Forbidden City, Forbidden Secrets – Fragments of History



I have kept many secrets in my life.  One which I never tell is that I don’t like the Forbidden City.  But not in a visceral and elemental way; my dislike is completely intellectual.  Maybe for some people this is the biggest problem: I have nothing to feel for this old city.  I am totally indifferent to it.


And so what now?  I think it is just a shell.  But as much a shell as when it was built to shield the Chinese people from the nomad herders who ruled them and who still slept in tents on the ground within the City’s walls.  And so many objects have been taken from it: the clothes, paintings, weapons and even the clocks.  If you want to say I am being too materialistic, then what about the people who made them?  Where have they gone?  Kings who slept on the ground now slept beneath it.  But time does not seem to change anything; distance does.


I looked in the mirror yesterday.  Things had been out of sorts for a very long time, but then they were made clear.  I looked and I saw myself.  The eye could see itself.  And it could see the illusion of distance of all my possessions poised behind me, an arsenal of burnt out and second hand lives.  This is what we inherit and which now clutters our homes.  Why did those nomads build walls around themselves?  To keep their “stuff”? To keep demons out and peasants in?  -They and their horses went the same way as all the rest: into the deep belly of China.


I saw a building today, a temple of sorts, or rather, I saw its reflection against a filthy backdrop.  The missing chunks of the wall were the missing body of the world which they could no longer reflect.  All of this hurt, all of this trauma which the blue, blue sky above and the red, red sun in my heart weren’t honest enough to admit, I saw in this filth.  The wall stretched on and on, like some mirror of truth, or looking glass which exposed the distorted and ugly reality of everything it reflected.  With this mirror I saw everything so clearly.  But it itself was totally blind.  How funny it is that Prophets should be their own worst examples:  am I the only one who knows Confucius did not have a happy family life?  This is the culinary wisdom which comes from starvation.


There are many things which should not be told.  But what of the thing without a voice?  What of the silent protests and empty stages and the cavities which attest to what has been lost but not forgotten?  But these desolate things can only be remembered through the memory of their loss.  Me and the City, we are strangers.



Text by Shahin Firoozmand, photo by Anton Hazewinkel



Impressions of an only child




The branches extend like contorted nerves across the sky.  I wonder if I fell, would the sky catch me.  There would be nothing to hold on to but those branches.  I wouldn’t even grab them.


I don’t know how I came to be here. From the inside there doesn’t seem to even be a way in. But if I wonder, the problems cease, at least for the time being. People seem to know what they are doing, but know very little about what they aren’t. I see my brother in those branches. We were all there together in 1978. But some of us came here, and some of us went elsewhere. At the time we weren’t sure who, but things worked out, and some things didn’t. That’s the point.


Between me and the sky, there lies some dark, inscrutable, vacuous mass, something undeniable. I see through to the other side, where visible things dangle, totally unreachable. Those leaves rest against the sky like the carved hollows of missing fossils. The breeze bends them, they do not bend themselves.



Text by Shahin Firoozmand, photo by Anton Hazewinkel



Hunan chili

Hunan chili - Photo: Mark Hobbs



Hunan is a land of gentle hills, capable of producing a great deal of food. The northeastern section of Hunan falls in the the Middle Yangtze Plain, a fertile agricultural area. China’s second largest lake, Dongting Lake, is located in the far northeast portion of the province.


Street vendor. Photo: Mark Hobbs

Across China using chili in cooking is as common as the Italians using garlic – It is simply part of the flavor. Nowhere in China uses chili to more effect than in Hunan. Szechuan is of course famous for its hot chili spiced food.


Hunan Cuisine, is often spicier than Szechuan cuisine by pure chili content, it contains a larger variety of fresh ingredients and it tends to be oilier, and is said to be purer and simpler in taste.


In every street market and modern supermarket across the province, chili in all it’s various varieties can be found, chili can be dried, ground to a fine powder, mixed with oil and of?course?fresh. There are several varieties of chili usually available, the most popular being ?the hot red chili (know in the west as birds eye chili) it is both cheap and?plentiful.


Hunan’s culinary repertoire consists of more than 4,000 dishes, including Dong’an Chicken, Crispy Duck, Orange Beef, and Spicy “Kung Pao” Chicken.






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





they are young

Mark has been an English teacher in China since the beginning of 2004,  in that time he has taught English to first and second year University students in several cities across China, including Hangzhou, Huaihua, Guilin, Yantai, Chaozhou, Taiyuan, and most recently in Zhuzhou in Hunan.

He lives with his wife and two daughters.  Mark is originally from London, but grew – up in Melbourne, Australia where he worked (amongst other things) as a film director, graphic designer and artist.

He is currently building a home in a small coastal town in the southern Philippines, where his wife is originally from. He enjoys teaching (most of the time) but is now content to be a father and husband.

Mark will make an occasional contribution to this site, giving another insight to “The Middle Kingdom”. His photography captures a China least seen.


photo: Mark Hobbs


One of my three ‘non-English major’ classes at “Taiyuan Institute of Technology”,  Taiyuan, Shanxi Province. I asked my students to compose an essay describing what they know about the history of their families. This is from one of my students, the spelling and grammar mistakes are included.

My great grandmother was born of a poor family. She had to be as a servant for a landlord. She suffered alot. She doesn’t have enough food to feed in, and doesn’t have enough cloths to shelter from cold. She was treated unfairly by her master.
Also my grandmothers didn’t improve much. Her feet were also bandedwith great pain. She had given five childrens birth. Unfortunatly, three of them dided of hunger. This made my grandmother very sad. She cried and cried for three days. And what was worse her husband dided of illness. She became a widow for thirty years through hardship and difficulties.
My mothers life was a little better than them, since she was born just when the New China was born. My mother is not very tall, but she is very kind and beautiful. She treated  as tenderly. Of course her life was not very satisfactory at all. She had to make a living through hard work. She went out on cold days for getting grass for pigs, carried coal from far away for heat; and she stayed up sewing for us. She contributed her life to her family.

I had difficulty in giving this and my other students any mark for these essays, they touched me in a way that I could never explain. All I said to the class was that, “they did very well……”