before the sun gets to work, a man walks toward the tunnel of the city gate; a cleaner sweeps near the gate of the hotel parking lot; the man-made red, orange, yellow, and blueish-purple mingle and occupy the streets. The surreal almost comes out of the artificial, and we pass through it every day.
scooters parked in shadows
Various colours turn pale white at the hospital front gate. Someone walks in to take the nucleic acid test. Someone walks away after taking the test. The nucleic acid test has become an essential part of daily life this year. Without a nucleic test report updated in 24 hours, no access is possible to hospitals, government buildings, highways, bus and train stations, airports, or even to kindergarten to pick up one’s kids from school. Everyone is required to take the test every day. And it’s been months. The waiting line is growing. People walk fast to the beginnings of their days. Soon, the sun will give everyone equal warmth.
scenes of destruction in village
Memory does not follow our will. We can’t decide what to remember, what to forget. Memory and time make secret agreements. Every now and then, some places eliminate the original impression, appear abruptly or hollowly. At the edge of the morning market, an elderly lady and man stand next to one another with the exact same posture, like two rocks, motionless, staring towards somewhere, for quite a while. I feel something peculiar from their stillness, like they’re both lost in the long trail of their memories, or they’re watching some kind of determination rising up from the foggy horizon.
old city walls lit up, old man chatting in a square
History is like these walls, destroyed and rebuilt, sometimes from the ruin, sometimes from nothing, every time something new is layered over the old. What should we call these walls, the new or the old? How old is old? How many years later will the new become the old? The old residents in the old town say hi and chat around these walls. Will their early memories come closer and more intimate to them as they get older?
workers beginning their days in the back alleys
A long time ago, before there were clocks, people referred to time in various terms, according to the location of the sun, the length of the shadow, and the movement of the stars. A long time afterwards, people only called it day, night, dawn, and dusk. Time lost many of its names. People stopped looking upward, and instead towards the minute and second hands. The sun plays with the length of the shadow and enjoys the game anyway. The light of the stars, through billions of years, shines upon everyone anyway.
chinese apartments
One day, such outdated buildings will only be seen in the movies. They will stand on vast movie sets, temporary scenery, with maybe one facade, the appearance or the entrance. Actors and actresses will wear the mask, stand on the unsteady stairs, to perform the drama in 2022.
refracted flowers through a window pane
What’s that?
The ghosting glass, the wood-carving window, the flowers in the wood-pots, and red lanterns.
It’s beautiful.

What’s that?
The peeling wall, the anti-theft window, the detergent bottles.
Why?
You can hardly walk on the street without passing the slogan “civilization.” Civilization is everywhere. It may be the most sophisticated word in modern Chinese. It can refer to ancient culture, antiquity, non-material heritage, or signs that warn: No Spitting, Wait for the Green Light, No Sitting on the Ground, and No Eating on the Ground. Like a giant hand, civilization directs and moves public and private life. Only the “civilized” have a say in what is accepted as “civilization.” The earth, no. The floor, maybe. The carpet, okay.
Peeling is poor. Rough is ugly. Mold is disgusting.

