Nan Luogu Xiang (I, II)

I’ve never been able to find a satisfactory translation for “neighborhood” in Chinese. There are some words, like 社区 or 邻里, that get one of the aspects – the “location” aspect, generally – but there’s nothing with the dual etymological heritage of “friendly/neighborly conduct” (the original meaning of the word) and “place where people live together.” Certainly I don’t know of any Chinese word that implies to me the sense of community, the block parties and barbeques and bocce games, that the English word conjures up. Maybe it’s a personal thing and I just expect too much of neighborhoods; maybe there really isn’t an equivalent Chinese concept; maybe there are things going on that I, as a foreigner, am just not seeing. At any rate, I always found Chinese city life to be incredibly alienating, and more or less despaired of ever finding a place with an actual sense of community – until a friend took me to Nan Luogu Xiang last year.

Nan Luogu Xiang – South Gong and Drum Lane – is a small hutong alley in the Dongcheng district of Beijing, not far from the Bell and Drum Towers, in the old part of town. On the south end of the alley is Ping’an Da Dao, the million-lane arterial monstrosity that the city tore in an east-west swatch through old neighborhoods ten years ago; on the north end is 鼓楼东大街 East Drum Tower Street. Between the two – though mostly around the middle of the street, in the stretch between 帽儿胡同 (Hat Alley) and 沙井胡同 (Sands-Well Alley) – are about a dozen little cafes, each with its own style and its own regulars. Inside, the cafes are mostly quite cozy – a plus in Beijing winters, when the wind will take the skin off you – and serve coffee of varying degrees of quality.
Everyone gets along here; it’s not uncommon for cafe owners and patrons to go out and get dinner together, or sit around and chat until the sun comes up, and it’s the kind of place where if you left your wallet at home, you can owe them. Artsy locals and media types hang out in the area, and most of the foreigners are fellow lifers who’ve been here for donkey’s years and are always good conversation.

So I moved there as soon as I could, and four months later the Beijing City Management office declared war on the alley.

There had been rumors for months: they were going to make Nan Luogu Xiang a pedestrian street; they were going to route more of the bicycle rickshaws from Houhai through it; Hat Alley was going to get levelled and turned into a parking lot; some guy from Dongbei had dropped a hundred mil on buying a courtyard and renovating it into a hotel down at the corner of Nan Luogu Xiang and Chrysanthemum Alley. But then, nothing in China can be considered successful until there are rumors that the government is going to crack down on it, and nothing ever came of the rumors until June, when a bunch of the cafe owners along the streets were informed by clipboard-wielding representatives of the city management office that their places of business were “illegal construction” and would be torn down without compensation.
The sofa alcove at 9:30 was illegal. So were the front stoop of Republic of Coffee, the second floors of Drum and Gong and Fish Nation, the glassed-in front wall of the French place that a nice young French couple had opened a month before, the front wall of Here Cafe and the half of Xiao Xin’s Place that housed the eponymous Xiao Xin’s kitchen.

Questions swirled. Why the sudden shock and horror at finding construction in Beijing that hadn’t been zoned? How could they appeal the City Management’s decision? Was this for real, or just an unusually elaborate solicitation for a bribe? If it was for real, when would they start tearing things down? Only one thing was clear: from the local residents to the cafe owners to the 居委会 residents’ committee to the 商委会 business association to the customers, everybody was against it – but nobody knew where to start.
The residents’ committee – one of the more basic Party organisms – tried to get some answers, and was more or less ignored. The owner of Xique pulled some strings and got his place overlooked.
Sandglass Cafe was technically a residential space, so it got off. Everybody else waited for the ax to fall.

