This month YJ and I moved from a monstrous soul-sucking xiaoqu near Guijie to a quiet little pingfang off one of the Dongsi hutongs. Never has moving two kilometers meant such a radical change in quality of life. Note the phrase ‘quality of life’ rather than ‘standard of living,’ a distinction reinforced for me on a daily basis by YJ who was, I will admit, at first somewhat less than enthusiastic about our new digs. There was the five square meters of kitchen which could only be reached, as with our bathroom, by exiting the main part of the structure into the great outdoors and across our narrow yard. There was also the issue of neighbors. I rather enjoyed the idea of being a part of a small community (about a dozen or more other families share our address), and have not been disappointed. Our neighbors routinely come in (often unannounced) and I’ve spent a couple of pleasant evenings in the main part of the yard, gathered around a table talking about whatever it is that comes up when dinner is finished and Yanjing beer is flowing. For her part, YJ worries about the lack of privacy and the need to make chit-chat with every coming and going.
(I rather like the chit-chat. Small talk in Beijing couldn’t be easier: just observe what the person is doing and ask them if they’re doing it. Ex 1: A. “Going out?” B. “Going out.” Ex 2: A. “Making dinner?” B. “Making dinner.” Ex 3: A. “Sitting on a stoop, plotting world domination whilst chain-smoking Zhongnanhai’s?” B. “Sitting on a stoop, plotting world domination whilst chain-smoking Zhongnanhai’s.” You get the idea.)
While moving in, I’ve been reading Michael Meyer’s The Last Days of Old Beijing: Life in the Vanishing Backstreets of a City Transformed. Meyer lived for two years in a pingfang near (the recently Disney-fied) Qianmen and writes colorfully about his attempts to connect with his neighbors, the joys and deprivations of living in his two-room arrangement (high-speed internet but no bathroom or working refrigerator), and a series of essays on the continuing urban redevelopment of Beijing. Meyer is not a starry-eyed preservationist, he is well aware that for many of his neighbors a move to the suburbs (running water, indoor plumbing, reliable electricity) would be a step up in standard of living, but at the same time, he laments the destruction of the organic close-knit economic and community ties, the lack of transparency in the demolition process, and the difficulties of local residents in negotiating appropriate compensation for the loss of their homes.
Meyer’s description of his life in the neighborhood makes for compelling reading, which is a bit surprising given the number of “my life in China” books that I’ve read off the press the past few years, even more surprising given the author is writing about Beijing, arguably the most written about locale in the country. Nevertheless, the author’s commitment to his experiment (and that frankly is how it comes acros) in hutong living is as impressive as is his ability to become a part of the community which he is at the same time observing.
Along the way we are treated to a variety of characters including The Widow, Recycler Wang, Miss Zhu, Officer Li, Little Liu, her father, and their pigeons, and Mocky the Monkey, to name just a few. It is a rich cast that flows into and out of Meyer’s narrative and one of the book’s strongest points is its ability to recreate on the page a sense of the place and its people. By the book’s end, one feels as if they have several new acquaintances through Meyer. Though we never get to know them very well (with the exception of one or two), by the end of the book we worry along with them, and share in their persistent anxiety over the coming of what Meyer dubs “The Hand”: the faceless, formless, pitiless embodiment of Beijing’s urban renewal plan.
Meyer interpolates vignettes of hutong life and culture (particularly noteworthy is his brief biographical sketch of his closest neighbor, known throughout the book as “The Widow”) with more journalistic pieces on history and historic preservation. Meyer interviews historic preservationists and describes their difficult task: proving the intrinsic value of the old buildings and lanes before The Hand descends. Meyer parallels these modern day attempts with the plight of Liang Sicheng, the urban planner whose vision for post-liberation Beijing included the preservation of the walls, gates, and lanes of the inner city, leaving Liang open to charges of ‘classicism’ and of wanting to turn the city into a ‘fake antique.’ The struggle for Beijing’s soul reflects a skein detectable through much of China’s recent past: How to modernize and yet preserve that which makes the society or the nation uniquely Chinese.
If I might be so bold as to offer a criticism of this wonderful book, it tries to be too many things at once. Is it a slice of life? A personal memoir? A non-fiction account of Beijing’s urban reinvention? It is all those things and it more or less pulls the disparate pieces together into a unified whole (though forays into Laos read more like outtakes from Meyer’s gig as travel writer extraordinaire).
But ambition is good and so is this book. I’ll be using a few chapters in my courses this fall and I recommend it to anyone interested in the ongoing evolution of Beijing as an urban space.