As I make the ride from the Beijing airport to our hotel, I have a line from Patrick Watson’s clack-clickity song “Beijing” running as a soundtrack in my head.
“It was the sound of a city. Speaks to me,” he sings. “It was the sound of a city. Sang me a song.”
Wastson’s song is full of cymbals and drums and all sorts of frenetic tick-tack percussion that clinks and clucks and clanks and clangs. It buzzes, bumps, and bounces. The back and forth piano reminds me of the tempo of morning rush hour, and the violin crescendos from just-woke-up speed to that of frenetic commuter. It is, indeed, the hustle-bustle sound of a city.
And Beijing is, if nothing else, all hustle and bustle. That hustle and bustle is most dramatically illustrated by the bone-rumbling blare of our bus’s horn as the driver lays on it liberally. Every time I nod off, it seems, the horns vibrates the whole front of the bus and wakes me up.
The driver carries on, unperturbed. Drivers don’t get road rage in China. The rule of the road here is “I honk, you move.” A driver lays on the horn to let other drivers, bicyclists, and pedestrians know that he’s coming through, so our driver’s constant horn-blowing is actually an indication that he’s making good progress.
Other horns, mostly from taxis, beep and honk and move the traffic. It’s the sound that comes most readily to mind when I think of Beijing. But the city is full of sound, and those sounds speak to me.
In the Pearl Market, I know the salesgirls stand in the aisles in front of their booths, chit-chatting with each other until a potential customer comes by. Anyone brave enough to run the gauntlet will have wallets, belts, bags, watches, shirts—any of a thousand things—thrust at them. “Need a wallet, sir?” “You want to look at belt?” “Hello? Hello, you need scarf?”
Their fingers will clatter over calculator keys as they negotiate prices with anyone willing to bargain. The low cacophony of commerce—the wheeling and dealing, the consultations, the negotiations—provides a constant background. “How much?” echoes over and over as a refrain.
In the supermarket, beyond the thick slap of the plastic strips that hang in the doorway, salesgirls offer friendly “Nee-how’s,” accompanied by the music of beeping cash registers in the background, to people who come in. Shopping carts shake metallically with the rhythm of the escalator ramp that takes shoppers from the first floor to the second, where they can find snack foods and beverages, basic household goods, health and beauty items, and cosmetics.
Back on the first floor, shoppers place their orders with attendants behind counters, asking for meats and vegetables wrapped in bamboo leaves, skewers of something that looks like it might be chicken but might not be, and bakery desserts that look tempting regardless of the language they were baked in. At the seafood counter, the crushed ice crunches as the attendant shifts around varieties of strange-looking fish to keep everything cold. The grocery store provides endless fascination for me because I don’t know what anything is, but it all looks so interesting.
In Tiananmen Square, thick crowds of people provide a constant hum, the volume fluctuating as clusters of people cross hither and yon. A child yells for his mother. Two friends break out into raucous laughter. A woman calls to prospective customers that she has watches with Chairman Mao on them. “Mao watch! Good price!”
The hard-leather soles of policemen march tap-tap-tap-tap-tap-tap-tap-tap in formation as they head to their next shift. Two newly installed wide-screen digital display boards, set up next to the Monument to the People’s Heroes, show scenes of China’s growth and progress while blaring patriotic music.
For those people standing in line to file through Chairman Moa’s Mausoleum, their hum quiets to a hush, then finally to a shush, as they enter the building and pass, in silence, past Mao’s recumbent body. They break out into chatter again as they file out the building’s back door.
Just to the north of the Square, in the Forbidden City, the low murmur of curious tourists gets punctuated by the electronically amplified and slightly distorted narration of a guide speaking through a portable speaker to his tour group. Some of his tourists listen, other gape in wonder at the vast expansiveness of the former palace and its wide, open courtyards and intimidating gates.
Even further north, in the old neighborhood around the city’s drum and bell towers, tourists ride in a convoy of rickshaws. The bike gears clatter and the chains rattle as the drivers shift. The jing-a-ling of bicycle bells replaces the blare of car horns, but the rule is just the same: “I ring, you move.”
At half-past the hour, as a demonstration for tourists, five of the twenty-five drums at the top of the drum tower rumble to life. Reenactors pound on the cowhide skins and rattle their sticks against the wooden rims:
Across town at the Summer Palace, groups of senior citizens gather in shaded courtyards to do group exercises, portable stereos playing music for them as they move in fluid harmony, like a flock of birds.
Elsewhere on the palace’s park-like grounds, dozens—sometimes hundreds—gather in pavilions for large-group sing-alongs, accompanied by the smooth slide of trombones, the jazzy blasts of saxophones, and the shrill twitter of wooden flutes. Solo musicians find quiet groves to tuck themselves into so they can play for themselves.
I, too, like to find those quiet garden nooks, like the one behind our hotel. The garden path winds between stone formations and beautiful cedar trees. I can sit on a bench next to the pond and listen to the croaks from a pair of frogs.
In America, I’d be able to identify the species by the sound of its call, but here in China, I have no idea what sort of croaker keeps me company. I don’t mind, though. It’s pleasant enough that it makes me almost forget the sounds of traffic from the street just on the far side of the garden wall.
On the bus, I can conjure all these sounds of the city. I look forward, once again, to immersing myself in them. The sounds speak to me.
They say, “Welcome back.”