Qianmen (前门) is a bustling historic district in central Beijing
a stone's throw from Tian’anmen Square. It's many shops and restaurants make it is a popular tourist destination but also a rather shallow one, as it lacks obvious attractions. Its special hook is that it comes over as 'Old Beijing' though paradoxically, much of the neighborhood, though far from all, was given a heavy makeover for The Olympics and has been thoroughly modernized. The contradictory result is that it can at first look like a theme park and then, if you turn some corners, look like a slum.
My guide Mark Hu is a genuine Beijinger who grew up very close to Qianmen. As well as being a qualified guide he is also a post-graduate linguistics student specialized in English. This made him a very suitable private tour guide. As far as I can see, there are relatively few public guided tours in Beijing of the sort familiar to people in Europe by which I mean a guide (or company) advertises that there will be a tour of a certain area at a set time, people gather there for the tour, take it then go their separate ways. Things work more according to groups assembled by travel agents which take in all the significant attractions in an area (i.e. tourist traps) and give you at least a full day of being led around in a crowd by a person with a stick, jumping in and out of a coach, eating together and having a proper group experience. It's either that or you hire a private guide or else simply do it yourself. I've done the group tour before, the DIY trip too, so it was now time to see how it is to have a more intimate tour experience. We headed into one of the most narrow hutongs (traditional style alleyways) in Beijing where I heard about its former life as a financial center.
We paused in front of a historic cinema which, I learnt, was the cinema that screened the first Chinese movie. Film posters from another era quietly faded in the pale sun. Detached from the urgent bustle of the 10 kuai shops (pound stores / 1 euro shops) on street level these grandparents' heartthrobs hovered over the scene like guardian angels. The new Qianmen would prove somewhat unfamiliar to them, even Mark said the place had been transformed from how he remembered it pre-Olympics. Back then it had been a place that local people used and few people from elsewhere came, now it is a major shopping destination. He also said that the majority of the shop people were not locals anymore, new people from out of Beijing had recently moved in to make quick money. As we were in search of the real Old Beijing, we kept on walking, heading over to the Dashilar (大栅栏) area where there were more traces of it to be found.
These rabbit statues that we stopped to look at were, I learnt, part of a specifically Beijing mythology. Inside the shop there were more Beijing curios stacked up high such as cicadas dressed as miniature monkeys. Mark told me that he had traveled quite a great deal, not only around China but also more widely in Asia and Europe and one of the things that travel had taught him was that he liked Beijing above anywhere else. He genuinely is a partisan Beijing guide who wants to show visitors the best the city has to offer. It is easy to see the problems in the city such as the depressing frequency of lung blackening smog and the wilful destruction of historic quarters but the attractive side of the city is less obvious. The genuine attractions are often mobbed with crowds and the quieter neighborhoods like the one we were in, require interpretation to be made interesting. He saw it as his role to provide this.
A feature of the tour was the translation of street signs. Mark knew I am learning Chinese so made a point of explained some of the ways the history of the area could be read through the street names. Dashilar Alley was one such example, this common street sign another. As a result of this we sometimes stood in very ordinary locations looking at beaten up street signs taking the experience away from the conventional tourist one.
We entered a small cluttered secondhand bookstore run by an old lady who lived in the hutong. The place can best be described as a communist era nostalgia trip. She had collected many of the more attractive books and objects from her past and stacked them up high. She knew where things were and there was an internal sort of order, but to the visitor it was like seeing this lady's imagination externalized and turned into a living sculpture. I love these sorts of shops. She had some records and I am a collector of vinyl so I went through the slim pile and finally chose the red flexidisk that was on the record player when we entered. It's a collection of Chinese songs from the early 80s. Needless to say, it doesn't sound a bit like Duran Duran.
We spent a while talking with her and she picked up Mark's idea of showing me the real Beijing and offered to take us around the private courtyard behind the shop. It was more or less how I imagined it would be having seen a number of similar ones during Beijing Design Week which takes place in the same area. What was different was this courtyard was not self-consciously arranged for visitors and I was being shown it by people from the area not by newcomers who had 'discovered' it. This relationship of the guide to the place is quite interesting: when the guide is a part of the place they can talk about 'we' and when the guide is a visitor he or she will talk about 'they'. I was told that the wooden pram collecting debris was the type 'we' used to use, but nobody has a purpose for it anymore.
There was a moment of confusion when, walking down the road, Mark asked me if I wanted to see a historic brothel. Everything up to now had been quite above board and so I was unsure if he meant would I like him to take me to a brothel or to take me to see a brothel or what. Seeing as prostitution is rife in Beijing, I had seen some guys piling out of an upmarket foot massage club at 3 AM the night before looking like it wasn't their feet which had just been taken care of, and I was aware that there was a part of Qianmen where it still existed, I was confused. Mark took me to what was a Qing dynasty brothel and was now a local communist party office that also plays a cultural role in the neighborhood. He knocked on the door, entered and asked a man in the office about going upstairs to take a look at the former brothel. It seemed the right person to show us up wasn't there so we had to admire from afar. It struck me as an unusual thing to show me seeing as it came out of the blue and, like I said, there was no shortage of such places today and the building we were looking at was old but rather nondescript.
There were points of the tour where we did get more typical tour guide information. For example, here we stopped in front of this doorway and Mark explained the significance of the hexagonal beams.
After an hour and half tour in freezing conditions it was time to thaw. Tea houses can be expensive so following Mark's suggestion we headed to the Golden Arches. I generally use the place only for its toilet facilities but the coffee was acceptable and there was space to sit and warm up.
Mark showed me a map of Beijing
that he had designed. We started talking about how it could be read and used by foreign visitors. I had the impression the work was a real labor of love sustained by his passion for the city. Now that it was more or less complete he was faced with the problem of how to produce and share this map with actual people which is to say, to be confronted with how the map is valued and used by others. He seemed a reluctant businessman who was trying to find a model that best suited him. I believe it all too often happens that it is the more profiteering sort of people who become the most prominent and those who ask for less are valued less highly resulting in the public face of the city often being a rather off-putting commercial one. I hope for Beijing's sake, people like Mark get to be seen more.
I have to admit it, I'm a softy when it comes to Beijing winter weather. At night it regularly drops to -8 and taking a tour in this sort of weather for me means sacrificing any attempts at style. Hell, it's not just when on a tour, it is stepping out anywhere in this fridge of a city. Mark, like a typical Beijinger, put me to shame and toughed it out. This tour of the real old Beijing was an interesting experience and a difficult one to pin down exactly. This was because it being a private tour it worked less according to a set itinerary and was instead more responsive to both me and to what or who we found as we made our way around Qianmen. Definitely more informative than the group tours I've taken in China and taking me to places I'd not otherwise notice if looking around on my own, private tours are a good way way to see the city and Mark was a most able host.