the dreaded chai

December 1st, 2009

Yes, I have been rather silent of late. I’ve been busy and distracted. I have large and growing piles of tests and essays to be marked. The piles of essays will continue to grow, and are even threatening to take over the office and start a whole new civilisation of their own. I will continue to be mostly rather silent as I take on these hordes of marauding essays and beat them back so that my colleagues and I can continue to use our office unmolested.

What inspires this brief break in the silence is the walk home from the supermarket this afternoon. After class I headed down to the nearest branch of Shouhang hoping to take advantage of the specials they have on. No luck. What I wanted was sold out. I guess I’ll have to try again Thursday or Friday morning closer to opening time. On the way home I decided to take a slight detour, walking up through the area just west of our complex and stopping by the newsagents for cellphone card and, perhaps, a copy of So Rock! if the latest edition was out yet. Again, no luck. Managed the cellphone card, but not the magazine. But a luckless shopping trip is not the point.

There’s a couple of things I’ve never understood about our neighbourhood. For starters, there’s a large patch of land just west of the western campus area, between the road and an apartment block, that has sat empty save a few shacks, undeveloped for years until just a few weeks ago. The large, steel framework of what looks like perhaps a warehouse, or I suspect more likely, a new market building has now sprouted there. Opposite this new construction site is an even larger patch of land that I suspect remains undeveloped by virtue of the high tension power line flung at low altitude above it. Just west of our complex, running from the back of that large patch of land that now boasts the framework of a new building north up to a lane that runs between Xidawang Lu and Wusheng Lu is a patchwork of apartment blocks of varying ages with one-storey houses that look to be the remnants of the villages that occupied this land up to 50-odd years ago. I don’t know for sure if they are the remnants of villages. In their now urban environment they look a lot like the few remaining rundown hutongs of the central city. And yet, not far to the north, south and east we have a myriad of new real estate developments, while to the west we have a vast sea of apartment blocks built over the last 60 years. Surely undeveloped land in this area should be in extremely high demand?

Like the central city’s hutongs, it’s a very lively community. Like the lane that runs along its northern border, this patchwork community houses a wide variety of businesses and even a couple of local government departments. There are, of course, a multitude of shops, mostly of the 小卖部/xiǎomàibù variety, selling drinks, snacks, junkfood, smokes, and whatever else. Restaurants of a similar variety, specialised in whatever the family’s home province or, perhaps, grandma specialises in. There is even industry of the extremely light variety, shops in which people make window frames or the steel grills to keep burglars out, or where people offer to tile floors. There’s even one karaoke joint, although I won’t, having never visited it, comment on its quality or reputation. At the northern end, at the intersection with the lane, is a covered market and a small branch of Jingkelong. The southern end can get a bit smelly, with its rubbish collection station leaking mysterious liquids onto the alley. Fortunately, the public toilet was rebuilt a few months before last year’s Olympics, removing another former source of unfortunate odours. Opposite the smells is a small concreted yard with various sporting facilities. A couple of basketball hoops, tabletennis tables, that kind of thing, all well used. As I said, it’s a lively community, and I may be wrong on this, or even only partly right, but the dwellers of the various apartment blocks and those of the one-storey houses seem to be equally integrated into the community, coexisting and mingling happily.

I guess I should wander through there more often, as I’m clearly coming late to the news. As I crossed the road and entered the alley on my detour home this afternoon, I saw posted on the buildings on either side of the entrance to the alley two A4 pieces of paper with the characters “拆迁办”. chāiqiānbàn. An office arranging for the demolition of buildings and the relocation of their residents? Uh oh. Indeed, big characters in ominous red reading:

tear down

And those characters sitting in circles only the 拆 can render so ugly.

It seems not everybody is happy to be seeing these characters. Many a wall had a blue 不 added to the 拆. Don’t tear this down. Some of the notices announcing the impending demolition had been angrily torn off the walls. But what can you do?

