Hutong Living

2008 – Colette Hosmer
Three distinct cries, each formed from an entire lungful of air, woke me from an untroubled sleep.   Each long-drawn-out wail was part shriek but forced from the gut somehow. The unnerving cry came from very nearby — the back alley hutong neighborhood that butts up to my bedroom window.

This old town hutong is a collection of small city dwellings, some constructed of granite block, two and three stories high – a maze of winding bicycle-wide pathways, always busy — a complete neighborhood.  Although washed clean periodically by sub-tropical rains, the conglomerate of surfaces is permanently patinaed with various shades of ancient city grime.  Ageless Bonzai trees, scrawny potted vegetable plants and caged birds compete for space with drying clothes hanging on rusted balconies. 

The old lady, a permanent feature in the alleyway, seems to always be sitting on a stool in front of her blue door.  From this strategic position she commands an unchallenged view of the corner trash can where she is first in line to retrieve the occasional plastic bottle.  These have value in China….a bundle of them will fetch a few extra yuan at the nearest street-front recycling station. 

Suddenly frightened, wide-awake and totally vigilant, I lay in the dark listening for the next sound.  It came soon enough — a prolonged wail, then another and another.  As the haunting sounds faded I heard other voices, people talking in even tones.   Then silence.  More agonizing howls were followed by additional neighborhood voices speaking quietly, sympathetically.  

I had a long time to wonder about the human-drama taking place outside my window.  As the distressful sound crept into me I felt that it was not brought on by physical pain or fear.  I settled on grief — all consuming, despairing, heart-crushing, nothing-you-can-do-about-it, grief.  

Over time, the intervals between the cries grew longer and eventually there were no voices to interrupt the long silence between them. I fell asleep as the desolate sobs hoarsened and grew faint.

I awoke to familiar morning street sounds. As I do every morning, I take a few minutes to study the unusually large window covering. It is printed with a photo of the Summer Palace in Beijing, the morning sun creates a color transparency effect as light shines through the manicured green of the foliage and startling blue of the water and sky.  Two swans, their arched necks forming a heart, are in-artfully inserted into the foreground.  I wonder if the old lady died in the night.

I get up and raise the big shade.  The lanes below are crowded; girls walk by holding hands, blue and white uniformed children wait for rides to school from fathers on bicycles and motorbikes, people carry shopping bags home from morning markets and grandparents watch over babies and toddlers.  No one ever thinks to look up at my second floor observation post.

As I watch, the blue door opens.  The old lady steps into the street, walks to the trash can, pulls out a plastic juice bottle, gives it a few shakes and returns to take up her station on the stool.