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[803] Memories of Beijing Southside 城南舊事 – Lin Haiyin 林海音


This volume of five sequential stories is autobiographical of Lin’s childhood from age 6 to 13. The novella captures life in Beijing through the eyes of Yingzi, who lives with her family in a shiheyuan (a Chinese quadrangle in which four houses command a central courtyard) in the southern part of Beijing in 1930s. They are middle class people living among the poor. It’s 1930s but etiquette and social practices still resonate the imperial times. The stories testify the growth of this rambunctious girl into a keen observer of the social family turmoils she is not aware of at an earlier age.

Her life revolves around her family house and the rabbit warren of alleys (hutongs) that strew the neighborhood. She braves the neighborhood with a curious mind, exposing herself to the sights and sounds. The people really flesh out through the 7-year-old’s keen observation and interactions. There’s the young mad woman who yearns for her daughter, whom her family gave away because the bastard child is a disgrace to the family. Her best friend is an adopted girl whose abusive parents primes her to be a sing-song girl. Yingzi then befriends a thief who is hiding his loot behind her house. Then she plays the match-maker for a young concubine from next door who takes refuge in her parents’ house. Her nanny’s son dies in the distant village. her father, who has always been strict and loving, and most of all, interminable, becomes sick and dies as she graduates from elementary school. But her father’s death really marks her graduation from a childhood full of joy and innocent escapades. She matures to become cognizant of the turmoil and demands of life, and shoulder responsibility.

The world Lin portrays (through the eyes of Yingzi) is at the crossroad of old and modernity. She is especially keen on the role of women—how they thrive silently in a male-dominant, feudal society. Few women went to school. They all end up working away from home or being a concubine. There’s the nostalgia of the grown up who once upon a time was a child. The sense of loss and bewilderment that arouses the child’s awareness of the uncertainties of human relationships, even of life itself, and which jumpstarts her adolescence, is handled with great sensitivity and lyricism.

238 pp. Chinese University Press Hong Kong. Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

Never Forget Tiananmen

Students rest in the litter of Tiananmen Square, Beijing, May 28, 1989, as their strike for government reform enters its third week. (AP Photo/Widener)

Students rest in the litter of Tiananmen Square, Beijing, May 28, 1989, as their strike for government reform enters its third week. (AP Photo/Widener)

June 4, 1989, remains a day of infamy for the Chinese (Communist) government. The Chinese army opened fire that day on Chinese citizens (workers, residents, and students) just outside of Tiananmen Square for demanding “democracy” (which remained an inchoate concept for the Tiananmen protesters). The events that took place on June 4 were for a long time shrouded in mystery, with Chinese and Western media vying for representational authority, but the truth has slowly surfaced. It is a day that set in motion a collective emigration of political dissidents, intense long-distance criticisms of the Chinese Communist Party, and new modes of writing in the Chinese diaspora.

The writer Paul French has described the protests and their denouement as “the most pivotal moment in modern China’s history”. Both Louisa Lim and Rowena Xiaoqing He justify this claim in their fascinating new books exploring the realities and legacies of these events on their 25th anniversary. In 1989, for the first time in the history of the People’s Republic of China, “people power” threatened to defeat the iron fist of the state. On May 20, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) imposed martial law and truckloads of soldiers began traveling into Beijing, with orders to secure Tiananmen Square. Only a few miles into their mission, however, throngs of civilians hemmed in the lorries, explaining why they were protesting and asking the army to “go home”; a few days later, the troops retreated. “You might have said that our army was big and powerful,” one of the soldiers later told Louisa Lim, “but at that time… we felt very useless.” In order to reassert authority over the capital in early June, the government needed to mobilize armed divisions personally loyal to the country’s veteran leader, Deng Xiaoping.

The People’s Republic of Amnesia by Louisa Lim, a veteran commentator on China, is particularly strong on the horror of 1989 and its aftermath. Her book features an extraordinary array of witnesses: a soldier-turned-artist who observed first hand the planning and implementation of the military crackdown; the parents of victims of the violence; two of the “most wanted” student leaders; a high-ranking CCP official purged for his liberal stance. The book also explores the ways the violence has been so successfully deleted from public consciousness, and the social and political costs of this amnesia.