Back in August, 2007, a local market, just south of this afternoon’s threatened alley, grew itself a poster or two announcing that it would be demolished to make way for a hospital. After their apperance, these posters were quickly joined by a flurry of protest letters appealing to Beijing’s relevant laws and regulations on the placement of hospitals, the health of the community, and common sense. Two years and four months later, the market is still there and business is booming. Unfortunately, though, I did not see any similar letters this afternoon. Perhaps a difference in the socio-economic statuses of the residents of the endangered houses and the customers of the market is reflected in their relative levels of education, and therefore their responses to the threatening announcements? Just a thot, probably wrong.

Closer to my own unendangered door, I bumped into the husband of a colleague. He’s not often here, having his own job back home, but he manages to get over here a couple of times a year, at least, for a few weeks with his wife and daughter, and so has been familiar with this neighbourhood for a few years. I told him of the signs I’d seen and the impending doom of this community. He expressed his sorrow at the news, and we reminisced about nearby places that have disappeared over the years. Where the now threatened alley meets the road at its southern end, opposite which is the once threatened market, was an entirely different place a few short years ago. The road, as it ran east from Panjiayuan, suddenly took a broad curve around to the south cutting over land now occupied by the Panjiayuan Community Library, and passage further east was blocked. A sprawling, chaotic, largely dirt-floored, open-air market occupied what is now the once-threatened market, that small, concrete sport space and the short gap in between. The market has been cleaned up, paved, enclosed behind a wall and covered over, the roads have been straightened allowing the library space, the road pushed through to Xidawang Lu (although I have seen many a map claiming that road runs straight through the middle of the BeiGongDa campus all the way to the Fourth Ring Road. I assure you, it does not, and trying to take that road straight out to the Fourth Ring will not be a pleasant experience for the front end of your car.), leaving only the area north of that former sprawl of a market untouched.

But I have mixed feelings about what I saw this afternoon. On the one hand, I would not like to live in any of these old, rundown houses, and would not expect anybody to live in such a house unless it was either their only choice or their own choice. Call me soft, but I like modern amenities like central heating, a private bathroom, and an indoor toilet. I also like the relative security of living on the sixth floor. Not too many burglars are going to pull a Spiderman and climb all the way up to my windows (although perhaps I’m tempting Fate with that statement). Burglars seem to be the opportunist type who go for the lower hanging fruit. I can fully understand those who rail against the hutong preservationists – it’s alright for you, you don’t have to live here. And yet it’s people’s homes that are being destroyed and a vibrant community that will be scattered. What will happen to all those relationships built up over years of trading and playing with each other? How well will people adapt to their new surroundings? Will they settle in, or will they dream of the good old days when they lived in a place where everybody knew their name? How far will they have to move to find accomodation they can afford?

I would be the last one to stand in the way of development, but I do have to wonder about the people caught up in the middle of it all.

3 Responses to “the dreaded chai”

  1. Kellen Parker Says:

    This paints well a picture of the area. A good post.

    I had mixed feelings regarding Nanjing’s hutongs/shikumen/whatever when I encountered the dreaded 拆. In one case it was after a long conversation with a 钉子家 resident (with exceptional English I might add). Now I tend to know not what to think as it seems each town and district and sub-district have their own laws on compensation, and that they are changing rapidly enough that I wouldn’t really do well at keeping track anyway.

    Toilets are nice. I also like nostalgia. But I think I like toilets more than I like nostalgia.

  2. John Says:

    It seems that here in Wuxi they want to 拆 the whole place. The buildings on the north and east sides of the school grounds are daubed with 拆 and there was even a banner up exhorting people to 拆 in a civilised manner. And if it isn’t about to be 拆ed, it’s been 拆ed already. I don’t get misty-eyed about such places, although they do add some character to a city which seems to be determined to be bland.

    BTW, unless you consider your stockpile of essays to be a hoard of treasure, I think you mean “horde”.

  3. wangbo Says:

    Thanks, Kellen. I’m definitely agreed on the mixed feelings and the preference for toilets.

    Thanks, John. I knew there was something wrong with that hoard, that it should involve an e, but I just couldn’t put my finger on what else needed to be fixed. Fixed now.