February 19th – Beijing touch down
Laetitia Gaudin has come to the airport to welcome me. She will be my hostess for the coming month. “Lets go fast. I have an opening in my gallery this afternoon. You must come. There will be a lot of people. Maybe some of them can be of help.”
The Airport Highway is bordered by modern hotels, affluent housing compounds and poor overcrowded villages. Now and then you get a quick look into their main streets full of people, bicycles, dogs and dirt. Their cast iron porches open up to the road that runs parallel to the Highway. One endless traffic jam. Over the entrance the name of the village, usually something heroic. Next to it big billboards – advertisment for some agricultural wonder or a newly planned housing estate. “Become a member of the new house-owning elite as fast as possible. You owe it to yourself, your wife and your children. Perpetual happines in modern China.” I still remember very well the crowds of youngsters with their little red books. In which country did I come.
After a short drive on a secondary road we come to a big restaurant. Here we turn left into a mud road. Walls on both sides with double iron doors. No clue of what is behind. After a number of entrances Laetitia blows the horn and the door opens. A concrete path with factorylike buildings on both sides. All studios for Chinese artists. Big fourwheel drives in front of most of them. My studio is on the end next to Laetitia’s Imagine Gallery.
The place is ca. 70 M2, 5 meters high. Concrete walls, a large amount of single glass facing north. A few iron radiators on the wall. It is freezing cold inside. On the entresol there is a sleeping room. Through the wooden floor I look into the bathroom beneath. Upstairs there is no central heating, only an electric fan. Plenty of blankets on the bed. The heating is on from 8.00 am until 11 and from 4.00 pm to 10, Laetita tells dryly. Unless the coal runns out, then there is none. When you want hot water in the bathroom then probably the heating will not work. For cooking there is a gasstove in the kitchen, but alway turn off the gas straight after use. The rubber connection is not air tight. There is also a fridge. For what I wonder.
The crowd at the opening is an interesting mix of chinese friends and artists and foreign expats. Everybody is huddled in warm coats, hats and gloves There is no heating in the gallery. After the show we all move to the restaurant. Everybody keeps his coat on. You handle your chopsticks either with your gloves on or with very cold fingers. It doesnot seem to make much difference. Loads of very good food, Chinese beer and wine. In the end the bill is split, 50 RMB (Eur. 5,--) each.
February 21st- Beigao
I have settled down in my sleeping room. It is the only place I can keep somewhat heated and rolled in several blankets it is okay. The rest of the studio is just too cold.
I have got a Beijing simcard for my celphone – my first collision with Chinese culture. The Dutch principle ‘take the cheapest’ doesnot work here. In that case you will get a number with many 4’s and nobody will ever call you back. Four is the unlucky number and should be avoided. Big discussions with Laetitia’s Chinese husband. He took me to town to get the thing fixed and didnot understand a bit of my inborn thriftiness. Even his respect was at stake when I should choose the wrong number. So we settled on a number with only 2 four’s. More then that he couldnot accept.
Our compound is a part of a small village named Beigao. Beigao still looks like a normal village, but for how long. The big housing estates are coming nearer and nearer. There is still a bit of agriculture around, mostly vegetables. These people are the poorest of all. Many villagers work elsewhere in Beijing. The others have either a shop or a restaurant. In the evening everybody strolls along main street – the only street with electric lighting. Proud parents show their babies, the girls their newest handbags and the boys their best tricks in playing biljart. On the side of the road – in the open air – there are many biljart tables. The air in Beijing is very dry. The somewhat unlevel tables just gives the players an extra handicap.
It is cold outside but nobody seems to bother. Anyway it will not be warmer inside the houses. The small coalstoves seem to be to dangerous to use them in the houses.. Food is prepared on every corner in very small quantities, so it is always fresh and hot. People take it with them to eat in front of their own house or they sit around the cookingstove and eat and chat together with the other customers.
February 23rd - Square of Heavenly Peace
The first trip on my own. I get a cab on the street andgo to the Square of Heavenly Peace – the big square – a ride of more than an hour. The square is very big indeed and very well guarded. Policemen and soldiers everywhere.
The atmosphere on the square is very friendly. Many families with kids try to launch small beautifull kites. But also Chinese daddies have problems to get the flowers and butterflies up in the air. Toysellers sell wind-up doggies and creeping soldiers, which they keep on elastic bands tied to their little chair or basket. They are not allowed to mix with their colleagues on the square.
Shop until you drop in the streets around. Deafening music pours out of the shops and salesboys and girls try to yell even louder to draw your attention. If you stop for a moment you are draged into the shop. Deeper into the neighbourhood it gets a bit more quiet. Beautifull silk shops and a famous pharmacy full of ancient Chinese wisdom. It is amazing! My restaurant is a good choice. The backyard even nicer. A house altar next to the toilets with plenty of hot water to wash your hands. Comforting warmth for a little moment. Further it is just as cold as all other places. The many waitresses huddle around a small stove outside in the yard.
February 24 th – castle in the cornfield
Coming back from the city yesterday, I saw some interesting buildings in a cornfield nearby. This mornig I have decide to go there with my bike. It is a cluster of unfinnished houses. No idea what this is about, but there is a very intriguing atmosphere hanging in these empty spaces. The downstair rooms are at least 5 meter high with high build in open fire places. Concrete steps lead you up to the next floor with different rooms and several balconies. The buildings are designed in a mixture of old European architectual styles. From the old Greeks until Neo-Classicisme. But it is all done in concrete and bricks. I am sure that I am not allowed to be here and that makes it even more spooky, and intriguing
It is clear that people have been living here. Men left their marks in the corners. I go around carefully and try to make some pictures. In one room there is a very dusty bed. In another there even is an old wooden office desk. A pair of worn out shoes is laying around. In the yard there are the rests of a small gardenplot with beanstalks waiting for next summer. This will certainly not be my last visit to these houses. I only explored a small part today.
February 25th – the little emperor
The workers on the buildingsite near to us have been working the whole night. Their sharp floodlight just touches my window. There has come some snow in the night, so it is a perfect day for another visit to the empty houses. I have named them Forbidden City, as nobody seems to know anything about them. Or they prefer not to tell.