Tiananmen Exiles by Rowena Xiaoqing He is a portrait of three exiled student leaders (Yi Danxuan, Shen Tong and Wang Dan). Told through interviews, the book is more meditative and more academic than Lim’s book, but similarly illuminating about the psychology of the protest. He’s interlocutors make acute observations on the curious connections between the Communist establishment that educated them, and their rebellion.

Antiques Flea Market

If there is one reason to brave the cold (11F/-9C today) on the streets of Beijing, Panjiayuan Antiques Market is it. Trading mostly in antiques, handicrafts, ornaments, and other collectibles by people representing minorities of China (Hui, Man, Miao, Dong, Uigur, Mongolian, Korean, and other ethnic groups), this bazaar is just a quick cab ride from my friend’s apartment in Chaoyang. Although it is known as the quaintly classical market of antiques and handicrafts, Panjiayuan does have a sizable book section with scores of stalls. Books, in piles and stacks that line the tarps sitting on the ground, assume no organization and order. You have to go through everything and try your luck. Books are priced as marked. The ones that aren’t marked, usually older with frayed spines, would be sold by weight. 5 to 10 RMB per 5 kilograms (11 lbs).

The laobans (owners) are very friendly and greet customers with smile. You can browse and read for as long as you wish, even if the browsing doesn’t amount to a purchase. With my cashmere scarf, down-feather parka and gloves, I’m geared for a thorough rummaging of the selection. A nearby tea stand also comes in handy for hot drinks. Since half the fun is browsing and that most of the books are in (simplified) Chinese, I didn’t attest high hope for finding anything to my extreme liking. Just when I thought there was nothing that piques me, I find a copy, the original hardcover, exactly the same edition as the one I checked out from the library on campus when I was an undergraduate, of Simple and Direct by Jacques Barzun. This is a classic text/guide to writing. His discussions of diction, syntax, tone, meaning, composition, and revision guide the reader through the technique of making the written word clear and agreeable to read. Out of all the places, I would never thought to have find this book on the streets of the Chinese capital. The price is unbelievably cheap: 10 RMB (USD1.50). Consider that you can buy 11 lbs of the other Chinese paperbacks for the same price, Barzun’s book is pricey.

The other find is more reasonable: Selected Stories of Lu Hsun (鲁迅) translated by Yang Hsien-yi and Gladys Yang. He is one of the major Chinese writers of the 20th century. Considered by many to be the founder of modern Chinese literature, he wrote in the vernacular as well as classical Chinese. Lu Xun was a short story writer, editor, translator, critic, essayist and poet. He wrote in a clear lucid style which was to influence many generations, in stories, prose poems and essays. Lu Xun’s translations were important in a time when Western literature were seldom read, and his literary criticisms remain acute and persuasively argued. 12 RMB (USD1.75).

Aside from The Likeness, which I am over 3/4 of the way, I started reading Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities. This line can never come to me at a better time: “Arriving at each new city, the traveler finds again a past of his that he did not know he had: the foreignness of what you no longer are or no longer possess lies in wait for you in foreign, unpossessed places.”

Secret Meeting

I woke up to a draft seeping in through the tiny gap of the sliding door that communicates with the balcony. Cold air aloft but sunny. I’ve started off the day, coldest one since I arrived, temperature dipping down to the teens, with home-made pork porridge thanks to my friend’s housemaid. Then I’m on my Mongo-coffee-want routine in order finish waking up! Digressing from The Bookworm Beijing this morning, I had coffee at a different joint, one that has more of a local flavor and is a shorter of walk from my friend’s apartment. No sooner had I walked in than I was startled by a conversation that I would never imagine hearing right here in Beijing, at least not in the public. Liu Xiaobo—the dissident writer who was recently awarded Nobel Prize for Peace.

