Ice hockey and the last days of old Beijing

hockey_mike meyer.jpg
People's winter sports

Long time China resident Michael Meyer spent the last few years living in a small hutong house near Dashalan'r, south of Tiananmen Square. He taught English at the local school, and became friends with many of the residents of one of the last and most interesting areas of old Beijing.

He has written an entertaining and informative book about his experiences and about the changes that have swept the capital in the reform era: titled Last Days of Old Beijing — Life in the Vanishing Backstreets of a City Transformed.

Below is a chapter of the book, originally titled 'Winter'.

There is a BBC program about Meyer (with Paul Merton) on Youtube, and you can read the publisher's description of the book here. You can buy the whole thing on here.

Forbidden City ice hockey

by Michael Meyer

Beijing’s lakes froze in mid-December, the earliest that the ice had come in for a decade. The polar bear swimmers chopped their hole on the south shore of Front Lake, but skating was difficult due to northern gusts that dumped dust and sand on the surface. Clearing a rink required several hands on whisk brooms, and avoiding the revelers on pali, sleds with metal runners propelled with short stakes.

I used to skate on Front Lake because it provided a clear view of the Drum and Bell towers, Beijing’s former timekeepers. On its lakeshore, an old man who advertised himself as the Skate Sharpening King liked to boast that he had stayed open from 1937 through each of the eight winters that Japanese soldiers occupied the city. He was no match for developers, however. In the winter of 2005, his locale had been fenced off with panels of blue-painted tin shrouding the construction of an upscale restaurant. In a sense, the center of the Old City was reverting to its original form, when it was the playground of royalty and its acolytes.

Now the best skate sharpener worked across town at the rink inside Xidan’s mall. The Hand had rubbed out the area – the sidewalk vendors, cluttered storefronts, and crowds – and replaced it with straight lines. Here a bank, there an office tower, here an underground shopping mall, there a widened intersection, and nowhere shade. Beijing’s famous streets were ceasing to be destinations themselves, changing into viaducts between Point A and Mall B. Due to traffic, an errand such as skate sharpening that used to take a few minutes now took at least an hour.

Every season I played hockey with the same dozen Beijing natives. We only knew each other on the ice, for the month between Christmas and the Chinese New Year, whose beginning was determined by the lunar calendar. It was a different sort of Beijing camaraderie, free from the pressure to reciprocate favors.

After Front Lake began charging a higher fee to use its groomed rink – the ticket included a free coffee at the new Starbucks on the west shore – we moved our game to the Forbidden City’s moat. Plywood painted vermilion to match the neighboring palace towers surrounded the rink on three sides. The stones separating the moat from Zhongshan Park formed the fourth barrier. The park filled at dawn with elderly doing exercises. Women rubbed their backs against the gnarled cypress trees. Old men paced while violently crossing their arms against their chest, belting out opera or phlegm-filled groans that went Uhhh! The quieter the surrounding environment, the noisier Beijingers behaved.

The day’s rink conditions were chalked on a board: air temperature, wind direction, and ice thickness in the sun and shade. I laced up on a bench in the pavilion’s courtyard. A steep wooden ramp provided a running start to the ice. The only advertisement on the rink’s fence was a green banner whose white characters reminded Overpopulation is our nation’s most pressing problem.

Not on the ice. No one else was here. In winter, Beijing’s tourist crowds thinned, the skies were often clear and bright, and public spaces became personal ones. I liked to hike snow-covered paths at the Fragrant Hills and draw fortune sticks from the soothsayer at Tanzhe Temple, both of which emptied of people.

Once the elderly exercisers left, the only sounds on the Forbidden City moat were the scratches of my skates cutting into the ice. The sun rose over the palace walls, and at the top of every hour, the melody of “The East Is Red” chimed from the Ministry of Communication’s clock tower, a mile away. I hung my scarf in the center of a goal as a target, dropped the puck, and began taking shots. I savored the routine; it was the most time I spent alone each day.

The men arrived, wearing hockey gloves, shin pads, and helmets. They set their tea-filled thermoses on the bench and lit cigarettes. Our games were speedy, loose, and fun. The men laughed out loud at their own mistakes. Unlike basketball, hockey is self-regulating; everyone has a stick, so hacking brings a reprisal. The only time we stopped play was when the puck flew over the boards, or one of the men wanted a smoke.

