Probing China's Changing Character What happens when an entrenched culture suddenly opts for rapid change and the upheaval of centuries of cherished tradition? Maureen Corrigan finds some answers in two new works of nonfiction.


Book Reviews

Probing China's Changing Character

Probing China's Changing Character

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'The Last Days of Old Beijing'
The Last Days of Old Beijing
By Michael Meyer
Hardcover, 336 pages
Walker & Co.
List Price: $25.99

Read an excerpt of The Last Days of Old Beijing.
'Serve the People'
Serve the People: A Stir-Fried Journey Through China
By Jen Lin Liu
Hardcover, 341 pages
List Price: $24.00

Read an excerpt of Serve the People.

Nine years ago, I was standing outside an airport terminal in Beijing, holding my new baby daughter and saying a tearful goodbye to the Chinese woman who worked as a liaison for our adoption agency in China. In the midst of our farewells, this woman pointed over my shoulder and said, "Look!" There, on the green verge of the busy airport roadway, an old man was herding sheep. She smiled at the sight and said, "That is China."

If I'd been less preoccupied with my own seismic life changes back then, I might have paid more attention to how China's speedy efforts to modernize were pushing relics of traditional life to the sidelines — like that shepherd at the airport. As Michael Meyer tells us in his just-published substantive, smart book, The Last Days of Old Beijing, the slogan Chinese officials conjured up to headline their winning bid to host the Olympics was: "New Beijing, New Olympics." It's a slogan that's boded well for Wal-Marts and high-rise developments with wacky, Westernized names like Merlin Champagne Town and Dating Bright California, but China's massive makeover urge has spelled curtains for local food stalls, sidewalk barbers and the historic courtyard neighborhoods in Beijing known as hutongs.

Hutongs, Meyer tells readers, are single-story homes that are made out of wood and earthen brick and built around an open courtyard. Narrow lanes run outside the walls of the crowded hutongs, which for centuries composed most of the housing in Beijing.

Meyer knows the ins and outs of hutong history because he's one of the few Westerners to have ever lived in one. A resident of China for over 10 years, Meyer moved into one of the last remaining hutong neighborhoods in Beijing when he began teaching English at a local grammar school. As Meyer describes it, hutong living is not for loners (he recalls being greeted by male neighbors and students as he performed his morning squat at the community toilet); nor (during his residency) was it suited for those with a low panic threshold. Many mornings, Meyer's neighbors awakened to see the Chinese character for the word "raze" or "destroy" painted on their houses, which were regarded by the government as eyesores. As one architect tells Meyer, China doesn't harbor a fondness for ancient buildings because they're "seen as reminders of one pre-Liberation period: feudalism."

If Meyer uses the shaky perch of his hutong home to widely survey all manner of rapid-fire transformation in Beijing, Jen Lin-Liu uses a cleaver and chopsticks to probe China's changing character. In her entertaining and offbeat book, Serve The People, Lin-Liu, a young Chinese-American food writer living in Beijing, decides to enroll in a vocational cooking school in order to extend her reach beyond her closed friendship circle of Western expats and cosmopolitan Chinese. Lin-Liu's upper-middle-class parents back in the States are dismayed, but her odd move turns out to yield not only a rich inside-the-wok knowledge of Chinese cuisine, but also of the lives of everyone — from the migrant kitchen workers to the new generation of celebrity chefs — who make it. Through persistence — and her newfound knife-wielding skills — Lin-Liu goes on to get jobs at a local noodle stall and in the kitchen of a new, chi-chi restaurant. Gradually, in the culinary atmosphere of steam and sweat, some of her fellow cooks open up. She recalls how, during a private session of dumpling making, a teacher at the cooking school described life during the Cultural Revolution as well as the current inequities of China's health care. As Lin-Liu says of these unusually forthright conversations: "[They] brought out the mild paranoia that always floated just under the surface of life in authoritarian China, even if it was an authoritarian state in reform. It kept you from talking about anything sensitive. It kept you in your place."

