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[Culture Bureau]: Joe Jo, Photographer
An interview with the Beijing culture scene's most ubiquitous self-made man-about-town on running away from home, grinding his gears, and making it in the Big Dirty...
By Aug 20, 2015 Community
"Culture Bureau" is an ongoing SmartBeijing interview series in which we take long, meandering strolls down memory lane with pillars of the Beijing cultural community.


You know Joe Jo? I met him early on after moving to Beijing in 2009, through a mutual friend in the music scene, and he's been a continual blip on my social radar ever since. He'd often crash on my couch in Haiyuncang back in 2010, here and there between the million odd jobs he seemed to be juggling at all times. He's had a hand in a lot of pies over the years, sort of a self-made jack-of-all-trades moving from night life to night life, managing bands, making intros, getting shit done. Always with camera in hand.

This weekend Joe Jo presents the first major collection of his photography with No One Hurry Anyone, a solo show at Aotu Studio and photobook of the same name. Can't really beat Beijing artist and longtime Joe Jo co-conspirator Angus McDougal's opening to the book's foreword:

"If you know Joe jo, and it seems that most people do, you know he lives life at his own pace. So, No One Hurry Anyone. Perfect. Hold on, Joe jo needs to take a photo..."

Pause. Ahead of Joe Jo's big day, I turned the lens around on him for a long chat about running away from home, giving grimy old men pajamas at sketchy saunas, 3am autodidactic English lessons in Jingshan Park, and the constant grind of making it on your own terms in the Big Dirty. Joe Jo on the Culture Bureau:


SmartBeijing: Where are you from originally? How old are you?

Joe Jo: I’m 27 this year, originally from Hubei, Xiangyang, a very small city in the northwest of Hubei province. I came here 10 years ago.

SmBJ: Why’d you come here? College?

JJ: No actually, I dropped out of high school in the second year. I was not a good student. Bad scores… The only courses I liked were Chinese and English. I couldn’t catch up with the courses, so I didn’t know what to do. And I was under huge pressure of high hope from my parents. But I thought if I continued, I would have failed the college entrance examination. So I went to Shiyan, another northern, second-tier city in Hubei. I went there because one of my middle school classmates was living there. So I was hanging out there for three months. Then I went home for a week, but I got really bad comments from my parents. “You should go back to school! You can’t just hang around!” And I said, “No, I’m not gonna do it.” So I just bought a train ticket without telling my parents and came to Beijing.

SmBJ: What was your family life like in Hubei?

JJ: My father is an accountant working for a national cotton producer. And my mother has a garden, she just plants corn and wheat. Just farming. So my father took care of the family’s finances most of the time, and my mother took care of the kids. I’m the youngest kid in the family, I have two older sisters. Now they're married and have kids. So, yeah. For the first few years, after I quit school and didn’t tell them, I felt a little bit of regret. I felt like I should have told them about my plan. But if I told them, I wouldn’t be here.

SmBJ: So basically you ran away from home.

JJ: Yeah, right. I had like 300 kuai in my pocket. The first day I came here it was fucking cold, around Christmas time. It was super windy, sandstorms. When I got off the train I didn’t know where to go. My cousin was here, he was a chef. We met each other once a year, during Chinese New Year, so I got his QQ number. I didn’t have his phone number even. [laughs]

Joe on the go (photo by Lava)

JJ: I didn’t know where to go. I only knew he was in Chaoyang. So I asked the map seller at Beijing West railway station, “How can I go to Chaoyang District?” Chaoyang’s so huge, but I didn’t know. The map seller said, “Buy a map, and I’ll tell you where to go.” [laughs] So I bought a map, and he told me, “OK, take bus 731 and go to Chaoyang Park, and then you’ll know where it is.” So I took the bus and I found Chaoyang Park, and then I found an internet cafe and logged on QQ and sent my cousin a message. Luckily my cousin got the QQ on his phone and he replied, “Yeah, take another bus and I’ll pick you up.” That’s how I got to Beijing.

SmBJ: So I guess you stayed with your cousin at first?