Due to the pollution the early light is almost pink. Together with the snow just the right setting for my castle in the cornfield. It is only 6.30 am and I have no breakfast in the house. But I was right. In the big room downstairs a thin layer of snow has formed a beautifull carpet. I stay outside not to destroy it with my footprints. I take the first pictures through the hugh opening, probably ment for double veranda doors. Then I go upstairs. When I turn around he stands there. A little man – a guard, a squatter or perhaps both. He doesn’t utter a word, only smiles.
I take another staircase and then I am standing in what clearly is his house. The furniture – two very dirty beds, a wooden table and a filing cupboard. A strange piece of modern office equipment, that has gone astray. For cooking he makes a small fire straight onto the concrete floor. The little man smiles again and puts his green thermos on the table. I think he wants to offer me some hot water. I decide against it. Then he sits down and smokes his pipe. When I leave, he waves goodbye through the glassless window. I name him my emperor.
February 26th - house moving
Wu has phoned. He knows a building that could be interesting. He works for an international organisation, so he is free on saturdays. When we meet, he tells me that early this morning he went to check. The building has disappeared. It was taken down this week. But there is an interesting neighbourhood nearby. The hutong is just inside the 3rd ringroad almost next to the Hilton. It was build 20 years ago and was then on the edge of town.
Also here the houses are to be evicted and a new modern office complex is going to take their space. People are moving out and half the houses have already been destroyed. Furniture and building materials are transported on the back of motorbikes, donkey carts and carrier-tricycles. These tricycles are the backbone of Beijing transport. In daytime they are not allowed on the bigger streets in the centre, but at night they transport tons of goods into the city and garbage out of it. Garbage-recycling is an important mean of living for thousands of immigrants.
We enter the small streets and make some pictures. All empty houses still show traces of their inhabitants. The colourfull paper on the wall were the bed has been standing, the posters and a few bricks on which the wooden platform had rested. Even a pair of golden shoes is left in a corner. I find a piece of rollfilm – negatives from a happy family outing.
In one part of the hutong we are not welcome. The street–elder with the red armlet gets very agressive, so its better to leave. We ask other people where they will move too. A few can move in with relatives across the road, others have to move further from the centre – outside the fifth ringroad. For how long this time, they don’t know.
March 1st – stepping through ages
Today Nan Fei has offered to be my guide. We will visit an old quarter in the center of Beijing. One of Fei’s friends live in this neigbourhood. All these days I have been very curious about what I will meet. At Laetitia’s party a number of people offered to act as my guide. They promissed to take me to their neigbours or far away relatives, never to their private home or that of the near family.
Fei is about my age and an artist too. For her coming with me is a great adventure. So we take a taxi to an old hutong and start knocking on doors. A few people let us in. One courtyard proves to belong to a small middle class family. He is working with computers. All rooms have their only entrance from the yard – so you always have to go outside to come from the one to the other. For water there is one tap in the yard. The toilet is a public toilet out in the street. Their private room is clearly as modern as it goes in this very old house. The plastic daffodils make me feel a little bit at home. Although there is a small stove next to the aquarium, the young couple cooks outside. Another room is full of computers, clearly the working space of the husband. Also here no heating of any kind.
March 3rd – Doing Beijing on your own
With a mobile phone you can travel everywhere in Beijing by taxi. You just dial the number of your appointment and give your phone to the driver. Often he will have to phone several times, as people can only give crude directions. Only when he is almost on the spot, things get more easy. He can also agree to drop you off at a streetcorner or in front of a restaurant. Then you just wait a little and your host will come to fetch you. It makes you feel a bit like a parcel, but who cares.
I made already several trips into Beijing this way. The traffic is slow to the point of breakdown – one big traffic jam for most of the day. I went to the photolab to have my films developed. In this way I can keep an eye on how the project is evolving. Such a trip takes me a full day. When I wait for my films I try to get a meal from a nearby modern looking noodlebar, but I have no idea what to order. I point to some bowls at one of the tables, but only more questions are the result. There seem to be just as many choices for noodles as Starbucks has for coffee. In the end I get an enormous bowl with hot soup and thick noodles. Somebody has made the decissions for me. This will not be the last time that I will have that experience. This time the result is okay.
March 5th - village life
I donot do much cooking at home. For breakfast I take my bike to the village and buy a few breakfast rolls and a cup of sojamilk. At home I make myself tea and settle down outside in the first rays of sunlight to get warmed up. In the streets and parks downtown I see many people doing the same. Old people standing against a wall to gather a bit of sun and warmth. In most houses it is just as cold as in my studio.
In the village most restaurant holders and food sellers are immigrants from other parts of China. Having a restaurant means many hours of very hard work. Eating goes on till almost midnight. And at 7 am the first customers come for breakfast. Always the same girls in the shop. In between they do the washing up and the cleaning. Don’t look too close. Washing up is done outside with cold water only. In the nicer places the bowls and drinking glasses come in little sealed plastic bags. They are sterilized in a factory – they say. But you have to pay extra. None of us does. Some people bring their own chopsticks, but there are always dispossable ones on all tables. No idea how many trees are used in China everyday for chopsticks only.
When I am alone in the evening I usually go to one of the village restaurants where I am sure to meet other artist – foreigners and Chinese. That makes ordering much easier. Chinese people eat enormous amounts of food, so the tables are soon loaded with many plates and many different dishes. We all take a bowl of rice and with your chopsticks you pick the bits and pieces you like. Even with gloves on you get very handy very soon. Eating peanuts with chopsticks is very healthy. Picking them one for one is also benificial for you weight.
There are many artists in the village. Next to my compound there are several others. All with the same type of studios. Most Chinese take the equivalent of two or three. These people have done well in the booming business of Chinese art. In our compound it is a daily coming and going of Western gallery holders and curators. Big crates are carried in and out. Paintings rolled up and taken as handluggage in the plain.
March 7th - angel
Leatitia has got an assistant Hailey. She is American and her parents are teachers in one of the international schools of Beijing. Hailey grew up in Beijing and had left for the USA to go to college, but she had diffculties adapting to the life overthere. Living in an international compound is very relaxed and luxureous. Much more luxureous then an Amercan teacher could afford at home.
