Bespoke Beijing Travel & Events Co. teams up with the passionate historians of Beijing Postcards for the launch of their next limited edition public walking tour: Layers of Beijing. A tour that winds you through the hidden hutongs behind Zhangzizhong Lu, the Beijing Postcards team re-traces life in Beijing from the founding of the People’s Republic to the present day revealing the layers that have shaped Beijing into the capital that you see today.
Step-by-step, as you wind deeper into the narrow hutongs, historian extraordinaires Lars Ulrik Thom (Founder of Beijing Postcards) and Rosie Levine (Co-Researcher and Collaborator for Beijing Postcards) explain the incredible changes experienced from the 1950′s social campaigns that set the foundations of Beiping society that brilliantly pulled everyone together to the chaos of the 1960′s when everything fell apart as people were pushed to return to the countryside.
From big picture, over-arching themes to specific case studies, Beijing Postcards draws from their own in-depth research alongside personal stories of their elderly neighbors.
“What did it mean to suddenly have your home given over to strangers? To be at war with sparrows and rats? To see chimneys popping up all over the hutongs in a bid to be as industrialized as a tiny country 5,000 miles away?
Now, thanks to the team at Beijing Postcards – who have carried out months of witness interviews and first-hand research – you’ll have the opportunity to understand this oft-forgotten period of Chinese history through the eyes of those who were there.”
Impressive Starting Point for the “Layers of Beijing” Walking Tour
This walking tour is a limited edition (taking place on 6 different dates: June 6, 7, 13, 14, 19, 21), there will be 20 spots open to the public on a first-come, first-book basis.
“This walking tour offers a rare opportunity to hear the honest and touching personal stories of Beijing’s octo and nona-genarians before their generation disappears.” – Bespoke Beijing
Learning about the big changes that took place through the 1950′s from the introduction of ration coupons to the social campaigns trying to oust illiteracy and form neighborhood committees, participants come to understand that “Communism in China” isn’t just one period, but that this period created the foundations for Beijing society. What moved me the most was hearing one specific case study story of a man filing a report that marked him for the rest of his life, expelling him into a small village in the countryside for 20 years and his impressions returning to Beijing in the late 1970′s. Eager to learn more, I couldn’t resist asking BJ Postcards collaborator Rosie Levine to reveal more about their newest walking tour, what inspired the BJ Postcards team to hone in on this part of Beijing’s recent history, the challenges with relying on interviewee’s memories, and what makes this walking tour so unique.
Rosie Levine, Beijing Postcards Researcher and Collaborator of Layers of Beijing Walking Tour
LDS 1-on-1 with Rosie Levine of BJ Postcards:
LDS: What are the main themes of your newest walking tour?
RL: The main themes of our newest walk tour:
- The 1950’s
- Local history
- Daily life under Communism
- The impact of the Communists on the city of Beijing
LDS: Why did you come to name this walking tour “Layers of Beijing”?
RL: The name Layers of Beijing has a few meanings. It can refer to the various “layers” of history you pass when you enter into our courtyard: through the original gate from the dynasties, past the mendur that were smashed in the cultural revolution, around concrete and mental expansions that were built in the 1970’s and finally into our gallery space.
The name can also refer to the process we used to make this talk: various layers or interpretations of history: the bottom layer being original photographs, maps and documents, the next layer being how our old neighbors remember the past, then interviews with experts on the subject, and finally general history books who smooth over and shape the past into narratives. By that definition, the last “layer” is our work at Beijing Postcards as we try to make sense of it all.
LDS: What are the layers we will uncover?
RL: The primary layer that we will focus on is the stories of individuals who have lived through these events.
LDS: Why did you pick this time period to focus on?
RL: We decided to focus on the 1950’s-1980’s because it’s a period in Chinese history that a lot of people (ourselves included!) think they know about, but actually don’t fully understand. Before this project began I definitely felt that I understood the history of the 1950’s and 1960’s and although I could name-drop “the Culture Revolution” and “Five Year Plans”, I couldn’t answer basic questions like how an ordinary person in Beijing’s life changed after 1949. Those are the questions we tried to answer while doing the research for this walk.
LDS: What inspired your Beijing Postcards team to create this tour? How did you find the subjects/case-studies of your interviews?
