Wu Yue's Work Captures a Brothel-Turned-Nursing Home in Dongguan

By Bryan Grogan, February 17, 2020

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For the Record is a regular series where we ask local tastemakers about a cultural niche. This month we spoke to Wu Yue, a rising Chinese photojournalist. 

We stumbled across a portion of Wu Yue’s excellent photojournalism during a recent trip to Shanghai Center of Photography to see the space’s latest exhibition, Peer to Peer, which combines work from artists across a number of countries. 

In mid-2019 she was named as one of 20 rising female photojournalists around the world by Artsy, while her work has appeared in publications like San Francisco Chronicle and The Guardian, as well as Reuters, in which her picture of Chinese female super flyweight boxer Huang Wensi was named as one of their pictures of the year for 2019. Sufficed to say that Wu Yue is a photojournalist on the rise, with her work covering a range of different topics addressing how society in China is changing today. 

Her work in Peer to Peer focuses on a former sex club turned retirement home in Dongguan, Guangdong province, a city which was once known for its sex trade. In accompaniment to her work, Wu Yue writes: “Just a few years ago, hundreds of sex workers lined the entry hall at the Versailles Hotel. Clients called the hall ‘Flower Street’ and the men’s clothes were sometimes torn as the young women fought for their favor. But in September 2017, the once-buzzing four-star hotel reopened as a nursing home. 

Image by Wu Yue, courtesy of Shanghai Center of Photography

“The Versailles Hotel used to be one of the most popular nightclubs in Changping Town on the outskirts of Dongguan, a city known for its booming sex trade. According to the owner, at the hotel’s peak, more than 800 sex workers and 500 clients would pass through the doors on any given weekend evening. But a tough government crackdown on sex work in 2014 compelled the business to turn to a different market.”

The images are beaming with color and energy, quite unlike the visuals that we might find at a traditional retirement home. She spoke to us a bit about the work: 

Image by Wu Yue, courtesy of Shanghai Center of Photography

“This was an assignment when I worked at Sixth Tone. We came across this topic when we read a preview on the nursing home’s grand opening in the local newspaper. Turning hotels into nursing homes was one story that we covered. However, Dongguan is definitely under transformation since the government had a serious crackdown in 2014. 

“I spent a week there capturing images and filming. Then after that almost two months in post-production. 

“From a visual point of view, I thought it was quite absurd to see scenes of these elders living in Amazon Jungle-style nursing homes where the interior design was kept from previous hotel. 

“Most of residents at the nursing home knew it was a hotel before, but they were not sure what exactly it did for business. From being there myself, I felt that the past was still there, hidden in some grey places. It looks as if two parallel worlds co-exist in a misleading space. 

“As a photojournalist, my job is to tell the story of the place and of the residents. I needed to listen and to have a conversation with people there, so I could understand the images that I was going to make. 

“Photojournalism definitely has very strict ethical rules, but the most interesting and important creative part of photojournalism is how you capture information and emotion together in one frame that will tell a story.”

For more For the Record, click here.

[Cover image by Wu Yue, courtesy of Shanghai Center of Photography]

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