I have been all ears to a possible allusion of the democracy activist, who is locked in jail on an 11-year sentence for spurious subversion charges. The Chinese government has remained adamant in its stance, despite international pressure on its releasing Liu for the award ceremony in Norway. The bunch that gathered at coffee here obviously adopted a polarized view. They thought Mr. Liu and the Chinese should be proud. Beijing should be ashamed, reiterating that the choice “desecrates” the prize, and thus compounding that shame. While the country has lifted millions from poverty and hosted events (Olympics and World Expo) that cemented its position as a superpower, China’s leaders cannot continue to repress their people by constant bullying. Yesterday I was too hopeful, or rather, naive, to even look for “reactionary” and banned literature at the bookstore. No double reading materials and publications are closely monitored and censored by the state. But I did find translations of the biographies of President Obama, Hilary Clinton and Bill Clinton—bright and shiny, placed on the side of their originals in English. (At least the Chinese don’t see the ugly side of American politics.)

Meanwhile, The Likeness continues to thrill and dazzle. The second day of reading has put me just over halfway through the book. It turns out that the murder victim had appropriated several fake identities to dodge her purveyor. The undercover agent who assumed her identity is reeled in danger. Speaking of Tana French, her first book, In the Woods is available in Chinese (but traditional Chinese?) as I saw it at the bookstore. Guess her fame has gone global.

Above Forbidden City

That Starbucks have gone global has been a fact. In Asia coffee connoisseur-wanna-bes revere Starbucks as if it’s the way to approach espresso artistry. Go figure. However ubiquitous and infiltrated Starbucks is, I’m not prepared to see the sight of Starbucks housed in a Chinese Qing-style building. It’s hideous, almost blasphemous. I spotted Starbucks within the rabbit warrens of the Forbidden City two years ago, but owing to the sober nature of a state heritage, at least it adopts a rather low-key profile. I was looking for a place to sit and read over coffee (who would have guessed?). I settled at a tea house instead. Eighty pages into The Likeness I’m convinced that Tana French has firmly established her as an important voice is suspense fiction and thriller. An identity thief had been murdered. What’s so surreal about this is the stolen identity itself was fabricated for an undercover agent five years ago. Now the agent herself, Cassie Maddox, would walk straight back into this victim’s life and pick up where she left off—because their physical appearance is almost identical.

Some people are little Chernobyls, shimmering with silent, spreading poison: get anywhere near them and every breath you take will wreck you from the inside out. Some cases—ask any cop—are malignant and incurable, devouring everything they touch. [1:9]

How about that? It’s almost surreal that I’m reading this mystery amidst the chill and silence of Beijing in early morning, before the streets come alive with commute hustle. Two pots of iron goddess tea later, hands a tad warmer thanks to the tea and emerging penumbra of sun, I assembled my outfit, which consists of a cashmere scarf, soft-leather gloves, and down-feather parka, and began the climb to Jingshan Park, once an imperial garden during Yuan, Ming, and Qing dynasties, which overlooks the Forbidden City.

Were it not for the bitter cold, the benches up at Jingshan Park are not a bad reading spot.

The Bookworm Beijing

Although Beijing is a far cry from a caffeine haven like Paris and Rome, the Chaoyang District of the city, where expats live and hang out, is home to coffee shops of character and charm, not to mention quality espresso. I literally found out about The Bookworm in Sanlitun just hours before my departing flight from Beijing during my last visit in 2008. I had made this place my priority to visit when I return to the capital. After dropping off my bags at my friend’s house, we came here for coffee and a more up-close and personal experience in this Bohemian venue with glass ceiling, book-lined walls and a bar. The book collection in the picture is actually a lending library that patrons can access for a membership fee. No matter what type of bookworm you are, there are plenty of choice specimens to satisfy all partialities. We spent a couple hours here catching up, “brushing off my dust from travel” (as my old Chinese chum said) over coffee and pinot noir–and overcoming my jetlag, before heading off to dinner.

The Bookworm
Building 4, Nan Sanlitun Road
Chaoyang District

Beijing Snapshots

Badaling Great Wall

Click here for the full glory of Beijing, the Palace Museum, Summer Palace and the Great Wall.

