Reduced to Memories: Tianjin’s hutongs

If you’ve read the previous posts on Tianjin’s Nanshi hutongs, then a few of these photos and stories will be familiar, but not all. This was the cover story for a local ex-pat magazine this month, but the blog version has more photos and better editing. ;) I submitted this on May 5, four days after the residents’ final move-out date. I haven’t been back yet, but locals tell me it’s all gone now.

Click the photos to see them bigger. These aren’t the best photos from the gallery, but each one matches the nearby text. [LEGAL: All rights reserved.]

Reduced to Memories: Tianjin’s historic and infamous Nanshi hutongs, and the residents who called them home.

A first and final look at an older Tianjin
“Nǐ gàn shénme?” (你干什么?) His voice startles me; the condemned low-rise apartment building I’m photographing is in such bad condition that I’d subconsciously assumed it was long abandoned. I look up; an older man stares down at me from over a second story railing. “What are you doing?” he asks again.

I try to explain myself in my poor, Mandarin-student Chinese: “I’ve heard these places will soon be gone, but I feel they’re special and have a lot of history, so I’m walking around taking photos.”

He stares at me for few seconds before saying, “Wait just a moment. I’ll put a shirt on and come down.” The realization suddenly dawns on me when he emerges tottering on his cane from the near pitch-black stairwell and tells me to follow him – I’ve just acquired a personal tour guide for Nánshì, one of Tianjin’s most fascinating but quickly vanishing historical neighbourhoods. Grandpa Wú leads me out and tries to help me imagine what the crumbling, rubble-strewn market streets were like in their heyday. At the best of times this wasn’t a comfortable, pretty part of town, but for him and thousands Tianjiners like him this soon-to-be extinct place with its soon-to-be extinct lifestyle was home.

What’s left of Tianjin’s Nánshì (南市: “south city”) sits between the Nanshi Food Street tourist market (南市食品街; nánshì shípǐn jiē) and the Hai River (海河; hǎi hé), southeast of the Old City (天津旧城; tiānjīn jiù chéng). It developed into an incredibly dense market area near the river where goods would come in, with all the best and the worst of the city crammed into a few square kilometers. Now, if you step out of the rubble and cross a few lanes of traffic, you’ll find yourself in the middle of a trendy new shopping centre with Western fast-food restaurants, thumping bass, and expensive clothing stores. According to the area’s remaining residents and demolition workers, Nánshì is getting razed and turned into a park as part of Tianjin’s colossal effort to “welcome the Olympics” (迎奥运; yíng àoyùn). New high-rises and building cranes already dominate the horizon in most directions. The people I talked with had until May 1st to move out. They’re given financial compensation with which to find new apartments. Most have already left, but it was still plenty crowded during my final visit in early April.

Reduced to Memories
During my five return visits to the area over a two week period during March and April, Grandpa Wú wasn’t the only local resident who went out of their way to introduce me and some foreigner friends to what was left of their neighbourhoods. Almost everyone was talkative, and the residents encouraged me to photograph what remained of this historical labyrinth of claustrophobia-triggering hútòngs (胡同: “alleys”)and suffocating street markets. People seemed eager to share what was left of the homes they’d known for decades, even as the place literally crumbled before our eyes. One woman invited me in to photograph her family’s home: two small rooms under a typical sloping tiled roof facing the rubble-strewn courtyard that they’d shared with sixteen other families. Another man, old enough to be a great-grandfather, made sure I didn’t miss the stone phoenix and other artwork carved into the main gate of their 200-year-old walled compound.

Far from being an authoritative statement on the people and history of this special part of Tianjin, this is a subjective first and final look at a way of living in Tianjin that will soon be extinct, informed mostly by street-level impressions and the comments residents chose to share.

A colourful place with a notorious past

Grandpa Wú leads me out of the maze of alleyways and walks me down the middle of a main street. A dumpling restaurant, a tea house, a beauty parlour, a pharmacy, and an “adult store” are the only businesses in operation that I can see. Most of the street is lined with rubble that sprawls out of old storefronts, now just skeletons of walls and empty windows; some broken mannequins lay amidst the bricks and stacks of salvaged roofing beams. A couple snack stalls, a three-wheeled key maker’s booth, and a “telephone bar” (a stool with a telephone on it) are sprinkled down the road. “This place used to especially lively,” Mr. Wú explains. “So many vendors and so many people you could hardly even get a bike through!” He laughs at the memory. We walk together a ways, stopping in the middle of an intersection. Parked bicycles crowd the entrance to a public bathhouse on one corner, where for 5元 ($0.71) you can spend all day soaking, napping and smoking with your friends. “Take photos freely! Take photos freely!” he repeatedly urges, and not for the first time, pointing at neighbours and old-fashioned store signs (你随便照; nǐ suíbiàn zhào).