But both of these insider books about China — as seen from home and cooking hearth — suggest that the sense of being "kept in one's place" seems, for better and worse, to be disappearing — almost as rapidly as the dumplings and smoked duck that Lin-Liu makes with friends to welcome in the New Year.

Excerpt: 'Serve The People'

'Serve the People'
Serve the People
By Jen Lin-Liu
Hardcover, 352 pages
List Price: $24.00

In cooking class, I learned a startling array of facts: Eating fish head will repair your brain cells. Spicy food is good for your complexion. Monosodium glutamate is best thrown in a dish just before it comes off the wok. Americans are fat because they eat bread, while Chinese are slim because they eat rice. If you work as a cook in America for three years, you can come back to China and buy a house.

I bicycled down a narrow alley, past a public toilet and through a gate with a scowling security guard to get to the cooking school. I enrolled in October 2005, in my fifth year of living in China. Lectures were held in a classroom rented from a high school, and the unheated room felt colder by the minute. Everyone else was used to the lack of heat and insulation in public schools and dressed accordingly, in down jackets. I shivered in my thin coat.

My classmates slumped in their seats, seeming bored and detached, holding their pens limply. They were all men, ranging in age from twenty to fifty. Most hadn't completed high school. Teacher Zhang didn't mind that they answered their cell phones in class. Once I heard a student clipping his fingernails, the snip of the scissors punctuating the cadences of the lecture. Teacher Zhang often narrowed his eyes at me while he spoke, however. He didn't like that I was different from the others.

I interrupted him with questions. I didn't bother to raise my hand because that custom didn't exist in this classroom—students weren't supposed to have questions. So I just spoke up, as loudly as I could. "Could you write that character more clearly?" I often asked.

Teacher Zhang grunted and wiped the chalkboard with the back of his hand, then rewrote the character in the Chinese equivalent of block letters, the chalk screeching against the surface.

Sometimes I was so busy copying down what Teacher Zhang said that I didn't stop to question it. Later, reviewing my notes, I discovered a strange mix of pop psychology and old Chinese clichés.

"Your taste buds are influenced by several different factors," Teacher Zhang declared, and enumerated them. Age, sex, occupation, and mental state, I dutifully wrote. Women liked lighter foods and men preferred spicy foods, he explained. Women–light, men–spicy, I scribbled in English.

"If you're a farmer working in the fields and doing a lot of heavy lifting, your taste buds will be different from someone who works in an office," he added. Uh-huh, I thought as I transcribed the information into my notebook. Looking back on my notes later, I wished I had asked him to elaborate further.

But when I asked questions, Teacher Zhang shot me annoyed glances, and the other students shifted uncomfortably in their seats. I learned to behave like the rest: listen, bow, and copy.

When we weren't in the classroom taking notes on the world according to Teacher Zhang, we were in the kitchen. The kitchen was created out of another classroom by installing a burner, gas tank, countertop, sink, and refrigerator. With those simple fixtures, it became a larger version of the typical home kitchen in China. Though spacious, it wasn't the kind of room where you let your eyes wander, lest they settle on a patch of scum on the tile wall that had probably not been scrubbed for a good five years. I figured the time we would spend in the kitchen learning real things would make up for the time wasted on the lectures. I had never been in a professional Chinese kitchen, which was notoriously off-limits to diners. I now found myself in a room full of cutting boards, woks, cleavers, and bottles of chili oil and oyster sauce. But I quickly found out that even in this kitchen, certain things were not permitted to students. Like cooking.

Instead of cooking, we sat on a set of bleachers across the room, observing Chef Gao's every move. Chef Gao was an old-school chef who worked at a Soviet-style, government-run hotel that had seen its glory days pass with the end of the state-planned economy. Gao was a relic of the old system, and he continued the time-honored Chinese traditions of using MSG and copious amounts of soybean oil. Despite the MSG and the oil—or maybe because of them—his cooking was delicious.

