BEIJING — In a narrow, grey-walled alley typical of Beijing’s back streets, men are bunched together in tightly compressed groups arched over some invisible central point, wedged into immobility. There’s the same air of excitement, tension and watchfulness as you might find at a boxing ring or racecourse.
Foreigners are a rare sight in this secluded place, and someone disengaging himself from a huddle, seeing my curiosity, motions me closer and presses me into the crush which is pungent with garlic and erguotou — Chinese sorghum spirits.
Through a narrow gap between leathery necks I glimpse a table topped with a clear plastic enclosure in which two small dark insects, ququr — crickets, are being tickled with rat whiskers on slender sticks, encouraging them towards one another. Bets are called and money flashed discreetly, and the insects, catching sight of one another, lift their wings, chirrup piercingly, and lock mandibles, pushing each other to and fro as if filled with the same tensions as the watchers.
When one disengages and runs away the fight is over, ¥10 notes change hands swiftly, and the smug owner collects his champion by trapping it under a tiny wire-loop-handled net. When it climbs and holds on he lifts and deftly deposits it in a small ceramic jar with a metal lid, rapidly securing that with a rubber band, while others deposit fresh contestants into the ring.
It’s a common saying amongst older Beijingers that China’s four great pastimes are hua, niao, yu, chong — flowers, birds, fish and insects. The Guanyuan Market has them all. Well off the beaten track for most Beijing visitors, the market is filled with peonies and chysanthemums, fluttering birds in delicate bamboo cages and two warehouses of fish in brightly coloured buckets. Hidden behind these is the narrow lane lined with stalls selling crickets, large green grasshoppers and the paraphernalia for pampering them as much as you might any Pekinese.
An old man seated on a blanket near the gamblers tries to sell me a gourd, hollowed out and fitted with a perforated wooden cap. These are portable grasshopper living quarters, to be slipped inside a jacket to keep the insects alive during walks in Beijing’s chilly winter. The perforations allow air in, and let the metallic chirping of their song out.
As the sun shifts across the narrow alley, vendors swap sides to keep their stock from direct sunlight. Old men frown in concentration as they write their insects’ individual and suitably martial names on the lids of their prisons; Golden Headed Emperor, Black Dragon With Open Wings.
Others sell inch-long youhulu “oil gourd” crickets, famed by ancient poets for their mournful song, but also offered unsentimentally as a bodybuilding bird food. An old labourer in dark-blue work clothes slips a canister of two of these divas into his breast pocket, comfortably in earshot, and we both smile as a high-pitched ringing emerges, only slightly muffled.
If you go....
For information on Beijing, visit the Beijing Tourism Administration website at visitbeijing.com.cn. For information on travel in China, visit the China National Tourist Office website at tourismchina.org.
Peter Neville-Hadley is a member of the Meridian Writers’ Group.