China Beat Archive



Jonathan Tel

Date of this Version


Document Type



July 7, 2009 in The China Beat


Copyright July 7, 2009 Jonathan Tel. Used by permission.


Jonathan Tel’s collection of stories, The Beijing of Possibilities, was released last month. China Beat ran an earlier selection, “Year of the Gorilla,” in March 2009. Tel’s previous publications include Arafat’s Elephant and Freud’s Alphabet. You can learn more about The Beijing of Possibilities at the website of Other Press.

Blame it on the Olympics. The authorities are trying to clean up the city, give it a new face. Let’s fool tourists and athletes into thinking it’s always been like this. Street performers of all kinds, they’re swept out of sight. Not that they vanish, they relocate to the outskirts, beyond the Fifth Ring Road. Now, as I set off to work, making for the number13 subway line, I’m importuned by calligraphers and contortionists, fortune-tellers and acrobats, and a living statue in the guise of a terracotta warrior poses on the traffic island. You can’t just walk by these people as if they don’t exist.

There’s one busker who’s been here since New Year. He’s staked out a spot in the underpass near the station. In his late fifties, I’d guess; gray hair and glasses; on colder days he wears a Tianjin-style ribbed jacket. Just another migrant from the provinces, I’d supposed, chancing his luck. He arranges an inflatable red cushion on the ground and sits cross-legged, the instrument balanced on his left thigh. He plays the erhu, always the same slow, mournful tune. I must have tipped him a dozen times before we finally had a conversation. ‘Tough out there,’ I said – words to that effect. It was April, dust season; the north wind blowing from beyond the Great Wall. ‘Not so bad,’ he replied seriously, ‘I get bigger tips in lousy weather.’ To my surprise he was addressing me in Beijing dialect – throaty, with exaggerated tones, the way the old-timers speak. I had some minutes to spare, and was in no hurry to go out into the billowing dust. ‘How was spring in the old days?’ I asked, ‘More dusty? Less?’ He drew the bow against the strings and the python-skin resonator amplified the sound. I dropped a five-yuan bill in the instrument case. Once again he performed his tune for me, and then he told me his story.