After sharing the morning with students, hearing them read essays they've written that employ the flâneur gaze to illustrate their perspectives on Beijing, I head back outside. I'm still feeling a little worn out, but just can't wait one more day to wander some of the city's traditional hutong neighborhoods. Writing in Architectural Record, Michael Sorkin provides an insightful perspective on this model for urban life:
"Low, tight, and intimate, they are wonderful neighborhoods, tractable on foot, intimate, and diverse. Indeed, so singular, delightful, and increasingly rare are these places, that many are enjoying (or suffering) the fate of gentrification. On my recent visit, I went house shopping with a Chinese colleague who hoped to find a congenial situation in one of the better hutong, but the prices were at Manhattan levels. The market may be cruel, but it’s not stupid."Hutongs convey something about the permanently jumbled nature of life in these parts. Wandering their narrow mazes, I find that exteriors and interiors seem to blur. I'm never quite sure if I've stumbled into a family's personal courtyard. There are public restrooms to accomodate those homes that lack indoor plumbing, and everywhere I spot old men playing cards, women preparing dinner, kids playing in the streets. All sorts of businesses fill the gaps: piecework shops, convenience stores, clip joints.
The rain falls more heavily now and I decide to duck out from the downpour near the Drum Tower. There's a shop that sells Tsingtao for 20 Yuan, but across the courtyard I find a guy selling the same brand for a quarter of that cost. I walk my beer next to a line of idled rickshaws and crouch under a green arcade of trees. For the next hour or so I'll write notes and wait for the deluge to diminish. My legs are aching and my socks are wet, but I'm happy to relax for a while.