JJ: I stayed with him for a little bit. He was working for a restaurant, and next to the restaurant there was a sauna house run by the same owner. My cousin was asking me, “What do you want to do?” I said, “I don’t know, I just want to check it out and see what I can do.” I had no experience at that time. I was just curious about Beijing, because it's the capital. Culture-wise, it’s exciting. I’d never been here, I was young, and everything about Chinese culture is here. So I was excited to come here and check out what’s going on. And then I never left.

party garbage (photo by Joe Jo)

SmBJ: So you wash up here, 17 years old… What was your first job? What started your Beijing life?

JJ: I was working for the sauna house next to the restaurant where my cousin worked. I was helping the customers to get their pajamas or some shit like that.

SmBJ: So you saw all the naked dudes…

JJ: [laughs] Yeah, I saw all the naked dudes all the time. Most of them were assholes, sort of. Because they went there looking for prostitutes. You know, sauna houses sort of equaled dirty places at that time. But I just did my job, got my payroll. I don’t give a shit about that. I stayed there for three or four months, and I still didn’t know how I was going to make my life in Beijing, but the sauna house and the restaurant closed a few months after I started to work there. I was allowed to stay in the company dormitory for another month, so I started to look for other work. In Sanlitun, Houhai. Eventually I found some bar jobs, selling beer to the bars in Houhai.

SmBJ: Like as a distributor?

JJ: Yeah, as a distributor. In Houhai there was a bar called Sex and Da City, I think it’s still there. That was the bar job I got. I started work late, the bar opened at like 5 or 6pm. And it closed after 3am. At that time I moved with my cousin to Tongzhou, so I was living in Tongzhou and working in Houhai. After work I’d go home, two-hour bus ride with three transfers, crazy…

SmBJ: So you’d take a two-hour bus commute home, sleep for a few hours, then take a two-hour bus back out to Houhai?

JJ: Yeah. Sometimes actually, the bar closed early, at like 2:30am, and the bus didn’t start to run until 5:20am. So I had no place to stay. I went to Jingshan Park to practice crazy English. I came to Beijing with two English books, so I’d just practice these two books. The books had a tape so I’d practice with the tape, listening to it on the bus, or going to the park and just yelling English. Once an old lady told me, “Huh, my daughter also does this in the bathroom!” [laughs]

Joe Jo self-portrait

SmBJ: I met you in 2009, and you were already involved with the music and art scenes. How did you get involved in that? Have these always been areas of personal interest?

JJ: In the early time, I changed all different kind of bar jobs. I felt like that wasn’t my thing, but I was experiencing new environments. Then I started to go to 798 to hang out, and I found a gallery that was really interesting, before 2008. I didn’t know what contemporary art was, what was going on, but I thought it was something interesting that I’d never seen. So I said, “I want to work with you guys.” I got their flyer and emailed them, and they invited me for an interview. So I started working with them.

SmBJ: What gallery was this?

JJ: Prima Merella. It was an Italian gallery in 798. I started working with them as the art director’s assistant. I helped artists to get involved with the show, preparing exhibitions, getting the catalogue printed, preparing materials… Not much going on. So every day I was downloading music from eMule. And also at that time I started to hang out at my friend Liu Kai’s record shop in 798, Sugar Jar. I would hang out there and listen to music. I pretty much got into music and figured out what I liked from that time.

SmBJ: So you got exposed to Chinese indie and the Beijing music scene through Sugar Jar?

JJ: The first time I went to Sugar Jar... it was located across from Galleria Continua, I was at an opening there, drinking wine. I saw all the records on the front of Sugar Jar, and Liu Kai was there drinking tea. He said, “Come on, sit down, have some tea.” The first record I got interested in through Sugar Jar was by Huan Qing, a folk artist from Dali. I thought, “Wow, this is really cool, I never listened to this kind of music.” So basically it was a new introduction of what music could look like or sound like. And I got more and more interested in that. So I would go to Sugar Jar to share music all the time.

Sugar Jar (photo by Liu Kai)

SmBJ: You started going to 798 and getting into the music culture of Beijing just before the Olympics… How did the independent art scene change during this time?