Two weeks ago, I got out of work late and walked back home to find that half of the road at Nan Luogu Xiang was gone, torn up by an army of orange-vested, short, stocky rural Chinese with jackhammers and shovels. There were mounds of evil-smelling dirt all up and down the first 50 meters of the street, and bits of rubble from where they’d knocked down illegally constructed walls. You could’ve used it as the set for a war movie, as long as you took down the banners saying “WE APOLOGIZE FOR THE INCONVENIENCE” and “50 DAYS OF CONCERTED WORK WILL RESTORE THE SEMBLANCE OF THE ANCIENT CAPITAL” and “PROMOTE SOCIAL HARMONY, SUPPORT THE RESTORATION EFFORTS.” Philip – a British friend of mine who owns part of the Drum and Gong – was yelling into his phone, trying to get residents and business owners together to come to a meeting he’d managed to arrange with City Management the next afternoon, and I thought of something that happened in Philadelphia a few years ago.

Veterans Stadium in South Philadelphia was a falling-apart old shitheap, and the city wanted a new stadium. They looked at a few sites and then settled on one in Philadelphia’s Chinatown. Before the mayor’s press conference was over, people had started organizing. The next day, they had their own press conference. The next week, they started circulating petitions and putting together demonstrations. It started as a Chinatown neighborhood group effort, then snowballed into something bigger: the Quakers got on board, and labor groups, and other neighborhood organizations. They marched, they chanted, they sold t-shirts saying “NO STADIUM IN CHINATOWN,” the profits from which went to fund the effort. It went on for the better part of a year, and then the mayor backed down and said that upon reflection, Chinatown might not be the best place for the stadium to go. The neighborhood had won.

Hardly anybody went to the meeting Philip put together. Afterwards people came up to him and said they were sorry, they didn’t agree with what was going on either, but there was nothing they could do about it, Mei banfa, there’s no way — the unofficial motto of the Chinese people.

It rained the other day, and sledgehammers came through the front wall of Here Cafe. When I walked outside, Nan Luogu Xiang was a river of shit-smelling mud, flanked on both sides by the rubble of a neighborhood.

Comments (12)

  1. Gin wrote::

    You are right that the word neighborhood has no equivalence in Chinese (I used to have trouble remembering its spelling because not only the concept but the spelling is so foreign). 社区 is a relatively recent attempt at it but it conveys more “community” than neighborhood. That is, community is more organized, more defined (say by a development boundary) than a neighborhood. The fast-becoming-ancient word of 街坊 has a ring of neighborhood in that it originally refers to the location but later means the people as well.

    I suspect that we do not tend to form a grassroot community based on living locale because (1) there usually is an official organization for the locale already and (2) each neighborhood member tends to be preoccupied with enough family-tie activities. We raely have neighborhood BBQ or picnics. Rather, we go for 社区大会 or 街坊斗欧…. which when happens, we refer to the gang from our neighborhood as 我们胡同的人.

    The word block is hard to translate, too.

    Thursday, July 27, 2006 at 7:16 am #
  2. chriswaugh_bj wrote::

    Hmmm, yes, but I’ve seen plenty of neighbourhood-type activities going on, from the two yangge groups that practiced under 劲松桥, one at each end of the bridge, almost every evening to various long-running majiang and chess games on the sides of roads or in housing estates to the local grannies and grandpas shooting the breeze and taking care of the toddlers out in the courtyard. Seems to me this is the Chinese equivalent of a neighbourhood, even if the word has no equivalent in the Chinese language.

    Thursday, July 27, 2006 at 11:45 pm #
  3. John wrote::

    Nice piece. Maybe I’m the only one, but it left me sort of melancholy and reflective rather than analytical and linguisticky.

    Saturday, July 29, 2006 at 10:42 pm #
  4. michael wrote::

    I fell in love with Nan Luogu Xiang as soon as I came across it last year, and decided
    I wanted to live there. After some thought, though, I realised it was too good to be true. I knew it would only be a matter of time before it was “developed”. Circumstances have taken me away from BJ, but it still saddens me to hear that the hutong is being torn up. Pedestrianisation sounds good in theory, but I fear it will lead to the whole area becoming a fake tourist hutong. Let’s hope not.

    Sunday, July 30, 2006 at 8:30 pm #
  5. Max wrote::

    I dunno, in my neighborhood in Shenzhen’s Nanshan district, there was a pretty cool sense of community, and I felt like I was included in a lot of the goings on there. However, maybe that’s because my neighborhood was sort of isolated from the rest of the city to begin with. We all knew most everyone else who lived around there, and it was a pretty good time usually.

