Nanjing, A Former Farmer at the Gym



We meet a 60-year-old former farmer at the Wutaishan Gymasium. He comes here every afternoon. Unlike many other visitors who gather in small groups to play cards, Chinese chess or Ping-pong, he prefers to be alone. He spends 1-2 hours on average per day doing exercises with the free-to-use equipment at the gym. When he gets tired, he rests on a bench in the shade of the surrounding old trees and starts massaging his legs and feet for a while.


After the death of his wife, ten years ago, he left his farm and moved to Nanjing to work as a parking attendant. His children are living in Yanzhou, a city near Nanjing; the oldest is a doctor, the second a tollgate cashier and the youngest a teacher. They belong to the middle class of the society and earn decent incomes that would be sufficient to support their father. However, he refuses to live with any of them: “I chose to live alone, not because they are not willing to support me, but because I do not want to disturb their lives”. The gap between him and the younger generation, as he explains, could cause family problems when living together. He then gives us many examples of differences between him and his children, such as different views on the daily diet, raising children, or even sleeping habits. He sees no reason to bother himself with all these trivial problems at his age.


Although he has lived in the city for ten years, he still adores people’s lifestyle in the countryside. He claims that a countryman will never suffer from high pressure, diabetes, or other so-called “rich-man diseases”. According to him, the countrymen work and sweat every day at the land much more than people here at the gym. They breath air that is fresher than the urban air and drink water that is clearer than the urban water. Also, unlike people living in the city who take too much sugar and animal fat, they eat fruits, leafy vegetables and coarse grains. He points to an Alzheimer patient sitting on a bench a few meters away: “Such a terrible disease would never find a countryman.”


Despite the fact that he loved the country life so much, he moved to the city because he had no company anymore after his wife’s death. In the city, he has a job to kill time, several friends to chat with and a pleasant corner in the gym to work out every day; while in the country he had nothing but a small piece of farmland.


He slows his voice suddenly with a rueful smile in his face. “The only pity in my life is that she left too early. Since her death in 2002, I am not afraid of dying anymore.”


We talk about the happy days in his life. “Youth was my happiest time”, he answers without hesitation, “when I was young, I could do whatever I wanted to do, without asking anyone’s permission. However, now I can no longer take any adventures and almost have forgotten the feeling of being young and free.”





Nanjing, Fruit Peddler


We meet a woman selling fruit, like mangoes and peaches, along the road. She does not want to be photographed. According to her, if the photos of her are uploaded to the web and found by the police, she may be easily recognized by them and cause trouble for her.


Every day at 7:00 a.m. she goes to a wholesale market to purchase fruit. After that she always goes to the same place on a street in the center of Nanjing to sell her fruit from 1:00 p.m. to 2:30 p.m. Then she will go home, as about that time the police (*) will start to patrol in the area. Once she was found by the police peddling along the road and all her fruit was confiscated. She adds that the police do not accept any fees that would allow her to sell her fruit. The profit she makes in one day is around 50 RMB.


Other peddlers surround us soon, laughing at her shyness and trying to persuade her to be photographed. One middle-aged man complains to us: “See the people in that institute coming here in their BMW? They belong to the upper class of the society and they own whatever they want. However, people like her, who are among the lowest class, have nothing but a small business to support the family. The government can entitle the elites to expensive cars, cheap houses, and many other things, but allows no space for these people to make a living. Is it fair? ”


(*) Actually it is not the police she is referring to, but we could not find a better translation for it. The woman is referring to certain people who patrol in urban areas, supported by the municipal government, to chase out peddlers, confiscate their goods and even beat them. Their excuse to do so is to maintain order and a “good face” of the city.



Beijing, Pool billiard



In China the pool game is known for its “elegant “and “gentleman like” movements. The game became popular around 20 years ago.

Today, the pool game has become the most popular sport with the largest number of participants in China.  According to statistics, there are more than 50 million people who play pool, 25 million people who play pool on a regular basis and almost 1 million who play pool every day. By these numbers the pool game is even more popular than table tennis, the national Chinese sport.


