The Lost Sounds of Old Beijing Beijing is tearing down many of its historic districts to make way for high-rise apartments and office towers. In the process, the sounds of the city's old neighborhoods are gradually falling silent.

The Lost Sounds of Old Beijing

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/5402696/5402726" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

JOHN YDSTIE, host:

In the run-up to the 2008 Olympics, China's capital is tearing down many of its historic districts to make way for high-rise apartments and offices.

In the process, the sounds of Beijing's old neighborhoods are gradually falling silent. Old Beijing was a city of unique sounds that marked time, advertised goods and services or just tickled the ear.

NPR's Anthony Kuhn takes us to hear some of the sonic artifacts of that disappearing way of life.

(Soundbite of whistles)

ANTHONY KUHN reporting:

This sound has a way of finding you at quiet times during the day. It floats into your home like some disembodied spirit. For anyone who's lived in Beijing's old neighborhood, its melancholy tone is hauntingly familiar.

We followed this sound to its source in a small alley near the Forbidden City. A retired chauffeur named Yang Lizhong raises pigeons here. He ties small whistles to their tail feathers and opens their coop.

The whistles are made of gourds or bamboo. The whistles and the pigeons are part of a pastime unique to leisurely Beijingers, somewhat like raising crickets or goldfish.

Yong explains that the whistles are made in pairs.

Mr. YANG LIZHONG (Old Beijing Resident): (Through translator) One strikes a high note, the other a low note. Together they produce a harmony like a group of musicians.

KUHN: The sounds' pitch constantly changes as the pigeons swoop high or low, near or far. For those used to hearing it, the sound seems to evoke mental landscapes, like the azure sky of a Beijing autumn over the yellow tiles and vermillion walls of the Forbidden City.

For Yang Lizhong, the sound conjures up images of the city in winter.

Mr. LIZHONG: (Through Translator) I think of Beijing after a winter snow. A warm sun appears in the sky and melts the snow on the roofs of the old houses. I see the melted snow dripping from the icicles on the eaves of the roofs. Drip, drip, drip.

KUHN: Sound carried a long way in old Beijing. The city used to be a maze of hutongs, or alleyways lined with one-story houses. At dawn and dusk, the sound of huge drums would reverberate out from a tower near the city's center. The sound brought order to the days of Emperors and Conquerors alike.

(Soundbite of drumming)

KUHN: At night, the time was marked by the deep sound of a 63-ton bronze bell hanging in its own tower next to the drum tower. Today, the bell and drums are sounded mostly for tourists.

Before the advent of supermarkets and convenience stores, merchants roamed the hutongs delivering goods and services to Beijingers' doorsteps. Each merchant had a distinctive noisemaker or hawker's cry to announce his arrival: a sort of sonic calling card.

Shu Ji(ph) remembers these. She's the daughter of Leousha(ph), an author renowned for his stories of life in the hutongs.

Ms. SHU JI (Daughter of Beijing Author Leousha): (Through translator) I remembered the roaming barbers that kept their things on a pole across their shoulders and used a noisemaker called a huantou. It went twang, twang.

(Soundbite of khwento)

KUHN: A khwento is a tweezers-like contraption that the barbers would tweak to make that twang. Khwento literally means change your hairstyle.

Ms. SHU JI: (Through translator) In those days, few Beijiners went to barbershops. When they heard the twang, twang of the khwento, men and boys would come and each customer would sit at one end of the pole. At the other end was a small stove with a basin of hot water. The barber would shave the customer's face and head, then wash them clean with the water.

KUHN: The khwento you just heard belongs to 70-year-old Zhang Zhenyuan. As a teenager, Jong followed his father through the alleys, fixing wooden barrels. He learned the cries of his trade and those of other hawkers. He also collected noisemakers. He now performs with them as a kind of folk art.

(Soundbite of noisemakers)

KUHN: Jong shows off two pairs of brass cups that fit inside each other. Merchants would use them to advertise a favorite summertime drink, sour plum juice. Jong also remembers the cry of the man who sold candied hawthorn berries on a stick.

(Soundbite of hawthorn berry hawker)

KUHN: Jong's thickset features perk up as he recalls the sounds of his youth.

Mr. ZHANG ZHENYUAN (Old Beijing Resident): (Foreign language spoken)

KUHN: We hawkers feel very nostalgic for the old days when we were young, he says. In those days, people were very honest. People didn't steal or rob. When I was little we never locked our front doors.

The hawkers' cries can still be heard in Beijing's remaining alleyways, but they're not as ornate as old Jong's. For example, there are the guys who fluff up your old cotton quilts.

(Soundbite of quilt fluffer)

KUHN: There are men who clean the grease off your kitchen fan.

(Soundbite of grease cleaners)

KUHN: And there are the knife and scissor sharpeners.

(Soundbite of knife and scissor sharpeners)

KUHN Forty-eight-year-old Liu Bau(ph) has been sharpening knives and scissors for more than two decades. His noisemaker consists of several overlapping metal plates strung together. Every day he walks about 30 miles through the hutongs and sharpens a dozen knives and scissors, charging less than a dollar for each.

(Soundbite of knife or scissor sharpening)

KUHN: Many older people in the village Liu comes from sharpen knives, but younger people there are not interested in continuing the tradition. Liu is not sentimental about the decline of his profession.

Mr. LIU BAU (Knife and Scissor Sharpener, Old Beijing): (Foreign language spoken)

KUHN: I have two young boys, he says. I hope whatever they do, they don't end up sharpening knives.

Shu Ji, the author's daughter, grew up in a one-story home in a hutong. Now she lives on the 18th floor of an apartment building. She remembers the knife sharpeners.

Ms. JI: (Through translator) He'd make songs with his noisemaker. Clang, clang, clang. As he made his way down the hutong. Because the song carried pretty far, it gave you plenty of time to bring out your knives and scissors. Now he still makes his noise and cries his cry, but by the time I get down from the 18th floor, he's long gone.

KUHN: The hutongs as an urban habitat may eventually cease to exist. Many younger Beijing residents have grown up in apartments and don't know the sounds of the hutongs, but to those who grew up hearing them, those sounds will echo in their minds for as long as they live.

Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Beijing.

YDSTIE: You can hear a street hawker's cry and see one of those pigeon tail whistles at npr.org.

(Soundbite of drum)

Copyright © 2006 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.