The Unending Mess in My Neighborhood

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Little is permanent in Beijing these days, but the construction work outside my house shows little sign of ever ending. As I mentioned a few weeks ago, my neighborhood is in a frenzy preparing for the Games. Homes are being torn down and rebuilt, walls bricked over or painted, roofs and windows replaced. When this started there was widespread enthusiasm. My neighbors were happy to get their homes fixed up on the cheap with help from the government. There is of course dismay among preservationists at the speed with which Beijing’s old neighborhoods have been destroyed to make way for new housing and shopping developments. But in the hutong where I live in the Dongsi district, not far from where a prominent battle was fought against the destruction of Beijing’s old lanes, people are glad for the new street lights, electric heating, sewer lines and general sense of attention the area is getting.

Now we’re entering re-development fatigue. In my courtyard, which is home to about 20 families, the sound of coughing and spitting at 7 a.m. is common. But for the past few months I’ve been awakened by power saws, smashing glass, the clatter of bricks dumped on pavement or workers swinging picks to demolish the doomed house just outside my bedroom window. When I see my friend Feng puffing on a cigarette outside his door, the words “unending” and “mess” are likely to emerge with the smoke from his lips. Not that my neighbors haven’t tried to move things along. While government contractors have done the major jobs, my neighbors have taken on smaller projects like windows and roofing. And everyone makes sure the foreman is invited to every neighborhood dinner and his baijiu glass is diligently refilled. But still the demolishing and re-building continues at its untroubled pace.

Some of the additions are bizarre. Walls new and old are being covered in gray brick. Or rather it looks like a brick, but is a fraction of the thickness, more like a tile. They are bricks in appearance only, meant to cover the cacophony of structural material found in the average courtyard, where all sorts of makeshift structures have sprung up since the old residences of the city’s wealthy were divided up and given to the masses after 1949. I came out of my door a month ago to find my entryway being covered over with the gray tiles. The red brick was apparently inharmonious.

Earlier this month the sewer line was replaced, which involved turning the alley outside our doors into a thigh-deep ditch. Our water was turned off so that the ditch didn’t turn into a moat. Leaving was only possible through a series of side-to-side leaps. Thankfully the elderly couple that has been here since the 1960s lives in the entryway, so they weren’t forced to leap parkour-style out their door like the rest of us.

Of course, the workmen aren’t the only ones responsible for making a mess. Last month a sewage overflow developed in the alley. It got so bad that my neighbors set up miniature levees of sand and brick to keep the foul water out of their homes. After a day of this, my neighbor Jinke stopped me while I was headed out one morning.

“Shuangzhou,” he said, addressing me by my Chinese name, “we have conducted an investigation into the sewage in the courtyard and we have determined that it is clearly foreign s—.”

My neighbors’ feats of ingenuity never fail to impress, but I wasn’t aware they had the technology to determine the national origin of human waste.

“How do you know?” I asked.

“It’s simple,” said Jinke. “You’re the only one with a toilet here, so the s— in the courtyard is clearly your s—!” I blushed, and my neighbors rolled with laughter. A plumbing disaster of such magnitude back in the States would likely lead to anger, arguments and possibly even lawsuits. To my Beijing neighbors it was a big joke. I called a plumber and had my septic tank pumped out the next morning. Olfactory harmony is returning to the courtyard, but I sense I won’t be living this down anytime soon.