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  • Writer's pictureFang Sheng

Peace Community: My Ordinary Childhood in China

(Rewritten in September 2023)

My old building, now with many cars parked in front. Photo taken in August 2023.

I’ve been living in Canada for nearly 30 years, but whenever I dream of home, it’s always my old home in Beijing. Always the same rooms – one big, one small, with the same trees, same smoky smell, same sounds...

I grew up in an artists neighbourhood called the “Peace Community”. It was one of the earliest planned sections in Beijing since 1949. The name – “Peace Community” was a tribute to the “Asia and Pacific Rim Peace Conference” held in Beijing in 1952, in the backdrop of the mounting Korean War. It wasn’t like a Montmatre where artists naturally gravitated to. The Ministry of Culture picked a suburban area in the northeastern part of the city, bulldozed the farms and built a handful of Soviet-style office and residential buildings, then moved in several arts groups, including the Central Philharmonic Society, the Oriental Song and Dance Troupe, and the Coal Miners Arts Troupe.

By the time I was born in 1969, in the middle of the Cultural Revolution, the “Peace Community” had grown into a big neighbourhood, with many buildings belonging to a number of arts organizations. Every building housed artists of the same company. The Central Philharmonic Society, where my parents belonged, was the largest, so it occupied the most buildings; the Oriental Song and Dance Troupe was the smallest, with all its singers, dancers and musicians living in one building, surrounded on three sides by ours; the Coal Miners Arts Troupe was located entirely on the other side of the community – some outsiders in our eyes. Under the planned economy, nobody owned their home. Housing was provided by the government, through its various state-run organizations. Living space was assigned by a committee of each organization, based on a person’s or family’s needs and conditions. A family of four, such as mine, could get a two-room apartment. The two rooms were multi-purpose: bedroom, living room, and practice room. The small hallway that connected the rooms to the kitchen and bathroom was for dining and storage. We were fortunate to have our own kitchen and bathroom within the unit. Many other people, if they were single, must share a unit, or be assigned to a one-room home, with shared kitchens and bathrooms in the public hallway. Hallways packed with bicycles, rice bags, scrapped wood, or huge pickle jars were a common sight in those “tube buildings”.

Life was stable and simple. Before my brother and I turned six, we were sent to the boarding kindergarten run by the Ministry of Culture in downtown Beijing, and only came home on Sundays. My parents’ work was just 10 minutes away. They’d walk to the rehearsal hall and “checked the blackboard” – a big wooden board in front where the agenda of the day was chalked. With kids away, they just picked up both lunch and dinner from the Philharmonic canteen. Rehearsals in the morning, political reports in the afternoon. A looping routine day by day. Only later when we reached school age did they start cooking at home. Everyday when my parents came back from work, they’d pick up something from the state-owned grocery store on the way - a bunch of greens, or a piece of tofu for dinner. There was little leftover. A refrigerator was unheard of. If a kid could help buy half a bottle of soy sauce at the corner store, both the kid and the parents would win thumbs-up praise!

Everyone living in the same building knew everyone else. Who was whose kid, what was cooking in each home, who was whose buddy or who hated whom… Nothing was secret, something we all took as if the bond of a large family. Kids were born and raised in “bunches”. We all went to the same kindergarten, same primary school (which was literally across the street), same middle school (also across the street), and played together after school. Nobody supervised us. We all had our home keys hanging around our necks. Tired, we just went home by ourselves. When both our parents must go for a longer errand, they’d just leave us at one of their colleagues’ homes. Our favourite was Auntie Gao’s, because we loved to play with her cats and watch her budgies chirping in a cage hung under their grapevines. She lived in a first-floor unit and had a walk-out balcony. Her handy husband built it outward into a small front yard, so they could enjoy summer dinners outdoors under the shade.

Summer was the favourite season for all kids, with lush green canopies, and plenty of mud and bugs to play with. Heavy rain was often. Lacking good drainage, streets could be puddled with inches of water for days before the sun evaporated it. That muddy water was the favourite playground for all of us. Rainboots were off, clothes were splattered – nothing could stop the fun. Once Mom caught my little brother lying completely flat in the puddle, splattering with his arms and legs and exclaimed, “Look, Mom, I can swim!” Catching dragonflies was another favourite sport. Most kids would stretch a nylon net bag on a wire hoop attached to one end of a long bamboo pole. My brother was so good he didn’t even need a net. If he saw a dragonfly perking on a low bush, he could snatch it with his bare fingers! Some bigger boys would catch crickets and keep them in a jar for fighting. But my parents forbade us to play this game as it could potentially involve gambling. So, we would buy a katydid enclosed in a straw cage, another popular summer pet bug, just to hear its loud chirping.