Healy tells me about a group of Chinese workes who have taken over a number of unfinnished houses in their compound. So we decide to go and have look at it. Chinese workers get paid only once a year. They work on a year contract. Their employer gives them a place to sleep –usually in tents on the building site. He feeds them and takes care of some recreation, often a kind of open-air cinema. The work goes on day and night. Then - shortly before Chinese New Year - the workers get their pay and leave for their families in the countryside. They will return after a month, with or without a new contract.
The building contractor in these houses went bankrupt just before Christmas and the work in the housing compound stopped. As the workers hadnot fulfilled their years contract the owner and the bank argued that they need not get paid – not a penny. So there they were - lost in the city – no work, no money for going home, not even for food at that moment. Of course they got very angry and moved into the half finnished houses. The tents had been taken away from them. Some of the villa’s were made into toilets – the shit houses.
It is still very cold and fortunately all the shit has frozen. It all looks like little heaps of left behind concrete, together with the unfinnished ceilings and rusty straircases. One villa is packed in large sheets of building plastic. As we enter it is warm and cosey inside. Flowerpots are standing everywhere and we hear laughter upstairs. In a kitchen a group of workers is eating, the women have cooked a good meal for them. They are the lucky ones. The house has been turned into a glasshouse for the plants, that will be standing along the roads in summer. They have got a job as gardener. After a lot of conversations over the mobile phone I get permission to take pictures.
A part of the compound had been finnished earlier. Those houses have been sold or leased to foreigners and wealthy Chinese people. The foreign people had felt great pitty for the workers and had helped where they could. At a christmasparty from the international school all the gardners got a small angel.
March 11th - billboards
Today Brian has lend me his driver. Many foreigners in Beijing have special drivers who they use regularly. These drivers have their own car and work for only a few people. They are much more used to take on special commissions. Besides they usually speak reasonable english. Today I will try to take pictures of those spectacular billboards for new housing estates. You can see the billboards from the highways but there you are not allowed to stop. So we then have to leave the highway and try to come as near to the place as possible. I would never be able to explain this to a normal taxi driver.
The last weeks I marked on the map where on the highway I have seen the most interesting billboards. I show the map to driver and we set off. Today it is sunday and the traffic is a bit more quiet. The driver gets very enthousiastic about the project and does his utmost to find the places I need. He tries very hard to come as near as possible. When I am out to take the picture he keeps a look out for less pleasant people. We are not always in the nicest neigbourhoods.
March 12th – Beijing’s First Courtyard Residences
Those billboards for new building projects are fantastic. The texts on them are unbelievable. “Armerican Valley Park. 50000square meters Blue Sky and Green Water”, “Villa Yosemite. A home for the World’s Elite”, “World View”, “Venice Villa”. “Beijing’s First Courtyard Residences” is the most curious of all. This place is very near to my studio and yesterday I tried to get inside to make some pictures. There is always a young guard in military-like uniform standing at the pole. As all guards in Beijing they wear white gloves, often with holes in the fingers. Every time an expensive car drives in or out they salute. The people inside take no notice. From the entrance the houses cannot be seen.
On the outer wall of the compound I saw many billboards, but I had spotted a special one - beautifully discolored in the sun – just a few meters inside the area. I asked permission to take a few steps inside the gate to make a picture. Big problem! I waited and asked one more time, and one more and one more. Until the guard picked up the phone and asked for instructions. I was told to wait. Another person would come. One more time I had to explain what I am doing and what I want. More telephone calls, but in the end it was okay. The man stood besides me all the time and when I was ready he took me outside the gate again. Without an invitation it proved impossible to get near the houses.
September 15th - back in China
Back In Beijing for another month. After that I will travel into the countryside. First for two weeks to Pingyao in Shaanxi province and then for two weeks to Zhoaxing in Guizhou. Pingyao is 10 hours by train west for Beijing, Zhoaxing is in the Sout East.
The first thing I notice along the highway is that the texts of the billboards have changed. No references to Western values any longer. The new building projects now all bear names related to the Chinese nature, like Lotus Pond or Cherry Blossom Estate. The skyline from Beijing has become even more impressive and more big highrises have come up along the highway.
In Beigao almost all the shops and restaurants have changed ownership. The first shop for double glazing has settled in the main street and some restaurants have them installed already. But the weather is nice and warm, even in the evenings. Life is much more pleasant now, then it was in winter and people seem to be more alive. They also seem to have become more affluent. I see lots of high heeled shoes and pretty handbags and the small children have toys and bikes to play with.
September 20th – Rui’s mother
Back at 798 – the art district. Also here many changes. More galleries, bigger spaces, more restaurants, more luxury. Everything ready for the Western art buyer. Only one small Chinese restaurant is left and even they have got an english menu. But at least still Chinese food for reasonable prices. At the other restaurants it is all pizza, pasta and potato salad. But very good coffee! In the furthest lane the factory workers still go with their foodtin to the canteen to fetch their lunch. Then they eat their food on the side of the street in the warm sunshine. They look just as curious at the visitors as the visitors look at them.
I visit some old friends and show them the work I made in February. When Huan Rui sees my pictures he almost yells. “When I look at your pictures I can see Beijing, hear Beijing and smell Beijing. You have to visit my mother”. He phones, organizes a cab and a companion and off we go to one of the old parts of town. Rui’s mother sits in the sun outside the heavy iron gate in her rolling chair. People stop for a chat. The old people hold together. There are a number of rooms coming out into the narrow yard. Rui’s mother lives together with a nephew and a niece. They take care of her, since she hardly can go anylonger. Her own room is full of paintings from her famous son – very interesting, but not for my purposes. In the back of the yard I find two more rooms next to the kitchen. An intriguing combination of doors, a red telephone, a clock and a family picture on the wall. Here the light is more dimmed and beautifull pink. It gives the space a wonderfull warm atmosphere. Beijing light can sometimes be very cruel, but not in this place.
September 21th – courage alone is not enough
Working with friendly people who offer themselves as a guide is not always easy. In Februay and March many appointments got cancelled on the last moment. Also all information I gathered this way was more or less filtered. It was my guide who choose the places. Chinese people prefer to show you the beauty of their country and culture. With a simple lettre of introduction I could venture on my own. A Chinese photographer helps me out and writes me a letter to show around. It takes a lot of courage, but I start wandering around in Beijng.