Beijing 6: Drum Tower (Gulou)

Leaving the Summer Palace I took another bus to escape from the hordes that rampage through major attractions around the city. Beijing buses are fairly efficient (more so than I have thought). Fare is just Y1. A lady who sits in the middle of the compartment sells ticket and alarms passengers of the upcoming stop. With her kindly assistance i made my way to the Drum Tower, which marked the center of the old Mongol capital Dadu. First built in 1272, it went up in flames and was rebuilt in 1420, since then it has been repeatedly destroyed and rebuilt. I staggered up the incredibly steep steps for wide-ranging views over Beijing’s rooftops.

During the Ming period drumming was used to tell time of the day. Down the slippery steps of the tower is one of Beijing’s oldest district from which hutongs (alleys) fend off to laobaising (common people) homes. Efforts to renovate the area of authenticity unfortunately thrive for the upcoming Olympics. But still this is where you can experience the real Beijing and witness their daily happenings.

Beijing 5: Summer Palace (Yiheyuan)

My ticket to the Summer Palace deceptively says low season admission. No sooner had I got off the bus did I meet up with bus-loads of domestic tourists donning bright colorful caps lining up to enter another principle attraction of the capital city. Once a playground for the imperial court eluding the insufferable summer swelter of the Forbidden City, the huge regal encampment of the Summer Palace grounds–its temples, gardens, courtyards, pavilions, lakes and corridors–all teem with marauding tour groups on this fine sunny day.

The huge Kunming Lake occupies up three quarters the area of the Summer palace. The Long Corridor, which overlooks the north shore of the lake, is the perfect spot to enjoy the scenery of the lake. It has a view of the 17-arch bridge that spans to an island. The interior of this corridor is trimmed with paintings, while the slope crest of Longevity Hall behind are decorated with many temples. Those who hike up the steps to Fragrance Pavilion will be rewarded the full breath-taking view of the entire palace complex. If the Great Wall bespeaks Chinese pride and Tiananmen Square solemnity, Summer Palace definitely represents an outlandishly beauty and grace.

Beijing 4: Great Wall at Badaling

“He who has not climbed the Great Wall is not a true man.” -Mao Zedong

The bus slowly whisked away from the busy, jam-packed Beijing streets to one of China’s most famous monuments, an obligatory sight for visitors–the Great Wall at Badaling. This is probably the most photogrpahed fragment of the wall and is the Great Wall’s most high-profile, with 13 segments stretching to the north and 7 to the south, like giant white ribbon writhing over endless terrains of mountains.

Standard history emphasizes the unity of the Wall. The original wall, which lays in ruins inland to the west, was begun over 2000 years ago during the Qin Dynasty (221-207 BC), when China was unified under Emperor Qin Shihuang. Separate walls, constructed by independent kingdoms to keep out marauding nomads, were linked together. So the wall that I see here in Badaling dated more recent than Qin. While the Wall never really did perform its function as an impenetrable line of defence, it worked well as a kind of elevated highway, transporting people and equipment across mountainous terrain.

I stand on the top beacon tower to the south (more steep than the popular north stretch), taking in the magnificent view of the white dragon that meanders the hills. It looks so invincible, disappearing in the distant hazy blue sky. Although popular sections like the Badaling Great Wall have been restored and dolled up for tourist consumption, the steeper south side is still quiet. I can’t help thinking of the lives and tremendous effort–the hurling of the bricks, the mounting, the stacking, and paving over the roller-coaster like slopes–taken to build this monument as I negotiate (sometimes not without difficulty) the steps. The wall is flawlessly clad in bricks and stoutly undulating over hills into the distance. Down at the base and at a few stretches arrive raucous hawkers that are sometimes difficult to fend off. But they are friendly and just trying to make a living out of the tawdry souvenirs.

I follow the restored sections, which quickly turn uphill and become very arduous that at times I need both hands free to climb up the slope. The crowd has drastically thinned out here as most people don’t make this far to the difficult sections. After crawling for another mile or so the wall nobly disintegrates into ruins. These are the more authentic fragments that are closed to avoid the danger of the cliff ahead. Never have I felt so fierecely and strongly about my Chinese root until I set my feet on the wall. If there is anything I’ll agree with Mao, this would be it–climbing the wall and be a true man!