A roof with a view


I’ve been back in Beijing for six months now.

Russia was fantastic. I don’t know that I will fully review my time there in this forum, but during the fifteen months that I lived in St. Petersburg, I met some great people, and truly value being able to see the world – at least to some extent – through Russian eyes. St. Petersburg itself is a beautiful city, and I really don’t feel that I’ve done it justice; there’s so much there that I wasn’t able to explore. Working as an English teacher means extremely antisocial hours, and not a great deal of money; I feel I have a lot of unfinished business in Piter but, if (when) I go back, it’ll be on a different basis.

So, here I am in China once more.

I’ve opted to stay in the hutongs, the old alleyways and courtyards of Beijing that were first laid out during the Yuan Dynasty of the Mongolian Khans. Partly, I wanted to immerse myself in the life of “Old Beijing”, which I didn’t really experience during my previous stays. Also in part (and I apologise to those who think that I’m banging the drum of doom too often!), I wanted to see how life might be for those of us in the West in the decades to come.

Whenever times are turbulent, and an established order collapses, you’ll see the poor and vulnerable swarming in to places that were previously off-limits. They’ll be looking for shelter and security; for a roof over their heads; for safety in numbers.

Go back to the death of the Western Roman Empire, and you’ll see the Emperor Diocletian’s palace on the Dalmatian coast become a walled town as refugees make their homes in the now unguarded rooms and passageways. You’ll see the stranded garrisons of the watchtowers of Hadrian’s Wall settle down with the civilian population which had gathered around them, forming a string of fortified villages.

In Imperial, and then Republican, Beijing, the rich and powerful lived in courtyard dwellings – often a series of adjoining courtyards – which were accessed from the hutongs by red doors. Once you were through the gateway, you were in a private area, occupied by aristocrats, scholars, officers, eunuchs, or wealthy merchants – and, of course, their families and servants. After the fall of the Qing, and to a much greater extent after the Communist victory in 1949, these privileged classes fled to Taiwan, were killed, or lost their money. Their homes were occupied by the poor who flooded in from outside the city; the spacious courtyards were taken over by squatters, who filled them with jerry-built dwellings which formed a maze of snaking pathways.

I’m living in one of these.

It’s been modernized, and the original single-storey building has had an extra floor added, with a nice little terrace on the roof from which I can enjoy a view over the neighbourhood. My landlord lives on the other side of a tiny little patch of courtyard. He’s 55, and was born in the building where he still lives. He’s a real ‘Old Beijinger’ and speaks the local dialect, which I can’t follow very easily. His wife is from a more northerly province, and speaks a purer form of Mandarin, so we’re able to communicate to the extent that my own limited Chinese allows. They’ve added an extra floor to their own building as well, though it’s more primitive than mine. This floor is occupied by a family from Sichuan.

Our buildings are on the inner edge of the original courtyard. A windy little path leads past various shacks to the road out into the hutong. Just outside the door, the allway is unusually wide. The extra space is used as a collection point by local recyclers, who pile up and sort, wood, and plastic. When there’s sufficient of one or the other, it’s piled up and lashed down on the back of a giant cargo tricycle (a very common sight in Beijing) and taken off to be sold.

What’s it like to live here? I have modern conveniences: electricity, a fridge, a washing machine. My stove uses bottled gas, although I haven’t used it yet. I have a mini-bathroom, in which the shower head is above the toilet – a very common design in developing countries. The sewage system underneath is still the old Beijing infrastructure, though. That means no paper down the toilet, which would then clog and flood. Instead, used paper goes into a little bin, the bags from which need to be taken to a large bin outside the public lavatories in the next hutong. Pungent vapours periodically come up from the drains; you get used to them.

The building doesn’t appear to have any insulation. It has large windows, and open stairs leading up to a “mini-greenhouse” giving access to the roof. At the moment it’s very light and airy; I suspect that in winter it will be a freezer. The Sichuanese family and the landlord’s family live very much by natural cycles; they’re up and about with the dawn, and largely retired after dark. This means that at around 6ish in the morning a cycle of hawking and spitting, lighting cigarettes, and the noise of starting the day starts; having no insulation means that this all sounds as if it’s happening in my bedroom! Conversely, I’m usually up and about after everyone else has gone to bed in the late evenings; if I want to watch a DVD, I’ve learned to do it with headphones.

Between my mini-courtyard and the street are a number of other dwellings, one- or two-roomed shanties, which have also been thrown up in the original courtyard space. Several different families live here. Some are more or less friendly, some more or less not, but everyone minds their own business; there’s no room for getting too involved when everyone is cheek-by-jowl like this. One family is involved in waste-collection and recycling; more on this in a later post.

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