China: Old meets new in Beijing

By Pam Neville

Pam Neville finds an unexpected joie de vivre among Beijing's bustling population.
Chinese trishaw drivers wait for customers at a compound being fenced up for refurnishing near the drum tower. Photo / AP
Chinese trishaw drivers wait for customers at a compound being fenced up for refurnishing near the drum tower. Photo / AP

Mr Tom's Tripe Cafe has served the workers of Beijing with this delicacy, the stomach linings of animals, for four generations. Little strips of tripe, whitish in colour with black edges, come with a dipping sauce of sesame oil and coriander. It is not the honeycomb tripe of New Zealand butcheries.

To my eye, Tom's tripe looks like strips of paua. In fact, it's stewed beef tripe. And - if nothing is lost in translation - I believe I'm being told this is top-quality tripe from the first of the three chambers in a cow's stomach.

Next, Mr Tom produces a bowl of creamy white tidbits which the interpreter describes simply as "ligaments". A braver diner than I swallows hard and describes them as a bit chewy.

I'm more comfortable with the third offering, tripe soup, which a couple of Chinese labourers are lapping up with plain steam buns on the side. The soup is strong and salty. It tastes like a mutton broth from a very old sheep.

Mr Tom the fourth is a gracious host, calmly assisted by his elegant wife, Mrs Tom. Will a fifth generation take over the family business? Mr Tom isn't sure.

"The young, they go off and do different things nowadays," he says through the interpreter. "But sometimes when they are 30 they want to come back."

There is only one Tom Junior, of course. This is China, where the one-child-per-couple law is strictly enforced. I notice the only-children all over Beijing, well-behaved, beautifully dressed, and doted on by parents and grandparents.

It's a relief to see just as many girls as boys. Apparently, modern city parents are increasingly happy with baby girls because they are less likely to desert them in their old age. Farming parents still prefer a male child, for physical work.

Old neighbourhoods such as Mr Tom's in the Xicheng district of Beijing have largely been obliterated in the modernisation of the Chinese capital. Bleak Soviet-style highrise apartments from the 1950s and 60s have been joined by modern towers of "statement" architecture in odd shapes. Stark multi-storey office buildings have replaced thousands of temples and monuments, and the narrow streets of old Beijing have given way to six-lane thoroughfares.

But pockets remain. Not far from Mr Tom's is a 500-vendor indoor food market crammed with vegetables, meat, spices and teas, which serves smaller shops and local people.

Bicycles and three-wheel motorcycles wend their way between stalls, as do parents with those precious only-children, in pushchairs ranging from the traditional wicker-chair-on-wheels to the imported Bugaboo.

Between the market and the tripe shop, it's possible to explore one of the few remaining hutongs, narrow alleys with tiny crammed housing and communal courtyards. This is the old Cotton District, and the hutong here has somehow escaped the bulldozers which have forced residents to the high-rise apartments further away.

"Sometimes they don't want to leave," explains Adlyn Adam-Teoh, who hosts a walking tour of the area. "But at least in an apartment they have a toilet and shower."

The alley houses of the Cotton District are divided into rooms for about eight families. (We can count the families by the number of electricity meter boxes at the front door.) None of them has a bathroom. Residents use very basic public facilities in the neighbourhood.

Outside, a vendor sells fresh pork from a cardboard box, a dentist is extracting a tooth from a woman sitting on a wooden kitchen chair, and a couple of "recruitment agents" hold signs seeking workers for an unspecified project.

Like the food sellers who used to cook on the streets, their activities are no longer legal. Clean street-side shops with running water have replaced the mobile food vendors. Their thick yoghurt in re-usable ceramic pots, and the breakfast pancakes called jianbing, are delicious and have no unpleasant sequels.

Beijing is the bustling, modern, sophisticated centre of the Chinese economic miracle, yet 15 minutes from luxury hotels are pockets of history little changed in centuries.

I had expected the smog, the dull communist-era buildings and the skyline of cranes as new ones go up, and up. I had anticipated the busy roads, and to some extent the chill feeling of Tiananmen Square, world-famous now for the murderous crackdown on protesting students in 1974, a day the Government refuses to remember. Unexpected was the joie de vivre of the inhabitants, the friendly sense of fun of Beijingers rich and poor.

Lonely Planet last year placed Beijing number five on its list of Top 10 Cities Worldwide to Visit (San Francisco was number one and Christchurch was sixth).

I can see why they like it. Watching a rickshaw pedal past a Lamborghini showroom somehow sums up the experience.

TIANANMEN SQUARE

June 4 this year is the 25th anniversary of the killing of protesters in Tiananmen Square, Beijing. "The crackdown", as it is widely called, ended a weeks-long pro-democracy protest when the People's Liberation Army opened fire, killing hundreds, perhaps thousands, of civilians.

But there will be no memorial services in Beijing. The Government has redoubled efforts to wipe the event, and even the date, from memory.

I stood in Tiananmen Square on June 4 last year, the 24th anniversary of the crackdown, and remembered the famous photograph of a lone protestor standing in front of advancing tanks.

This symbolic centre of communist China is a concrete desert of 40ha, punctuated by the mausoleum of Chairman Mao and edged by dour buildings, including the Great Hall of the People where John Key was officially welcomed last year.

Under the soupy gloom of Beijing smog, the square looks forbidding. There are soldiers and security fencing and nowhere to sit. Every day it is crammed with groups of Chinese tourists come to pay their respects to the Great Helmsman. Security is increased for this special day, I am told. Some streets are closed, and outspoken family members of those who died are under house arrest until the anniversary passes.

A hundred thousand people held a candlelight vigil in Hong Kong on of June 4 last year, but in China the event is wiped from official memory. News reports suggest the crackdown on dissent, or any sign of commemoration, is even more severe this year.

"We all know what day it is," a young man working in a city art gallery tells me, "but we don't talk about it."

He wants to hear what the outside world is saying, however, and glances at my day-old Hong Kong newspaper. If he Googles "Tiananmen", his computer freezes. Facebook is blocked. The Chinese version of Wikipedia wipes the whole year of the massacre. "1989 is the number between 1988 and 1990" says its main entry, according to a Beijing reporter for The Telegraph. The only other entry says 1989 is a computer virus.

For sightseeing purposes, Tiananmen Square is not top of a must-see list in Beijing, but all that it symbolises - to the Chinese as well as to visitors - makes it worth setting foot on.

It is a chill reminder that despite a welcoming facade and western-style development, the people of communist China live under an iron fist.

Pam Neville travelled courtesy of Cathay Pacific Airways and Peninsula Hotels.

- Herald on Sunday

© Copyright 2014, APN New Zealand Limited

Assembled by: (static) on red akl_a4 at 01 Aug 2014 00:07:40 Processing Time: 465ms