SupChina Photo Contest: Jianbing, by Lei Gong


Editor’s note: Lei Gong’s photo (click to enlarge) is a 2nd Prize winner in the SupChina Photo Contest. (“Jianbing” is a cheap, savory Chinese crepe, often prepared on these type of hotplate carts.) All 10 winning photos will be posted one per day, with the Grand Prize winner unveiled on Friday, September 21. Keep an eye on this space for all the winners, and check out last Friday’s photo, Hannah Wilson’s “Running Boy.”

An old migrant worker running a food cart around Dongzhimen station as I was walking to Sanlitun. I took this photo in 2016 on my first trip back to China in six years. There was a tension in the air that I hadn’t felt before in my previous visits. From talking to migrant workers like her I learned that, with the combination of stricter law enforcement and rising costs of living, life for those on the city’s margins had started to become precarious and difficult to bear.

Editor: Lei Gong submitted two other photos of Beijing nightscapes, and adds:

I could not have imagined that only one year after these photographs were taken, Beijing’s city government would start a campaign to dismantle the many popular dives and haunts that had flourished out of Beijing’s countless hutongs and back alleys in an effort to “clean up” the city, or that not long after, a corresponding campaign would attempt to uproot the many migrant workers that had come to characterize its streets. Change, often of the intrusive sort, is (sometimes magically, sometimes astonishingly, sometimes tragically, and sometimes disturbingly) a constant force in contemporary China, and transience often its primary state. With it usually follows relentless uncertainty and precariousness that can be even more disorienting and surreal for those watching from a distance than those living through it. That is the collective story I feel these photographs have come to depict.

I would also like to, if I could, leave a thought about the deep significance and importance tied to collecting the photography that comes out of China and the rest of the developing world. In a way all photos eventually become ghosts of an irretrievable past, but in China this process seems to happen at the breakneck clip of a time lapse on fast-forward. In less time than I could have ever fathomed, these photos I took have already started to morph from what was to what is no more, their moments gone almost before they could scarcely be understood. They are now just some of the countless still-lifes that will be eviscerated, memorialized, and then forgotten in a dispassionate chase toward an unknown future. There is no such thing as real permanence, but we can forget that, outside the relatively more static circumstances of the developed world, unabating transformation is not merely a quaint though  but a mundane reality of daily life. That, I believe, is the true value of all the photos that will be shared, and of the many perspectives and insights they represent. Thanks for hosting this contest. Whoever wins, I expect the photos will be beautiful.