People are Iron, Rice is Steel
I live in one of the few neighborhoods of Beijing that has not seen the bulldozers as much as the others. Chinese people are surprised when I tell them my address, replying, “I thought there were only pingfang there.”*
“Yes,” I reply, “I live in a pingfang“.
The best part of living in this neighborhood, aside from the quiet alleys and the beauty of the architecture, is talking to neighbors. Most of the residents here are relatively poor elderly “old Beijing” people. Their apartments have no bathrooms. It is interesting to see how the gentrification plays out as more boutique stores come into the neighborhood and the older people come out at night to sit and watching things going on (看热闹). My conversations with these older residents are always enlightening. In general, they are very uninterested in moving into a high-rise “unnatural” apartments, where people don’t talk to your neighbors and feel trapped (their words). While conversing with a woman in our courtyard as I was running out to the market, she said, “you know we have a phrase in Chinese,”
人是铁 | people are iron
饭是钢 | rice [food] is steel
一顿不吃 | [if you] miss one meal
饿得很 | [you'll be] very hungry
She then trailed off with laughter, taking her wheelchair down to the nearby Houhai lake, where she sits every night, hanging out as the sun sets.
More on the Hutongs of Beijing at Asia Society China Green’s, The Fate of Old Beijing.
*Pingfang, literally “flat house,” refers to the one-story buildings that make up the preserved neighborhoods of Beijing.