JJ: It was a boom, actually. For me I didn’t realize it until now. When I look back, it was a boom. But when I was in the boom, I didn’t know. Everything constantly happening… I’d go to shows at Yugong Yishan, Mao, D-22 in Wudaokou… Liu Kai took me to a lot of live shows, he knew the music going on in town. Honestly I don’t have a lot of memories from that time. I was just hanging. I didn’t really focus on what was going on, because there was so much, things just kept constantly coming. I saw Pet Conspiracy once during that time, it was kind of a coincidence. The drummer Edo was also the graphic designer for the gallery I worked at. So he invited me to see Pet Conspiracy at 2 Kolegas.

SmBJ: You eventually started working with Pet Conspiracy full time. How did you transition to working with the band from your gallery job?

JJ: Well I knew Edo from the gallery, and I went to see their show in late 2008. Then the economic crisis came and the gallery started to cut the staff, and moved to Caochangdi since 798 got too expensive. In half a year almost all the galleries could not sell even one piece of artwork, because the collectors from Europe or from Taiwan were affected by the economic crisis. So in 2009, after my first trip to Chengdu, I met Edo for a drink and he told me that Pet Conspiracy was looking for someone to work with them, to tour with the band. So I said, “Yeah, sure, I’m available.” I started to go to music festivals with the band. In the beginning I was just a tour assistant, in charge of their bookings. That was a very good year for music, there were music festivals happening everywhere in China. So basically every month, three or four gigs got booked, and they played a lot. Festivals, commercial shows, live shows… That was a good time.

SmBJ: That was your main job for a while?

JJ: Yeah. The proper working time was two years, but we were on and off for almost another year. We’d always hang out together in the studio, getting producers for the album, recording, producing the live shows, getting media coverage, all these kinds of things. I speak English so they really relied on me for this, production-wise.

SmBJ: So after working with Pet Conspiracy you came back to the visual art and design world… How did you get involved with the graphic design company Lava, where you’ve been working the last few years?

JJ: After I worked for Pet Conspiracy, I worked with Jellymon in Dashilar during Beijing Design Week 2013, which was also the first year Lava came to Beijing. [Lava co-founder] Céline [Lamée] visited our studio in Dashilar, so I first met her there.

At the time I was always hanging out with Angus [McDougal], he founded the Big Dirty bicycle ride club. I rode bicycles every Thursday night with Angus, and I met Céline again there. Through Big Dirty, we had a Beijing-to-Tianjin, four-hour race. After that ride I bumped into Céline at Dada, and we talked for a long time, over the crowded bar, and she passed me her business card.

After Beijing Design Week, I felt like I was done with Jellymon. But I enjoyed working with Angus and the designers I met, getting creative ideas produced. They have the idea, and they need someone who speaks the language and has experience with production, managing projects, putting things together. I realized I was good at producing ideas, sourcing material, making these projects happen. So after that job I emailed Céline and said, “I’m available. I checked your website, I think it’s really cool. I want to work with you guys.” So that was the start with Lava. I helped them set up the company here, and later they got more and more Chinese clients, so I helped them manage the Chinese projects, making plans, estimates and proposals.

SmBJ: So this whole time, you’d also been pursuing your own photography, your own work. What is your interest or your preferred subject as a photographer?

JJ: I started to take photos when I was working at the gallery in 2008. I was playing with toy cameras. I was interested in photography because of a few exhibits in the gallery. I felt I could also do something. I didn’t study in a fine art academy, but I thought photography was something I could access, a tool I could use to make something. So I started with the toy cameras, and I just never stopped. Constantly taking photos with friends, taking photos of what I’d see, what I’d experience, parties, live shows, backstage at music festivals… I like documenting portraits of people, of my friends.

SmBJ: Now you have this exhibit, No One Hurry Anyone, and you’ve been putting it together for quite a while. Six months or something…

JJ: Six months, yeah. Six or seven months.