    Monday, July 31, 2006 at 1:20 am #
  6. John B wrote::

    As long as 没办法 is how the Chinese people (as a mass) “fight back” against BS things that happen to them then they deserve everything they get, including the destruction of their culture in a mad rush to build things that can be found in every other city on Earth.

    I wonder: when everything in Beijing, Shanghai, and the rest that is more than 50 years old is leveled and replaced by replicas of the very things that were leveled, will the tourists stop coming? Or will they come and ohh and aww about how that thing that was built six months ago looks so old.

    (argh, this Chinese urban renewal thing gets under my skin)

    Monday, July 31, 2006 at 1:29 pm #
  7. Michael – the word on the street is that all of the “古都风貌” bullshit on the banners strung up around the place, plus rumors that the city has selected “model hutongs,” suggests that they’re going to graft an ersatz Yuan-dynasty facade onto everything and turn it into a toy street. It’s very depressing.

    Max – Yeah, I’m sure there are places that are like this, but I hadn’t seen any. People in Harbin were basically friendly enough, but there was never any chance of becoming real friend with them, and the parts of Beijing that I lived in before were mostly pretty remote and forsaken.

    Monday, July 31, 2006 at 1:33 pm #
  8. Also, Gin and Chris –

    There’s a fantastic speech, “A City of Neighborhoods,” by Harvey Milk, San Francisco’s first gay city councilman. I looked online, but Google doesn’t seem to have it; on the other hand, the US Embassy website actually has a Chinese-language edition of the speech at “哈维.米尔克 – 由街道组成的城市.” Check it out, if you have the time – it seems to be a pretty good translation, although


    strikes me as less pleasing than the original

    “Make no mistake, the American Dream starts with our neighborhoods. If we wish to rebuild our cities, we must first rebuild our neighborhoods. To do that, we must understand that our quality of life is more important than our lifestyles. To sit on the front steps, whether it’s the veranda in a small town or a concrete stoop in a big city, and talk to our neighbors is infinitely more important than to huddle on the living-room lounger and watch a make-believe world in not-quite living color.”

    Anyway, it’s this vision of neighborhoods – both as a community and, more importantly, as a political unit – that I remember from Philadelphia, and that I find really lacking here. Chris, you’re quite right about people dancing or playing chess on the streets, but it still doesn’t seem to be on the same order – perhaps because it just isn’t something that I’ll ever be able to be a part of – as neighborhood activities back home.
    The original speech is in The American Reader, edited by Diane Ravitch (if I recall correctly) – I’ll have to pick up a copy the next time I’m back in the States; it’s a great anthology.

    Monday, July 31, 2006 at 1:58 pm #
  9. jyzook wrote::


    I got on a blog reading frenzy the last few days after stumbling across the entries of a guy from my university who’s teaching English in China over the summer.

    These blogs provided a lot of food for thought – I’m culturally indentured as a Westener since my family immigrated to Canada when I was seven and Canada and its education system being the lefty pinko paradise it is, my politics are pretty social democrat; I care a lot more Hutongs or loss of dialects about than the average Chinese teenagers my age does.

    Usually this fact upsets me a lot whenever I go back to China (this entry about the Hutongs near Drum/Clock towers hit particularly close because I stayed in the neighbourhood with family friends when I visited Beijing) but after reading obversations that often come up in the last few days, there’s been a semi-epithany about the shit-raising ability of an average Chinese person who’s gone through the education system.

