The Beijing Hutong Bike Tour

{Hutongs (as explained by wikipedia)  In Beijing, hutongs are alleys formed by lines of siheyuan, traditional courtyard residences.  Many neighbourhoods are formed by joining one siheyuan to another to form a hutong, and then joining one hutong to another. }

The air was still thick with Beijing summer heat even though it was just after sundown.  We parked the rusty bike on the corner of the crowded Hutong alley, in view of the bread makers still selling at their counter window and a rowdy group of men playing Chinese chess.   Some friends had come to watch us perform, but they remained in the background – all of us so curious to see what would happen.

Sylvie and I steadied the small screen on the back of our bike, slowly set up our small puppet string, laid out our puppets one by one and snapped on the clip lights.

The draw of a small glowing screen in the middle of a dark alleyway has a strange magnetic power.  Within moments people had stopped, babies had shushed and a gaggle of old men got off their stools to interrogate us.  Those old men became our hosts, as new passerby’s would catch us in the middle of the performance; “Our foreign friends have come to give us a shadow puppet show” they said.

My initial desire to create a small ‘performance as research’ piece in Beijing was to help me answer some larger questions I have been developing over the last few months about performance, folk art and China’s growing urban culture.  It was also to give a little something back to the city, people and culture that has given me so much, with the kind of selfless generosity that makes one blush.  And, as we found out early into our Saturday night, it was also a whole lot of fun.

The frustrations with the bike screen continued after the frame had finally come together.  With no sewing machine, no power tools and crappy adhesives, I was ready to give up after my third idea failed – each attempt taking far longer than it should.  Strangely, my fourth attempt was inspired entirely by watching Lu Laoshi, from Tangshan, string up cowhide for scraping.   Within a moment of having the idea, I knew it was a good one.  I re-sewed the hems smaller, punched a few holes in the outer hem, and used the scrap for stringing just as I had seen Lu Laoshi do it.

Within 20 minutes, my screen was tight as a drum and easily removable.    There is almost no better feeling than using one good idea to make another. Knowledge is not just accumulative, but exponential.

With the screen done, I could finally put my concentration back onto the show itself.  What would this little thing be?  What did I want to say?  In a wash of idea flashes, a song came to me by way of my good friend, Dan Dukich.   It’s the kind of song that stands on its own; beautiful, strong, melancholy and hopeful.  It’s certainly a song you’d want on your life’s soundtrack and perfect for a late summer, post-rain shadow show on the back of a bike.

From there, I coerced my friend Sylvie, a French artist living and working in Beijing, to collaborate.  {A week before, we had traveled together back to the Lu family in Tangshan; she to learn a bit of their puppet making methods, and I to study painting a bit deeper.}  We spent our days, sweating indoors, cooking, chatting and cutting little Hutong miniatures out of cowhide; an old man and his birdcage, a pack of dogs, a woman doing laundry, a three wheel taxi, a sweets seller and, of course, a group of men playing Chinese chess.

With all our elements in place, the show made itself.  A five minute wander through a Beijing Hutong in shadow miniature.  It was so simple – or was it?  For a community to see itself reflected back by non-community members?  Perhaps they would think me impudent. They didn’t.

“It’s Hutong Culture! Right?” exclaimed the head of the Chinese men’s chess league who had become our alley host.  “Ting xiang!  It looks just like it!  The dogs, the laundry, the chess.  So interesting.”

Sylvie and I begin to build the Hutong scene

And the kids!  At one point I actually felt panic, as we were mobbed after the close of our last show at Fangjia Hutong.  They wanted to play with the puppets themselves and they did, giggling all the while.

One particular two-year old wouldn’t stop staring at our screen even after the lights had turned off and the other children had gone.  I think he was still trying to figure out where the shadows had gone – hoping they would come back.

Well, come back they will (if the weather permits) when I am back in Beijing in late fall.  This first attempt was partially just to see if, indeed, the audience was there.  They’re not only there, but they seem hungry, curious and welcoming to entertainment wandering into their neighborhood.   I’m still processing my findings and impressions, but it seems clear to me that the initial impulse was right.  With the skeleton already in place, I hope to make a few puppet revisions and then perform for another few nights around Beijing and get a better sense of the reception and audience.   Wish you could have all been there, it was pretty magical.

Thanks for reading~

Because we had no program, I’d like to put my Thank You’s here:

  • Sylvie for loving the idea and running with me
  • Dan Dukich for letting me always use his music even though he has no idea what I’m doing with it
  • Michael David Cheng and Julie Peters Desteract for cheerleading and taking pictures during our performances
  • Wang and her husband for their tireless efforts to understand what the heck I wanted and helping me find it
  • Lu Family for the cowhide and tools and know-how
  • The Fulbright Program
  • My parents for everything
  • The Beijing Hutongs for being such a lovely place to call home for a summer

8 responses to “The Beijing Hutong Bike Tour

  1. Annie,
    So proud of your effort and courage to explore this aspect of human interaction. You do realize that the frustration and resolution for repairing your bicycle screen is actually part of the “culture” of what and how puppetry is done in China, right? If not, just keep that in mind when you perform the other upcoming shows, because street performing is way different than stage performances. Good Luck!

  2. Love this post, Annie. So glad it was a success…I love the excitement and intrigue in the audience members.

  3. Pingback: The Beijing Hutong Bike Tour (via A YEAR IN SHADOWS) « Meili Paper

  4. This is terrific! I wish I could have seen it in person. Cheers!

  5. annie this is lovely – thank you so much for taking the time to share it with us

  6. Miss Annie, I randomly ran across one of your pictures while researching materials for a class! what a surprise. And I was there! thank you Annie, this was a really special moment, can’t wait to follow you around again. the bicycle, the neighbors and the hutong kids are asking about you!

  7. This is really wonderful project! I am sure children love it.

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