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Hutong Neighbours

MRS WANG THE WIDOW has lived on Xiguan Hutong for thirty-five years. She’s an old Beijinger, born in 1951, and has been within a cabbage’s throw of the same vegetable market for most of her life.

Her childhood home was in Daxing Hutong, in the same block; her primary school was in Fuxue Hutong, two alleys down; her early teens were in Nanluoguxiang, back when it was just another residential ginnel. In 1980 she married a man who owned property in Xiguan Hutong (reinstated after the Cultural Revolution ended) where she has been ever since. She worked in a small factory five minutes walk away, making musical instruments from flutes to French horns.

When her husband died four years ago, her son moved in with his Mongolian wife. Mrs Wang took a bedroom at the back to live out her retirement watching Chinese soaps, coddling her infant grandson and complaining about how her daughter-in-law complains about her.

There are fifteen households in the dazayuan or “mixed courtyard”, which bends in an L shape from the street entrance behind the public toilets outside. The other landlords and ladies – all members of the Shi family, like her late husband – live off the premises, but Mrs Wang is an unmoving hub. The other residents change with every spin of the wheel.

Some are young Chinese graduates, living on a budget in crumbling shoeboxes with no inside loo. There is one more nuclear family who own their property, the Xis. The rest are foreigners, mostly occupying the renovated building at the front with double-glazed windows and heated floors. Mrs Wang’s neighbors have recently included a Czech, a Frenchman, a Mexican, two Russians, and a gaggle of Americans and Brits – though it’s all about the same to her.

Ever ready with a toothy smile, Mrs Wang is indulgently curious about the foreigners. She doesn’t approve that the Americans on the first floor are always bringing home girls, but otherwise finds them more polite to her than most of the old timers in the neighborhood are. She noticed that only she and one of the Russians, Maxim, keep the courtyard clean by sweeping it.

When she spots the frizzy-haired bear of a Canadian coming home in the wee hours of morning, she wonders what he can possibly have been doing all night, or if he in fact gets up earlier than she does (answer: no). She never calls the police if there’s a late night party. And she always stops to chat with the lanky Englishman who lives up the steps above, asking with fresh concern each time how old he is and if he’s married yet.

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