We watched as Chef Gao fanned out his skinny arms and elbows like a grasshopper as he cooked. We listened to him chirp the recipes in a folksy Beijing accent as he wrote them on the chalkboard, dividing the ingredients into three categories: main ingredients, supplementary ingredients, and seasonings. Occasionally, he noted quantities next to the main ingredients, but usually he threw things in by intuition. The kitchen didn't contain a single measuring cup or spoon anyway.

We scrutinized his equipment, which was limited to a wok, a cutting board, and a cleaver with an eight-inch-long and four-inch-tall blade. Once in a while he'd pull out something more sophisticated, like a fryer basket. "You see this basket and handle? It's all one piece, so it will never break. I bought this in the 1960s, and the factory has been closed for years. They don't make baskets like this anymore!" he hollered with a disdain that suggested that the old days, when China was dirtpoor, were better.

We gazed, captivated, as Chef Gao demonstrated his skills at the wok. He lined the curved pan with thin slices of pork tenderloin that had been marinated in rice wine and placed it over a moderately high flame, swirling the juices around. When one side was cooked, he picked up the wok and flipped the pork in a single sheet, like a pancake. He repeated the maneuver— swirl, flip, swirl. Seasoned with leeks and ginger, this tender and flavorful guota liji (sunken-wok tenderloin) displayed the fundamentals of Chinese cooking: freshness and simplicity above all else.

When all the day's dishes were cooked, we went into action. We jumped off the bleachers, gathered around the cooking station, and swooped in with chopsticks that we had brought from home, attacking the food with a unified strategy. The smallest dishes went first, especially expensive items like seafood. We moved on to the dish giving off the most steam, and then we finished off the rest. In three minutes flat, everything was gone. At the end of one class, I barely beat someone to the last skewer of deep-fried scallops. He ended up with an empty stick as the scallops slid off into my greedy grasp. I had already learned that I couldn't stand around waiting for anything to be handed to me.


3¿4 pound pork tenderloin, thinly sliced against the grain

2 tablespoons rice wine or sherry

½ teaspoon salt

½ teaspoon freshly ground white pepper

2 large eggs

½ cup all-purpose flour

¼ cup vegetable oil plus 1 tablespoon for drizzling

2 tablespoons chicken stock

1 leek, white part only, cut in half lengthwise and shredded

2 thumb-sized pieces of ginger, peeled and shredded

2 teaspoons sesame oil

Marinate the pork in 1 tablespoon of the rice wine, ¼ teaspoon of salt, and ¼ teaspoon of pepper for 10 minutes. In a bowl, beat the eggs and set them next to the stove.

Place the flour on a plate. When the pork has marinated, coat each slice with flour on both sides, patting to remove the excess. Set the slices on a plate next to the eggs.

Place a wok over medium heat and add ¼ cup of oil, swirling it to coat the sides. When the oil is hot, quickly dip each piece of pork in the beaten egg and place it in the wok, arranging the slices so they cover the bottom and sides in a thin sheet. With a spatula, gently loosen the pork, then drizzle a little oil around the wok from time to time so the meat doesn't stick as it cooks. When the bottom of the pork sheet has turned a light golden brown, flip it over. (Don't worry if it doesn't flip in a single sheet; just make sure to turn over each piece.) Add any remaining oil, the remaining 1 tablespoon wine, the rest of the salt and pepper, and the chicken stock.

Sprinkle the shredded leek and ginger over the pork, and drizzle sesame oil over all. When the second side of the pork is browned, remove the wok from the heat and slide the pork onto a plate. Serve immediately.

Excerpted from Serve the People by Jen Lin-Liu. Copyright © 2008 by Jen Lin-Liu. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopy, recording, or any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher.