In the early 80s, pool was still considered as “representing a decadent bourgeois life”. Quietly enthusiasm for pool was growing. First it was labeled as a “noble sport” and ordinary people had no chance to play it. Along with China’s reform and the increase of living standards, pool started growing at an amazing speed. These days you will find pool tables, surrounded by players and spectators, everywhere, both in the cities and in the countryside.


In 1986 the China Pool Game Association was founded. Pool became a competitive sport and it was included in the annual national sports competition program. The spread of the game was accelerated by Gan LianFan, also known as the “China Pool King”. Mr. Gan, originally a road worker, created the brand “Star” and sold pool tables for prices as low as 350 Yuan.


In the first decade of this century, pool got another boost with the popularity of professional pool player Ding Junhui. Many people started realizing that one’s fate can be changed in trying to become a professional player.


Apart from the many pool tables in the open air where people from the neighborhood gather to play, one can find many pool and snooker venues these days. Shanghai has more than 400 of such venues; each venue with on average 15 tables. Beijing has around 600 pool venues and in smaller cities in the south, like Donguan City in the Guangdong province where the game started to become popular first, 300 pool rooms in a city is no exception.


On the photos of this post we see men, who work at a nearby vegetable market, playing pool. Two of them share the family name Li, while the surname of the youngest is Xu. They pay 1 RMB per game to the owner of the table.


Note: The ad, visible in the background of some photos, has written in blue characters: “Poker game, MahJiang, teaching unique skill”




Beijing, A serious card game


Behind an area of new apartments, next to the Dongfeng park, there is a small village with cottages; a so called “chengxiangjiehebu”  (village in a city).


The area originally was a cemetery in the late Qing dynasty. At that time, the people who lived here were guarding the graves. With the foundation of the Peoples Republic, the land was turned into farmland for growing vegetables and crops.


When we walk through the streets in this area, we see many gambling rooms. We stop by a group of men playing cards. They play a very serious game with high stakes.


The men are descendants from people from Jiangxi province who came to Beijing several generations ago when there was a shortage of fresh meat in Beijing. The Jiangxi traders set-up a business for slaughter and sales of meat, providing Beijing citizens with the needed supply of fresh meat. During those days, many of the men gambled and played card games during the day, while at night they slaughtered and ran their meat business. A government ruling in 1994 ended the slaughter business; as of then individuals were not allowed to slaughter livestock anymore.

Many of the Jiangxi people stayed in the area after the ruling and are still active in trading meat.


Residents in the area do not expect that the village has to make way for development projects any time soon. The land is worth a lot of money and it would cost the government too much money to buy the land and relocate the residents.

The living conditions in the area are simple, but the rent is high. The owner of the gambling room pays 800 Yuan per month. With his child at an age to enter school soon, the high rent is a burden for him.






Beijing’s disappearing hutong areas



They are slowly disappearing, but you will still find them everywhere in Beijing: hutong, or nong tang, areas built one or two decades ago.

The buildings, usually just one story high, are often poorly constructed and lack private sanitary facilities. Like in the old hutongs in the center of Beijing, residents share public restroom facilities and for a shower one has to go to a bathhouse.  A labyrinth of small alleys connects the houses on the inside of the hutong area and on the outside you will find small shops and restaurants providing the daily necessities.


Often these areas are surrounded by modern high rise commercial or residential buildings. On the one hand this provides a sharp contrast between the living conditions of the rich and the poor, on the other hand it characterizes the heterogeneous environment of the city where rich and poor are not (yet) segregated by districts. It makes that live on the streets in most parts of the city is (still) very lively with street vendors, small restaurants and people chatting or playing cards and Chinese chess on the street.


It is this heterogeneous environment that is often full of surprises. A while ago I was invited for a dinner by a Chinese friend living in such a poor hutong area.  It had rained that day and before I reached the entrance of the house, my shoes were completely covered with mud. Inside, a sparsely lit small room with a simple folding table, served as a dining room. Our host had invited a friend and we had a long talk over a good dinner with old traditional Beijing dishes and a lot of “baijiu” (a strong alchohol). At the end of the evening I exchanged business cards with the friend of our host. Back home I checked his name card and I found out that the friend was actually a very influential and rich person, being the second in command executive manager of one of China’s largest state-enterprises.


