Roaming Beijing’s Alleys, Shouting Vendors Sow Echoes of the Past

The New York Times visits the vendors who ply their wares in Beijing’s disappearing hutongs:

With more emphasis on song than lyric, they are the marketing jingles of itinerant fruit vendors, sellers of roasted duck and stooped men who have mastered the art of resuscitating blunt kitchen knives. Like the familiar whine of cicadas in August, their garbled calls are the soundtrack of the Beijing summer, and many residents look forward to the return of the hawkers’ glutinous rice cakes, mismatched crockery and pet crickets that sing.

Even more numerous than the hawkers are the recyclers, sun-scorched migrants from the countryside who survive by collecting yesterday’s newspapers, spent computers or tattered cotton blankets that will be spun into next winter’s comforters.

“If you can’t yell loudly, you’ll starve,” said Chen Lin, 37, a bony, animated man who earns about $5 a day salvaging dead appliances and anything else containing metal. “No one really knows what I’m yelling,” he said, “but they remember my song and this brings them out of their house.”

The singing hawkers and recyclers are reminders of the days when Beijing was a thickly populated maze of hutongs, or alleys, that crept outward from the grandiose imperial quarters occupied by China’s emperors and the officials and artisans who served them.


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