Excerpt: 'The Last Days Of Old Beijing'

'The Last Days of Old Beijing'
The Last Days of Old Beijing
By Michael Meyer
Hardcover, 368 pages
Walker & Company
List Price: $25.99

From Chapter 1: Through the Front Gate

The Widow opens my door without knocking. A trail of Flying Horse–brand cigarette smoke enters behind her. An old cotton cap hides coarse, mortar-colored hair, brushed back from her brow to reveal a gold loop in each ear. She wears a fleece vest and forearm mufflers that match the vermilion and crimson wood beams of our courtyard home. When I picture my neighbor the Widow, I see these colors—dull whites and grays, lustrous yellows, imperial reds—and smell ashes and age. She is the shade and scent of our hutong [pronounced "who-TONG." Hutong is both the singular and plural romanization of the word], one of the lanes that lattice the heart of Beijing. The Widow has lived in this neighborhood for most of her eighty years. She can't imagine moving to the glassy high-rise landscape that encroaches from all sides. She often declares she will never leave. The Widow, like most hutong residents, will not have a choice.

"Little Plumblossom! Listen, you have to eat before class." I stand before her in a T-shirt and boxer shorts. The Widow scrapes the ends of a pair of chopsticks and places them in my hand. "Eat, Little Plumblossom!" She uses an endearment short for my Chinese name. I call her da niang, a term of respect for an elderly woman.

The Widow extends a steaming bowl of dumplings with two hands. Her eyes squint from the cigarette smoke curling up her sallow cheeks. She stuffed the dumplings with pork and chives, my favorite. "You know," she says, "it's too hard to cook for one person, so you have to eat these."

I always do what the Widow says. Although seven of us inhabit the five rooms of this courtyard, everyone knows that we are living in her home, even if she doesn't own it. The Widow has tenure. In 1962, the municipal housing bureau assigned her to the south-facing room opposite mine. In sixty-five square feet, she raised two children and a granddaughter. Their photos, and one of her as a radiant young woman with high cheekbones and a pressed gray dress, fill a single frame that hangs on her wall. The room has an exposed cement floor, a bureau made from walnut, two metal folding chairs at a card table, and a twin bed. She keeps the color television tuned to Channel 11, the Beijing opera station. Crashing gongs and plaintive wails fill our courtyard from sunrise until after dark.

The Widow lights another Flying Horse. The robin's-egg-blue package is decorated with a drawing of a horse leaping skyward, away from a horizon of petrochemical plants and smokestacks. It is the cheapest brand sold on our hutong, and tastes it.

"You should wake up earlier," she scolds. "I already went to Heavenly Peach market." It is seven o'clock in the morning. Our neighborhood's compact blend of housing and shops means the hutong is always open for business, and business is always nearby. In the morning, residents crowd the open-air bazaar, where farmers from outside Beijing sell fresh meat and produce. "I put the pot on the flame for the dumplings, then left," she says. "When I got back from Heavenly Peach with the ingredients, the water was already boiling."

The Widow watches me drink the salty broth. I thank her. She cocks her head and says, "What?" She is going deaf. By way of good-bye, she grunts, "Uh!" before stepping over our courtyard's wooden threshold and turning left. The four courtyards in this former mansion are each shared by multiple tenants. Our rooms are tucked in the back corner, farthest from the entrance gate. The Widow shuffles over the corridor's uneven earth and flagstones, running both hands along the gray brick walls for support. The women's latrine is opposite our front gate on the hutong, narrow enough that she can cross in a few unassisted strides.

The men's bathroom is farther away, and so with the Widow gone and my neighbors still asleep, I undo the padlock on the rotted door of a closet-size annex and pour a plastic bottle filled with the previous night's piss down the drain. I grab a towel off the outdoor line, snap it free of dust, and stick my head under the cold-water tap, shampooing quickly and rinsing with a coffee mug filled with frigid water. I scrub my face and under my arms, saving the rest of my skin for the Big Power Bathhouse, a few lanes away.

