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November 18th, 2009
05:35 PM ET

The side of China President Obama didn't see

Ole Schell
Filmmaker
AC360° Contributor

Barack Obama was in Beijing as part of a three-day visit to China this week. No doubt he saw many examples of the prosperity of the country: the avant-garde Rem Koolhaas architectural marvels and even the new sterile malls popping up around every corner. What he probably didn't see it what's left behind, the last vestiges of traditional Beijing that barely exist in the city's vast networks of winding alleys know as hutongs.

Hutongs were originally formed when rows of traditional courtyard houses were connected to each other by small alleys in a spider web-like grid. For centuries several families would live in one residence that surrounded its own courtyard. Typically, there would be a single bathroom for each neighborhood and sometimes only one faucet as well.
Even today you might see a line of people around the corner waiting to use the communal toilet in the morning.

This disappearing China is an inconvenience. Its buildings are bulldozed and its people sometimes displaced. A few months ago, while making a documentary about the country's new generation of entrepreneurs, I saw this disappearing world firsthand.

In my neighborhood of Sanlitun, known as the bar district of Beijing, I frequently noticed a knife sharpener riding his bicycle down the street with a grindstone on the back. He rode around the city so people could bring their dulled blades to him. As recently as 10 years ago, the streets of Beijing were teeming with such bicycle merchants and tradesmen, but today he is among a dying breed. I decided to ask if I could tag along with him for the day.

We never exchanged names – I don't speak Chinese - and while much of the growing middle class in the major cities is now learning English, I have yet to meet a tradesmen or laborer who is able to. We communicated by hand gestures alone. In order to set up our excursion, I simply walked up to him and handed him my cell phone with a Chinese speaker on the other end who explained my proposition.

The knife sharpener wore dirty blue slacks, rolled up to his calves to reveal bright green socks, a soiled polo work shirt, an oil-stained baseball cap and faux fur earmuffs to keep out the cold. He greeted me with a lopsided, gap-toothed smile and gestured that we should get on our bikes and get started with our day.

My shiny Schwinn mountain bike contrasted with his unwieldy steel model, one he has owned for 40 years. We rode past street-side tailors and barbers cutting hair in clumps onto the curb. The lack of running water meant the occasional smell of human waste. There were few customers on that street.

Michael Zhao is a fellow at the Center on US-China Relations at the Asia Society in New York. He tracks the effects of modernization in China.

"When I was a child each family only had one or two rusty old knives and one pair of scissors. We would all use knife sharpeners who would call out for business as they rode through the alleys on an old bike or flatbed tricycle," Zhao said.

"With the opening of Wal-Marts, Ikeas and other western stores, people are now choosing to buy new knives instead of sharpening old ones and this way of life is quickly becoming a thing of the past," he added.

On that windy Beijing morning, the sharpener motioned for me to follow him down a tiny alley with water running down the center of it. It was only a few blocks from several shiny malls selling the latest western goods but was surrounded by plywood and tin shacks and small, hastily plastered courtyard houses. We turned a corner on to a wider, busier Hutong where a man brushed his teeth out of a cup, spitting onto the ground, and the bells of black bicycles chimed. The rush towards economic modernization did not appear to have trickled down to this strata of the Beijing population. Every so often we would see migrant workers from the countryside piling jackhammers into the ground through clouds of brown dust for less than $3 a day.

The Chinese character 'Chai' (demolish) was painted in red on old structures as their glass replacements rose nearby.

"Every couple of months we see another neighborhood being torn down," Zhao said. "Some of the people are given buyouts and relocated to the outskirts of the city. Sometimes it is enough to get an equivalent place to live but not always. Beijing is a city that is constantly updating its skyline. If you are away for a few months you might not recognize it when you get back," he added.

We stopped at a corner where he set up a grindstone and a bucket of water and pulled out a noisemaker that looked like a heavy wind chime which he began to clank. He then called out what I assumed was "Sharpen your scissors, sharpen your knives. Sharpen your scissors, sharpen your knives," as he raised a knife and then a pair of scissors smiling so I might understand.

A group of older people came out of their apartments with their rusted and blunt implements – knives, scissors, meat cleavers. Through conversation the sharpener took the first knife, braced it against the back of the bike and shaved it clean with a two handed metal sharpener called a Tsiang that scrapes the blade. He then pressed the knife on a rough grindstone to file it, then painted water on a smooth stone with a brush to give the blades a final polish.

It was time to go again. We rode through a half-dirt street and, without any transition, into a sharp-edged new mall with its glass Apple Store, illuminated Nike and Adidas logos, pictures of spandex-clad American Apparel teens and a Coldstone Creamery. David Beckham, two stories high, was kicking a branded soccer ball on an LED screen.

The CCTV building in Beijing.

The CCTV building in Beijing.

As abruptly, he was gone and we were back in a world where no one knew or cared about David Beckham's latest hairstyle. We stopped, and the sharpening began all over again. Grind, file, clean.

Kemin Zhang is a former successful television commercial director in Beijing who became disillusioned with the industry and quit to teach children music in hopes of instilling and holding on to a sense of culture among Chinese youth.

"China today has a big disparity between rich and poor and the people that work the hardest seem to be to be compensated the least. I think this is common for countries as they go through their own industrial revolutions," Zhang said. "China today is all about money and I think we are going through many of the same steps that western countries already have. Many people are taken advantage of or forgotten."

The knife sharpener and I rode in silence through a gate and into an orchard I had never seen before. It seemed enormous – we rode for miles through what looked like endless rows of apple trees. It seemed unfeasible that such a place existed in the middle of a large city. We made our way along a gray dirt road under a freeway overpass and came to a stop among several chickens and a donkey, outside the sharpener's courtyard house.

There was no electricity or running water and piles of old clothes, garbage spilling out of bags, paper, scrap metal and paint cans were scattered on the ground. Inside one of the rooms was a kerosene lamp and four beds with rice-mats on top of wood planks. Next to the bed was nothing but a poster of President Hu Jintao.

As the sun dropped through the polluted sky, it was time to go home. We shook hands and I watched him heave - creaking his bike to motion in the shadow cast by the tall CCTV building.

President Obama most likely saw the modern edifices, but I imagine he didn't see the man who rides his bike around them. Like the rest of the world, he has no need for a knife sharpener.

Editor's Note: Ole Schell directs films in New York City. In addition to “Win In China" he just finished the film 'Picture Me' about the world of high fashion modeling. While living in Beijng he produced a short of series on Chinese youth culture for Current TV and reported on the American election and politics for Channel 4 in Britain and MySpace Politics. He is the recipient of the “Leonardo’s Horse Award” for best picture at the 2009 Milan International Film festival for 'Picture Me.'Win in China will be screened at the Sidwell Friends School in Washington DC on December 2nd at 7 p.m.


Filed under: 360° Radar • China
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