The unbearable lightness of Beijing – by Alec Ash
Mrs Wang the widow has lived on Xiguan Hutong for thirty-five years. She's an old Beijinger, born in 1951, and has been within a cabbage's throw of the same vegetable market for most of her life. Her childhood home was in Daxing Hutong, in the same block; her primary school was in Fuxue Hutong, two alleys down; her early teens were in Nanluoguxiang, back when it was just another residential ginnel. In 1980 she married a man who owned property in Xiguan Hutong (reinstated after the Cultural Revolution ended). She worked in a small factory five minutes walk away, making musical instruments from flutes to French horns. When her husband died four years ago, her son moved in with his Mongolian wife. Mrs Wang took a bedroom at the back to live out her retirement watching Chinese soaps, coddling her infant grandson and complaining about how her daughter-in-law complains about her.
There are fifteen households in the dazayuan or "mixed courtyard", which bends in an L shape from the street entrance behind the public toilets outside. The other landlords and ladies – all members of the Shi family, like her late husband – live off the premises, but Mrs Wang is an unmoving hub. The other residents change with every spin of the wheel. Some are young Chinese graduates, living on a budget in crumbling shoeboxes with no inside loo. There is one more nuclear family who own their property, the Xis. The rest are foreigners, mostly occupying the renovated building at the front with double-glazed windows and heated floors. Mrs Wang's neighbors have recently included a Czech, a Frenchman, a Mexican, two Russians, and a gaggle of Americans and Brits – though it's all about the same to her.
Ever ready with a toothy smile, Mrs Wang is indulgently curious about the foreigners. She doesn't approve that the Americans on the first floor are always bringing home girls, but otherwise finds them more polite to her than most of the old timers in the neighborhood are. She noticed that only she and one of the Russians, Maxim, keep the courtyard clean by sweeping it. When she spots the frizzy-haired bear of a Canadian coming home in the wee hours of morning, she wonders what he can possibly have been doing all night, or if he in fact gets up earlier than she does (answer: no). She never calls the police if there's a late night party. And she always stops to chat with the lanky Englishman who lives up the steps above, asking with fresh concern each time how old he is and if he's married yet.
When I arrived three years ago, in the autumn of 2012, Mrs Wang was just another stranger in an unfamiliar neck of the woods. I had lived in Beijing before – two years’ hard time in Wudaokou learning Chinese – but I had worked in London for the past couple of years, and on returning found that much of China was new all over again. My then roommate, Pamela, had found the place, and I moved in on the same afternoon that I got off the Trans-Siberian train at Beijing station, having taken the slow road overland from England. I was just in time to catch the swansong of summer, and one last mahjong game outdoors.
My first impressions were of all the colorful clichés of hutong life. The couple who sold fruit and veggie on odd days at the street door, so I would have to step over a bucket of salty duck eggs to get out in the morning. The gourds and melons hanging from the vine, threatening to drop and knock out unsuspecting passers by. The man on the rooftop across from mine signaling with a red flag as his pigeons circled overhead, whistles strapped to their backs whining like a passing UFO. The lady who kept a pet dragonfly tied to a piece of string, to eat the last of the mosquitos. The hawkers' cries, clanging together knife sharpening rods or plaintively minstreling for second-hand furniture.
Xiguan means "narrow pipe", presumably after how the hutong starts off wide but tapers dramatically. Whenever a car mistakenly thought it could get through the pipe, I would silently curse it while stuck behind on my second hand racing bike. The city outside was constantly intruding. There was a large middle school just behind my building, and the students gaped out of their windows and into mine. Further down was a barracks for the People's Armed Police, who sometimes drilled through the alleys. But on lazy Sundays, I could avoid the main street all day long and imagine that I lived in a village. I made the effort to get my neighbors’ surnames down. The local convenience store owner was delighted at my awkwardly formal way of calling him "Mr Gao", and still greets me loudly every time he is drunk, which is always.
Every day uncovered a new secret. When my landlady dropped by announced at 8am (as Chinese landladies do) for a chat, she told me about her childhood farming wheat in the district of Beijing that is now 798 art zone. I raised an eyebrow to discover she was a Red Guard in her teens, and had persecuted landlords in struggle sessions. She hung wooden signs over the landlords' necks denouncing them as capitalists, and made them take the "airplane" position – body bent forwards from the waist at a right angle, arms held out straight behind – for hours. "The changes really are big," I mentioned, "now you're the landlady." But she was bewildered. "I'm not a landlady," she said. "I just collect your rent."
For months I was haunted by Peking Opera singing that drifted faintly through one of my walls, stirring arias floating between construction drilling. On the morning of Christmas Eve, with fresh snow on the ground, I bumped into my neighbor Uncle Shi as he was taking out the trash in his pajamas. I asked who the mysterious singer was. He looked at me obliquely, then broke into a piercing rendition of "You And Me", the Beijing Olympics theme song, followed by "Silent Night" in beautiful, butchered English (“Alll is carrrm! alll is blight!”). Uncle Shi moved out some months later, the Russian couple moved in, and the Peking Opera arias were replaced by high squealing of another sort.
