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

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!”
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.”

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