Where is the drum tower
Here? There. Everywhere? Leaving the metro station I am firstly confused because where is everything I have known for a decade. The first things you see are construction sites and many holes in the ground. Each hole representing nothing else than a crime against just another of the few cultural sites in Beijing. These places, they do not fit into the Chinese pictures of a “new Beijing” or “modern China”. These places need to disappear. Standing there with my mouth open I got nearly overrun by all the tourists and young Chinese who still come to this area. Where is the drum tower? The thing is now there is not much except the drum tower but in my mind gulou was much more about everything that existed around the actual drum tower which is just another of the many “empty sites” in Beijing.
But maybe I am just one of these laowais who has this particular picture of China in her mind. It is like the great Edward Said has pointed out in his book about the emergence, production and reproduction of the “Orient” in Western culture, literature and politics. Maybe – in my mind – I am also freezing this romantic image of a different Beijing, a Beijing of small and narrow roads, low houses, siheyuans everywhere, people sitting around and chatting. A Beijing that makes me comfortable because it is something I, as a European, can connect to. It is similar although different. Since there are so many old towns in Europe, we feel in fact connected to the atmosphere of a city through the dusty and sometimes rotten architecture and not so much because of the impressive amount of new super malls, metro lines or new cars. We want to look at the “original” or the “unique” and then “feel” it. Wow, this is a tough one. You can still have it, maybe even around gulou and andingmen but it is really not about that anymore. It is a certain place that is allowed to be a little chaotic or less structured, less linear, which is of course obvious and sensible but still tempting. If anything could be “cool” about Beijing – and it is very hard to say that anything Chinese could be “cool” – , it is nevertheless the area around gulou and andingmen. Here and now.
Walking through emptiness
There is one thing I have always asked myself: why are hutongs usually empty? It seems that you walk through a labyrinth of walls and maybe you can assume some social life behind these walls. Maybe you can hear some laughter, discussion, shouting, crying, anything, most of the times you don’t hear much. Most of the noise is simply absorbed, it is like a small and different world in the big world of modern Beijing.
You walk or ride through the hutongs and at some point you simply remain in the place. You stop thinking and only if you actually meet a bunch of people – well, lucky you, you usually will be ignored. There are not many places in Beijing where it is so easy, so refreshing, so “normal” to be a foreigner. You can walk, take your picture and sometimes, but seldom, old people would start a chat with you. Usually, everybody leaves you alone. These walks, they give you a break of fast and furious Beijing. Breath.
Copyright by Nadine Godehardt