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Photo Credit: Huang Ruide
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Fading Trades: Photographing China’s Disappearing Professions

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Once common sights on sidewalks, many old professions are giving way to online apps and urbanization. Photographer Huang Ruide captures these fading trades on camera before they’re gone for good.

For young Chinese urbanites, daily life is viewed on a screen. From takeout food to groceries, home repairs to entertainment, all are just a tap away via thousands of smartphone apps. But if they venture out of the digital realm and onto the streets, they may still find remnants of a more analog past: street traders offering to repair shoes, fix bicycles, duplicate keys, and more.

Many street professions like these were once ubiquitous across Chinese cities, and though some still ply their trade on sidewalks beneath towering skyscrapers in the country’s biggest cities, they are gradually disappearing. Rising rent, zealous urban management enforcers, and simple market competition are all taking their toll.

A team of street barbers offers 10-yuan haircuts on the streets of Guangzhou, Guangdong province. (2020)

A team of street barbers offers 10-yuan haircuts on the streets of Guangzhou, Guangdong province. (2020)

Yet these professions are very much alive outside of metropolises. In counties and villages, handicraft workshops, repair shops, traditional beauty services, and folk entertainment are still vibrant parts of local life. Here, one gets a vivid glimpse of the Chinese saying: “Every trade has its master (三十六行, 行行出状元).”

Recently, there have been official attempts to protect and even bring some of these old-school professions back to the city. In 2021, for example, China’s Ministry of Commerce issued an initiative to build “15-minute daily life circles,” where residents would have access to all their daily necessities within a 15-minute walk of their homes.

But with fewer young people taking up these professions, such policies may still not be enough to keep traditional trades on the streets, even in more rural regions. In this photo series, Huang Ruide captures these slowly disappearing professions in towns and villages across Guangdong province, some of them perhaps for the last time.

Photography by Huang Ruide (黄瑞德)

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Fading Trades: Photographing China’s Disappearing Professions is a story from our issue, “After the Factory.” To read the entire issue, become a subscriber and receive the full magazine.

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