A man selling drinks in a hutong in central Beijing David Gray/Reuters

Hutongs are disappearing but their sounds won't, thanks to Colin Chinnery's Beijing Sound History Project.  

During Mao Zedong's Great Leap Forward in 1958, Chinese citizens were encouraged to bang on pots and pans to drive the country's sparrows to death. Mao's thinking was that the tiny birds, along with rats, flies, and mosquitoes, were pests that ate grain seeds, which the people needed for food.

The sound of banging drove the birds from their nests to fly around until they dropped dead of exhaustion.

Colin Chinnery wants to record that sound. He also hopes to recreate—with the help of actors and sound technicians—the voices of the Red Guards shouting Maoist slogans during the Cultural Revolution, the wind whistling through the imported Canadian poplars that were planted in Beijing in the 1950s, and even the screech of the brakes on modern Beijing buses.

Chinnery’s Beijing Sound History Project seeks to preserve history in a city that is rapidly destroying its own heritage every day. "There’s a goldmine of information and stories" that come from seeking out the sounds of Beijing, from its pre-revolutionary days to today, Chinnery says.

Chinnery's current project expands on an undertaking he started several years ago for Beijing's Shijia Hutong Museum, which recreates life along the narrow alleyways called hutongs. The restored courtyard house has rooms typical of different decades, a scale model of a hutong neighborhood, and a sound booth that offers the calls of street hawkers, the cooing of pet pigeons, and the chimes of bells on rickshaws.

For the museum, situated in a gentrifying neighborhood just east of the Forbidden City, Chinnery captured more than 100 sounds. Using a touch screen, visitors can now hear the clackers used by roving knife and scissor sharpeners, cicadas chirping, or the clang of the donut-shaped bronze device that doctors would shake to announce their arrival.

Traditional Chinese pigeon whistles are among the sounds the project has cataloged. (Colin Siyuan Chinnery and the Beijing Sound History Project)

Chinnery had a built-in interest in contributing to Shijia Hutong Museum, since the site was the original home of his Chinese grandparents, prominent writers Ling Shuhua and Chen Xiying. Their daughter, Ying, married a British Sinologist, John Chinnery. Although Chinnery was raised in England, he's spent a number of more recent years in China, where he's an artist and founder of the Wuhan Art Terminus, a center for art near an old railroad terminus in central China.

While the current hutong project starts with sounds from the 1930s, Chinnery wants to go back even further to the pre-republican days of China. "What it's all about is creating a history of Beijing using only sound," he says. The capital city is ideal for that because, he says, "the whole idea of Beijing culture was heavily concentrated on sounds." Chinnery's effort is part of a growing interest around the world in urban soundscapes, reflected by projects like the London Sound Survey and the Montreal Sound Map.

The setup of Beijing's courtyard homes—four-sided low buildings called siheyuan, built around a central courtyard and closed off from the street—meant that people often reached out to each other through noise outside. The hutongs themselves "were quiet and well-insulated," Chinnery says.

Beijing's rich residents had hobbies like keeping songbirds or crickets. On the other side, there was an entire industry of poor people catering to the rich, all of them with specialties based on their sounds. Vendors, entertainers, and even bone-setting doctors developed distinctive sounds so that the people inside the siheyuan could either come out or send a servant to buy whatever was being sold.

The project has led to historical discoveries that go beyond sound, Chinnery says. One man he met was the great grandson of a bodyguard to the emperor. That man's family recalls the story of the emperor's desire to see butterflies fly through the snow.

Since butterflies perish in the cold, the man devised a way to breed butterflies in winter. He would then heat a vat of water and as the steam rose, the butterflies could fly. When the steam cooled, they would return to the gourd that housed them.

Without researching his sound history, Chinnery says, he wouldn't have come across this kind of story. And the database of sounds he is creating—which will eventually be available online—will serve as a source of information for scholars and activists alike.

Late summer saw the razing of a number of hutongs around the Drum and Bell Towers in the heart of the city, but Chinnery is not sentimental about the loss of hutong life. "I'm not nostalgic," he says. "It’s inevitable that that way of life is gone."

At least now there's one way for future generations to imagine what the hutongs and the rest of the city sounded like.

Audio clips courtesy Colin Siyuan Chinnery and the Beijing Sound History Project.

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