China invented many things, and the men claimed that hockey was one of them. Starting in the seventeenth century, when China was ruled by Manchu from the north, the imperial court held ice games on the central lakes every December. Soldiers from the Eight Banners -- military units that lived inside the Imperial City -- competed in a series of events on skates made by sliding a blade into a grooved shoe soul.

The emperor watched from the shore on a sable-lined divan. The games began with a cannon shot, meant to demonstrate the safety of the ice, followed by two hundred banner men skating past for review. Soldiers divided into teams wearing yellow or red silk robes. Events included chasing after a ball made of feathers (hence the hockey claim), and drawing a bow and firing at a suspended orb while whizzing past at full speed. Acrobats performed on skates as “dancing dragon missiles.” In the final event, soldiers donned pig-skin shoes and attempted to stay upright as they slid down an ice slope three to four stories high.

That may not be enough to convince a Canadian of hockey’s origin, but skating remained a popular Beijing pastime after the fall of the last emperor. “Skating on natural ice is an old recreation in North China and is much indulged in by children and grown-ups alike,” reported the narrator of The Adventures of Wu, a collection of newspaper columns from 1939 to 1940 that ran in the English-language Peking Chronicle. The book is a gazetteer of pre-Communist hutong life. In its index, I randomly flipped to the letter B, for Beijing. The listed topics included:

badger hunting;
balancers, flagpole;
bamboo, clappers;
banner men, Manchu;
bath, baby’s third-day;
bean curds, almond, stinky;
bear show;
Beating the Blind Tiger (game);
bed, brick-stove (k’ang); God and Goddess of;
beetle-cart man;
Beginning of Winter;
bell, dragon god of;
bill-collecting devil;
boat, service on city moats;
bread, steamed;
bricks, for Peking city wall;
bridge, for the dead; and dragon legend;
brotherhood, sworn;
brush, writing;
buckwheat, cakes; husk pillows;

Wu described the life, from cradle to wedlock, of a lower-middle-class hutong resident named Little Bald Head. Every year, he skated after the weather turned “so cold, even dogs and cats are frozen to death.” His skates were made by mounting blades to squares of wood, then lashing the block to his shoes with leather bands. Back then, speed – not hockey – created a skater’s reputation. Men would race along the city moat to where it met the Grand Canal in today’s suburb of Tongzhou, twenty-six miles away, dodging the holes cut by ice-block sellers and fishermen. A skater would purchase a souvenir to prove he had been there, then cover the distance back to Beijing in ninety minutes.

But even in 1939, the last days of old Beijing seemed near. The emperor had encouraged ice sports, wrote the narrator of The Adventures of Wu, though “skating and sledging are a fast vanishing sight from the frozen water-ways of Peking and the last of them will probably be seen shortly.”

While badger hunting, bear shows, the bill-collecting devil, and even the Skate Sharpening King have disappeared from Beijing, ice-skating is a tradition that lives on.

The public bathhouse survived, too. I biked back to Dazhalan, balancing the hockey stick before me like a lance until I was halted by the motorcade of black Audis that whooshed dignitaries past the Great Hall of the People and Tian’anmen Square.

The sweat froze to my clothes before I reached home. I grabbed a towel and shampoo and shivered on the walk down Red Bayberry and Bamboo Slanted Street, then up a narrow alley lined with painted propaganda scenes exhibiting civic virtue. A globe with a forest for hair held an ax and chased a wood house; a woman handed divorce papers to her cheating husband; another woman lectured, “Eat your medicine!” to a man who had, according to the caption, neglected the cleanliness of his penis.

Beijing had spas that looked imported from a Las Vegas hotel, but the Big Power Bathhouse was not one of them. The entrance ticket cost ten yuan ($1.33), but only eight yuan if you bought twenty in advance. The attendant inked an X in one of my prepaid card’s boxes, took my shoes and socks, and handed over a pair of plastic flip-flops. I locked my clothes in the changing room’s wooden cabinet.

The shower rooms were segregated by sex. Four spigots lined either side of the white-tiled wall. They were not partitioned, just as in the latrine. The same etiquette was expected: bring your own supplies; first come, first served; stay in your own space.

