In the two years I have been living in Beijing, I have made a point of trying to avoid the tourists in this city, as I certainly didn’t come half way across the world just to hob-nob with Brits and Yanks and other tourists of every description. And that’s probably why I have never really explored an area just to the south of Tiananmen Square – the area around Qianmen which is known as Dashilan.
But all that changed one day when I happened to pick up a discarded copy of Time Out Beijing which was running a ‘Treasure Hunt’ competition in various parts of the capital. The idea was that you visit some out-of-the-way places, count how many electricity meters outside a particular shop, or check the price of some goods inside or identify some statue or other – you get the idea – and then send in your answers to take part in a grand draw for some wonderful prize that you probably never really wanted anyway. And it got me thinking that maybe I should explore some of these areas before I leave the country when it will then be all too late.
So one morning at the crack of dawn I set off across the city to Qianmen station on subway line 2. Qianmen is the colloquial name for Zhengyangmen, a splendid gate in Beijing's historic city wall which once guarded the southern entrance into the Inner City.
Running due south is Qianmen Avenue itself – a glorified tourist trap that sells expensive tat for those with little or no taste (or am I being too judgemental, I wonder?).
According to a web site called leapleapleap.com, “wedged between the faux-historic simulacrum of Qianmen Avenue and the vast socialist-utopian void of Tiananmen Square—and comprising of every stratum of Beijing’s past (making it a pastiche in the most authentic sense)—Dashilar can if anything be said to exist in a kind of in-between state.”… whatever that means!
100 meters or so down Qianmen Avenue I make a right turn away from the very unfunny clown making an embarrassingly bad job of trying to walk like Charlie Chaplin…
…and into the commercial heart of Old Beijing, inhabited by the ghosts of opium dens, tearooms and Chinese opera houses. (Well, that’s what the tourist books would have you believe!)
Dashilan Street (which BTW is also spelt Dashilar) is one of the most ancient, famous and distinctive commercial hutongs (or old alleyways) of Beijing. Now, it is famous for all kinds of stores with a so-called antique flavour. Every day it is said there are 150,000 -160,000 visitors, though on weekends and public holidays, this increases to more than 200,000.
The street started off in the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368) and in the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) local people put wooden fences at either end. In the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) and beyond, it was enlarged and grew in prosperity. In the 1960s, it was upgraded and became the first asphalted road in the city. In the 1990s, in order to win the title 'First Pedestrian Street of Beijing', the fences at either end were repaired and in 2000, iron fences were added by the local municipal government. In 2008 it was completely revitalised to cash in on the Olympics and apparently it hasn’t looked back since.
Dashilan Street is famous, among other things, for a number of old and famous stores which have been there since time immemorial. Rui Fu Xiang is a silk store. There were once eight old-fashioned silk stores here, with 'Xiang' (which means auspicious) in their names but now only Rui Fu Xiang still remains. Liu Bi Ju is a pickle shop which was first opened in the Ming Dynasty. Visitors can also buy traditional herbal medicines in Tong Ren Tang and drink tea in Zhang Yi Yuan...
In this tea shop is a replica of a Ming dynasty-style teapot crafted by a master artist. (Yes, I know it looks like something you can pick up in almost any general store, but don’t let the facts get in the way of a good story!) This grand teapot, we are told, symbolises the everlasting flow of Chinese tea culture flowing into the present.
Slightly along the street is Nei Lian Sheng - a shoe store that was put on the list of State-Level Intangible Cultural Heritage in 2008 (in other words, another tourist draw at the time of the Olympics). Nei signifies working in the royal court; Lian Sheng means to be promoted. At first, this store made only court boots, but the shoes here are still popular today and the shop is heaving with people as I pass by.
The locals obviously believe in life-sized statues to draw in the crowds. This one outside Qing Yun Ge shows a lady-of-leisure being brought dumplings (she was probably wearing a corset when posing for the sculptor!). Some of the shop staff are shooing away camera-toting tourists who want to have their pictures taken with this dumpling lady – which all goes to show that they haven’t got a clue about marketing!
