From a distance, one could take Yang Ming for a teenager. About five-foot two, his skinny arms and legs in a white T-shirt and jeans, Yang's left shoulder is permanently hunched because of a childhood injury, making it hard to distinguish his head from behind.
With his right hand, Yang raises a paintbrush, glancing from time to time at a picture on his phone, before resuming his reproduction of a Van Gogh masterpiece, "The Harvest." The process is sometimes interrupted by tourists who wander into the alleyway to appraise his work. At his feet lies his border collie, Didu, while above them both hangs a portrait of the dog—lying on a grassy hill, rather than a ramshackle alley. It's one of several original works he's trying to sell nowadays.
Yang is a "wall painter" at Shenzhen's Dafen village, one of around 500 in an area best known for making imitation oil paintings. According to official figures, about 8,000 people in total, including artists, frame-makers, agents, and apprentices, organized in a network of 1,200 galleries and 60 painting businesses, form a 20-year-old industry in Dafen worth an estimated 4.5 billion RMB. Painters like Yang are so called because most display their wares on the walls of the area's alleyways, many of which have erected plastic awnings in case of rain. Sometimes five or six painters can be jammed into one alley, and pedestrians need to turn sideways to inch past.
Yang is quiet and gentle—he speaks in a low voice, barely audible over the droning sound of a fan on the wall—and has a determined, stubborn side. It took Yang seven penniless years to go from being a student in a small city in Guizhou province to a painter in Dafen village in the Longgang district of Shenzhen, Guangdong province. When he started, he had no money. Embarrassed, Yang never called home and didn't even go back for the Spring Festival.
His sole family members, a brother and sister, only knew that he was somewhere in Guangdong, but had no idea how to contact him. For two years, they wondered if he had gone missing. Now the 31-year-old painter finally has his own stall and repeat clients. He has even taken on a student and started teaching her how to paint.
But in a few months, Yang may have to give up his stall and clients, and move, probably to a poorer part of town. The government of Longgang district has decided to rezone and "manage" the area, and unregistered residents like Yang are likely to be collateral damage.
Dafen used to be an ordinary village, located just outside the northeastern periphery of Shenzhen's Special Economic Zone. In those days, migrant workers and vegetable vendors packed the area, the streets were filled with filth, and wastewater ran in gutters from the restaurants.
In 1989, Hong Kong merchant Huang Jiang introduced commercialized painting to this village. Taking advantage of ready labor and cheap property, Huang established assembly lines in the 0.4-square-kilometer area, erected studios, and recruited and trained migrant workers specifically to imitate the Western canon: Monets, Rembrandts, Van Dycks, Holbeins, Constables, Warhols, Picassos. The initiative soon granted Dafen its unique brush with fame—within a few years, it became known as the "world's art factory," estimated to account for between 60 to 70 percent of the global market share in oil paintings, its output appearing in hotels, expos, showrooms, and shops across the world.
Yang started learning Western painting styles after graduating middle school, when an art teacher arrived at his class to recruit students. Until then, he had only seen Chinese ink paintings, not European oils or watercolors. Though he didn't know the artist or even the name of the painting the teacher had showed him, its bright colors and boldness were enough to convince him to learn.