The water was scalding, but its pressure didn’t live up to Big Power’s name. For a few extra yuan, a wiry old man in baby blue Jockey shorts exfoliated my body with a coarse mitten washcloth. When I hopped off his padded table, wads of peeled-off skin outlined where I had lain. “You’re really dirty!” the man said. “I should charge you more, since you are taller than we Chinese!” I waited to enter the small sauna. An old man emerged, carrying an open twenty-ounce bottle of Yanjing beer. He padded to a spigot. As the cool water splashed through his white crew cut and down rolls of flesh, he chugged the bottle dry.

Big Power didn’t have a hair drier, so my head and towel often froze on the walk home. I stopped at the neighborhood internet café to hang my towel over its radiator and check e-mail. The “café” was an undivided room holding rows of one hundred computers. At a cost of two yuan ($.27) an hour, they were usually full.

The median age of a Big Power customer looked about sixty-five, but the café’s clientele was four decades younger. The female patrons were migrants who used a webcam and headset to chat with distant friends and relations. The men played online games such as World of Warcraft and Counterstrike. Cigarette smoke filled the café, along with the sounds of giggling girls, machine-gun blasts, a computerized voice proclaiming in English, “Terrorists win!” and the men’s defeated howl of Wo cao! -- Fuck me!

I typed the address of our district government’s public-forum Web site, where residents could submit a question or suggestion. In early 2006, the site’s index page showed 2,151 letters. I scrolled down; most of the subject lines included 拆. The letters asked, “Will we or won’t we be razed?” (Will); “Is No. 56 cultural heritage or not?” (Not); and “Am I being cheated?” (No).

In a letter titled “Excuse Me, When Will Red Bayberry and Bamboo Slanted Street Be Demolished?” a man who identified himself as Mr. Jiang wrote:

“At present there are many rumors, and nonetheless we know that the government cannot not look out for us poor people, but everyone also really wants to know exactly when is the destruction? Thank you! Please respond!”

The unsigned reply appeared three days later:

Jiang (Mr.): Hello! Your message to the district government has been received. Regarding the question of when Red Bayberry and Bamboo Slanted Street will be razed, Red Bayberry and Bamboo Slanted Street belongs to the Dazhalan Protected District. Presently, the scope of this district’s razing is centered on Coal Street. It’s estimated Red Bayberry and Bamboo Slanted Street will have to wait one or two years to be demolished.”

Coal Street – not to be confused with Coal Lane, where the elementary school was located – was one of the north-south streets that bookended the neighborhood. Due to the closure of Front Gate Avenue to traffic, Coal Street was being remade to triple its width to seventy-five feet. The project took place three hundred yards from our front door, but we didn’t hear the construction at our courtyard, nor had my neighbor the Widow ever seen it. Her daily shopping trip to Heavenly Peach market took her in the opposite direction.

My other neighbors -- Mr. Han and his wife -- crossed Coal Street every day to reach their shop, where they fixed cell phones and sold cigarettes. They passed the row of condemned homes and businesses, some of which displayed characters painted in protest by their evicted tenants, such as “The court has stepped aside on the issue of demolition and relocation. The demolition company has falsified agreements. It is difficult for the weak little people to survive.”

To my neighbors, the road-widening project was an inconvenience, not something that would change their lives.

One morning I walked out to the latrine to find people standing before a row of white notices that had been pasted overnight to our home’s exterior. “Destruction notice?” I asked.

Recycler Wang shook his head. “Fireworks.”

The text declared an end to Beijing’s twelve-year prohibition on lighting explosives inside the city during Spring Festival celebrations. In rescinding the ban, the government had agreed with petitioning residents that fireworks were cultural heritage. They were traditionally lit to ward off evil spirits and usher in the new year. The poster announced that they could legally be bought and sold, but it was forbidden to light fireworks at “intersections, historical buildings, bus stops, military areas, government buildings, hospitals, kindergartens, forests, and gas stations.”

Regardless, the city exploded on the eve of the Lunar New Year. A walk through the hutong became an exercise in dodging incoming fire. My students stood behind their fathers as they touched lit cigarettes to Happy Fat Twins, Diamond Flowers, Silver-Flowered Cherry Trees, and the Blizzard of Ten Thousand Flowers. Sparks showered down, Roman candles thumped upward, and the boom of M-80s called Pull Thunder’s Tail resonated off courtyard exterior walls. A Butterfly King spinner buzzed my ear. A Cow Demon bounced off my bike spokes. The students whooped and demanded more. For the first time in their lives, the first night of Spring Festival felt like a festival, not just an occasion to eat too many dumplings and watch the televised variety show.