    There isn’t an inate capacity for most people to be shit disturbers – questioning authority, natural search for intellectual change, whatever. This doesn’t matter so much in the West because there is enough residual ‘openess’ to rebellion and authority defiance in the structures of society and education systems that a baseline level seeps through to everyone. Of course, to go in activist mode there’s still someone who cares significantly more than this residual baseline and there’s a few people like this no matter where in the world, in what political system or culture. However, for any movement to get off the ground, there has to be enough semi passive support – to to write the missives, but to show up. And because there’s the … culture.. of .. resisting..? already present in the West, it’s a lot easier to ‘do stuff,’ so there will be more examples of the type you described and greater chances of success. (But it’s still damned hard. As a part of several of these.. activist-y groups, it’s a constant battle to occupy mindspace and to get people to /care/ and…empowered (good lord what a positive synergy winwin!word))

    Anyway, to get back to China, such a cultural base just doesn’t exist. Like with the West, the firebrands are around, but without bandwagon-jumpers (and this is not meant to be derogatory in any way) the chances of …. action … and their success rates are signficantly lessened. Of course, with so many occurrences of unlawful/shady land seizing, inequality, cultural annihilation, even signficantly lessened still translates to high numbers. (something like 20000 protests last year alone? the majority of them hushed and no concrete result, but it’s still something)

    I brought up this theory of baseline ‘openess’ level with my mom over supper today and she thinks it makes sense, at least for the people she knows in her generation.

    Anyway, I mostly posted this in response to John’s comment. I think he’s absolutely right at some level – if they don’t recognize the value then pfft – but then it’s the sort of malicious I level at the US and Canada when I get bitter – you totally deserve the loser you elected and the rising oil prices and the loss of the majority of your coastal cities and weird ass weather in the coming century. In a perfect world everyone thinks for themselves and make meaningful choices because they’re few and far in between, but I’m beginning to think that freethink is as indoctorined as the stuff happening in China.

    Face it: few people are like Martin Luther King Jr. or Ghandi and it’s not their fault. On a brighter note, let’s all subvert The System anway we can. (and no, wearing a che shirt does not count. neither does listening to RATM)


    Tuesday, August 1, 2006 at 11:57 am #
  10. jyzook wrote::

    crap. that’s the last time I’m posting anything anywhere without proofreading. the grammar and spelling police demand death by hanging.

    *”and makes meaningful choices but they’re few and far in between” NOT “and make meaningful choices because they’re few and far in between.”

    Tuesday, August 1, 2006 at 12:09 pm #
  11. chriswaugh_bj wrote::

    Mr O’Kane, late response because I spend four days a week without a regular phone let alone internet. Sorry. You seem to see, judging from your response, what I see about neighbourhoods in China. To be honest, I never figured out how to be a part of it, either, despite my rather incompetent attempts. The closest I’ve got is out in Yanqing, where the neighbourhood in question mostly consists of people genetically related to my very-soon-to-be-wife. My point is despite the lack of an appropriate word, there is something there that approximates to neighbourhood.

    Shit, dude, I’m sorry to hear what’s happening down your way. I’m beginning to lose faith in Beijing. Really. This used to be the city of history and culture storming into the new century. Now I think the place has been overrun by newly rich wankers and idiot fucking yuppies. I used to love Sanlitun South Street, now I just put my head down and storm my way rugby-style to the Tree when it’s necessary. I used to think of Hou Hai as a quiet, beautiful alternative. I used to like Wudaokou. Now what? Guess I’ve gotta start my own bar scene in Yanqing. Fuck.

    Friday, August 4, 2006 at 5:25 pm #
  12. lumberjack wrote::

    I also found it difficult to find ready Chinese translation for words such as neighbouthood or community. This is true with Chinese word 单位 unit, which you can hardly find a proper English translation. In the past, I believe most residential areas were 单位-based community, where people of the same unit lived together. In Chinese conversation, when people ask, “where do you live?”, most of the time the answer will be “i live at the unit.” But now most of the units have ceased to provide housing for the employees. They have to buy their own apartments in a residential area where they are total strangers to each other. I think that’s why it makes people feel so alienating. However, sometimes they do get together to protest against the real estate developers for their empty promises. Maybe this is the beginning of community activity with Chinese characteristis. Still, this kind of neighberhood in China is not same as US ones. I found this sentence in the definition of the word neighborhood: My neighborhood voted for Bush. Well, for Chinese neighborhood, they can only voice their support for the wise decision of the party. Vote? No, at least in the foreseeable future. That explains why their houses can be bulldozed at will to make way for fancy roads or highrises. The political cost of such decisions is nil.

    Saturday, August 19, 2006 at 12:32 pm #