Depending on where you stood, Nánshì could look and feel very different, though nowhere was it not cramped, and nowhere was it not swimming in rubble and garbage. I felt small wandering underneath the crisscrossing clotheslines hung between the stiff brick walls of low-rise apartment buildings. One family that had yet to move out said the apartments were built after the disastrous Tangshan earthquake in 1976, but these buildings were so trashed out by the time I saw them they looked more like they’d been through the Tangshan earthquake. Other sections reminded me of historical photographs of old China; classic one-storey courtyard communities with their sloping tiled roofs formed even tighter mazes of narrow alleyways and drying laundry. Some blocks still stood intact, others were entirely reduced to mounds of brick, and often a family’s living space bordered a desolate expanse of brick. The sheer number of bricks – shoulder-height oceans of bricks – was astounding. Kids played on them; older residents gazed at them as they walked between the piles, their faces inscrutable. In some places scavengers loaded them onto wheelbarrows and trucks, along with roofing beams. The only places where I could imagine echoes of the past were the market streets, where a fair handful of remaining street vendors showed that these well-worn lanes still had some life left in them.

Somewhere in the midst of all this, the Nánshì of yesterday earned itself a citywide reputation far exceeding what I’d imagined Grandpa Wú to mean when he said, “especially lively” (特别热闹; tèbié rènao: “especially hot-noisy”).

No Man’s Land (三不管)
The verb guǎn (管) means to take care of; to manage; to control; to be in charge of. It’s also what Nánshì is infamously remembered for lacking. Before Liberation (1949), part of Nánshì was called “Three No-guǎn” (三不管; sān bù guǎn). Exactly how it got this name is apparently up for debate, but neither option is flattering. One explanation says the three “no-guǎn”’s were: (1) no one to manage where people bury the dead, (2) no one to manage the fighting, and (3) no one to manage the cheating and kidnapping.* The other explanation points to three governments who refused to take responsibility for it. Sandwiched between foreign concession areas and Chinese-governed territory, the foreign concession administrations couldn’t agree on who had jurisdiction and the Chinese government of the day wouldn’t step in. It was an ungoverned no man’s land, a haven for organized crime and “black societies” (黑社会; hēi shèhuì), famous for its exotic street performers (卖艺的人; mài yì de rén) and entertainment offerings. Violence, prostitution, and theft were no strangers. I have yet to find a Tianjiner, university student or retiree, who hasn’t heard of “Nánshì Sānbùguǎn.”

“Nail Houses” (钉子户)

A tiny couple drags their sānlúnchē (三轮车: the pickup truck of bicycles) up a few steps, past two weatherworn stone lions, underneath the intricate woodwork of an old but still impressive traditional-looking gate. I follow them in and begin a conversation. They’ve lived in this walled compound for over 50 years, raising three children in a close-knit, semi-communal living space. Eventually, my three friends and I accept their repeated invitations to step inside their 20 square metres and sit down for a chat. An enlarged wedding photo from 1953 hangs over their bed. A small pigeon coup rests on a ledge underneath a grapevine trellis outside the window. This couple hasn’t left yet, even though a backhoe is tearing down the neighbouring apartments with as we speak. One of their sons is visiting, and he says they haven’t left because they’re still discussing the price per square metre. Workers smashing the walls of their immediate neighbours’ apartments with sledge hammers say the couple has until May 1st to leave. A quick walk through what’s left of the rest of the compound reveals that they aren’t the only ones taking their time moving out.

Their compound, which neighbours said was around 200 years old, has changed drastically over the course of two weeks. The stone lions and artistic woodwork have disappeared from the entrance. Just to the left of an old propaganda sign reading “Be more scientific, establish a new atmosphere,”** a backhoe punched a hole through the outer wall before rolling in and toppling every unoccupied living space. Back in the old days this compound had four sections that each held twenty families. By April 6, the inner walls of the all the living spaces had been transformed into a chest-deep ocean of bricks – except for three suddenly conspicuous houses, one of which belonged to the elderly couple. Although they still had three weeks to go before the move-out date, seeing these little homes besieged on all sides by a rising tide of rubble immediately made me think of the infamous “nail house” (钉子户; dīngzi hù) photos from Chongqing last year, which eventually made international news. But Nánshì, I suspect, will go quietly. No one I met seemed in the mood to put up much of a fight.