It is a typical morning in a typical Beijing hutong. The only thing exceptional is the weather, which is neither sweltering nor frigid, and the air unpolluted. "Tiger Autumn" arrives between summer and fall, bringing bracing mornings and warm afternoons. When I reach up to put the towel back on the line, the view shows a cloudless blue sky over serried rows of gray-tiled rooftops that crest between tufts of green leaves. A wind gust showers the courtyard in dust.

In its original state, a tea table and persimmon tree could have fit in the courtyard's open space. But over the decades, the cement slab has shrunk from an added bedroom, a kitchen sheltering a propane range, and clotheslines that web the air. When it rains, umbrellas have to be opened on the lane. In the courtyard, I must stoop to the Widow's height.

Inside my house, I tower over her. The north wall of my home is made of windows that stretch from waist high to the eaves, fifteen feet above. The door lock is a weak dead bolt, engaged only when I'm sleeping, because people wander in throughout the day. It is a very public life, lived in two rooms. Although the $100 monthly rent is a fraction of what a Beijing apartment with heat and plumbing costs, the Widow still thinks I'm wasting money. She lives in a single room, after all, as does the married couple in the adjoining room. They migrated from China's northeast to find work in the capital. We share a wall and a landlord, who divided his family's half of the courtyard into two spaces. Like the Widow, his mother was assigned to reside here. Unlike the Widow, he prefers living in a modern apartment and moved after his mother died, retaining the home's "usage rights," which are transferable and allow him to sell or rent his toehold in the neighborhood.

My living room holds a bookshelf, small couch, chair, tea table, and a desk. The floor's polished marble tiles are always cool and damp. The whitewashed straw-and-mud walls glow from sunlight or the uncovered bulb dangling from above. The other room's crimson-painted planks creak underfoot. It is furnished with a bureau, a platform bed that could sleep four adults, and a mineral-water heater. I spoon instant Nescafé coffee into a cup, switch off the computer, and turn on the water, avoiding a repeat of the morning when I blew the courtyard's fuses. That's why my unplugged refrigerator now stores underwear.

Because they did not own the home outright, the Widow and others put little of their meager salaries into its upkeep. Since the 1950s, that responsibility has fallen to the Municipal Bureau of Land Resources and Housing Administration. It holds the property rights of the majority of Beijing's vernacular architecture, the single-story courtyards that line the hutong. Decades of subsidized rents, budgetary shortfalls, overcrowding, and neglected maintenance have eroded the houses, built with perishable materials such as wood and earthen bricks. As the homes rot, they are condemned in lots by the municipal government and auctioned to developers who raze the neighborhood, erasing not only the homes and hutong, but also their unique pattern of life.

Hutong is derived from the Mongolian word for "water well," or "a path between tents," or from a Chinese word that described the narrow passageways that served as firebreaks in Kublai Khan's thirteenth-century capital. Marco Polo marveled that "the whole interior of the city is laid out in squares like a chessboard with such masterly precision that no description can do justice to it."

As the city grew, so did its number of lanes. Byways were cut to link parallel hutong, as some ran east-to-west for a mile without crossing. In 1949, a survey recorded more than seven thousand hutong. Shaded by rows of leaning locust trees, many were too narrow for vehicles to enter. The network of backstreets connected neighborhoods of walled courtyards and also formed an elongated public marketplace, where itinerant peddlers and performers worked door-to-door. In a period of the late 1990s, an average of six hundred lanes were destroyed each year. In 2005, the state-run media reported that only thirteen hundred hutong remained.

Given the vagaries of Beijing's urban-planning history, there is no consensus on the exact figure of extant lanes. Some tallies include only streets with hutong in their formal name, while others count all narrow streets and alleys, including the many added after the Communists expanded the capital after 1949. It is indisputable that beginning in 1990, Beijing's courtyard-lined hutong have systematically been razed under a municipal redevelopment plan. From its start until 2003, the government admits to evicting over five hundred thousand residents from the city center. Beijing's remaining traditional neighborhoods exist under the constant threat

of obliteration.

