Our gusto for Beijing began with our first walk of many down Wangfujing Dajie, the city’s prestigious pedestrian shopping street. While we were swept into the explosion of neon and glitz, we knew these young women with fashionably scant outfits, men in expensive business suits, and families carrying loads of purchase were not true representatives of typical Chinese living standards.
Midway down the street we noticed an exceptionally lengthy line-up and wondered what the attraction might be. To our surprise, it was a McDonald’s, complete with a clowning Ronald entertaining the crowd. Inside the mega-proportioned eating area, people were seated elbow-to-elbow munching Big Macs, while others patiently inched forward waiting to get in. Along the side of the building was an equally busy take-out window. As McDonald’s applies their American pricing worldwide, the cheap meal deals we associated with the outlets in North America were expensive fare in the Chinese economy.
As for ourselves, it was the swirls of tantalizing aromas coming from a side street that lassoed us off of Wangfujing every time we passed by. Once pulled into the sardine-can alleyway, there was no turning back. We were propelled by like-minded people into a square lined with kiosks. Vendors were furiously serving up noodles from steam-billowing vats, spicy meat from sizzling grills, and numerous other delectable combinations.
Once, on our quest for Snack Street tidbits, a friendly thirtyish Chinese man put his arm around Rick and said, “Watch stealing. Put day pack to front.” Rick thanked him and they exchanged a few more pleasantries. We lined up and made a purchase of two heaping orders of skewered beef. While I held the plates, Rick reached into his pocket to figure out the Canadian equivalent of the yuan we had just parted with. His precious calculator was gone! Missing! Vanished! The chummy fellow who had warned Rick about theft was indubitably the culprit. It was as if he had lost his best friend. I had a hard time keeping a straight face as he stewed and continued to do the conversion from yuan to dollars in longhand.
The longhand calculations continued for every purchase. I began to soften about never revealing the one I was hoarding in my backpack, but figured what’s the rush? Tomorrow, or the day after, or maybe next week. I finally did unveil it when he started looking in earnest for a replacement. I also had to admit keeping a running calculation of our expenses was rather interesting.
Physically near but seemingly a world away from the flamboyant Wangfujing Dajie, we roamed the hutongs. The translation for hutong is “narrow alley,” expanded to mean “traditional neighbourhood” for foreign visitors. Most date back to the Yuan, Ming, and Qing dynasties, which (all combined) spanned the years from 1279 to 1911.
The alleys, some only the width of two people, led to siheyuans (courtyards with a dwelling on each of their four sides). Influenced by feng shui, most of the doors face to the inside of the rigid quadrangular layout. The courtyards are arranged in concentric circles around the Imperial Palace (the Forbidden City). The aristocrats once lived in the hutongs closest to the Emperor on the east and west, and the common people—such as merchants, labourers, and artisans—lived further from the Palace to the north and south. Of course, under Chairman Mao’s class-levelling, all the hutongs were filled with loyal communist cadres.
Today, ordinary citizens fill the approximately 1,000 remaining hutongs—reduced from the 3,600 that existed at the beginning of the century. They have their own culture, and some families have resided here for generations. The hutongs furthest away from the Forbidden City were the most memorable; the smaller, poorer mud-and-timber dwellings buzzed with everyday activity. Vendors sold traditional foods from carts and small stalls. I was drawn like a magnet to the skewers of baked tart crab apples doused in sugar. Jovial old men sat around crate tables furiously clacking mah-jong tiles. Many still wore Mao suits (four-pocketed grey tunics buttoning up the front to a small collar, with matching pants). An elderly lady with tiny bound feet stood near us, a testimony to the ancient custom, which was officially banned in 1911.
Our ni hao (hello, pronounced nee-how) was always met with a smiling response. Some people called out “Meiguo? (United States?)” Our Mandarin lessons paid off as we replied “Jianada (Canada).”
One day, a half-dozen children ranging in age from about four to eight ran up and handed us some kind of plant branches. Our gestures, showing we did not know what to do with them, brought on a giggly demonstration. Pulling the little green balls off the branches, they first peeled them before popping them in their mouths. It was then our turn to sample the tasty nut-like treats; not knowing to this day what they were. None of the children seemed to understand a word of English. Several women soon surrounded us also. We attempted to converse in Mandarin, and the odd time were rewarded with a nod and the women repeating a word we said. We never once felt unsafe or threatened in our extensive wanderings through the hutongs.
Even though we knew China is the most populated country in the world with 1.3 billion people (the 2007 estimate), it still did not prepare us for the mass of humanity everywhere; and yet less than half of this gigantic population lives in urban areas. Even with the one-child-per-family rule, official statistics from 2004 indicate that with a 12 percent birth rate (approximately) and 6 percent death rate, the national growth rate is almost 6 percent.
Often we would just come to a complete stop, astounded by the hum of voices and people scurrying in all directions, the dizzying traffic, and the hundreds of bikes. Perhaps the impact was even more pronounced for us, being from sparsely populated Canada, our population being only 33 million spread out over the second-largest landmass in the world.
Our next venture took us to Tiananmen Square…..