Throughout its history, Beijing has always laid claim to being one of the world’s most impressive cities. A sprawling megalopolis that is home to over 25 million people, the city boasts a mixture of history, tradition as well as refined modernity and cutting-edge architecture.
Rarely has a city managed to deliver a juxtaposition of monuments and buildings as effortlessly as Beijing. A place, where centuries-old imperial places feature as prominently as modern builds such as the National Centre for Performing Arts and the CCTV Building.
But long before it solidified its status as an impressive metropolis; life in this capital of China – believe it or not, was a little bit more laid back.
The hustle and bustle that preoccupied much of Beijing’s past can be centred on the Hutong (narrow lanes) and Siheyuan (courtyards). Much of the city’s culture is said to have been nurtured on these narrow alleyways and courtyards, which served as prominent places of trade and where Beijingers used to go about their daily lives.
Beijing’s Hutongs were established during the Yuan Dynasty as far back as 1271. They largely survived until 1949, where reportedly over 3,200 Hutongs were still in existence.
Unfortunately, rapid urbanisation slowly diminished the numbers leaving less than a 1,000 today – most of which, due to gentrification, have been transformed into tourist attractions populated by cafes and shops.
Fortunately for visitors and locals alike, an initiative by Shijia Hutong Museum is providing an insight to this colourful past with a new installation that highlights the once familiar sounds that permeated on these streets.
In a small room in this historical attraction, visitors can listen and live vicariously through recordings that transport them to Beijing’s past.
A Historical Soundtrack
The person behind this endeavour is Beijing-based artist Colin Siyuan Chinnery, who has painstakingly taken the time to record and curate a selection of sounds as part of the Beijing Sound Museum.
Kick starting the project in 2013, Chinnery looked at preserving the sounds of the city in order to retain that image of the traditional city before it disappears altogether.
“Most sounds of old Beijing are gone. That's why I want to record it. Old sound can still evoke people's memories," Chinnery explained in a recent interview with China Daily.
As a child, the artist used to live in Beijing, which relates his affinity towards the city and the need to preserve elements of the important past that has helped shaped it as well as its culture and citizens over the years.
The Beijing Sound Museum is situated in a room at the Shijia Hutong Museum. Here, visitors can gain a unique insight into this soon-to-be forgotten aspect of Beijing, thanks to the recordings Chinnery and his team have amassed over the years.
From both a historical and cultural standpoint the initiative is undoubtedly important as many of these sounds are already non-existent in the city.
Sound, Memory & Revelations
In a statement to Global Times, Chinnery says that he hopes his recordings are able to invoke certain feelings in people. In essence, it is his wish that the sounds serve as a tool in stirring emotions.
For visitors who want to relish in this opportunity, they merely have to touch a screen situated in the room at the Shijia Hutong Museum to be transported auditorily into Beijing’s past.
Chinnery has put together over 300 sounds of the old city, much of which is centred on street vendors and hawkers who used to ply their trade in the many of the city’s Hutongs over the years.
The sounds include street hawkers peddling their wares and services, as well as chirping cicadas and pigeon whistles, once familiar sounds that have fallen silent due to Beijing’s development over the past few decades.
A large portion of the curated sound bites are focused on signature hawker cries or noisemakers, during the time they used the labyrinth of alleys in the city to peddle their wares to residents in the old city.
For many visitors, the small Shijia Hutong Museum not only provides a walk through memory lane but also peels back some layers of life in the old city. For example, unbeknownst to many, camels were the main transport to ferry items like coal, rice and other necessities through the city up to 70 years ago.
The pigeon whistles or bells were also a unique aspect of the old city, as Beijingers favoured attaching whistles to their pigeons. They made a distinctive harmonic sound when taking to the air.
It was a sound definitive of Beijing, one that was both symbolic and distinctive of the city. Which is why in 2014, the art of making these pigeon whistles was listed as an intangible cultural heritage.
Harnessing The Sounds Of The Past
To ensure authenticity of the recordings Chinnery oftentimes had to undertake great challenges and also an insurmountable amount of research. In an interview with Xinhua, the recording artist revealed he spent an extended amount of time tracking down a 94-year-old former street peddler to record his shouts once used to advertise his goods and services.
To recreate the sounds of camel bells, he ventured to the desert to record the camels there. In the case of capturing the sounds of pigeon whistles, the artist looked up a pigeon whistle master craftsmen who introduced him to pigeon owners still practicing this centuries-old tradition.
Although Chinnery has spent years dedicated towards this labour of love, he admittedly believes it is all necessary. He repeatedly hammers home the message that sound is not able to merely thread the changes of a city but is also able to evoke memories.
This is why Chinnery neither considers himself a field recordist or a sound engineer but rather a sound collector; one who is continuously documenting the changing tune of the city of Beijing.
Cover Image: Zhang Kaiyv/Unsplash
Writer | Richard Augustin
Two decades in journalism but Richard believes he has barely scraped the surface in the field. He loves the scent of a good story and the art of storytelling, two elements that constantly fuel his passion for writing.