Settled over eight centuries ago, Dazhalan—Big Fence—is the city's most venerable community. The name dates to the fifteenth century, when wicker gates on either end of the area's hutong were clasped shut at night to deter thieves from preying upon the many shops that formed the capital's prosperous commercial district. After a succession of seventeenth-century imperial edicts banned hotels, restaurants, teahouses, and theaters—and, eventually, all ethnic Han Chinese—from inside the imperial confines, businesses migrated through Qianmen (Front Gate) to the other side of the city wall. Dazhalan became the capital's entertainment, artisan, and antique district. Beijing specialties such as roast duck, acrobatics, and opera flourished here. Some lanes filled with silversmiths, silk embroiderers, and calligraphers; others with stages, brothels, and opium dens.

Things are tamer today, though officials view the neighborhood as an eyesore whose decay belies efforts to beautify the capital before it hosts the 2008 Summer Olympics, whose winning bid's Chinese slogan promised "New Beijing, New Olympics." Located at Beijing's core, Dazhalan's land is valuable to developers and visible to tourists. The parliamentary Great Hall of the People and Tian'anmen Square border the neighborhood's north, while its eastern boundary is drawn by the road connecting the Front Gate's towers to the Temple of Heaven.

Dazhalan is both the name of a popular pedestrian-only lane, and the surrounding neighborhood. Like Beijing—"northern capital"—the area is known by its Chinese name in English. Dazhalan's 114 hutong hold nearly fifteen hundred businesses, seven temples, and three thousand homes. Most are single-story courtyards that have gradually rotted across the twentieth century. It is Beijing's—if not the world's—densest urban environment. Equal in size to Vatican City (population 557), Dazhalan's half square mile contains some 57,000 residents, including one foreigner.

On the day I moved to Dazhalan, the Widow fixed her brown eyes on mine and explained the courtyard's only rule: "Public is public; private is private!"

Once over the threshold and into the hutong, life becomes all public. On my stoop, a group of old women pin red armbands to their sleeves that say patrol in characters. "Little Plumblossom, have you eaten?" they ask in greeting. Officially, the women are volunteers on neighborhood watch. The Widow will not join them. "They just sit around and gossip all day," she says.

Grandmothers push prams filled with vegetables from Heavenly Peach market. The bells of black steel Flying Pigeon bicycles warn to make way. A five-year-old watches her pet chicken peck at the puddles on the lane's pockmarked asphalt. A caged mynah bird mimics the call of a vendor walking with an armful of morning newspapers. A man in a smock spreads a blanket on the ground and arranges dental bridges in neat rows upon it, bellowing, "Tooth repair!" Recycler Wang uses a cast-iron scale to weigh a satchel of empty mineral-water bottles. Their collector disagrees with the measurement and pesters him to step aside so she can adjust the sliding bar. They squint at the notch and agree he was right. He pays her and throws the burlap bag onto his flatbed truck. He exhales sharply when I ask, "How's business?" Recycler Wang fights over pennies all day.

On the lane, we are penned in by an unbroken row of buildings, without open space. Aside from painted gates, courtyard homes show only gray walls. The aesthetic is planned monotony, unlike the variety of facades seen in Europe's ancient capitals, which project their distinctiveness. "Just as our blessed God has arranged our own members so that the most beautiful are in positions most exposed to view and the more unpleasant are hidden," wrote the Italian Renaissance architect Palladio, "we too when building should place the most important and prestigious parts in full view and the less beautiful in locations concealed as far from our eyes as possible." A Beijing courtyard home, in contrast, turns its face inward, hiding its most attractive features behind gates and walls.

The run-down mansion where I live shows traces of its former owner's wealth. The heavy double-wooden doors retain coats of lacquer, though the painted couplet has been rubbed away. Unknown hands chipped off the guardian lions carved atop the twin rectangular stones anchoring the doorframe. Lotuses and clouds painted in bright primary colors fade on the lintel. Rusting hooks that once held halyards to raise red lanterns poke out from weeds growing in the furrows of the tiled roof.

