Saturday, April 28, 2007

My local 'Nail House'

Jiugulou Dajie - 'my' street, The Street, the 'street of dreams' where I lived for my first year in Beijing and have hung out in the vicinity of ever since - used to be a da jie ('big street'; i.e., a boulevarde) in name only; it was really little more than a hutong, one of the web of narrow alleyways interlacing the grey, single-storey slum housing that is characteristic of 'old Beijing'. At many points it was scarcely wide enough for two vehicles to pass each other, which made for some particularly horrendous traffic congestion in the rush hour (it was, bizarrely, a main artery linking the city centre to the North 2nd Ringroad, and home to a major bus route). In the summer of '04 it was all abruptly bulldozed: all the shops and restaurants - and the people - that had defined my life for nearly 2 years were swept away in a matter of a week or two. I was heartbroken.

However, I have to admit, for once they didn't do a bad job of the redevelopment. We now have a genuine da jie, a broad 4-lane* thoroughfare elegantly lined with new buildings in the faux Qing Dynasty architectural style (which is tiresomely de rigueur in the city these days, and often very tackily done; but here it's been quite well executed).

There is one rather conspicuous exception to this enforced gentrification of the street. Near the north end, just a couple of hundred yards from the subway station, is this isolated reminder of the picturesque squalor that is still ubiquitous behind these modern 'Qing' facades. I must assume that it is our very own 'nail house', home to a stubborn resister hoping to wring a better compensation deal out of the developers.

I think it's bound to be removed, one way or another, before the Olympics roll around next year. But I hope it remains for a while longer yet: I cherish it as a memento of the 'good old days'.

* I noticed that it's actually a 5-lane road. 5? Go figure. More people leave the city than go into it?? Only in China. And two of those lanes are in fact 'bicycle lanes' - not that you'd notice, because cars drive in them, and park in them, with impunity.


Jeremiah Jenne said...

It was a street I loved dearly. We lived there for almost two years, escaping just as the old buildings were coming down. Vegetable markets, sketchy barbershops, fresh tofu delivery...what a place. I remember the summer of SARS when the restaurants on the streets put all their tables outside. The driveable space on the road shrank to about one car each way while the whole neighborhood sat outside in the Beijing sultry evening drinking Yanjing pijiu and macking out on chuan'r and malalongxia.


Froog said...

Hi there, J.

I didn't think you had the time to sample my burblings here.

And I don't remember seeing you around on The Street that summer. Very few laowai lived in the neighbourhood then, apart from me and my buddies working at the English college.

Actually, the GREAT outdoor hangout of that summer was the little trio of Muslim restaurants at the north end of Houhai. They also got chai'd that summer, to make way for a string of swanky bars and restaurants. But for a glorious couple of months it was the last place on the lakes where you could hang out with local people, and enjoy chuan'r and 2-kuai beers. God, I miss those days.

Jeremiah Jenne said...

We lived in the first little hutong (Xitao) on the right walking south from the Gulou subway stop (the one with the Ningbo Restaurant and the Shawarma guys out front, our xiaoqu was a little further down the hutong from the TCM hospital.)

Some of the old guys claimed that Xitao had once served as home base for the notorious Kang Sheng. Not sure if they were just having a little fun with me or not.