Eventually all of these poor hutong areas will disappear and make way for new development projects (except for the several hundred years old hutong areas that are gradually being restored as new homes for the rich). Nostalgic feelings make that many people regret that these areas disappear, but having talked with many of their residents, most people living there do look forward to their new houses with modern facilities.


Life in new high rise residential areas brings the inevitable loss of community sense compared to the life in the hutong areas.  A loss for street photographers and everybody else who enjoys lively street scenes. For the residents themselves however, this does not outweigh the benefits of the comfort provided by their new homes. The kind of home this street photographer returns to after a street photo shoot …






Beijing, Unemployment



Mr. Zhang lives in his Hutong house since 1955. The houses were built by state-owned enterprises at the time. These state-owned enterprises have been closed for many years now and Mr. Zhang lost his job then and never worked again. Mrs. Liu (Mr. Zhang’s wife) and neighbor Mrs. Yang also lost their job back then and are unemployed as well. All three live on government subsidies (*).


Mr. Zhang never worked again because of his high blood pressure and diabetes, he says.


Mr. Zhang’s house is in a central area of Beijing, with very high prices for the land. Often rumors go that the government is planning to clear the area for new a new development project, but so far nothing has happened. However, this also goes for the maintenance of the area. There is a tall dead tree standing, just meters away from Mr. Zhang’s home. Residents here have reported this threat to relevant government department for several times, but no one has taken action to solve this problem.


Mr. Zhang says that people in the neighborhood are very close to each other. The neighborhood has no contact with people working in the surrounding “tea street” (the largest concentration of tea traders in Beijing) as most of them are not originally from Beijing.


Mr. Zhang says that he feels a great emotional connection with this place, as he lived here since he was young. But if he would have the money, he would be happy to move to a modern high-rise building, maybe in one of the suburbs. He says this is his personal view, because he is getting tired of the noisy environment in the district. Both Mrs. Liu and Mrs. Yang agree with him and would move to a high-rise building as well if they could afford it.  Not because the quality of the older buildings is bad; Mr. Zhang points at one of the buildings surrounding the Hutong area: “That building is old, but it survived the Tangshan earthquake” (in 1976).



(*) In 2003, China experienced a wave of privatizations of state-owned enterprises. As a result many workers were laid off. Most young workers received severance packages. Older employees often opted for receiving a basic, and usually unchanged, monthly payment until their retirement. As this payment is very basic and not corrected for inflation, it may not be enough to cover for basic living expenses. This caused several stirs in the past. Citizens who are too old to work or are in real need for money now may seek help from the local community that can provide a small amount per month to ensure a minimum living standard. In Beijing this amount is approximately 400 RMB per month.



Beijing, Mr. Li Baotian


Mr. Li Baotian is sixty years old and was born in Beijing. When he was six years old, he and his family moved from Beijing to a place, close to Inner Mongolia, in the Jilin province. A that time, due to overpopulation in Beijing, people were forced to leave the city. Mr. Li recalls suffering as a child from wind and sandstorms every year. His wife is Mongolian and he has two sons (34 and 33) and a daughter (30). The whole family moved back to Beijing in 1999. But life was hard and, except for Mr. Li himself, the whole family moved back to Jilin province.


His family now makes a living as peasants, mainly growing grains like wheat. He still lives here in Beijing and works as a security guard. His task is to guard metal building materials for electricity poles. He has been guarding the same pile of metal components for four years now. His work hours are at night from 10 pm to 4 am; at his age he cannot do hard work at night anymore.


Going back to memories of his youth in Beijing he cherishes the memories of the kindergarten, especially of fireworks. He recalls a kind of fireworks called the “old man with a hat”. Light the tip of the head and the fireworks will bloom, very funny.


In 1958 the sparrow was labeled as one of the “four pests” (*). The government issued the command to all people to kill the sparrow. People stopped working and climbed on roofs and other places to scare the sparrow with firecrackers, gongs, drums and other noise making equipment to catch and kill them. Most of sparrows had nowhere to hide and finally, tired of flying, fell down dead. Mr. Li still has vivid memories of this period.


Mr. Li says his name used to be Li Xiaoping, but he had to change his name because the famous political leader Deng Xiaoping had the same first name. His new name Li Baotian is derived from the slogan “hold the red (Mao’s) book in your hand; plant the revolution”.