In the older parts in the centre it is not too difficult. But the larger compounds and the big modern highrises are completely shut off. Guards are standing outside and there is no way that I can enter. I need to know a name and a telephonenumber, so that the guards can call my host to check, whether I am welcome. But even when I am able to beat the system, not many people will be at home during the day and their housemaids wil certainly not co-operate.
September 23rd – Vinex Chinese style
Today I try a new middle class housing estates near my village. I can just drive there with my bike and choose my houses. There is not much to choose from. All doors look the same. If you could export the whole neigbourhood to a place near to many modern cities in other countries, you would not see the difference. In the street old men and women are walking small dogs or they are watching the children. There are cars and motorbikes, small shops and restaurants and even some outdoor terraces. Only on a few corners people are sitting and playing cards in their very loud way. Some old men silently play Chinese chess.
The same story inside. Usually only the old people are around. They moved in with their children and take care of the housework. They also look after their only grandchild. The parents are out to work. The old people are very anxious about my health and offer me to lay down and rest. With difficulty we figure out our ages. They are amazed.
In almost all houses I have a very interesting visit, but this is not what I have hoped for. Ikea-like furniture has penetrated en masse into the living rooms. Very bulky two and three-sitters in every room and loads of plastic toys everywhere. I meet Van Gogh’s Sunflowers over mantelpieces around imaginary open fires. Only the almost life-size wedding portraits make a difference. The global life-style has been happily embraced and every interior is like that of their neigbours. In my letter I ask to be allowed to take a picure, so I do. How to explain, when I don’t.
October 1st - The German House
“That might be an interesting neighbourhood for you” Rod (Dutch – 15 years in China, my new guide and helper) had told me and pointed at an area on the map not far from the Forbidden City. So I take a cab to the south corner of the Tiananmen Square. It is October 1st – the birthday of the People’s Republic of China. It is a holiday and the square is packed with people and children with little red flags. Two blocks further south live goes on as usual. I choose a sidestreet and start knocking on doors. I enter a big stone porche which opens up to a little alley. On the corner one of the merchants from the market is sleeping. He has been up very early this morning to bring his vegetables to the market. And it will be very late agian when he gets home. In the alley there are several entrances and staircases, each leading up to three floors around a small open space. One of them has a roof with a window in it and beautifull light streems down into the tiny courtyard. On the galleries there are bycicle’s, potted plants, clothes and cabbages, laid out to dry. The atmosphere feels strangely familiar to me, but I donot know why. I am invited into several of the small appartments and the feeling of recognition gets stronger the longer I am in the building. In one kitchen my heart leaps. The first look reminds me of the old houses in Vienna and Prague. I lived in an old house in Vienna for half a year and we went to Prague on several occasions. It could even be Amsterdam – some of the houses along the canals. There the light from the small courtyard between the front- and the backhouse could enter a kitchen in exactly the same way. How often have I admired that. But why and how this connection with Beijing?
Back on the street I have trouble to come home. The parade has ended and there are just too many people wanting to leave. People are fighting to get a place in one of the many busses. I have to walk a long time before I find a cab. From my studio I phone Rod and ask him whether he can explain what I have felt. “It may have been the house of a German art merchant”, he suggests. Around 1900 many of them lived and worked in that area. The whole alley has once been one big house and all staircases will have had such a wooden roof. The size of the rooms and the dimensions of the windows will still be the same. That makes for the quality of light, which I recognized. Can my feeling of ‘home’ be so strong and also be so sentive?
October 4th - Alex’s cliënts
All the promises to help me to get into a more affluent house have fallen through. I am welcome, but not my camera. So I had to find another way. In Beijing there are several monthly journals in English for tourists and expats. You can find them in almost every coffeeshop, that is frequented by non-chinese people. I find a series of articles on interior designers working in Beijing and contact all of them. Can they help me. Only Alex respondes. We had a long talk and he promisses to call back. And so he does. A very rich Chinese client is about to move into his new house and I am allowed to come and make pictures.
The house is in an extremely wealthy and heavily guarded compound on the North West of Beijing. Actually there are two houses. Two brothers – both doing “something with steel” – bought two houses next to each other and Alex took care of the interior design of both of them – from top to bottom. The oldest bothers’ house is in a slightly darker tone then the other. For the rest they are done in exactly the same style. Both brothers have two kids and even their rooms – including the toys – are copies of each other. The overall style is on first glance classic Italian, including many fake Italian paintings. But the textiles used are fabulous. Many layers of brocate as bedspreads and for cushions. Curtains so rich and thick, that they can stand by themselves. In the dining room a big table is set for diner for twelve people. With table silver and crystal glasses. Not that anybody is going to dine here – Alex explains to me. It is just for decoration. There is a housemaid in one of the houses and also the grandmother has already moved in. In the hall there is a vacuum cleaner, but the housemaid prefers to use her Chinese mop to clean the floors. The bucket is standing in a corner of the room as in many Chinese houses. She and grandma are sitting on their low stools in front ofthe TV in the ‘dining room’. Both with a bowl of noodles and their chopsticks. I stop counting the number of ultra wide plasma screens in the house. They are everywhere, even in the bathrooms and in the toilets. The only exemption is the sauna. In the cellar there is the house cinema - the ‘karaoke room’.
This house could be standing everywhere on the globe. There is nothing that refers to China. It is the first but also the last ‘affluent’ house I have taken pictures of. This is definitely not what I am looking for. Not that it is not interesting, but this takes too much of my energy. In these houses I feel completely alienated from the living world. Not the slightest feeling of what I could call a home.
October 19th - Pingyao
The train from Beijing to Pingyao took 10 hours. Pingyao is a very old city, with the old city walls still completely intact. It is famous for its 31 banks – probably the oldest banks in the world. These banks still bring a fortune into the city but now this is a fortune in disguise. The old atmosphere from the city got completely destroyed by the ongoing stream of tourists in this historic place. All houses in the main street have been changed into tourist shops and all kind of restaurants have appeared. In 2005 only Mac Donalds is missing.
I am living with a Chinese family in a village near Pingyao. My host Mr. Hou has a small shoe factory. None of the family speeks English and I donot speak any Chinese, so we try to communicate by hands and fingers. Grandfather is the easiest to get contact with. He always wears a golden Mao-pin on his jacket. Chairman Mao gave him the right to start the factory. Grandfather and I eat breakfast together and we both get a cup of hot milk. To drink milk is very rare in China and is only considered appropriate for young children and old people. Grandfather has very bad teeth, so he soakes the hard bread in the milk. And then he shares his bread with the little cat, which he feeds on the floor under the table. His daughter in law gets furious when she notices and yells at him to leave that bad habbit. When she returns to her work grandfather laughs a bit naughty and goes on feeding the cat.