Smoothness is good. Neat is necessary. Fake is perfect.
I have stayed in Liangshan for three years due to the pandemic. So sometimes I play this game with myself. I snap my fingers and imagine I’m in a city that I’ve never been to. I feel the air, the breeze, the humidity. Identify the obvious or subtle differences of the sky, trees, the sidewalk, the colours, the traffic vehicles, and so on. I observe the people around me, their hairstyles, things in their hands, tones they speak, the way they notice or ignore me. Details, there are always unseen details that offer the rich texture of the community and the abundance of daily life. I see the dancing of time: standard, at a leisurely pace, or speeding forward.
Spend 1RMB, wear the mask, show the health code, then you can tour on these high walls all day if you want. You can bathe in the bright sun of Xichang, even in the winter. Opening hours are limited to the daytime. After sunset, the gate is locked. The glamorous artificial light shines until midnight. The stars above the wall tower don’t belong to anyone.
Shadows are equal to the brightness in terms of the vision. Shadows support, cut, fold, and convert the vision by making the unseen, the fragments, and the mystery. Shadows can lead to discovery, if you’re curious enough.
I guess these colourful fish, lanterns and umbrellas will be floating above the small square all year long. They’re here to make sure the holiday spirit go on. In holidays, or days like holidays, most people spend money to go with the holiday cheer.
Glass windows are essential to modernization. They ceaselessly yell, “Look at me. I’m here.” You look, the inside extrudes the outside, you are here and also there. Everything is twisted, blurred, confusing. Nothing is for certain. The essence is missing. The modern desert and distant mirages.
The 40-year-old building has been torn down. The way of life inside that structure gone with it. The world tilts towards consumption, economic growth and the GDP. “You’ll need this. This will make your life so much easier.” The voice comes from celebrities, social media influencers, friends, and even cellphones we can’t live without. The tide of commercial influences surges and we, like these old buildings, lose our balance and fall.
“Long distance love is not a problem.”
“Do your best.”
“Let it be.”
“Fitting in is more important than love.”
“The best way to forget is to start another love affair.”
And at the bottom of the wall: “I’m exhausted.”

These are the words written by teenagers of the local technical secondary school. Most of these students are from the countryside, and their scores are not good enough to attend any high schools. The majority of them will work as kindergarten teachers, factory workers, automobile mechanics, hairdressers, and delivery drivers.
Ten years ago, a lot of ethnic Yi men and women walked the streets of Xichang in traditional dress, not as costumes, but as their daily attire. Nowadays you’re more likely to see women carrying bags full of traditional Yi costumes and jewelry to the New Town where they’ll pose for souvenir photographs with tourists.

Yi script is prohibited from being displayed on signboards. The narrowed criteria for acceptable decorations includes wood-carvings, red lanterns, and the fake decaying colour. Houses built long ago in the ethnic Yi style have disappeared. All characteristics considered to be ethnically Yi have been totally wiped out.
Renovations go on behind locked doors. Some tourists point toward the crane and ask, “What is that?” Some peek through the cracks of the closed gates and see construction sites, garbage, puddles, and weeds.
Often, we can’t communicate. We come to the edge of a deep valley. I’m on one side and you’re on the other side. I yell at you, “culture.” You yell back, “culture.” I raise my voice, “art.” You scream, “art.” Actually, you want to whisper “efficiency” and “profit.” You reserve your strength and give up, so I stay silent too.
“Do I need company? Shall I walk alone?” She asks herself.

“Let me bring a chair with me. At least I’ve got something in my hand,” she decides.

“I’m not scared of the darkness, but being alone. It’s a shame to be alone. After all, this is the age of social media,” she thinks out loud.
It seems that we can say goodbye to the health code and nucleic acid test. We all hope this is farewell. Only a couple of weeks ago, we were still worried about the opening and locking of the community gate and enraged about the innocent and tragic deaths in Xinjiang. That’s why I made this photo the only black-and-white in the three year series. It seems that we could walk freely without fright as before the pandemic occurred. So much suffering we all hope isn’t meaningless.

By the time this article is published, the health code, the nucleic acid test, and the lockdown will all be realities of the past. The number of infections increases rapidly every day. Many people are buying the ridiculously expensive N95 masks and flu medicine. Many offer them for free to strangers. Some still go to public occasions after being diagnosed as positive. Some share all kinds of information about what medicine to take, when to take it, the cautions and warnings before and after the infection. Everyone shares the crisis. No one can be alone.

*All photographs included in the 24 Hours: Xichang Old Town series were shot between 5am on November 26th and 5am on November 27th, 2022.

Filed Under: Photo & Video

Photo Essay by

Suzy Xu Shuang (徐爽) is a visual storyteller of ancient and contemporary cultural traditions. She explores portraiture and landscape photography in poetic ways. Xu is a 2019-2020 ArtsEverywhere Artist-in-Residence.

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