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.