Sunday, March 25, 2012

No. 5 Dengcao Lane, Dongsi South Street, Dongcheng District, Beijing, in Homage to the Work of Zhang Xiaoping--"Tales of Old Beijing: The Daily Life in Alleys" (China Intercontinental Press, 2009)

Not the photographs of the folk photographer Zang Xiaoping, but ours, and only late in our trip did we find his wonderful book, that archives other alley ways then the one you see here, that archives the communities that flourished in these narrow but vibrant worlds.
"People from different times have different memories and the memories were getting faint faint by time. However, only memory could make moment to eternity...the past becomes history, becomes the footprint of the development of history and society. Beijing yesterday, already left in the memory of the people, becomes a kind of color, a symbol, a miss." from the Preface, by Luo Fei, January 11, 2009
March 4, 2012
I have traveled in this book, my black book journal--London, Paris, New York, back to London, Melbourne and then a year later, Beijing. My legs aching, but still we go on. Sitting in the one room of our hotel, in our hutong, the Beijing name for the old streets off the main avenues, where life goes on as it has for so many years, but perhaps for not much longer,

where the old doorways are decorated with symbols for good things, and a curtain is drawn over domestic life. We stay at the Beijing Sihe Courtyard Hotel, once the home of a famous Beijing artist, whose neighbor is a community recycling storefront.
Our room, protected from the biting cold by the red quilt that does its job well

Some of the furniture, we are told, is very old, the bed with the orange canopy, the old desk so worn, stained by the carelessness of visitors like ourselves.
From my journal: I had to go outside to write in the courtyard, still late winter touched. I like the old wooden buildings around me edged in red; somehow Beijing does not feel foreign to me, as if the longer we stay in the hutong, this old alleyway where dusty bikes and small wheeled vehicles of all kinds carrying the trades of their riders, the recyclers, the shoppers, the chess and card players, make me hug the walls of its doomed homes, could slowly transform me into that image of a "granny,"captured by the photographer with the words,"Grannies who live in the alleys usually do not go into the main streets, so they are unfamiliar with what happened outside. Even if they come out, they just go shopping at groceries and go back immediately, or they would like to stand at their doorway to feel the change of the world." (p. 180) A granny, shuffling but persistent, looking out at the life that flows into the alley way, the life that has flowed for over 800 years, and "there are traces of each era" in the stones and earth of these persistent paths says the photograph, passionate about their importance, the need to preserve them, but the powers of the new capitalism work against the old stones and 200 year old trees. He photographs the Chinese character that means "to pull down," that is painted on the walls of the old houses and tells us: "The buildings of ancient Beijing with a history of many 100s years are moved away by migrant workers with handcarts...citizens of old Beijing silently watch their loved houses leveled to the ground. They watched the property left by forefathers disappear in thier hands and turned into the number in banks." (p. 115)  "Alley," we are told by the photographer, means "well" in Mongolian, the source of water, of life.
Under the image of an old man, Zhang Xiaoping writes, "If there is room for him in the alleys, he could survive honorably. Nothing would stop the men of Beijing. After retirement, they would sell flowers, birds, and fish from a wheelbarrow." The hook on the top of this cage allows it to be hung in tea houses and on trees in the country, so old men can carry their song birds with them and discuss their charms with old friends. In the transhistorical Tea House of Lao She's famous play, the characters appear with their bird cages, ready to hang them from the rafters, hoping their songs will survive the end of dynasties and the beginnings of new ones.
Our hutong at night, the old red lanterns marking the entrance to our hotel and the blue window of the television marking modernity.

From my journal: March 23, 2012: Our first night in our hotel, down the alley way, past wooden doors marked by red good luck images, past the district's health clinic, small stores that are part of the families' living room, past a recycling store front where on Sunday a large happy seeming group of men and women, all in old warm stained coats, laughing slap cards down with great vigor on an upturned barrel while other comrades play a game of Chinese chess, pondering the next move of the large brown clay discs with white writing, while all around the gathering plastic bottles and large squares of cardboard spill out of carefully organized sacks. Spitting and laughing, with some one's flock of pigeons circling above our heads, the swirling red banners making their siren like noise to remind the flock where home is.

Monday morning in the hutong--pulled by their black-jacketed hard working owners, the vegetable flatbeds arrive, greens neatly piled on the wooden slab, in this cold gray morning, the only bit of vivid color. The women make their selection amidst the debris of the alley, debris that will quickly disappear into the recycling sacks. Behind the worn wooden doors and the gate piers, the homes are protected from dust and floods, we get only glimpses of the full life of our neighbors--we have come to expect the old couple to walk their two small dogs in the early evening, followed by a solitary fellow with his small white dog, small dogs, their size almost begging passersby to overlook them. The owners of the cars parked outside their front doors have placed slabs of old Beijing stone in front of the tires that face the hutong, protecting their prize possession from the ravages of the dog's daily walks. We get a sense of of one of the tensions of our hutong. Another is made clear by government posters with a police official's face prominently displayed announcing that all people living in the alley must be registered with authorities and no one can be added to the list. How many people live behind the wooden doors we do not know, but clearly all must be accounted for.

Today as we turned once again from the groovy main street filled with stores selling fashionable clothes and offering the newest in haircuts, into our ally, I looked longer at the Community Health Center sign to discover that this four story square 50s style building is also the district's hospice. I thought what it would be like to take your last breaths looking out over the narrow but full of life hutong, with its public toilets, its few shops selling diet coke, sweets and mops, the ruddy complexioned recycling gang, teasing each other, its smells and sounds and always the through traffic of every things on wheels that can carry or pull. A productive place as best it can be, a bit of Beijing life, not big or global or corporate, a bit of the old and persistent with smiles and Ni Hos for the foreigners in their midst. Today as we walked around the bend in the alley, heading home, we saw a group of young nurses, in the whitest things we have seen in the alley, their uniforms clean and sharp, their lunch boxes by their sides, smiling young women going to their jobs in the hospice. As I write this now in my late night study in West Brunswick, I realize that those women, swinging down the road, arms joined, seem like the daughters of the those young and strong women portrayed in the Red Guard ballet we saw, competent and eager to take on history.  Perhaps not such a bad place to take leave from this bit of the world known as Beijing. 

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