RL: This tour is a project that kind of fell into our lap. Beijing Postcards has had our gallery space in the courtyard for about a year and a half. During that time, our neighbors became more and more curious about what we do. Every once in a while an old neighbor would pop by the gallery to tell a story or we would pass them on the street but it became more and more apparent that we needed to sit down and talk to these people and learn more.
One of our neighbors, who we have chosen to focus our story around, is the world’s nicest guy. He and his wife have been so warm and welcoming to us. We have interviewed them around four or five times and every time it’s such a pleasure to be around them, they are so eager to share their stories. It’s been a really fun process and really interesting to see this period through their eyes.
LDS: What were your biggest challenges in conducting these interviews?
RL: One big challenge in conducting interviews has been working with memories. Memory is a tricky thing – sometimes it’s hard because dates and timelines don’t add up or content from different interviews will be in direct contradiction. It can also be frustrating when people don’t remember things that we would like to know about! From there, it’s up to us to either follow up or do research to fill out the story.
LDS: We wind through the hutongs of one particular spot in Beijing – how did you decide to do the walking tour through that area and what do you look for when you’re scouting out the route for your walking tours?
For me, the most important part of creating the route is selecting places that will make history come alive. It’s so easy to walk by the same buildings every day and never probe further and understand why things look the way they do. I think being able to look at things like smashed mendur and place them in their historical moment makes the city come alive in a whole new way.
I think this tour also has forced us to look at the whole picture of the hutongs, not just the old buildings, but the newly constructed buildings too. They are also part of the history of Beijing – maybe not the Qing dynasty history, but history nonetheless!
LDS: What’s the biggest hook to this new tour?
RL: I think the best part of our new tour is that this research is far from over. We have only uncovered the tip of the iceberg of stories in our courtyard and we hope to be working on this project for a long time to come. By going on this tour you’ll see the foundations of a lot more research and interviewing that will inevitably come out of this!
LDS: Any added extras/bonuses we can expect?
RL: You can definitely look forward to an awesome exhibition at our gallery after the walk. The exhibition will feature old photographs from our collection, newspaper articles and documents we have found in our research, and photographs of our neighbors living in the courtyard. It should be a really cool supplement to all the information on the tour.
Lars introduces some of the old Peking maps in the Beijing Postcards Gallery
LDS: What part of this project has made the most impact on you?
RL: One of the most interesting parts of this project for me has been learning more about pre-communist Beiping. Most of our interviewees remember Beijing as it was still under the Nationalist government. It sounds naïve but I never considered the fact that the people around us (not historians or researchers) could shed light on that time in history. Reading about “Beiping” seems like such distant history but actually it is very much within living memory. Their stories are really incredible and have really helped me get a better sense of the whole time period.
For me, this has been a fascinating process and has really brought the city to life in a totally different way for me. The Beijing that our old neighbors remember is a completely different place than the one that we walk through today but they have witnessed those changes firsthand! It’s been really interesting going through that process with them.
As tickets sell super quick, or as Bespoke Beijing eloquently puts it – “faster than soy sauce on discount at Wu Mart”, you should do yourself and your history buff friends a big favor and book yourselves in (click HERE) for June’s tour dates (June 6, 7, 13, 14, 19, 21) ASAP!
“Layers of Beijing” Walking Tour Details:
Dates: June 6 (Sat), June 7 (Sun), June 13 (Sat), June 14 (Sun), June 19 (Fri), June 21 (Sun)
Time: 10AM-1PM. Starts at Zhangzizhong Lu’s Northwest Intersection
Availability: up to 20 spaces per tour date
Price: 325RMB per person ticket price (includes a drink and exclusive exhibition after the tour)
To book: email: limitededitiontours@bespoke-
beijing.com and let them know which date you want to book and for how many people
About Beijing Postcards:
A company dedicated to modern Chinese history, with an emphasis on Beijing, Beijing Postcards (aka Lars Ulrik Thom and Simon Gjeroe) collects the memories of a city in transition. With a focus on collecting and uncovering historical photographs, maps and prints of Beijing through original research, the pair offer a series of talks, walks and exhibitions about the capital in addition to reproduction photographs and original maps sold at their new space at Chaodou Hutong 39 by appointment.