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IMPRESSIONS

Far from the urban crowd

PALLAVI AIYAR

Vignettes from the elemental drama of life in Beijing's hutongs.

PHOTO: PALLAVI AIYAR

Traditional: Some courtyard homes have escaped modernisation.

THE persistent knocking pierced through the pillow I had buried my head in, mistakenly hopeful that if I managed to drown out the noise for a few seconds, it would go away. Unwashed and unkempt, I emerged from my bedroom and groggily crossed the courtyard to the blood-red lacquered main doors, which I threw open to reveal my newly acquired landlord, Mr. Xu.

We stared at each other for a few seconds in mutual, horrified disbelief. Mr. Xu, a retired railway ministry official, was patently flabbergasted at finding his tenant still half-asleep as late as half past seven in the morning. Like most Chinese, Mr. Xu must have at this point been awake for almost three hours, eaten a hearty breakfast, performed his routine morning callisthenics, and had a leisurely read of the newspapers.

Unannounced visit

As for me, the unannounced and unsolicited visit by a landlord at the crack of dawn was not my favourite way to start off the day.

Once he recovered from his initial shock, Mr. Xu, bustled past my malodorous self and made his way into the kitchen. I followed and began to ask what he wanted but he pre-empted any speech on my part with a raised hand. "Don't worry about me," he said brightly. "You must be very busy. Go away and do your work and just ignore me."

I spent the next hour, cowering in my study trying to do as instructed and ignore the fact that my landlord was, for some mystifying reason, manically sweeping my courtyard. When I could no longer take it, I approached Mr Xu and tentatively pleaded with him to desist. I'll do it myself, I told him, or my maid will when she gets in, in a few hours. But my pleas fell on deaf ears.

"A courtyard must be swept clean every morning," opined Mr. Xu sanctimoniously. At 60, he moved around with surprising sprightliness, teasing out fallen leaves from troublesome corners. I tugged at the broom gently, in a bid to disarm him. But Mr. Xu clung to it tenaciously with an iron grip that once again belied his advanced years. I tugged harder; Mr Xu hung on. Finally using every ounce of strength I could summon, I wrenched the broom away falling backwards flat on my bum in the process.

"Please, Mr Xu. Let me do the sweeping," I begged, sprawled out on the floor in most undignified repose. Slowly he nodded in defeat. "If there's nothing else I can do for you," he said courteously, "I'll take my leave."

The elemental drama of life in Beijing's hutongs, once again revealed itself, if a little early in the morning for my taste.

* * *

My husband and I had moved into a traditional Chinese-style courtyard home called a siheyuan or four-sided garden a few months ago. Siheyuan are to be found in the Chinese capital's narrow alleyways or hutongs clustered all around the Forbidden City, many dating as far back as the Mongolian Yuan dynasty.

China's mad rush to modernity and skyscrapers has sounded the death knell for the majority of these traditional hutong neighbourhoods, but a few have escaped the predatory cranes and bulldozers that invade most parts of Beijing.

Lined by willows and poplars, hutong neighbourhoods are essentially villages hidden away from the surrounding urban sprawl. Too narrow for supermarkets, street vendors and corner shops called xiao mai bu provide residents with their daily needs: candied crab apples, knife-sharpening services, coal for the freezing winters.

In a hutong, life is communal. Following the communist accession in 1949, most of the siheyuan that belonged to imperial grandees and rich merchants were expropriated and handed over to work units, which then allocated accommodation to workers. Homes that had for centuries housed the extended families of the city's elite were transformed into dilapidated shacks that often squeezed in a dozen families, five or more to a room.

Collective spirit

Hutong homes thus tend to be infused with a certain collective spirit but communality does not stop at the doors and extends out to the alleyways themselves. Through the changing seasons residents bundle together on the street, chattering excitedly, playing mahjong or just watching the world go by.

But nothing provides the cohesive glue of community life like the hutong's many public toilets. Few hutong homes have private loos, so public facilities, which make an appearance every hundred metres or so, play a central role in local life. Here residents gather to exchange news and discuss politics all over a smoke and a dump.

Our new courtyard home, as luck turned out, was located directly opposite the neighbourhood convenience putting us right at the centre of things. Consequently, while we ourselves have the use of a private washroom within the grey brick interiors of our high walls, virtually every time we return home or leave for the day, we are greeted by a pajama-clad denizen, plastic pail in hand, waving to us cheerily, inquiring if we "have eaten", this being the standard mode of hutong-address.

* * *

The phenomenon of trendily renovated siheyuan, rented out to foreigners at steep prices is relatively recent. Unlike their snootily cosmopolitan compatriots in the central business district, most hutong dwellers have had limited interaction with foreigners.

The arrival of my Spanish husband and Indian self to live in Beixin Qiao Toutiao hutong thus caused understandable consternation. Seeing the crowds gathered on the day we moved in, one might be forgiven for thinking the circus had come to town. Indeed many of our neighbours seemed to view us as an amusing and exotic species of animal. Little Wang, from next door, stroked my husband Julio's arm lovingly the first time they met. He fingered the cloth of Julio's shirt in wonder. "Foreigners!" he exclaimed repeatedly, in a tizzy of delight.

* * *

The much-treasured toilet inside our home had a window high up that opened out onto the street just across which was situated the local xiao mai bu, where jolly mahjong gatherings stretched late into the night. On my first morning using the facilities, I picked up the word "Indian" or "Yindu" drifting in through the window and began to pay more attention to the animated conversation emanating from outside the xiao mai bu. "Oh! So she's Indian?" queried a baritone? "Must be, I think," replied an alto. "But the husband? He's not dark enough?" came back baritone. "Yes, she's black but he's white. Must be from different countries," concluded alto.

It felt good to know we provided such fuel for conversation. "Always happy to be of service to our neighbours," I thought.

* * *

Most days, I sit writing in my study, looking out every once in a while onto the elegant grey tiled roofs with their upturned eaves. A willow weeps into the courtyard and the pomegranate tree is heavy with fruit. The hoarse cries of a street vendor cycling by waft in. "Ventilator cleeeaner," he shrieks, every other word elongated in emphasis. "I can clean your dirty ventilatooors."

"I am the luckiest girl in the world," I think to myself and go back to writing.

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