Sunday, 14 December 2014

The Private Tour of Qianmen: the new old Beijing

Qianmen is a bustling historic district in central Beijing, a stone's throw from Tiananmen Square. It's many shops and restaurants make it a popular tourist destination but also a rather shallow one, as it lacks obvious attractions. It's special hook is that it comes over as 'Old Beijing' though paradoxically, much of the neighbourhood, though far from all, was given a heavy makeover for The Olympics and has been thoroughly modernised. The contradictory result is that it can, on first appearance, look like a theme park and then, if you turn some corners, look like a slum.

My guide Mark Hu is a genuine Beijinger who grew up very close to Qianmen. As well as being a qualified guide he is also a post-graduate linguistics student specialised in English. This made him a very suitable private tour guide. As far as I can see, there are relatively few public guided tours in Beijing of the sort familiar to people in Europe by which I mean a guide (or company) advertises that there will be a tour of a certain area at a set time, people gather there for the tour, take it then go their separate ways. Things work more according to groups assembled by travel agents which take in all the significant attractions in an area (i.e. tourist traps) and give you at least a full day of being led around in a crowd by a person with a stick, jumping in and out of a coach, eating together and having a proper group experience. It's either that or you hire a private guide or else simply do it yourself. I've done the group tour before, the DIY trip too, so it was now time to see how it is to have a more intimate tour experience with a guide. We headed into one of the most narrow hutongs (traditional style alleyways) in Beijing where I heard about its former life as a financial centre.

We paused in front of a historic cinema which, I learnt, was the cinema that screened the very first Chinese movie. Film posters from another era quietly faded in the pale Winter sun. Detached from the urgent bustle of the 10 kuai shops (pound stores / 1 euro shops) on street level, these grandparents' heartthrobs hovered over the scene like guardian angels. The new Qianmen would prove somewhat unfamiliar to them; even Mark said the place had been completely transformed from how he remembered it pre-Olympics. Back then it had been a place that local people used and few people from elsewhere visited. Nowadays, it is a major shopping destination. He also said that the majority of the shop people were not locals anymore, new people from out of Beijing had recently moved in to make quick money. As we were in search of the real Old Beijing, we kept on walking, heading over to the Dashilar area where there were more traces of it to be found.  

These rabbit statues that we stopped to look at were, I learnt, part of a specifically Beijing mythology. Inside the shop there were more Beijing curios stacked up high such as cicadas dressed as miniature monkeys. Mark told me that he had travelled quite a great deal, not only around China but also more widely in Asia and Europe and one of the things that travel had taught him was that he liked Beijing above anywhere else. He really is a partisan Beijing guide who wants to show visitors the best the city his to offer. It is easy to see the problems in the city such as the depressing frequency of lung blackening smog and the wilful destruction of historic quarters, but the attractive side of the city is less obvious. The genuine attractions are often mobbed with crowds and the quieter neighbourhoods like the one we were in, require interpretation to be made interesting. He saw it as his role to provide this.

A feature of the tour was the translation of street signs. Mark knew I am learning Chinese so made a point of explained some of the ways the history of the area could be read through the street names. Dashilar Alley was one such example, this common street sign another. As a result of this we sometimes stood in very ordinary locations looking at beaten up street signs taking the experience away from the conventional tourist one. 

We entered a small cluttered secondhand bookstore run by an old lady who lived in the hutong. The place can best be described as a communist era nostalgia trip. She had collected many of the more attractive books and objects from her past and stacked them up high. She knew where things were and there was an internal sort of order, but to the visitor, it was like seeing this lady's imagination externalised and turned into a living sculpture. I love these sorts of shops. She had some records and I am a collector of vinyl so I went through the slim pile and finally chose the red flexidisk that was on the record player when we entered. It's a collection of Chinese songs from the early 80s. Needless to say, it doesn't sound a bit like Duran Duran.

We spent a while talking with her and she picked up on Mark's idea of showing me the real Beijing and offered to take us around the private courtyard behind the shop. It was more or less how I imagined it would be, having seen a number of similar ones during Beijing Design Week, which takes place in the same area. What was different was this courtyard was not self-consciously arranged for visitors, and I was being shown it by people from the area not by newcomers who had 'discovered' it. This relationship of the guide to the place is quite interesting: when the guide is a part of the place they can talk about 'we' and when the guide is a visitor he or she will talk about 'they'. I was told that the wooden pram collecting debris was the type 'we' used to use, but nobody has a purpose for anymore.

There was a moment of confusion when, walking down the road, Mark asked me if I wanted to see a historic brothel. Everything up to now had been quite above board so I was unsure if he meant would I like him to take me into a brothel or what. Seeing as prostitution is rife in Beijing, I had seen some guys piling out of an upmarket foot massage club at 3AM the night before looking like it wasn't their feet which had just been taken care of, and I was aware that there was a part of Qianmen where it still existed, I was confused. I need not had been as Mark took me to what was a Qing dynasty brothel and was now a local communist party office that also plays a cultural role in the neighbourhood. He knocked on the door, entered and asked a man in the office about going upstairs to take a look at the former brothel. It seemed the right person to show us up there wasn't around so we had to admire it from afar. It struck me as an unusual thing to show me, seeing as it came out of the blue and the building we were looking at was old but rather nondescript. 

There were points of the tour where we did get more typical tour guide information. For example, here we stopped in front of this doorway and Mark explained the significance of the hexagonal beams. 

After an hour and half's walking in freezing conditions it was time to thaw. Tea houses can be expensive so, following Mark's suggestion, we headed to the Golden Arches. I generally use the place only for its toilet facilities but the coffee was acceptable and there was space to sit and warm up. 

Mark showed me a map of Beijing that he had designed. We started talking about how it could be read and used by foreign visitors. I had the impression the work was a real labour of love sustained by his passion for the city. Now that it was more or less complete he was faced with the problem of how to produce and share this map with actual people, which is to say, to be confronted with how the map is valued and used by others. He seemed a reluctant businessman who was trying to find a model that best suited him. I believe it all too often happens that it is the more profiteering sort of guides who become the most prominent and those who ask for less are valued less highly resulting in the public face of the city often being a rather off-putting commercial one. I hope for Beijing's sake, people like Mark get to be seen more.

I have to admit it: I'm a softy when it comes to Beijing's winter weather. At night it regularly drops to -8 and taking a tour in this sort of weather for me means sacrificing any attempts at style. Hell, it's not just when on a tour, it is stepping out anywhere in this fridge of a city. Mark, like a typical Beijinger, put me to shame and toughed it out. This tour of the new old Beijing was an interesting experience and a difficult one to pin down exactly. This was because it being a private tour it worked less according to a set itinerary and was instead more responsive to both me and to what, or who, we found as we made our way around Qianmen. This then made it feel a lot more like everyday life than standarised guided tours, which always have an echo of theatre to them working as they do with repetition on a regular stage of sorts. The tricky thing here then is that everyday life might be more recognisable from a somewhat theatrical position (and vice-versa) and here I was getting the everyday life of Qianmen in a form that was itself also quite everyday in presence. This is not in itself a problem for a guide to worry too much about but it is a question that can arise once you look at these tours with a performance eye.

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