At the entrance of Gongjian Hutong in Beijing sat a short thin man who walked with a limp and wore a blue, one-piece jump suit. He lived in a one-room metal shack with a clear sliding door and fixed bikes for a living, with a large shelf of tools next to his bed. He gossiped with the convenient store owners next door and sometimes nodded to me when I walked past him. He may have resided illegally in the shack, but I never asked. He probably just showed up at the mouth of the alley one day, built his house, and no one objected.
From 2006 to 2007 I lived in a Beijing hutong for nine months. “Hutong” in Chinese is rooted in a Mongolian word that means “water well” and is now loosely defined as “lane,” “alley,” or even “neighborhood.” The hutong neighborhoods in Beijing, some built in much the same style almost 750 years ago, are a maze of gray brick alleyways. Red doors appear at intervals that open into siheyuan, or small, four-sided courtyards.
During the Communist period, revolutionaries and Red Guards threw out residents who were court officials, labeling them bourgeoisie, and moved into their former homes. These revolutionaries transformed certain hutongs into what more closely resembled dorms of Communist youth and Red Guards. Many never left, raising families there. Some people fashioned shoddy brick sheds and additions onto the houses. As a result, the residual hutong alleyways today are crowded and can look like a mix of slums as well as former high estates.
Mr. Pan was the oldest resident on the street. On a spring day, he led me through a low red door into a small courtyard and then into his 60 square-foot house on the left. He had also moved in during the Cultural Revolution. His family had lived in the area as well, but they were “no longer here” anymore, and he didn’t go into the details of their passing.
He pointed to the refrigerator behind him next to his bed.
“You see this? In the 70s, no one had this. The TV? No one had that either.”
“Your America is developing. The world is developing, and China is the same. We’ve made capitalism work now for us! But we’re different too – we still have to be a glorious socialist nation. Like these hutongs. If they need to build a subway here and take down my house, that would be a shame, but of course I would do it. One person can’t object in the face of the good of so many people.”
“Is there going to be a subway here soon?”
“Not here, but one block down.
“So you’re not going to be moved.”
“Of course not! But other people down the street are complaining and that’s what I tell them. Sometimes you have to sacrifice for the country and not be a stubborn nail.”
“Stubborn nail” is the term used in China for families that refuse to abandon their houses in the face of development projects. Sometimes entire areas of old housing were demolished and a highway was built right through a house whose residents refused to leave, guarding it day and night. Families would protect their houses, leaving them, in extreme cases, standing in protest in the middle of a highway or in an excavated site for a skyscraper, alone like an island.
A few doors up from Mr. Pan was the local barbershop owned by a migrant family with the surname Ye. Two years later, they moved farther down the street into a renovated larger space with shinier mirrors and floors. They went from having two barber seats to four, but the scene was always the same – two siblings, brother and sister in their late twenties cutting hair, and their grandfather sitting in one of the waiting chairs watching Chinese soap operas on a tiny television in the top left corner of the room. They were legally registered in the countryside when they bore children, allowing them to have more than one child. Our conversations were always different at the beginning, but usually ended by debating who was the best basketball player in the NBA. Weizhu said Kobe Bryant. In 2006, Lebron James hadn’t quite caught on yet in China.
She often asked about my family.
“I would miss them. We’re from Zhejiang, and now our whole family lives here.” Zhejiang was a wealthy coastal province just south of Shanghai. No one in the Ye family said the sh sound in Chinese words, an immediate giveaway of their roots. They urged me to go to Wenzhou, one of the most famous factory towns in China, to see how successful their home province had become.
“There aren’t hutongs in America?” she asked me.
“No not really. Not like this, not this style at least. Hutongs in China are maybe three times as old as my country.”
“And hutongs aren’t even that old!” she said laughing.
The grandfather smiled and put up five fingers. “Wu qian”. Five thousand. He meant five thousand years of China existing.
“That’s true,” I said.
When I left, Weizhu said “man zou.” It was a common wish of fortune which translated to “walk slow.” If you walked slow, life was calm and good. It sometimes reminded me of the urban American slang term “drive slow.” I hid a smile whenever it was said.
They sometimes asked about my host family, the Suns. On our street people admired them. The Suns’ son, Wenhao, had scored in the top percentile on the Gao Kao, the Chinese university entrance exam and was, in the traditional sense, as successful as a Chinese child could be. A neighbor came to my host mother Guangfeng one day, complaining about her own son. She asked for advice, frantically, but barely listened to anything Guangfeng said.
“She can’t even focus on her own problems,” Guangfeng said, “how can she fix her son’s? He plays computer games all day. He can’t function outside. So many kids today in China are the same way. You see? That’s I why didn’t like to let Wenhao play with other kids very much when he was young. I was so worried they would influence him.” She laughed to herself more than to me. “So I made sure to be the only one who played with him – mothers can do that just fine.
She relayed hutong gossip over dinner. Her husband, Zhenguang, explained to me that, in the past, Mr. Pan had certainly not always believed that capitalism worked for China. Zhenguang described watching Mr. Pan lead a mob down the street in the 1970s to stone a neighbor labeled a bourgeoisie capitalist roader. After the deed was done, they carved flowers into the wall of the man’s house as a tribute to Mao Zedong’s “Hundred Flowers Movement” of the 1950s, when the Chairman encouraged “a hundred flowers of criticism” of the regime to “blossom” from the masses. When the citizenry expressed more criticism than Mao expected, he unleashed a campaign against them, labeling them anti-revolutionary capitalists.
Zhenguang laughed at my incredulous expression. He assumed that, by now, Mr. Pan had gone through so many slogans and movements in his life that they all seemed the same. It was communism back then, then socialism, then “capitalism with Chinese characteristics.” Who knew what the government was doing? He supported it in whatever language their policies were published and cited himself as a Chinese patriot for it.
“Everyone was different back then anyway,” Zhenguang said, his expression growing more serious, “even nice old folks like Mr. Pan. In the Cultural Revolution, we were out in the countryside, sleeping on newspapers one night in a farmer’s house, and it was very hot. In the morning we woke up and found that one of the people we were with had sweat on Mao’s picture on the front page of the newspaper. He was almost beaten to death.” He paused. “It was a very different time.”
Mr. Pan died a few years ago, but, like the hutongs themselves, some things changed and others didn’t. It was all mixed in together. My host family’s hutong is still very much the same, save a new TV and computer. The barbershop is still there and the grandfather still sits watching soap operas in the corner. The bike repairman has not changed a bit. Often, for those things that did change, many didn’t seem to care or took a long time to notice.
Six years after I lived there, Guangfeng told me there was a temple behind our house. She had never gone back there. I was only in town for a week when she told me, and so the three of us – Zhenguang, Guangfeng, and I – took a look one night. The last time Zhenguang had gone back there was as a child. Back then, there was a large open courtyard and a one-room temple in the middle. We ventured behind the house to discover that the courtyard had been completely overrun by shanties, and the temple’s roof was now barely visible. As we left, Zhenguang cursed, laughed, and shook his head, amused and disgusted at the same time.
“They built so many!” he said to the neighbors as we left. In the last forty years he had visited America before he had revisited the area ten yards behind his house. It looked nothing like it used to, and, unlike state-led urban renewal, the government had nothing to do with it.