Empty nest

By Cheng Anqi (China Daily)
Updated: 2009-12-26 09:00
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Empty nest

Clockwise from top:

Bird cages hang against the outside wall of the market.

Cricket fighting has been a popular pastime among Beijingers since the Qing Dynasty.

An old man buys a bamboo-caged pet bird at the Guanyuan market.

Odds and ends, including gourd carrying cases, mini feeding spoons and single horse-hair prods, can be found in the market.

A woman vendor shows a cat to visitors.

Beijing's oldest market for birds, crickets and other assorted small critters has suddenly fallen quiet. Cheng Anqi reports

Dai Jianwen, a goldfish vendor, locks up his stall at dusk on a cold, gloomy Dec 21 and hangs up a board that says: "Transferring to southwest corner of Zizhu Bridge, Haidian district".

As he walks out of the market, he sees other vendors also clearing out their stalls. The 63-year-old stares at a skyscraper in the Guanyuan area, with a depressed look.

Guanyuan market, Beijing's oldest, located inside the west Second Ring Road in Fuchengmen, is being shut down for renovation. Officials of the Xicheng Urban Planning Bureau says the market has become a fire hazard and cite aging electric wires and poor fire-fighting equipment.

No one knows if, and when, it will re-open. Many fear this once-acclaimed city landmark may also go the way of others and become a fading memory in the lives of Beijingers.

All you see in the area now is some cricket peddlers and bird-cage sellers doing a business of sorts along the outside wall of the sealed market, selling mini feeding spoons, gourd carrying cases and single horse-hair prods.

For the past decade, thousands of Beijingers have flocked to this market to buy birds, fish, turtles, guinea pigs and cats besides fish tanks, cages and kennels.

Guanyuan has long been seen as a window into Beijingers' daily lives. "It's more than a business location," says Dai. "It supported Beijing's pet culture by providing a place where people could exchange stories and information about raising pets in an old Beijing ambience that dates back to the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911)."

The market embodied a culture that originated from the imperial palace and greatly influenced the city's hutong living. The best-known insect lovers of the Qing period were the ruling Manchus' "Eight Banners", members of the royal family. Qing governors thought highly of them and pampered them with money and perks.

However, descendants of the Eight Banners were unskilled, uneducated and lazy pleasure-seekers. They surrounded themselves with drama performances, birds, crickets, kites and musical instruments. But over time, this lifestyle influenced that of ordinary people, who also started becoming preoccupied with recreation.

In the old days, raising birds - especially the mynah and song thrush - was popular among the Manchus. They would spend hours in teahouses, exchanging tips on bird care.

The teahouses even provided hooks above each table and the proud bird-owners would remove the covers on their wicker cages for all to see their prized catch.

They held competitions to see which bird would sing and chirp the finest. Additionally, the costumes the civil officials wore were embroidered with the bird insignia, indicating their ranks.

The quail ranked the lowest, while the golden pheasant and white crane were ranked the highest.

At the end of the Qing dynasty, in 1911, these former aristocrats were forced into common labor, and many ended up as street vendors and porters. Yet their loyal devotion and care for their birds remained.

They continued to gather around a cluster of bird cages to chat and compare avian tales. They strolled in parks and hutongs, gently swinging as many as two cages in each hand.

Another popular royal pastime was cricket fighting. Dating back to the Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD), concubines of the palace would catch the crickets in the grass and carry them either in their bosom or suspended from their girdle. When night fell, the cricket's chirping song served as an antidote to their sadness. They would even bathe their small pets in a small stone bowl.

However, it was Empress Dowager Cixi (Qing Dynasty) who popularized the sport.

She often summoned cricket breeders to bring in male crickets for a duel, and the owner of a winning cricket often took home a valuable antique as a prize. Spectators stood captivated by the warrior spirit of the cricket, an insect considered intelligent and competitive.

Today, Beijingers, especially those who live in hutong, continue these traditions. Some have become masters in raising birds and breeding insects.

Carrying four bamboo-caged pet birds, Lian Qiyong, a 65-year-old hutong dweller, prolongs his afternoon walk lost in thought as he faces Guanyuan market.

Listening to the sound of birds from the market is something Lian had taken for granted for the past 10 years.

"I bought my birds and their food at a stall in the market. But now they have moved away," he says with a sad sigh.

He and other bird breeders often gathered at the market to exchange stories on feeding and teaching the birds.

As you approach his courtyard home, the first thing you hear is his parrots and mynahs singing ni hao (hello) and zaijian (good bye).

What Lian misses most are the doves and pigeons of his youth. He expresses nostalgia for the days when he whiled away his time making gezishao (pigeon whistle) with his peers.

"Listening to their whistling sound was one of the joys of pigeon breeders," he says, wistfully.

The whistles, usually made from bamboo, reed and gourd, were attached to the bird. Once the birds soared, the whistle made a sound that varied in accordance with the bird's flight.

Dai used to be a teacher and only became a fish vendor in the late 1980s. "It was my son who shifted my attention to small fish," he recalls. "There were guppy fish and molly fish in his aquarium. They kept breeding, so I went to the Guanyuan area and tried to sell the fry."

Dai was surprised at the small fortune he made in just a few days. He quit his steady, but low-income, school-teacher job and joined the other fish vendors.

Carrying two water buckets, he used to go twice a week by train to Yixing Port in Tianjin, the biggest hub for selling tropical fish in northern China, and purchase the fish.

In the early 1990s, the vendors moved into three makeshift iron sheds near North Guanyuan Bridge, where Dai set up his first stand. Six years later, steering his brand-new minivan, he expanded his business in another young flower-and-pet market in Beijing.

Unfortunately, a big fire forced the stands down to a basement near Beijing Youth Palace while some others moved to the Yutingqiao pet insects market, which once threatened Guanyuan's popularity.

The year 1999 witnessed their return. An obsolete 2000-sq-m paper mill adjacent to a hutong residence area in Guanyuan was reconstructed and became home to more than 200 peddlers.

"I rented a 30-sq-m stall for a mere 6 yuan per sq m a day and made profits touching 400,000 yuan each year," Dai says. "I'm not sure the new site will bring as much prosperity. Hopefully we will return to Guanyuan for the culture of old Beijing is rooted here."

More than 70 percent of the Guanyuan vendors have moved to Zizhuyuan or Shilihe markets, which will be officially opened to the public after the New Year.

Ruan Yunfei, a lizard and turtle seller, has settled down in the new market at Zizhuyuan area, Haidian district, and feels optimistic about the future.

"The new market is broad and clean, and has central air conditioning. That really delights me," he says. "Additionally, it faces the main street of the west Third Ring Road. Hopefully, this will bring in more passers-by."

But it's hard to say goodbye for those who firmly believe that no place can be match the ambience of Guanyuan market.