Tuesday, July 29, 2008

The End of the Hutong

Photo: Shiho Fukada
Tim Stevens of Ubiwar headed off to China two days ago. We had a brief little conversation in the comments at his blog post asking his readers about what to visit in Beijing. Here's what I said,
I was last in Beijing in 1989, and I know the city has changed radically. But I would suggest searching out the old neighborhoods of the city. From what I hear, they’re almost completely built over now. In 1989, they comprised most of the city away from the central monuments of Tianenmen Square and the Forbidden City. The old neighborhoods are where you’ll see the remaining China of the previous 200-300 years, the kind I knew when I was a kid growing up in Asia. The new urban China is, like most modern cities, nearly interchangeable with other cities. We end up in these cities being amused by the little cultural variations on near-universal modern-urban themes. But spending some time in the old neighborhoods will show just how radical and melancholy the changes are in China (and elsewhere in the world).

...I spent days wandering through the hutongs, everyone wondering what the hell I was doing there. I had absolutely terrific roasted duck, spent time with Chinese students in their labyrinthine hutches squatting over tea or wine talking politics, and, from a fellow wheeling along a wooden cart of various goods, bought a little packet of black and white yearbook-type photos of old Chinese generals that had been colorized with magic marker. That one attracted a crowd, all of us laughing at the curious little event.
Tim pointed me to this NY Times article on the old neighborhoods, the hutongs, of Beijing. I had previously seen another, here, on home renovations for the well-off in the formerly quite poor hutongs. But capitalism and the Olympics surge on into the future, and the hutongs are in their path. The entire city of Beijing since I was there has, I've heard, changed so radically that the remaining monuments, most from the early Ming Dynasty period in the 1400s AD - Tian'anmen, the Forbidden City, the old city gates, the Temple of Heaven - provide the sole geo-architectural points of reference between the early 1990s and today. Indulge me, here's another little story...

I arrived in Beijing from Tokyo and was met at the airport by a friend of the family, a professor from Beijing University. I would be staying at his apartment home with his family in the northern part of the city. Professor Chi (a pseudonym) was a die-hard Communist who sat me in front of the tv each evening watching the news - endless streams of video of the production of wheat and other goods from around China, touting the splendid production capacities of the communist state. The Chi family lived in a very modest apartment next to an elementary school (which woke me up in the mornings to their coordinated courtyard exercises done to the sounds of Michael Jackson's "Thriller"). We ate modest but delicious meals (delicious, if you have the taste for real Chinese food); a daily tear-off calendar was the toilet paper; and the apartment was decorated with postcards and tourist trinkets from elsewhere and plastic flowers.

The first night after I arrived and settled into a small room in the apartment, Professor Chi said we were going for a bicycle ride. I loved the idea and the opportunity to have an initial peek at the city. He, his daughter, and I hopped on the creaky bikes in the dimming light and took to the large, dusty avenues full of bicycle riders. Prof. Chi said he had a little surprise for me.

We rode and rode, chatting along the way in broken languages. The sun was gone, only a faint ambient glow in the dusty haze, before we set off and the streets grew darker and darker, finally going pitch black. Street lamps illuminated the route on rare occasion, directed at the ground below like a theater spot during a monologue. In between was sheer darkness and the jangle of creaking bicycle bells from every direction as, somehow, like bats whisking past, everyone was able to avoid each other.

The three of us continued for half an hour, then maybe an hour. I began to wonder where we were going, what our goal was, as there were no other lights from houses, the hutongs - the old neighborhoods surrounding the avenue - or shops or anything. Only darkness and dust and hundreds of bike riders moving past us.

A small dot of light appeared on the black horizon. A faint yellow glow. We were riding towards it. It grew in size, but the disorientation of the darkness - with the glow being the sole landmark - confused its shape. Slowly, as we approached, the image took on contours. It was a small corner shop, the only sign of illuminated life in this part of the city. We arrived and parked the bikes. Inside, Prof. Chi went directly to what we were after from the poorly stocked shelves.

It was a roll of pink toilet paper. Prof. Chi placed the lone roll in my bicycle basket between the handlebars. I almost laughed, but stopped myself. He was clearly proud of the toilet paper roll - a moment in which gratitude was due on my part. This was the surprise goal of our long bicycle mission, a gift of welcome to the American.

We returned on the same route in the darkness and bicycle bells, in which, on rare occasion, a light-skinned foreigner with a pink roll of toilet paper in his bicycle basket was illuminated in the theater spots of the avenue.

Photo: Shiho Fukada


troutsky said...

wonderful.It is hard to articulate just what it is we are losing through the reproduction of "sameness" around the world but this does a good job.

MT said...

I hope your bike had a wide and cushy seat, if the texture of that paper is like I'm imagining from similar adventures. My mouth waters at your mention of the duck though--my many mouthfuls were in Penang.

Anonymous said...

This reminded me of my own wanderings around the hutongs, surprising people out of their routines.

Sadly, only people who have a lot of money can afford to purchase a home in order to save it from destruction. . . and save a bit of old Beijing along with it.