The shoe factory employs 6 teenagers. They do all the work by hand at an horrendeous speed. The work starts at about 8 in the morning and goes on till 6p.m. They work seven days a week. At noon there is a small pause for those who go home to eat. Two of the youngsters only do some part of the shoe making, the others master the whole proces. The boss himself cuts out the patterns from textile or leather. When he lays out the patterns on the material it forms a great design Yesterday I tried to make a picture of it, but he did not seem to like it. Afraid of espoinage?
October 21st – visiting houses
The small roads through the village are bordered by mud walls of ca. 2 meters high with wooden porches. There are still a few old ones, made of natural stone. A part of the village is very old, but from the former big house of the landlord no traces are left. Probably he lived in Pingyao and only a caretaker lived in the village.
When people are at home the wooden doors are open, but you can never look straight into the yard. From the porch you look at a high wall. This wall shows the wealth of the farmer. It is often decorated with an inscription in natural stone or a tile mozaic with birds and flowers or the representation of an heroic event. In several yards it is only the bare stone wall of a workshop in the yard. In the yard itself there is a garden with vegetables, fruits and flowers. Stables on one side and a storage, workshop or extra housing on the other. At the end of the yard on a concrete raising there is the house over the full width of the yard.
Usually the house of consist of three rooms with the entrance in the middle, but there can be extra living spaces on either sides. Those you can only enter from the yard. In the entrance there is the house altar and further it is often used as storage for food and nowadays for the motorbike or the scooter of the farmer or his kids. Here I find many posters from Chairman Mao. Some beautifull old ones, at least 30-40 years old, but often also new ones. On the house altar there will often be a statue of a god, next to a statue of Mao as he gave these farmers their land. Also many posters of the God of Wealth and Fortune on the walls between the necessary agricultural equipment and sometimes an older or newer gun.
In all the side rooms there is a brick stove that is used for cooking. The hot fumes are led though the large brick bed under the window – the kang – that is heated in this way. All social activities take place on the kang. It is the workspace for preparing food, sewing and mending and also the kids do their homework on the kang. At night the whole family sleeps on it.
October 22nd – the room of the teenager
One of the girls takes me home for lunch. First she has to make the dough for the noodles. In this area nobody eats rice. It is only noodles, three times a day. Her brother is send to the shop to buy some extra’s as there is an important guest in the house.
The girl is lucky because she has her own room in the house. Perhaps other family members have moved out to the city. In her room there still is the stove to do some extra cooking when necessary, but the kang has been removed. Instead there is a big double bed in the middle of the room. Above the bed posters of the latest popstars. Back at home young people Dutch people recognize most of them. Music is travelling to all countries on the globe and many youngsters seem to have more or less the same taste.
October 25th - Cecilia
Today mr. Hou took me to another village nearby. It is the village of his wife’s grandmother. One of her grandsons will act as my guide. He should also have been in school. My English is difficult for him. It is the first time he hears the language spoken by a non-chinese person. Working with a guide in a small village has his disadvantages. Straight away you have half of the population coming with you. They ask him many questions – who I am, what we are doing, where we are going etc. We take a long walk through the village. In every house I first have to get all the people following us out of the room. They keep standing in the doorway and still try to push inside. In the third house I notice Cecilia in the first glimpse. I know instantly that she has to be in my picture, together with the beautifull rosa thermos and the fantastic TV antenna – a delight for every designer.
Outside in the courtyard the corn is heaped up high against the building. Cabbages are laid out to dry. There are two cows in the stable and pigs in their cot. The farmer brings the cornstraw home with his little tractor. It will serve as fother for the animals and the rests will help to heat the stove. We eat an apple in the last sun, before moving on. The whole neigbourhood is following us.
October 27th – blowing horns and screaming pigs
Around Pingyao the farmers are doing very well. As it is the end of the farming season and many farmers have started to enlarge their houses. In almost every street some buildingwork is taking place. For all these activities a lot of material is needed. Today I go to the market in the nearest village. The whole street is blocked by an enormous traffic jam. Many lorries carrying bricks and other materials and a gigantic lorry filled with rolls of carpets are trying to squeeze their cargo through the main street. But none of the merchants along the road are willing to move one inch. So everything comes to a complete stand still. Even no space left for buyers to walk along the stalls. The noice of the blowing horns is incredible, as is the stench of the fumes from the small diesel lorries.
A little bit further on on the pigmarket it is just as noisy. The merchants lift the pigs at their ears to get them out of their cot and off they go with a screaming pig roped on the backseat of their motorbikes. A number of farmers have spread their pea harvest on the road. All traffic is supposed to drive over the pea straw and crush the shells. After a few hours straw and shells are swept to the road side and the mixture is turned over to gather the peas. Yellow dust hangs over the fields. It is cold and very dry. Next to our house there is small factory that presses briguettes from coal dust. The black of the mountains of coal in the yard mingles with the yellow dust from the harvest. Everybody is couching and also I have the taste of dust and coal in my mouth. In the village a number of farmers is reparing the roads. The mud roads are changed into concrete paths. The government supplies the concrete, but the people have to organize the work among each other. Everybody has to take part voluntairly and all people have to take their share.
These days I try to take a lot of video. In between I knock on some doors with my letter to take pictures. Tomorrow there will be a big birthday party for the son of our neighbour. He wil get 13 years old – a very important day for the whole family. All the neigbours are working together to help preparing the food. Pigs and chickens have been slaughtered. Buckets with fish are standing around and the women are cutting up all the different vegetables. A professional cooking team has arrived. They are building mudstoves in the yard. They also brought a boiler for heating water and plates and bowls for all the dishes. My hostess helps to organize all the different activities. In the mean time food has to be cooked for all the helpers and their families as none of the women has time to cook at home. So also I wander into the yard to eat my meal. Although there is still a lot of work to be done everybody is very relaxed. The preparing of the party is just as much an important social happening as is the party itself. Now it is only neighbours and nearby relatives that are working together. Tomorrow there will be a few hundred guests.
