In Smart Kids, Alex Huanfa Cheng explores the demise of a lost Chinese subculture

In his new series, the photographer reflects on the decline of alternative aesthetics and values in the country.

18 February 2022

“Who are we? How do we live?” Posing these questions is Alex Huanfa Cheng, a Hubei-born photographer who uses his medium to investigate narratives of society and culture. Having graced our screens previously with his Chinese Wonderland series, this time around Alex has shifted his focus onto Smart Kids – a project inspired by a Chinese youth subculture movement of the same name (杀⻢特Shamate).

Smart Kids as a subculture began around 2008 and almost disappeared around 2013 after “many vicious takedowns”, as Alex puts it. Its members were the second generation of rural factory workers, who contributed to the Chinese economy and the rise of Made in China products. With factory work their only means of making a living, the youth rebelled and turned to fashion and hair as a means of protest. “I come from a village in Hubei and there were a lot of Smart Kids in my hometown,” says Alex, “and some of my relatives were also Smart Kids.” Many of the country’s younger generation were influenced by this aesthetic. “But this culture was synonymous with vulgarity and it’s unacceptable to mainstream people.” As a result, “mainstream people” sought to take down the subculture.


Alex Huanfa Cheng: Smart Kids (Copyright © Alex Huanfa Cheng, 2022)

In 2019, a documentary called We were Smart by Li Yifan was released, in which people who had been Smart Kids were interviewed. Alex saw the film and was fascinated by their exaggerated hairstyles; he gained a new understanding of the subculture and its members, “left behind in their hometowns, assembly line workers, and young people learning to be understood and longing for belonging. Their fashion styles are their way of self-protection. I have totally the same feeling.”

Alex was a rural kid and attended university in Beijing, during which time he adorned himself with coloured hair and Korean fashion to present himself as a “bad ass”. He adds: “Those Smart Kids are very innocent, but they were treated as heretics and viciously taken down by mainstream society, because they didn’t conform to mainstream social values.”

As a result, Alex’s Smart Kids project reflects on the current situation in Chinese society, lensing the demise of alternative aesthetics and values, alongside the “huge gap” between the rich and poor. This is achieved through the conscious eradication of any bland tones or muted palettes. Instead, Alex has used colourful powder and adopted a dream-like quality where blush pinks, soft blues and sun-kissed yellows reign supreme. Presented in a mix of still photography and film, the vitality of the subjects and their care-free attitudes rise to the surface immediately. It’s a joyful, empowering and positive reminder of those who sit outside of the mainstream. “Through my series, I want people to appreciate that Smart Kids are really cool,” says Alex. “In their own world, they thought they are the hippest people in the world. I hope that people can get close to their feeling when they have their favourite hairstyle, it’s powerful!”

GalleryAlex Huanfa Cheng: Smart Kids (Copyright © Alex Huanfa Cheng, 2022)

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Alex Huanfa Cheng: Smart Kids (Copyright © Alex Huanfa Cheng, 2022)

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About the Author

Ayla Angelos

Ayla is a London-based freelance writer, editor and consultant specialising in art, photography, design and culture. After joining It’s Nice That in 2017 as editorial assistant, she was interim online editor in 2022/2023 and continues to work with us on a freelance basis. She has written for i-D, Dazed, AnOther, WePresent, Port, Elephant and more, and she is also the managing editor of design magazine Anima. 

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