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Hutong Memories

Eight Masters

A team of eight Beijing-born pedicab drivers who run hutong tours are committed to maintaining the glory of the old city

By NewsChina Updated Feb.1

The Hutong Baye make a sartorial statement at an activity during the 2016 Beijing Design Week / Photo courtesy of the interviewee

This September, a picture went viral; six stylish older men, wearing bowler hats, dark glasses, and pinstriped suits with neat vests, making a glittering appearance at the 2016 Beijing Design Week. “Are they a group of old Shanghai gangsters?” netizens commented teasingly.  

They’re not gangsters, but six out of a team of pedicab drivers, dubbed the “Houhai Baye,” which means “the eight Houhai masters,” referring to Beijing’s Houhai, an artificial lake in the center of the city. They work with their feet, pedaling tourists across the hutong lanes of Shichahai, an area of the capital popular with foreign tourists. 
The hutongs, which originated during the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368), are alleyways formed by lines of siheyuan, traditional courtyard residences. Neighborhoods were formed by joining one siheyuan to another to form a hutong, and then joining one hutong to another. In modern China’s rush for development, many of Beijing’s hutongs have been demolished to make way for six-lane highways and skyscrapers.  

Born and raised in hutongs around Shichahai, the eight masters, who have witnessed the vicissitude of the hutongs and the rapid disappearance of traditional lifestyles, have taken on the responsibility of preserving and promoting hutong culture. 
Alley Life  

The Shichahai area covers three artificial lakes in central Beijing – Qianhai, Xihai and Houhai. 700 years ago, in the Yuan Dynasty, Shichahai was the northernmost part of the Grand Canal linking Hangzhou in the south of China to Beijing in the north, making Shichahai a vital commercial district.  

Literally meaning “Ten Temples Lake” Shichahai harbors 10 famous Taoist and Buddhist temples as well as many former royal mansions and gardens. Various prominent figures in modern history also lived around there, including Soong Ching-ling, the wife of Chinese statesman Sun Yat-sen, and the famous writer and poet Guo Moruo, the renowned Peking Opera artist Mei Lanfang, three marshals of the People’s Liberation Army, namely Ye Jianying, Xu Xiangqian and Nie Rongzhen, and the famous antiquarian and connoisseur Zhang Boju.  

Hutong tours are extremely popular in Shichahai. Since the mid-20th century, a large number of hutongs have been destroyed to make space for new roads and buildings. Many hutongs in the vicinity of the Drum and Bell Towers, two ancient buildings, and Shichahai have been designated as protected heritage sites, in an attempt to present a glimpse of life in old Beijing. Taking a pedicab is the most convenient way to tour the hutongs. 

Fifth Master Song, 43, is the youngest of the eight. A Manchu, the northern ethnic group who conquered China during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), he belongs to the Plain Blue Banner of the Eight Banners system, the Qing administrative and military divisions into which all Manchu households were placed. He was born and raised in a hutong near Houhai.  

During his interview with NewsChina, Song was absorbed in his reminiscence of his childhood in the hutongs. There was a 500-year-old date tree in the yard of the courtyard home where he was raised, as well as a persimmon tree, pomegranate tree and a grapevine, which were laden with fruit in autumn. In the back garden grew ginger plants and sunflowers.  

Life in the hutongs was quite simple, as Song recalled. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, when ordinary Chinese still did not have televisions, kids in the hutongs played xiangqi, or Chinese chess, and would fight crickets. Houhai was a child’s playground, where they could fish and catch snails. Song told of how kids would use mosquito netting to make fishing nets and dug out earthworms for bait. Sometimes kids would sink a bamboo basket into the lake, and when they lifted it up the day after, the basket was full of river-snails. They brought the baskets back home, cleaned the dirt inside the snails, boiled them up, and served them seasoned with soybeans and sesame oil. 
When he was still a boy, Song often met famous neighbors; he would see Marshal Ye Jianying strolling by the lake, while another marshal, Xu Xiangqian, would sometimes pay a visit to the primary schools nearby to tell kids exciting stories. Kids also sneaked into the ruined former residences of Zhang Boju and the famous female writer Ding Ling, picking up the persimmons and grabbing old, thread-bound books. 

For pedicab drivers in the Shichahai area, the pedicab is not only a tool to make a living but also a place to take a nap / Photo by IC

Old Jobs  

During the 1970s and 1980s, in the era of the planned economy, many future members of “Houhai Baye” worked for government institutions and State-owed companies. First Master Wen worked for the Machinery Bureau of Beijing, Second Master Chang in a building decoration firm, and Third Master Zhang as an ironsmith in a State-owned factory.  

As Reform and Opening up deepened, the once secure positions no longer offered jobs for life. A huge number of surplus workers were fired and tossed into the labor market. Among the future Houhai Baye, Wen, Chang, Third Master Li and Seventh Master Yang were forced to leave their positions.  

On the chilly morning of November 11 2003, Third Master Li Yongfu set out on his first day as a pedicab driver. It cost him 350 yuan to buy the used pedicab. His wife made a blanket herself and placed it on the cycle for customers to keep warm.  