October 28th – birthday party
The preparations for the party has been going on for most of the night. When I enter the yard in the morning to eat my breakfast a tent has been build over the whole width of the yard and there is a stage for the entertainment. The hot water boiler is making a lot of steam and the preparation of the food has started. A guy is practizing on an old saxophone - beautifull melangolic music appears out of the steam from the boiler. In the early morning light this is a magnificent way to enjoy my breakfast of noodles and vegetables. No pork or hot chili sauce for me. Most people are asthonished. A little bit later the saxophone player is joined by the local popstar and his team – four girls in pink glittering trouser suits and highheeled white boots. The sound sytem has to be carried in by several guys. The size of the boxes warns me for what is coming. When they are testing the system the girls start rehearsing their little dances. It seems that they have forgotten most of their steps. The popstar in a kind of cowboy outfit looks very annoyed. Distaste and boredom are written all over his face. Only when he is performing he looks engaged in what he is doing. For the rest of the time he stands chainsmoking outside the gate. The youngsters around him admire his impressive shiny motorbike with the hugh horseriding type saddle and his fake leather cowboyboots.
The highlights of the day for me are the fireworks in the street and the cutting of the cake. The entertainement only gave me a terrible headache. The amount of firecrackers in the narrow street is just amazing. Nobody cares for the motorbikes that are parked in between. There are big boxes and long garlands of red crackers standing and hanging everywhere. Some very heavy bangs in between and almost everything at the same time. I never saw a better Western! Late guests deem up out of the smoke and hours later the smell of gunpowder still hangs in the street.
There are two big birthday cakes – one with nine layers and one with seven. All beautifully decorated with colourfull flowers of a kind of artificial cream. Every layer a real piece of art. But 5 minutes after the first cut all cake has gone. Old ladies are running off with two big pieces in their hands. Cream hanging from their sleeves and in their hair from the scirmasse to get hold of their share of cake. The rest of the dinner went off very peacefully. Eating has taken place in four rounds and everybody waited patiently for their turn. More then 400 guest have had their meal. In between more then enough ricewine has been served, but without any quarelling or fighting at any moment. The father of the boy is pretty drunk. No wonder, he had to toast with all his guests.
After dinner many people help with the washing up. Now it becomes very clear why the cooking team has brought the boiler. The whole party is very well organized. Everybody knows his task and one hour after dinner all the plates and bowles are neatly packed again in their crates. In the meantime the cooking team has eaten and the women start again with the preparation for the evening meal. Many of the guests are leaving. Everybody who has contributed to the financial future of the boy recieves a farewell gift. I have also given money so I also get my parcel – a pair of pink undertrousers with small blue elephants.
The women prepare a special type of noodles – ‘cats ears’. From the dough tiny pieces are plucked and thrown into the boiling water. Some women can do this in an terrific speed. Many people are standing around laughing and admiring them and more women join in and try to beat the speed of the others. Not all pieces of dough end up in the water, but this only adds to the fun. Again I am struck by the joy and compassion the neigbours show together. The joint evening meal after the party is a very nice ending of all the work done.
During my stay in the village there are two more birthdayparties and a wedding. This time of the year is party time. The same ritual everywhere. That is why the organization looks so natural. A birthday, a wedding or a funeral – all parties are organized in the same way. The cooking team and the entertainment group move from place to place. I hear the same screeming music on several places behind the walls.
October 31st - it is not easy to do well
Tomorrow I leave again for Beijing, another 10 hour trainride. Then one night in Beijing and again a train to Kali in Guizhou. This time the trip will take 24 hours.
I ordered a special cake in Pingyao as a farewell present as I remembered the speed in which the cake disappeared last time. But this gesture proves not to be without trouble. I have forgotten to ask the bakery for a very necessary utensil – a small plastic knive. It turns out that there are no normal knives in a Chinese household. And this plastic knive is a very much sought after object. It seems to be at least half the fun of the present. Perhaps even more wanted then the cake itself. So how are we to cut the cake? For me it is easy, just take the big chopping knive from the kitchen. It can serve as both a knive and a serving tool at the same time. But it is very much against the etiquette to bring the chopping knive from the kitchen into the room. Doing well in a foreign country is not always easy.
November 1st – back in history
My last day in the village. The train will leave late this evening, so I will try to take some more pictures. What else is there to do. A customer from Mr. Hou gives me a lift on the back of his motorbike to another village nearby. The road is in a very bad state, so it is not really a pleasure. My back pack hits me with every bump. I wander off on my own through the village. Some very old houses with thatched roofs. I havenot seen that before. An old man stands in the reception room to cook lunch for his grandchildren. The house still has an earthen floor and the separation walls between the rooms are made from very dark wood with beautifull woodcuts. But both the roof , the floor and the walls are in a very bad state. It will not be easy to live here in winter.
On the back wall a Mao poster, the chaiman with his straw hat. This is a very old one and completely fits in this surrounding. I sit down for a while and watch the movements from the old man. How often has he been standing there to cook the food. And how many times there has been no food or firewood. Now it is a pity that I have no guide. I am sure this old man could tell me a lot.
I try to sneak out of the village as I prefer to walk back, but no chance. As soon as I am out on the road the man with the motorbike comes behind me and I have to accept the lift back. Another bumpy experience before I leave. In the evening we eat noodles along the road in a small open tent – a snackbar in the country side. We are far from the only customers. This is a very popular place. There is no water to clean the dishes, so everybody gets his bowl with a clean plastic bag around it. When the bowl is empty the bag is thrown away and the bowl is ready for the next customer. The noodles were very good and my stomach has got used to almost everything. So I leave Pingyao as healthy as I came.
November 4th - to Zhaoxing
Kyrra came yesterday to meet me at the station in Kali. She is the daughter of my host in Zhaoxing and she will be my guide these coming weeks. Kyrra has worked in Beijing as a housemaid for an English family, so she speaks reasonable english and she also understands mine. That helps. But she got homesick after a few month and left for home. Now her father has enlarged the house and helped her to build a kind of guesthouse. There are many tourists coming to Zhaoxing – a Dong village with very special wooden drum towers. The idea is that Kyrra will run the guesthouse and I am one of her guests.