In those days his father was shot dead. Later the government rehabilitated his father’s reputation, giving him an honorable funeral and money with expressions of sympathy to the family.



(*) The “Four Pests campaign” has a long history. It is also known as the “Great sparrow campaign” or the “Chinese sparrow war”. In 1958, February 12, the Party’s Central Committee and the State Council issued the ”kill four pests (Chusihai) to emphasize hygiene instructions”. The aim was to exterminate four animals considered as harmful within a period of 10 years: flies, mosquitoes, rats and sparrows. In 1960 the sparrow was rehabilitated when it became clear that sparrows eat more bugs than grain and that bugs, especially the locust (a kind of grasshopper), now without a natural enemy, were destroying crops on a large scale. The sparrow was replaced by the bedbug and the four pests were from then on: flies, mosquitoes, rats and bedbugs. In 1998 some local campaigns replaced the bedbugs with cockroaches.



Beijing, Mr. Liu


Mr. Liu used to be an artist, singing and acting in Peking operas. We meet Mr. Liu is his shop selling artificial flowers and other decorations.

My voice was very high, so I sang Qingyi (also known as Guimen Dan or Zhengdan; the role of the virtuous lady; usually one of the leading roles). In Peking opera, the voice comes from the Dantian, not from the throat (he points to an area around his navel, which means he is referring to the “low dantian”).

When singing in the wrong way, you’ll hurt your voice. Excessive strain and cold can cause problems too. However, the most important reason for a voice to fail is that the voice itself is not good, or born with problems. Nothing goes wrong with some people’s voice for a whole life. It’s because they were born with a good voice and protected their voice well.


I performed in different places throughout China. It was really a hard time, but I felt very happy then. My first big performance was around 1963 or 1964, performing for foreign friends and guests in the Great Hall of the People. I performed in both big and small theaters. Zhushikou Street marked a boundary for Peking opera actors and actresses, dividing the theaters into the north and the south. Only prestigious actors and actresses could perform in the north. It was a harsh road from the south to the north.


Graduating from the opera school, I was recruited by the Beijing Peking Opera Troupe and lucky enough to perform in the north. There were many theaters in the north, including Jixiang, Dabei, and Capital Theater. Theaters in the south concentrated around Tianqiao in Zhushikou. Many renowned performers also came from those south theaters.


Today’s Tianqiao is quite different from the old days, but still, if you come on weekend morning, you can enjoy programs like waving flagpoles and wrestling.

Tianqiao used to be like a big market. There was once a cross-talker. He didn’t have much knowledge, but he could write with sand. He clutched a handful of sand and sprinkled it on the ground to form a Chinese character. Few people master this skill now.


My favorite role is the matchmaker in the Peking opera “Matchmaker”. I like it because it’s a comedy. I don’t like tragedies which make people feel sad. Comedies can delight people.


I prefer to play kind and good characters, though it requires more skill to perform the bad character. For example, I feel very uncomfortable to see a particular bad character in a TV series and sometimes I will go away until that character disappears. Everyone likes good people.


I listen to all kinds of music. My daughter plays rock & roll. I think rock is too noisy, but she forces me to listen. My wife and daughter don’t like the Peking opera, so I only have to listen to it in my room alone. Besides the opera, I also enjoy some nostalgic and old songs.


My daughter works in a bank during the day time and in her spare time she does organizational work for the Finger Family band. I also have a nephew, who graduated from the Central Conservatory of Music. He is the bass player of Chiren band. They’re now more professional and experienced in music than I am.


Next to the shop selling decorations, my wife and I are running a restaurant. It just opened a month ago and is in the old Beijing style. I’m mainly in charge of the flower shop, while my wife manages the restaurant.

It’s not the first time we run a restaurant. We had one in 2009 and signed a contract for 18 years. But a year late, the place was demolished, so we moved here and opened another one. The reason to run a restaurant is to realize my potential. I want to see whether I’ve got the capability for such a thing. Running the restaurant enriches my life.

My wife and I get along very well. We always have topics and issues to discuss and we often happen to have the same idea about the same thing at the same time. Now we are planning for a journey with the family to Hong Kong next month.