I biked to visit Old Zhang. This would be the last Lunar New Year he would spend in his house. Fresh Fish Junction was dark, and the only sounds came from the distant explosives. Old Zhang’s gate was chained and padlocked from the inside. On the door he had chalked: Occupied. I will call the police if you attempt to enter. You assume all responsibility!

“That’s to keep the vultures away,” he said as he let me inside. “The recyclers pedal around on their flatbed bicycles, scanning for things with value.” Some of the homes in the neighborhood had been boarded up and fenced with a green iron gate. “Those are buildings that will be protected. Maybe they will be museums. Maybe they will be restored as courtyards for millionaires. Who can say?”

Inside, his son and daughter-in-law worked over a wok, sizzling on the propane-fueled burner. Old Zhang’s grandson, in Grade Three, ignored the televised pageant and frowned over a vocabulary workbook. No kids – nor anyone else – remained on the lane. In Chinese, he asked me, “How do I pronounce badminton racquet in English?”

Old Zhang’s living room held a bed, a sofa, a desk, and bureau, upon which he laid a flat, cloth sack. It was already toasty inside, due to the glowing coal honeycombs, and our faces flushed after we finished the first round of bamboo wine he had saved for the evening. The annual variety show paused from its singing and acrobatic performances to announce that China would send a pair of pandas to Taiwan as a gesture of friendship. The program’s five hundred million viewers could choose the panda’s names by selecting from a list and sending a text message via cell phone.
“Who says we can’t vote?” Old Zhang laughed.

The deadline for moving from the neighborhood had passed, and the demolition office said only 5 percent of residents remained. Old Zhang admitted that he was in the minority and could be criticized for stubbornness. “But what am I afraid of?” he asked. “I will be seventy-four years old. I am not an illegal element. I have no regrets. If I wanted money, I would have moved before. This is not about money, this is about justice. I just want to be able to live somewhere inside the Third Ring Road.”

He poured another shot of bamboo wine. “It will all be decided soon. Now it’s the New Year. Cheers, Little Plumblossom.”

Bowls of food filled the table. The television was shut off, leaving only the distant sound of popping fireworks. Old Zhang opened a cloth sack. He delicately withdrew a framed, black-and-white portrait of an old woman. He folded the bag carefully, and with two hands straightened the picture so it faced the steaming dishes. “This is my wife,” he said.

“She loved Spring Festival. She could stuff dumplings all day, really.” Old Zhang lit sticks of incense beside the picture. Before we began, he held an empty bowl that his son filled with food. “Get a big piece of tofu,” Old Zhang said. “She loves daughter-in-law’s braised tofu.” His son added blood sausage, pea pods, broccoli, and diced pork. “We’ll give her some dumplings later.”

Old Zhang placed the bowl before the picture. It showed an unsmiling, lined face with black, combed-back hair. He stood silent with his eyes closed, then sat down looking refreshed, as if the trance had been broken.

“She died last year,” he said. “After they announced the road project, she worried all the time. Our grandson goes to a very good elementary school near here, and he was living with us. She couldn’t stop worrying about what was going to happen to our house, to his education. She became neurotic.”

Old Zhang’s son waited a moment, then spoke to me. “You have to understand something very clearly. The problem isn’t that the city is developing. That’s a good thing. And the problem isn’t that the government is bad. The government is actually very good. We are all patriotic here. The problem is that the entire process isn’t transparent. The only ones with eyes are the district government and its development company.”

Old Zhang turned to his wife, staring mutely from the frame. “I just wanted her to have one more New Year here.”

Daughter-in-law and grandson stared into their bowls. “Eat more!” she suddenly urged. Old Zhang filled the shot glasses and handed his son and me a Panda cigarette. He ran his hand through his white crew cut, puffed in silence, wiped a drop that leaked from the eye with the cataract, then stood to add dumplings to his wife’s brimming bowl.

We ate and watched television until Unity and Wholeness were announced as the winners of the Name the Panda election. At midnight, Beijing erupted in fireworks to welcome the Year of the Dog.

“Will it be an auspicious year?” Old Zhang wondered aloud as he opened more bottles of beer. “I don’t care, as long as I don’t have to move to the outskirts.” We toasted to that.

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