Today we were in the bus for over 12 hours. Zhoaxing looks very different from Pingyao. It is a mountain village, build on as little space as possible to leave the rest of the land for growing rice. The wooden houses are standing next to each other and are at least 3 stories high. The narrow alleys are paved and most of them are very steep. Still it will be very slippery on these roads when it rains. Cars can hardly come into the village and even then only on the main road. Most transport goes on foot. Even for mules some of the alleys are to steep. A small river flows through the village. This is the main water supply for drinking water and cleaning. It is also more or less the sewage. The house of Kyrra’s parent lays somewhat higher very near the mountain rock. Mountain water seeps through the rock, so the family has always very clean water for drinking and cooking.
In the house there are Kyrra’s parents, her grandmother from fathers side, Kyrra and her sister. Grandmothers husband – grandfather - lives nextdoor with Kyrra’s uncle, but he has his dinner together with us. For dinner there is rice and many different vegetables. I really enjoy this after two weeks of noodles with pork meat and a tiny bit of spring onion..
November 6th - Dong traditions
I tried to go around with Kyrra yesterday, but it didnot work. Kyrra doesnot like to enter the houses of people she doesnot know. So from today on I work alone with my letter. Wandering around through the narrow alleys is very pleasant. The light between the high wooden houses is beautifull. In some places the houses on both sides of the street come so near to each other, that you could step from one balcony to the other. From the street I can only see a tiny bit of sky. I need to work with both my letter and the photobook I made, as not all women can read. Most women over forty did not go to school. These women keep to their traditional clothing, the chinese jacket with the buttons on the side, almost under the arm.
Now autumn is approaching many of the jackets are black. In summer they wear a lighter colour – grey or light blue, sometimes even with a little pattern. They all wear the tradtional shoes and even some of the silverware on their backs or in their ears. Also the baskets are all made from woven bamboo. I am suprised about the great variety of baskets they are using.
In the houses it is very dark. When there is no light in the street, how could it come into the houses. The storage and living spaces are downstairs. Next to it the cot for the pigs. Sometimes there is an extra living room upstairs adjoining the balcony, but most top floors are used for drying and storing rice. I am surprised about the number of leather sofa’s I find in the houses. They are all very big and very well used. How can they have come here, when there has never been a road. People donot sit often on their sofa, they all use the small wooden stools for cooking and eating. All household work is done on the floor. Perhaps they use the sofa to sleep on. Or they roll out their mats on the floor in the evening. I havenot found a bedroom jet in any of the houses I visited. Even in the house I live, there are only bedrooms in the guesthouse.
November 10th - grandmothers’ house
Kyrra’s mother – Xi Lan – is 42. She leaves the house around 7 in the morning to help on the land. She comes back around 5. In November it gets dark soon. The land is about 5 km away from the house. You can reach it only by foot over a steep mountain path. Yesterday after dinner I still heared her weavingloom on the loft for a very long time. The space is open to all sides and their is one bare lamp hanging over the loom.
It is already quite cold now and it is raining often. When it rains the whole day, Xin Lan stays at home. I see her standing at the open window to catch some light for her embroidery. She works on a new breastpiece for her costume. She and her husband dance on saturday night the traditional Dong dances, together with the other mid-age people. The old and the young in the village watch. Kyrra and her sister don’t take part in the dances.
Kyrra’s father is from Zhoaxing. At the moment he is the appointed head of the village. People in the village admire him for that he accepted that both his children are girls. Not all did, certainly not 20 years ago. Kyrra tells me that still sometimes a baby-girl is found on a doorstep.
Xin Lan comes from Ji Len – a small village 2 km further in the mountains. She never went to school. There is no road up to Ji Len, only the mountain path, that is also used by the cows to go into the forest. This doesnot make the walk up easier. Today we plan to visit Xin Lan’s mother. She is already very old, but she still runs the sweetshop in Ji Len. I have to carry all my equipment up the path. Kyrra has a bag with a life chicken. Grandmother wants to receive me in style.
Grandmother lives in the old wooden family-house, together with a son, who takes care of her. As Kyrra startes cooking, I take a look around. Beautifull old wooden houses are hanging like swallow nests on the mountain. Very narrow streets in between. There is an old drum tower, a small grave-yard and a village pond. No duck-weed on it at the moment. The villagers harvest it, dry it and feed it to the cows.
The main road goes along the pond. I sit down under a wooden pathway and look at those who passed by. Here ages meet. Schoolchildren come in western style clothing with their ID’s around their neck. A farmer leads his cows into the forest. They drop their muck on the road. An old lady on bare feet comes quickly to pick up the dung with here hands. Either for her small garden or for heating the stove. I hear people talking in the houses around me and the sound of kitchen stoves brazing and washing bowls scurring over the concrete floors. It has started to rain again. A dog disappears under one of the houses. Fish are jumping in the pond, first only a small jump, then higher. Splashes and circles in the water.
November 13th – tourism, TV and hot-pot
I am surprised about the number of electric appliences in many of the houses. Tourism has brought a lot of money to Zhaoxing. But having a fridge doesnot automatically mean using it. Often the socket is not plugged in. I even see appliences I didnot know that existed – sterilizing cabinets for cutlery. Apparently they have been introduced in the time of Sars. You see one in every house where a baby has been born. But also many of these are not in function other then as a storage cupboard. It least it keeps the flies away. The TV’s can only be used together with the VCR recorder as there is no signal in Zhaoxing. There are only very few families who have a disk outside their home. When they are watching TV a crowd is gathering in front of the house. Everybody tries to get a glimpse of the program through the window. Only the rice-cookers are very well used. In my house there isn’t one and I can see how much work it is for grandma to keep the fire going all the time while the rice is cooking. It also takes a lot of fuel. And fuel is scarce. The trees around the village are not allowed to be cut. Their roots are needed to protect the village against mud streams in the rainy season. So firewood has to come from far away.
Yesterday it was a festival day in the village. Many people were out in the street in their most beautifull costumes with all the silverwerk. There were many of the traditional dances with lots of deamons racing through the streets. Boys and girls performed beautifull line dances and you could see that the courting season had started. I took a part of the festival on video and showed it on TV last night. Everybody very happy to see friends and family “onTV”, so for tonight a lot of friends and neighbors are invited for another show.