I'll never forget the midwinter night when, winding home through the hutong labyrinth, I came across a small bonfire on the street. Two young women were feeding it with newspaper and had chalked a circle around the open flame, like a token health-and-safety warning. I didn't know about ghost day customs, and felt it would be intrusive to ask. When I turned the corner there was another flame, then another, and again, and charred dead fires besides them and an old man striking matches into the wind. I thought of them as cat’s eyes guiding me home. Eventually I stopped a young man as he put fake paper money into his fire, and asked him why. “For the departed loved ones,” he said. His father had passed away when he was small. I walked the last twenty yards home, and switched on all the lights.
It didn't take long before the changes outpaced new discoveries. The cheap family restaurant that I loved transformed itself overnight into a Korean stir-fry joint, inexplicably serving each meal with a complementary bag of Twinings tea, which I also loved. A Japanese manga figurine store opened for business, and a cosplay shop opposite it, where I walked in on a group of teenagers dressed up as comic book heroines. An imported wine boutique, run by the rather clueless Mr Liu from Shandong, open and closed within months. Even the neighborhood sex toy shop was converted into a flat. Only the hair salons and the migrant brothels seemed to be in no danger of losing demand.
Two other establishments that never change a brick are the mahjong parlor – curtained and shuttered like a front for the mob – and the local showers, from which emerge the fleshy slaps and pops of massage and fire cupping. Opposite them is another watering hole, this one for local foreigners (we embrace the oxymoron). Cuju bar, named for the ancient Chinese sport that is almost but not entirely unlike football, is a sports bar, rum bar and Moroccan bistro all squeezed into one, a cocktail of influences we owe to its owner Badr. Some early mornings, while Mrs Wang is out buying her groceries, Americans cram inside to watch March Madness or the World Series. I saw my first Super Bowl there purely by accident, when I was going out to buy eggs for breakfast.
But the two worlds never seem to overlap. Expats drink Negronis and vape on the porch of Cuju, while older Chinese residents chug Tsingtaos and suck on Eights on the corner opposite. Sometimes the rival gangs eye each other, as if they are about to break into a West Side Story moment – the laowai and the laotou. There is a tangible suspicion about the influx of foreigners; the mahjong parlor installed surveillance cameras outside the week after Cuju opened. At least in those early days, I felt in the stares of my neighbors the assumption that we were outsiders passing through, as transient as the shops which opened and closed every month.
Mr Xi has been turning his home into a fortress ever since I moved in, although I keep telling myself there's no connection. First he erected a steel gate outside his front door. Then he railed off the back-door staircase, to stop others from locking their bikes to it. Finally, in the spring, he broadened his horizons by adding an extra story (perhaps he was a fan of Tang poetry). His neighbors learnt of his decision when a construction team started laying bricks on the roof, until his building was exactly a half meter taller than my own, and conveniently blocked the once lovely scenery over the rooftops from my study window where I did most of my writing. I dubbed it the ugliest view in the world.
One morning, two very fierce looking chengguan, the urban management police, showed up. They told Mr Xi that his impromptu addition was illegal, and another team of workers tore through its roof with pneumatic drills. Then they just left it there, for Mr Xi to take the rest down. Mrs Wang gossiped to me later that one of our neighbors must have called the chengguan as the building was blocking their sunlight. To this day no one knows who it was. Mr Xi left the building as it was – roofless, unpainted, loose bricks lying on top of the walls directly over the entrance – for over a year. I had half a mind to call up the chengguan to mention this, but remembered Kaiser Kuo's mantra for foreigners in China, "don't be a whiny little bitch".
While Mr Xi kept the neighbors out, I finally felt settled in. As spring turned to summer I planted vegetables on my rooftop, and failed miserably: the pak choi was decimated by bugs, the tomatoes were scorched by the sun, the aubergines and courgettes never made it out of the seed. Some mornings I did tai chi up there too, swiveling around to see hundreds of gawking faces pressed up against the school classroom windows. I could negotiate the labyrinth now, and became friends with our local kuaidi delivery guy. It had taken over a year, but my neighbors were finally greeting me back by name, stopping for a chat rather than simply looking at me.
I suspect it was the dog. James and Christina, an author and a journalist, had moved into the flat below me (we called our building "writers' block") and Christina found a stray dog on the street, flea-ridden and pitiful. They already had two dogs, Calvin and Hobbes, and I was now living alone, so they so deposited Ginger upstairs with me despite my protestations that I was a cat person. Within a month I had formally adopted Ginger, and entered a hitherto closed society of dog owners, who exchanged curt nods while our pets sniffed each other's rear in a canine yin yang. To the community, I was no longer a foreigner. I was a foreigner with a dog, which meant neither of us would be leaving anytime soon.