Playing was in hordes: kids of the Philharmonic only played among themselves, while kids of the Oriental Song and Dance Troupe wouldn’t mingle with us either, especially as many of them were ethnic Uyghurs and spoke little Mandarin. The small garden in between would be our favourite spot for ball games, or flying paper planes. Sometimes little territorial battles would erupt between the musicians’ kids vs. the dancers’ kids. But when the Uyghurs parents baked breads in the makeshift tandoor oven they put up outside their building, the aroma of fresh nan would bring peace to all kids gathered around. In front of our own building, there were a row of aspen trees. Originally planted in the early 1950s, they were now fully grown to even higher than our five-story building. This was a favourite spot for boys to play soccer, using two trees as the goal. Or girls could stretch rubber bands between trees to play skipping games. My brother always liked to be the goalkeeper, and would often throw himself at the ball with little regard to dirt or injury, winning himself the nickname “the Iron Goalie”. But this worried my parents quite a bit, because they wanted to save his hands for learning the piano.

If my memory of Beijing’s summer is full of green, its winter had so much black. Cold and dry, always smelling of soot like all Northern Chinese cities, Beijing burnt a lot of coal for winter heating. In our neighbourhood, there were always huge coal “mountains” in front of the “boiler yards” – central heating plants for surrounding buildings. These were favourite spots for us boys to re-enact war movie scenes – we would charge up the “mountain” carrying wooden toy rifles, or “defend Peak #101 till death” by throwing coal at the “evil American imperialist invaders”! With no washing machines, parents just peeved at the headache of hand-washing coal dust covered heavy clothes in winter. But what could they do stop us little soldiers? Bathing at home was a challenge, too. About once a week, Mom and Dad would take us to a community bathhouse for a good soak and scrub.

In a time when Western classical music was banned from public performance in China, we grew up hearing Mozart, Beethoven and Chopin. For “professional purposes”, musicians were OK-ed to practice on such music as “etudes”. Dad was a violinist in the big orchestra and mostly went to the rehearsal hall to work. Mom was an accompanist in the soloists’ group. The Philharmonic put a piano in our apartment and assigned her to a violin soloist, a guy named Zhongguo - “China”. Mr. “China” lived just one floor below us. He would walk upstairs in flip-flops to rehearse with my mom. A chain smoker, he often played the violin with a cigarette between his lips. As non-smokers, my parents prepared a big ash tray just for him. Every time when he finished rehearsal, he’d tell my mom, “Don’t empty it, I might come back for them.” Indeed, towards the end of the month, when he ran out of ration, which happened quite often, he’d ripped the cigarette butts apart, and rolled the remnant leaves into a few new ones. This ash tray was his “butts saver” before he got next month’s ration coupons. Every morning at 6:30 a.m. on national radio, before the Weather Forecast, there was always the “Springtime in Xinjiang”, a lively 2-minute violin show piece by Mr. “China”, with my mom at the piano. But for me, he was just our neighbour, my mother’s colleague. Neither did I think having a piano in our living room was something unusual, until some of my schoolmates came to hang out and went, “Wow, you have a piano? You guys are rich!” Mom was diligent. When she wasn’t rehearsing with Mr. “China” on their revolutionary repertoire, she would practice on Bach and Chopin every day, while my brother and I were playing wooden building blocks on the big bed by the piano.

Music was always in our life, I never thought classical music was something out of the ordinary. When I turned 7, I started learning violin from Dad; and my brother, at 5 years old, started learning piano from Mom. Many kids of our age also learned an instrument from their parents – just like a carpenter’s son learning the same trade. Everyday after school, before one saw kids swarming out for playtime, one could hear squeaking violins and banging pianos through many windows. Often our katydid also joined in with its chirping songs from the straw cage hung on the balcony.

Then came 1976, the year that saw a calamitous earthquake, the passing of Chairman Mao not long after, and the end of the Cultural Revolution. But for me as a 7-year-old, I didn’t feel much change in my life: still catching dragonflies, still acting battle scenes on the coal mounds, still keeping katydids – just had to practice sawing on my violin everyday.

But I did notice something was a little different now. Dad started to go out some nights for recording gigs. At first, he wasn’t paid directly with money, but was given “extra snacks” like plain muffins or walnut cookies, which were “off” our ration book. Dad would save those and bring them home for my brother and I as breakfast. Occasionally some peasants from nearby farms would knock on our door and offer eggs from their home raised chickens in exchange for ration coupons, a privilege only we city residents had. Peasants must sell most if not all of their products to state-owned dealers, often ending up having not enough food for themselves. But without ration coupons, they couldn’t buy grains from the market even though they were the producers. Some bold peasants risked being caught and brought their privately produced products to our doors. My parents, knowing the limited eggs from our ration book could hardly keep up with two fast growing boys, would scrap up some rice or flour coupons to barter for a few more eggs.