Dashilan was not only the commercial centre of the old city, but also a centre of entertainment. During the most prosperous times, there were five Opera theatres. In addition, Beijing’s oldest cinema, Da Guan Lou, can be found just a little way up from Qianmen Avenue. This movie theatre was first opened in 1903 by one of the fathers of Chinese cinema, Ren Qingtai. The first film in China was shown in this cinema and a century later it is still in use.
In its foyer is a small museum as well as a coffee bar…
The farther the distance you walk from Qianmen, the thinner the crowds, and the less intrusive the stores and hawkers. Once you have crossed west over Meishi Jie, you start to see some of the “real” old Beijing, with the weathered remains of centuries-old hotels and dilapidated tea houses. This side of Dashilan is much more charming. In fact it is said that Dashilan is the only place in Beijing in which a whole section of hutongs is well-preserved. There are other places with hutongs, but they're now run down or the buildings aren't original.
According to Time Out’s Treasure Hunt, I should head down Zhujia Hutong to gaze at an abandoned brothel from the pre-revolutionary era. “The imposing pillbox-like structure purports to be a tea house. The sign above the door says as much. Actually ‘er deng cha shi’ – loosely meaning ‘second category tea house’ – was a barely concealed code for ‘second category brothel’. The four classifications of brothel based on the attractiveness of the working girls were actually determined by the local legislature who decriminalised prostitution after the Boxer Rebellion in part so they could tax the industry to help pay the huge tariffs imposed by the victorious allied forces.”
I walk back up the street and see one of the few man-powered rickshaws passing by. Most rickshaws these days are either pedal powered, or have a motorbike engine doing the leg work.
Across the road is a shop, which at first glance puzzles me. Is it a pharmacy, I wonder? No! It is a restaurant. It all becomes clear when you translate the Chinglish sign outside. ‘The best in all the land of powder’ is, of course, vermicelli noodles (which are made from rice powder, hence the name). ‘The Chongqing hemp burns very hot’ is Chongqing hot pot. And ‘authentic mutton string’ refers to lamb kebabs!
Further on still is a bizarrely-named hostel – the Three Legged Frog, situated in a 400-year-old siheyuan (a northern Chinese courtyard house). The name is bizarre enough… but the depicted frog only has two legs. Perhaps the artist didn’t understand the subtlety of the English name?
Turning into Dawailangying, you come across a building known as “The Factory”, which is a converted factory that is used to stage exhibitions during Beijing’s annual Design Week and at other times of the year. It takes me at least three minutes to work out that the English letters on the outside spell out “Great Adventures” – which is another of Time Out’s Treasure Hunt questions.
Down another side turn – this time into Xiyangmao Hutong , which is off Zhumao Hutong, and after walking past it a couple of times, I finally find what I am looking for … a former opium den tucked into a ramshackle old courtyard which has a vast tree jutting through it. Not that there’s much to see here. Time Out wants to know how many fire extinguishers there are outside. (Your favourite naughty blogger wonders if he should move one, just for the fun of it!)
I resist temptation and head on back the way I came, passing by loads of little siheyuan courtyard houses…
Finally, I cross the road and find myself once again in the 21st century.
Outside one of the shops in Dashilan Street is a splendid pair of Pi Xiu which I determine to add to my collection when I can find the time.
I pop into a bric-a-brac shop to see if there is anything worth buying, but I needn’t have bothered. A sign lets me know there are no bargains to be had…
And so once again I wend my weary way back to the tourists of Qianmen, together with the streetcar that is going nowhere …
On my way home I notice something I have never noticed before, though how I could have missed it I really don’t know – another of the subway’s notorious Chinglish signs positioned behind a hand rail… No, it’s not an arm rest. It really is a hand rail. But someone has been thoughtful and added a sign in Braille, just in case Beijing’s blind population, having made it as far as the subway train itself – which is no mean feat, if you are blind, one has to admit – then need to find a sign positioned behind the rail to let them know that there is a rail in front for holding on to. Believe me, there has to be some kind of weird logic there, don’t you think?