I'm back in Beijing, looking forward to my talk at the Bookworm tomorrow. But before that, this evening, I'll be talking about Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Dao with the good people at Sinica podcast (internet is slow here, so I will not put in as many links...).
This time I am staying in a little courtyard hotel (might be better to call it a "inn" - only ten rooms!) just off of Nanluoguxiang. This is a boutique-y alley (hutong) in the older part of town. I've written about it before, when I stayed in another place here in 2009:
[The] businesses have preserved the basic architecture of the area. And, overall, I think the adaptation works. It seems preferable to me to work with and through existing buildings, to save at least some of the old physical surroundings, as opposed to wholesale demolition that happens in so many other sections of the city. If the cost is a bit of kitsch, so be it.
I still feel largely the same way. Nanluoguxiang seems quite popular with local folks. Young people throng the street at night, flowing into the shops and lining up at the food stalls. My sense is that this place sets a kind of standard for fashion and fun. And it’s not just young people who like it: here now, on Sunday afternoon, families with young kids stroll up and down; out of towners, people speaking all sorts of Chinese languages, snap photos to take home to show off the latest city styles.
It would be easy to cast aspersions, to complain of the commercialization and the crassness of some of the offerings. But, again, that seems an acceptable cost to keep something like the old Beijing hutong architecture, or at least the feel of it, alive. They are doing a fair amount of new building. Half a block has been leveled and will be replaced, I suppose, by new construction that mimics the old style. Yet you can still find the old gray bricked, Qing dynasty structures. I'm sitting in one right now, converted to a cafe, a bit down at the heels and funky, but it sure beats the relentless modernism of the CBD.
This time through my mind wanders back to the fall of 1983, when I first came to this country and this city. I lived at Beida, trying to improve my Chinese and researching my dissertation. I have watched,over the decades, as Beijing has transformed: I am one of those old guys who could just wander around and mumble, "everything's changed, everything's changed." I try to avoid that and keep myself open to all that has transpired in the past three decades. And that is one reason why I love strolling around this section of the city: I can see the mix - at times, the collision - of old and new.
The shops and restaurants on the hutongs here are obviously new and hip. But this morning when I woke up, I could hear the peddlars, riding their oversized tricycles through the alleys, calling out their wares. Now that is old Beijing. As I waked dow the alleyway, I came upon the coal guys: men on the tricylces delivering the small round portions of coal that local use for heat in the winter. Back in the day coal was even more common and the air hung with its acrid vapors A lot of that has been replaced by natural gas and other types of energy. But the coal guys are still here.
As is the cabbage harvest. In the autumn of 1983, I vividly remember the major media coverage (newspapers and the evening TV broadcast) of the cabbage harvest. It was a big deal, signalling to people that there would be suffcient provisions for the winter. Economic reform was still new then, agriculture yields were growing significantly compared with the pre-reform year, but still there was a vestigial worry about food. There was not then as much of it as there is now, and older folks remembered the horrible days of the Great Leap Forward. Young people have no real sense of that these days. Food seems far from a worry for most city people. Yes, there is poverty and privation, but it now exists in the midst of plenty, rather like the US. And all of these ideas popped into my head as I walked down Di'anmen Dongdajie and chanced upon some farmers selling cabbage. There was a lot of it, but few people were taking advantage of it. I bet it will not be on the evening news today...
I have these sorts of flashbacks all the time, walking along in 2013 Beijing and suddenl seeing something that has carried forward from 1983 Beijing. And then it's gone and I'm back in the here and now...
Here are some photos (more below the jump):
Nanluoguxiang in the morning