As it is getting chilly in the evenings we often eat ‘hotpot’ for dinner. A small charcoal stove is brought into the room together with a pot in which chicken meat and bones are boiling. The low round dinner table is put over the stove. There is a hole in the middle of the table. Everybody sits around and enjoys the heat of the stove. Fresh vegetables are cooked for a moment in the soup and you pick them out yourselves with your chopsticks. During the meal more and more vegetables are added. A very quick and healthy way to prepare a meal.
November 15th - house building
Showing the video on TV has helped me to get acces to the houses. Many people know me by now and make it clear whether they want to help me or not. They call me from their doorstep to come in and make a picture. Others close their door when they see me coming into the alley. In the afternoon I sit for a while under one of the drum tower. These places are the social meeting points of the village, together with the covered ‘wind and rain’ bridges. You often see a group of old men sitting, smoking and talking on the bridge or playing chess under the tower. These days this is also the working space for the carpenters, that have come to build new houses. Groups of elderly ladies hang around the carpenters and are quick to collect all the bits, pieces and shavings of the wood that fall on the ground. For them this is free fire wood for their kitchen stoves almost delivered on their doorsteps. They also keep the working space clean and tidy.
This autumn many new houses are build and all building is done by hand. A great number of trees have been brought to the village from the mountains and transported to the building lot by groups of men. These house builders are not from Zhaoxing. They come as a group from other places, men, women and children, grandmothers and -fathers, young and old. It is very interesting to sit and look at the way they operate together. And again I am impressed by these Chinese working methods. The organic, but at the same time efficient way the work is organized. Building a large wooden house in difficult terrain with only your body strength as source of power is a task for very skilled workers and a work gang that is perfectly tuned to each other. I sit and visualize how the piramides have been built. I never understood how that could have been accomplished by human power only, but now here in Zhaoxing the building proces is laid out in front of me.
When the group has cleared the building lot, the men start working to prepare the wooden poles. As the houses are 3-4 stories high, these poles have to be at least 12 meters long. These poles are assembled into segments, which all fit into each other without any nails or screws. I am fascinated by the way in which the mastercarpenter measures and marks the pieces of wood that have to be cut away to make the necessary pins andholes When finnished these have to fit exactly into each other to form a strong connection that will stabilize the total structure. Segments exist of 3 or 5 poles of ca. 12 meter. They are mutual connected by smaller poles. The pole in the middle is the longest. These segments are put up with the help of ropes. Here the owner of the house and his relatives have to help. Ropes are connected to the segment and then the top is pulled up until the whole structure is in place. Even these ropes are often not real ropes but roots from threes, again connected in their specific way. Most houses exist of three of these segments. The large ones are made of four. These segments again are connected by horizontal poles. The top one is a very heavy one, as it has to carry the roof. It is brought in place by a small group of men who climb up to the top of the construction. Then they stand free in the air and hammer the wooden plugs in place, that are ment to lock the whole construction. The women in the building gang do all kinds of assisting jobs and they prepare the meals for all of them. This is all done out in the street. So you see hugh iron cooking pots on open fires in the main street in the middle of all other daily activities. They also sleep here, if there is no space on the building lot. When it rains some improvised roof is made from sheets of plastic or leftovers of the old house.
When the wooden structure is standing the owner organizes a big party. First the building is blessed and crowned with the head of a pig and then a number of pigs are slaughtered, again right in the middle of all of this. The male relatives of the owner of the house take care of the preparation of the meat and their wifes cook incredible amounts of sticky rice. And again you see this remarkable sharing of the work between friends and relatives. Then guests are coming with lots of firecrackers and presents in the shape of money and rice. A big dinner is layed out on the ground and guests and builders get all their fair share of food and rice wine.
November 16th - dog meat
Today several parties took place for new houses and also a baby had been born. I saw many pigs slaugthered in the streets or on the border the river. You could see small processions of friends and relatives walking through the village with their presents dangling from their shoulder poles. In front always the man with the firecrackers. From the shape of the baskets of the women you can see to what kind of party the people are going too. For happy occasions the women use a different shape of baskets then for funerals. To all parties they bring different kinds of rice, either raw or cooked. As a present they always get cooked sticky rice to take back home. All these presents are weighed exactly, so everybody gets the same amount. When porkmeat is added to the present, then also the meat is cut up in even portions and again these portions are weighed.
On the market I saw for the first time dogmeat for sale. On the stall there was a whole dog. Legs stiff in the air and the hair burned off. But I could recognize it easily by the shape of the head. To see the dog horrified me. Next to the stall there was a pig laying, quietly waiting for its turn to be slaugthered. It didnot bother me half as much as seeing the dead dog. Why?
November 17th – the sound of farewell
Every night I listen to sounds of the women who are beating the textiles they have woven and coloured. The Dong women paint their textiles with a mixture of indigo and pig blood. When the cotton has taken the color it is washed in the river and then they hang it on the front of the house to dry in the sun. It looks like the houses have been decorated with big guirlanders. After a day the material is wettened again and folded into a parcel, almost the size of the big flat stone that is lying in front of every house. And then the beating starts. The women beat the material for hours with a flat piece of wood and in a very special ritm. After so many beatings the parcel is turned 90 degrees and the beating starts again. You can hear this ‘music’ almostevery hour of the day and the night. The same procedure – wettening, beating, drying - is done at least 3 times, but often more. The longer they beat, the more intense the color gets, until it is realy shining like copper and the cotton gets stronger and feels like silk. The most shiny material is saved for wedding dresses and other important pieces of traditional clothing. Also men’s and kid’s jackets are made of this.
My hostess Xi Lan grows her own cotton. Then she spins and weaves it herself – all done in the evening hours after the long hours of work on the land. Only then she can start with the long labourious task of colouring and beating. I bought 2 meters of this beatifull material, woven in a very special and difficult pattern. Another woman in the village sew it for me into a traditional jacket with all the necessary trimmings and buttons. She lined the jacket with pure silk.
Last night the ‘lusheng’ – the very impressive bamboo flute of the Dong – sounded through the village. I got up and looked out of the window over the silvershining wooden roofs of Zhoaxing. It was almost full moon, so it was not too dark. But it was foggy and in some houses there was still a light. Alltogether a beautifull and mysterious atmosphere. I asked Kyrra this morning what it had ment. In the night somebody had died and this had been the first announcement. What a beautifull way to say farewell.