Bu Chai

Tom Lasseter, who replaced Tim Johnson as the China correspondent for McClatchy, mentioned today on his blog that Beijing plans to renovate all the hutongs around the Drum and Bell Towers. Renovation is hardly news in Beijing, where the pre-Olympic facelift hasn’t stopped and chai (Chinese for demolish) regularly marks aging walls for demolition. When I lived in Beijing in 2008, I took as many photos as I could of buildings with chai on the side, trying to record as much of old Beijing as I could.

This news hits home, though, because I lived on Brick Workers’ Lane, a hutong in the shadow of the Drum Tower. I was told it was named because it was originally housing for the builders working on the drum tower, and I loved the connection to the past as we made our way down the twisting pathways. Lasseter says that at least one block’s already been razed, with plans for more to go, and I wonder if WarCraft Man or Grandma Waitress or any of my old neighbors have been moved on.

I liked the neighbors in the hutong. I was still a tourist attraction — like in Yantai, I often found neighborhood children hanging on my gate waiting to see the white girl — but the hutong grandmas would fight through my toneless Mandarin and limited vocabulary to ask if I was warm enough, or cool enough, or wanted to drink some tea. I’ll never understand the Chinese love of tea in hot weather, but it was lovely to be asked. Especially after Stick had gone home, and I was alone again.

I loved the area, down back alleys to the small grocery or noodle shop, or out of the maze of twisty little passages and across Dianamen Wai Dajie to the real brewed coffee and rooftap bars of Qianhai.  I loved walking home with takeout Xinjiang barbeque and beer, and passing Beijing-ren who were living just as Beijing familes have lived for generations.

It’s sad that this neighborhood will be over soon.

Via McClatchy blog: China Rises (well worth a visit for the hutong snapshots)

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