China’s disappearing alleys

Ningbo, Zhejiang Province. Photo: Mark Hobbs


These often dark, and sometimes at first sight depressing places fascinate me, not only as a photographer, but also because they remind me of the long narrow alleys that I would often wander along in my 20’s and 30’s whilst living in the inner city Melbourne, Australian suburb of Fitzroy. Melbourne’s alleys were constructed for very specific practical reasons, they gave ready access to the ‘backyard’ and ‘privy’ of the house (the outside toilet) “the night man” (as he was called) collected the human waste through a trapdoor strategically placed in the wall of the toilet. Most of the houses were built between 1860 and 1900 and of course without proper plumbing. With the houses facing the street and the alley behind the houses.

Ningbo, Zhejiang. China. Photo: Mark Hobbs


In China the alley or “nong tang” is the “street”, they are a maze of dark corners and walled encloses, with secrets behind every turn. To most “Western” eyes they are depressing poverty stricken places, but I find them fascinating, they give a glimpse of a way of life that is rapidly disappearing in China.


The community aspect of these places cannot be replaced with high-rise apartment blocks or western style bungalow dwellings. The Hutong (Traditional Chinese alley dwelling) is of course an integral part of the “nong tang”, they are walled courtyards with a family home surrounding a central yard, they give privacy and community simultaneously. In many of the cities that I have lived and worked in China, the “nong tang’ is rapidly disappearing, along with a way of life. This will be not only a great loss to China and its small communities but a great cultural loss to the world.



Photo’s and text Mark Hobbs





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