Monday, 17 October 2016

Exploring a Hutong with my Sketchbook

The second Saturday I was in China, I met up again with Urban Sketchers Beijing. Melissa joined us and Julia came along too, to meet people and explore a Hutong with us. The Hutong are the old, traditional areas of the city which have not yet been torn down to build huge, glass skyscrapers, wide, multi-laned roads or flashy shopping centres. There are not many left.

We warmed to the Hutong immediately. The people there were clearly living in very difficult, cramped and basic conditions, in places quite shocking to our eyes, but there was a tangible feeling of community. Everyone was extremely friendly and welcoming, especially once we settled down to sketch.

The area we visited was, a very long time ago, a high-class, red light district. The house many of us painted first was once the home of a top call girl of the time, where she would entertain clients, to play music, discuss philosophy etc. Now families lived inside, in barely habitable, squatters conditions. Nevertheless, one man who lived there was still very proud of the grand entrance with it's lovely brass lion door handles and was pleased we were drawing them.

Children came to look and giggled when I drew them into my picture. It was all very sociable and drawing once again created a brief but magical bridge between us.

We moved further up the street, where I found a lady rolling out dough in her shop. It turned out she was making noodles. I got just one of her arms drawn and she finished. When she came out to meet us with her daughter on her arm, I asked if I could sketch her and drew over the top of the stray arm. Her daughter was shy though.

A man was making and selling dumplings for lunch. He was so adept, his fingers moved like lightning, but I did my best to draw each stage of the procedure.

Then Julia and I scoffed one each. They were absolutely delicious. Julia said they were the best dumplings we had the whole trip. Mine was full of spinach, egg and herbs. Julia's was chopped greens and lots of herbs.

Julia wandered around, taking photos (many of the ones here are hers), which was great as I never have time to take pictures when I'm sketching. We met up at this lady's shop. It was so colourful with all her wares out front, and with her sitting on a little stool, eating nuts, it was perfect.

It was very peaceful away from the constant traffic of the modern city. There was even bird song. Then we noticed the bird's cheeping was singing a tune, one we recognised but couldn't quite identify. Rather odd. Then it swapped to another song. We realised the bird was a plastic parrot on the woman's stall! It was such a naff item, Julia had to have it and. after very unsuccessful negotiations, ended up paying daft money for it. Worth it for a funny memory though.

Mid-afternoon, we finished by all sketching together inside the building which had once been the actual brothel.

It is now a hostel, fitted out with bunkbeds and with stray cats wandering through. Despite huge piles of used laundry on the floor here and there, it was very easy to imagine the building's other life, with beautiful ladies peering over the balconies and clients disappearing into the many doors.

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