SmBJ: Can you choose a few of the photos in the exhibit and tell the story behind them? Like the one of Jimi Sides that’s been circulating around in some of the event listings for the exhibit, that one looks like it has a story…

JJ: Yeah, that was after I worked with Pet Conspiracy, but we’d still hang out together and I’d still get involved with their gigs. So I was working with them in the East Hotel, they had a gig there. After the gig we wanted to hang out, have some fun. That was a really cool night. So I called up Jimi and he came over on his motorbike. I went to meet him and just took a picture at that moment. He’d had a really long ride, he just looked really cool at that moment. That was a beautiful night.

JJ: Another one, this German guy, a rider in the Big Dirty bicycle club. He’s funny. He rides really fast, his bike is always shiny. He cleans his bike more often than anyone else in the club. Normally he has no problems with the ride. But one day, we were biking around the 2nd ring road, and he just stopped and started puking. I was like, “What’s going on? What’s wrong?” Normally he’s the group leader, really strong. And he was like, “Yeah… I just ate a double cheeseburger.” So that was a little story, something impressive to me. I took a portrait of him, the light was shooting behind him, and he was just feeling alright after puking. So I gave that photo the name, “Double Cheeseburger.” I like that photo a lot, the light’s coming from behind him, his hair is sweaty, he looks alright, but not alright. [laughs] It’s a moment.

"Double Cheeseburger"

SmBJ: So all of the photos in the exhibit are from Beijing, but the name of the exhibit comes from an experience you had in Chengdu. Can you tell that story?

JJ: I was searching for the vibe to describe the photos. The vibe in Beijing, everything is so fast, so many things going on. I didn’t really get a good idea here. Then I went to Chengdu, I was having a conversation with this guy smoking outside of a club called Tag. And I asked him, “What’s your experience? What do you think about Chengdu? It’s definitely a different experience from Beijing.” And he said, “Yeah, it’s chill. No one hurry anyone.” Normally I like to live in a chill mood, just hang out with friends, drink after work, take photos. Just exist, relax. So I went to Chengdu and I got this “No One Hurry Anyone” concept from him. He inspired me about what I want to say. It’s a perfect description of what I’m looking for to write about this show.

SmBJ: What do your parents think about your career now? Do they accept that you’re doing what you love, that you’ve been successful in pursuing your passions?

JJ: Last year when I went home for Chinese New Year I took books I printed for my shows, and I showed my mom what I did. All the books include me hanging out with my friends. That’s my Beijing life, I wanted to share that with her. But she doesn’t pay attention. She doesn’t accept it. I can understand, she has a pretty traditional Chinese mindset, older generation. In her mind she still thinks kids should go to college, study hard, get a proper job, get a stable income, buy a house, get married. That’s her dream of her kid’s life.

Joe Jo building a portfolio in the Beijing smog (photo by Lava)

JJ: But I wanted to share with her what I did. I didn’t try to convince her what I did was right, or make her proud. It was just to share with her. But yeah, from what I understand, she doesn’t like what I did. There’s a gap of communication between me and my parents. They don’t understand art, photography, what I’m doing now. I hope she’ll understand in the future. I hope I have a chance to explain to her, and show her more stuff. For Chinese parents it’s hard to understand.

SmBJ: So you’ve been here for ten years now. What’s your plan for the future? Based on talks we’ve had before it seems you’re over Beijing… Where do you want to go? What do you want to do?

JJ: Beijing’s sort of my hometown, I’d say. I’ve spent ten years here. I’ve met so many friends. In my book, on the first page, I say, “To my dear, awesome friends.” Because this show is basically for my friends. But the land here is expensive, I can’t afford to buy a house here. Even if I had that cash, I wouldn't spend two million for a house in the 5th ring road. I’d rather spend it somewhere else. Another concern is about the pollution. My girlfriend and I plan to have kids next year. It’s not good for the baby.

The next step, I don’t know. My girlfriend lives in Chengdu, so I’m going to start to explore Chengdu more. It’s developing really fast and has a lot of things going on. So I’ll bring my experience there, my experience with art galleries, curating shows, music, design, visual art, all these things I have learned from Beijing. And just try to see what’s going on, what I can do. And of course I just want to keep going with the photography, because I love it, it’s part of my life.

Catch the opening of Joe Jo's solo show No One Hurry Anyone this Saturday, August 22 at Aotu Studio.


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