Like all courtyards, the house is one story tall. Imperial Beijing had a low skyline that rippled outward from the heights of the Forbidden City. Using the city's former English name, the British attaché recorded that in 1865 Lord Stanley sneered, "Peking's a giant failure, isn't it? Not a two-storied house in the whole place, eh?" The disrespect was mutual. In the eighteenth century, the emperor Kangxi, when looking at drawings of European houses, remarked, "Undoubtedly this Europe must be a very small and pitiful country; since the inhabitants cannot find ground enough to spread out their towns, but are obliged to live up thus in the air."

According to the Widow, the best thing about living in a courtyard home is that it keeps one's feet on the ground, which is healthier than living in a high-rise apartment. The concept is called jie diqi in Chinese, "to be connected to the earth's energy." The Widow once demonstrated by gently tapping her foot on our gate's granite step, wooden threshold, and surrounding muddy lane. At every touch, she repeated connected.

Beijing is so flat and geometric that when people say how to go from place to place, they often substitute the cardinal directions for left and right, forward and back. Most of the city's hutong form a rigid grid, but Dazhalan's lanes were built outside the Front Gate, beyond the reach of imperial codes. Nowhere in Beijing exists such a variety of hutong, which include the city's shortest (ten yards) and narrowest (fifteen inches). Others bend and double back on themselves, then dead-end.

I live on Red Bayberry and Bamboo Slanted Street, a lane that runs eight hundred yards diagonally through the neighborhood, tracing the route of a former canal filled in by settlers. The hutong is wide enough for a single car to navigate, though doing so often requires moving parked bicycles to the gutterless edges.

Hutong names evoke a bygone era. Originally Red Bayberry and Bamboo was named after a matchmaker who arranged marriages on the lane. After the custom was deemed a relic of feudalism, municipal authorities swapped her name (yang) and profession (mei) for homophones that mean Red Bayberry (yangmei), then added bamboo (zhu). The name reflects the apothecaries who worked here, and the craftsmen who sold whistles carved from bamboo to attach to pigeon's pinion feathers. Red Bayberry and Bamboo is bordered by Glazed Tile Factory, a lane named for the kilns that once fired roof tiles for imperial palaces and temples. It connects to Coal Lane, which supplied fuel to the kilns, and Whisk Broom Lane, which made the tools to sweep up the ash.

The men's latrine is a few minutes' walk from my door, a route I have timed flat. My walk passes the vegetable seller arranging a pyramid of cabbages, the hairstylist massaging the temples of a customer, and the open doorway from which spills the clack of gamblers' mah-jongg tiles. Red Bayberry and Bamboo Slanted Street's architecture is a time line of Beijing's last century, a procession of red wooden gates, two-story beaux arts masonry, Soviet-inspired concrete storefronts, and patchy redbrick lean-tos. Separately, none of the fragile buildings are masterpieces. Together, they are the backdrop to a vanishing way of life.

Inside the public toilet, a placard warns no spitting, no smoking, no coarse language, no missing the hole. Four slits in the floor face one another, without dividers. A squatting man hacks up a wad of phlegm. Another, wearing pajamas, lights a cigarette. Into his cell phone, a guy shouts a common Beijing vulgarity: "Shabi!" He listens to the response and again barks, "Stupid cunt!" I fish a wad of tissue from my back pocket and squat over the hole. No one makes eye contact.

A child runs in, wearing the school-issued yellow baseball cap whose printed characters announce safety. The hat makes kids visible to cars. Hutong traffic is mostly bicycles and the occasional mule cart, but rules are rules. A backpack weighs the boy down, and he struggles to keep balance while lowering his pants. He crouches, looks up, rises, makes a small bow, and yells, "Good morning, Teacher Plumblossom!"

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Michael Meyer

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