Between Ginger's constitutionals and a new habit of jogging before sunset, I got to know a wider radius around me. Each run excavated a fresh finding. The perpetually pajama-clad Mr E, whose retirement project was to endlessly decorate his tuk-tuk with colorful stars, stuffed animals and two flags on a weekly rotation. The fish store owner who painted classical landscapes. The old codger who I thought was chirping at me until he produced a cricket from his inside jacket pocket. The hunchbacked lady who beat her dog with a badminton racket (and is possibly a lovely person otherwise, if not likely so). When jogging through one block of hutongs got old, I moved on to explore the next one across.
I counted the passing months by yellow hutong weasel sightings. The critters only came out in the dead of night or pre-dawn hours, flashing past like a gunshot, and I might see two or three a year. If they were the true long-term residents, the hutongs were shifting around them. By weasel number five, the stir-fry and Twinings restaurant had become a fruit stall. At weasel number six, the manga figurine store was an electric scooter shop, and Miss Muesli, a homemade granola store, had opened opposite. The cosplay hangout became a bistro café around the time of weasel sighting seven. Sometimes one would get up on its hind paws and look about for a second, as if to warn us: Nanluoguxiang is coming.
The foreigners came and went too, although that was as true of the young Chinese who lived in the courtyard. The Russians had split up, and the sounds of loud Slavic coitus were replaced by Maxim's band rehearsing "Stand By Me" and "Don't Worry Be Happy". James hosted a weekly roleplaying game downstairs, and I spectated while the group talked and rolled dice for half an hour before realizing that in the fictional realm of Rokugan only five seconds of action had passed. When one new arrival in Beijing asked me about the floating liuxu fluff balls in spring, the willow catkin pollen, I told him it was PM 2.5. Every leaving party for an expat friend felt like our own ghost day ritual – burning paper money for the departed.
My neighbor Christina wrote an article about how the very aspects of hutong life that draw foreigners to live here put off Chinese looking for more modern conveniences. "The same old downtown area," she wrote of our district, "has become a hotspot for hipster expats ... who ride bikes, watch earnest documentaries, do tai chi on our rooftops." Burn. But for better or worse, when your breakfast options include doughy youtiao from the street market and custom-made granola from a shop called Miss Muesli, it's clear that the neighborhood has evolved to accommodate its foreign population, and isn't going to change back.
A year after the roof of Mr Xi's extra story was knocked down by the chengguan, he evidently figured that enough time had past. He hired a new team to reroof and tar it over, and fixed his solar power cylinders on the top. Next he kitted out the rooftop next to it with wooden furniture, dangled vines from metal beams, grew watermelon, and put in a chicken coop. Every morning I was woken by the cawing of a rooster, who on smoggy days was confused as to whether the sun had come up or not. My Xi gave me the combination code to his fortress so I could lock my bike inside, and his ten-year-old son waves at me when he climbs the steps outside my study window.
Foreigners in China have always tried to romanticize the place. My go-to example is Karl Eskelund, a Danish journalist here in the 1930s (he later became famous for punching Chiang Kai Shek’s son) who wrote: “Peking has no tooting motorcars, no smoky factories, no ugly modern concrete buildings. The temples, the mysterious Forbidden City, the cozy dwelling houses with their intricate courtyards and gracefully slanting roofs, all stand today as they did when Peking was capital of the Middle Kingdom.” Perhaps it's that projection of an authentic past that we idealize – until we're swept along by the authentic present, with its tooting motorcars and ugly modern concrete buildings, which is far more interesting.
When it comes to the hutongs, I don't get what's romantic about gray-painted alleyways speckled with dog poo and spit. But they do force you to be part of a neighborhood, and to change along with it. When the present becomes the past at such rapid clip as it does in China, you can find yourself feeling nostalgic for something from only a year ago, as if it was ten years gone. Yet it's that sense of community and premature nostalgia that creates the esprit de corps, and keeps those who have left coming back.
I have friends who can stake a much better claim to their hutong than I – who have pigeon aviaries on their roof, or a blocked-off escape tunnel in their basement. My friend Tom Pellman has lived in Ju'er Hutong, one block west of me, for six years. It's the same hutong Peter Hessler lived in and wrote about (we're both fanboys), and long before him Edmund Backhouse wasn't far away (ditto). Between VPN clampdowns and visa worries, on a bad China day it can feel like we're not welcome here. The government's narrative after the century of humiliation seems to be that foreigners might pass through China, but will never belong. Yet everyone is swept along in the same flux. We make our own homes, and take them with us.
Ten years on, perhaps the lanky Englishman will be just another memory for Mrs Wang. I like to think she'll still be here, rooting through a box of pak choi in the veggie market at the entrance while a new generation of foreigners pass by. Much of Xiguan Hutong will no doubt be different, but the kernel will be the same – a constant defined by cycles of change. And some days, in the brief hiatus between summer and winter, when the first cold bites and it feels like the year has reset, there's even a beauty to the haze of smog that disperses light evenly over the narrow alley walls and all the life squeezed in between them. In moments like that, I can't imagine being anywhere else.
Alec Ash is a writer and journalist in Beijing