Wearing spectacles, he looked educated and urbane, with the air of an office clerk. On his first day, he was extremely embarrassed when running into old neighbors and friends.  

“Why are you doing this? There are plenty of other things you could choose to do. Why this?” Faced with a confused inquisition from neighbors, he wanted to sink into the ground with shame.  

It wasn’t until noon that he made his first deal – giving a woman and a foreigner a hutong tour, paying 40 yuan each. In 2003, that was enough to eat for a week in Beijing.  

Li lost his job at 43. As the breadwinner for the whole family, he had no choice but to find a new way to make a living. “Most people in our generation didn’t have the skills needed or a sense of how to do business. We were completely at a loss when facing an increasingly market-oriented society. Since driving a pedicab could make money near my home, I chose it in the end,” Li told NewsChina.  

Hutong tours emerged in the 1990s. In 1994, local photographer Xu Yong, who was known for photographing hutong scenes, started up a cultural development company, which was the first enterprise in China to offer hutong pedicab tours.  

It took Xu more than two years to apply for a hutong tour certificate. The biggest obstacle Xu encountered was that the authorities thought the tours were pointless, since compared to those magnificent historical and scenic spots in Beijing, hutongs were nothing but ragged alleys and dilapidated courtyard houses. After two years of efforts, Xu eventually convinced the authorities of the value of hutong culture.  

 A History of Their Own  

“Past this corner we will see the former residence of Zhang Zhidong, who was an eminent official in the late Qing Dynasty, and also an advocate of China’s modernization and one of the founders of China’s heavy industry…” Li said one time, pattering to a customer as usual.  

“Zhang Zhidong was a marvelous man! He was one of the Four Great Officials in the late Qing dynasty,” the customer exclaimed. Not knowing who the “Four Great Officials” were, Li learned from his customer that the other three great officials were Li Hongzhang, Zuo Zongtang and Zeng Guofan.  

“Confucius said, ‘In a party of three, there must be one I can learn from.’ Us locals should know our own history clearly. If customers ask you three questions and you don’t know how to answer two and a half of them, that’s too shameful,” said Li. In order to better guide his tour, he reads newspapers every day, and when he finds stories related to Shichahai, he always clips them and puts them inside his books.  
There are about 300 pedicab drivers in the Shichahai area, most of whom are migrant workers. Beijing-born drivers are few. The various Chinese dialects and the imaginatively told – and often inaccurate – tales recounted by drivers can be amusing, but they are also frustrating for professionals.  

The amateur tour guides, their stories full of mistakes, make the Houhai Baye quite indignant. Li once heard a driver introducing Kaorouji as “the oldest restaurant in Shichahai, an old brand which has lasted through the Yuan, Ming and Qing dynasties, with more than 160 years of history…” “How can the three dynasties of Yuan, Ming and Qing only last a hundred years?” Li grumbled, knowing that the three dynasties collectively lasted more than six centuries.  

The predecessors of pedicabs were rickshaws, drawn by pure manpower rather than the combination of machinery and pedaling (or engines) in the pedicabs today. The first rickshaw business in Beijing emerged in the 1930s. It was a common and cheap means of transportation till the beginning of the 1980s. Many describe Houhai Baye as the “Modern ‘Camel Xiangzi’,” a fictional rickshaw puller in the renowned Beijing-born Chinese author Lao She’s classic novel, Rickshaw Boy, which was published in 1937.  
But Li doesn’t like the analogy. “That’s not the same. Today’s “rickshaw men” are the ones who promote the culture of Shichahai and old Beijing. We don’t do it just to make a living” Li told NewsChina.  

As more and more migrants – bar singers, waiters, and peddlers – move into the hutongs, spending around 2,000 yuan (US$296) per month to rent a single room of a courtyard house, many local residents moved out. Some of the Houhai Baye have the finances and the opportunity to move to newly built apartments, but they still insist on staying where they were born.  

“If I moved away, I would get sick!” Fifth Master Song cannot get used to apartment living. He feels dizzy when looking down from the thirteenth floor. He sticks to pedicab driving not only as a means to make a living, but to exercise his body. He feeds the birds, walks the dog, chews the fat with old neighbors, and buys the same lottery number every week. “That’s what life should be!” said Song.  

Big Master Wen told our reporter that he is in his fifties, but physically 30 and mentally 20. The oldest of the eight, Third Master Li, retired this year. His family strongly urged him to rest since they knew that his right knee, due to long years of pedaling, had been painful for the last six months. Now Li has become the spokesman of the Houhai Baye team and also takes charge of teaching newly recruited drivers about Houhai culture.  
The eight aged masters are eager to find successors. They started a “Houhai Baye Jr.” project a few years ago in the hope of recruiting educated college graduates and even foreigners to better promote hutong culture, but received few responses. This year, after the Beijing Design Week, “Houhai Baye Jr.’s Hutong Memories Salvation Association” was established, hoping to find more young people who love hutong culture and history.  

“The true beauty of Shichahai is in its culture. If one day the eight of us all have to leave our pedicabs, I hope that the culture of the old Beijing city, the culture of Shichahai, can still be passed on,” Li said, his voice suddenly serious.