WITH ONE’S eyes closed, Beijing’s main roads sound like any Chinese city. All around is the roar of traffic, punctuated by honks from delivery scooters, recorded safety warnings from buses and the occasional bell of a rental-bicycle. But in the capital’s last hutongs, as its ancient grey-walled alleys are known, fragments of an older soundscape can be heard.
The chirping of caged crickets is one. Hung in the doorways of courtyard homes or small shops, the insects bring a rural note into the city. A quarter-century ago their song was common. Beijing was still home to cycle rickshaws and delivery tricycles. Some riders hung crickets from their handlebars, inside spherical cages woven from reeds. Today, cricket-sellers cling on, lurking near a motorway bridge in southern Beijing. A big specimen sells for 20 yuan ($3). They are heirs to a grand tradition. In imperial times, bored courtiers and Manchu army officers spent fortunes on caged crickets and songbirds.
Another relic is the musical clanking of steel plates strung on a cord, announcing a knife sharpener’s arrival. Several such specialists still work Beijing’s streets. Their sounding-plates, sometimes supplemented with a distinctive cry, summon customers from hutong homes and high-rise flats. But numbers are falling. “What young man would study this?” asks Craftsman Liu, a sharpener for 40 years, as he hones a cleaver on a whetstone mounted on his bike.
An almost-vanished Beijing sound is one of the strangest. An eerie thrumming, like the noise of flying saucers in an old science-fiction film, it is made by homing pigeons, or more precisely by pigeon whistles. Tiny flutes made from bamboo or gourds, these are sewn into the tail feathers of pigeons kept in rooftop coops. The birds are released twice a day to circle in the sky. Even 20 years ago, it was possible to hear this melancholy noise in the hutongs. It was particularly associated with cold winter skies, for pigeons moult in summer, making feathers too weak to hold whistles. Alas, modern Beijing is a city in a hurry. Many hutongs have been razed to make way for wide avenues and shiny skyscrapers, leaving no room for pigeon lofts.
Zhang Baotong is one of Beijing’s last master pigeon-whistle makers. As a child in the 1950s he heard the dong of camel bells as dusty caravans carried coal to a nearby railway station. He learned to make whistles in boyhood from a famed master who shared a courtyard with his family. Today Mr Zhang has apprentices and a workshop lined with certificates calling him a living treasure. But many of his whistles are sold to collectors and never see the sky.
Mr Zhang is advising a museum of sound that will open next May in Songzhuang, a suburb of Beijing that is popular with artists. A rooftop coop is planned, with more than 100 pigeons that will take to the skies for visitors. It is hoped that pigeon-whistles will be heard each day over Songzhuang, at least in cooler months.
The co-founder of Fen Sonic HQ, a cultural institute that will run the museum, is Colin Siyuan Chinnery, a British-Chinese artist and collector of Beijing’s sounds. He lists the gongs, rattles and rhythmic cries used by fortune tellers and medicine sellers, doctors, barbers and knife sharpeners, until private enterprise was crushed in the 1950s. Many of these will feature in an exhibit about old Beijing narrated by an animation of Mr Zhang, among others. Other places had hawkers’ cries, but true Beijingers dismiss peddlers elsewhere as mere bellowers, Mr Chinnery says. Beijingers’ pride is one tradition that never fades.■
To hear some of the sounds described, listen to our podcast, The Intelligence: economist.com/oldbeijing.
This article appeared in the China section of the print edition under the headline “Bells and whistles”