Accepting the end of an era
The vertical, parallel banners hanging on the front doors read, “In the New Year welcome the Olympics! God’s country, go for it!”*** A single Chinese character painted on the outside wall says, “Demolish.” An old black and white photograph lies in the dirt next to the pile of bricks that used to be the neighbours’ house. But the family living behind the Olympic door seems genuinely happy to chat. Curious, smiling neighbours from one lane over join our conversation, which is virtually identical to most of the conversations I’ve had in Nánshì, and prompts the same answers to my questions: That’s right, it will all be flattened in about two months. What? No, we haven’t found a place to move to yet. The young people are happy to move out. Some of the old people are maybe a little sad.

I wasn’t surprised when residents occasionally complained about the amount of compensation, but I was surprised at how they generally seemed not negative toward the situation. As a 21st century North American, it’s hard to imagine myself in a similar situation and virtually impossible to imagine being happy about it. Yet on the whole Nánshì’s residents seemed to imply that overall, moving out is a good thing. This wasn’t a great place to live as far as facilities go; it’s rundown, crowded, dirty and noisy. And maybe considerations of individual preference and sentiment just can’t hold a candle to the feelings of immense national, cultural, and racial pride that come from playing even the tiniest part in hosting what many Mainlanders hope will be the greatest international party in world history.

We say goodbye to Nánshì, step across the road, and sit down outside a Starbucks on the corner of Nanshi Food Street, the plastic, tourist-friendly allusion to the famously vibrant street markets of Nánshì’s past. Both the tourist trap and the crumbling neighbourhoods with their depleted population and last gasps of street-side commerce are literally a stone’s throw away. It’s jarring to sip overpriced, bourgeois status symbol drinks in full view of that place and its people, with whom we’d just spent several hours. The four of us, all North Americans, realize that this scene says something profound – about us, about China, about our cultures and countries – but our young minds can’t yet put it into words. Maybe one day. In the meantime, I look forward to seeing Mr. Wǔ again. He’s invited over for dumplings, after he’s moved in to his new place.

* “乱葬岗子 (随便埋死人) 没人管;打架斗殴没人管;坑蒙拐骗没人管”
** “讲科学,树新风” (jiǎng kēxué,shù xīnfēng).
*** “新年迎奥运神州齐加油” (xīnnián yíng àoyùn, shénzhōu qí jiāyóu).

We’re gone for a couple nights to celebrate our 6th anniversary! Happy weekend to all.

7 thoughts on “Reduced to Memories: Tianjin’s hutongs”

  1. Great article Joel.
    Happy Anniversary to you two!!!! Glad you get to go away for a couple days! :) Could it really be 6 years? yikes!!!

  2. Joel,

    Really quickly because there are about 7 million things I should be doing right now…

    It has been a while since I checked out your blog but 1) it is really cool, and I should do it more often and it is so interesting hearing about and seeing life on the other side of the planet 2) I thought you might want to know that I saw a few of these pictures and thought “What the heck is Darren doing in China?”

    Not that you two haven’t heard THAT before!

    Happy Anniversary, and God bless the two of you. We will try to update our blog more regularly when the baby comes (in a month – ahhh!!!!)

  3. Jen,

    What, Darren didn’t tell you? We’ve been swapping every second Thursday for the last five years.

    Will it be baby or thesis first?

  4. This is a great article. I guess any time a country jumps into an industrial revolution it doesn’t know quite what to do with it’s cities and the mass hoards of people that come into them. There was some serious community developed in these places. People loved their experiences, man they were some pritty cool experiences from what it looked like.

    Congratulations on the Anniversary and Dude great article.

  5. Well, I don’t want to romanticize it. More often than not these places were overcrowded, noisy, dirty, bad plumbing, and everyone was in everyone else’s business. People, especially the old people, miss it because it was their home; it’s where all the memories are. And moving to apartment blocks on the outside of town can seem lonely, and people in that situation do sometimes say they miss the old neighbourhood feeling of the hutongs. But they also have plenty to complain about regarding the hutongs as well. There was an article a few months back in China Today about this very thing – old people relocated to apartments trying to forge an old sense of community in a new living environment.

  6. I had no idea. I live just down the street from Nanshi Shipin Jie, and this must be where they’ve nearly completed a new development, just across the street from it. I had no idea there was a place like this there. I ride the bus by it often and I never thought about what must have been there before.

  7. When we left Tianjin, on the backside of Food Street they had long rows of high billboards ringing a huge patch of mostly cleared land (where all these pictures were taken). You wouldnt see it if you didn’t deliberately go looking for it (or go, hey, I wonder what’s behind these billboards?). I have never in my life seen so many bricks all at one time.

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