We had had no TV. We used to go to Auntie Gao’s home to watch the only TV in the whole building, as her husband was a higher ranking official. They would leave their doors open to let in neighbourhood kids. Sometimes when there was a popular program, those kids would sit on little folding stools all the way out of the door onto the balcony. And for the first time, in 1979, we got to watch an American sci-fi series Man from Atlantis. I didn’t realize, until much later, that was the year China and the U.S. formally established diplomatic relationship. But I did know I, along with so many Chinese young people of my age, got a new hero – Mark Harris, a fictional man with the exceptional ability to breathe underwater. All of a sudden, young men across China would don “Mark Harris sunglasses” as a fashion statement, much to the chagrin of the “old people” who still couldn’t savour the idea of “making friends with imperialist America”.

The music circle experienced an exciting revival in the late 1970s. A number of Western musicians and orchestras visited the re-opened China, including American violinist Isaac Stern, whose historical tour was made into Oscar winning documentary “From Mao to Mozart”; the Toronto Symphony; the Boston Symphony; Sir Yehudi Menuhin; and Berlin Philharmonic under Herbert von Karajan. As a kid just starting to learn music, I had little recollection of them. Except I did remember seeing a Japanese man with puffy long hair riding a bicycle to the Central Philharmonic rehearsal hall. I knew he was Japanese because no Chinese men in 1979 would grow such long and messy hair. Later I saw him conducting the joint concert by the Boston Symphony and Central Philharmonic. Then I learned who he was: Seiji Ozawa, music director of the Boston Symphony. That was probably the first classical music concert live on TV in China, and I saw my own Dad on the TV screen! The next morning, Dad showed us something he had brought back from the concert: a metal can. With a mysterious look on his face, he asked me and my brother to open it. We tried all the tricks we could think of, but with no success. Dad smiled and pulled off the tab, revealing some bubbly liquid inside. What a tricky way to serve a drink! I took a sip, “Tastes strange… What is this, Dad?” Dad smiled, “It’s Coca Cola. This entire visit of the Boston Symphony was sponsored by Coca Cola.” I had no idea what a sponsor was, but I decided I’d want to be a musician.

China National Symphony Rehearsal Hall, soon to be demolished and rebuilt into a new rehearsal and office space. Photo taken in August, 2023.

As I entered grade 3, primary schools started to offer English classes. English overtook Russian as the top foreign language to learn. Mom bought a short-wave radio and tuned in to the English learning program of Voice of America. Every evening, day time in America, as my brother and I went to bed, Mom would put on her earphones and murmur along while taking detailed notes. Officially, tuning in to foreign broadcast was still a crime. But soon after, Chinese television also offered English learning programs. Though targeting adult learners, I would sit by Mom’s side and babble along. Mom noticed I could pick up the sounds and words quite naturally. I never felt English was hard, just fun being able to say things in a different language. As I was struggling to keep up with the violin, my parents thought it might be a good idea for me to pursue a career path in language. And years later, I became a professional translator and conference interpreter, while my brother did become a concert pianist, though his dream was to play at China’s national soccer team! But classical music was still with me. Now it was my brother’s practicing that filled my ears all day. As he progressed, I also memorized all the pieces he learned – Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin, Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninov – I almost became a music dictionary, though I don’t play any more myself.

Learning was a new theme for the nation in this new age. The Central Philharmonic broke from its Cultural Revolution restrictions of only performing Chinese revolutionary music, and learned (or relearned) standard Western classical repertoire. As a musician’s family member, I got to attend many of their concerts for free, and saw with my own eyes, their collaborations with internationally acclaimed artists. One highlight of their success was a 6-week tour of over 20 cities in the U.S. in 1987. Dad and his colleagues saw a different world.

This was also the year Taiwan lifted its ban on visits to Mainland China and allowed its veterans to visit their long-lost families in the Mainland. Dad got to meet with his old alumni from 40 years earlier. The two enemy sides started to do business across “The Strait”. Popular cultures from Taiwan and Hong Kong flooded into the Mainland. It appeared an age of peace and prosperity was really here. The next year, I moved out of the Peace Community and into the dorm of Beijing Foreign Studies University. But just like the music I’ve been hearing all my life, the Peace Community stays within me, even after I immigrated to Canada in 1996.

A few years ago, on a visit to Beijing with my Taiwanese wife and Canadian daughter, I took them back to my old neighbourhood. Mom and Dad and their colleagues had long retired and moved away. I don’t know who live there now. The buildings appear to be smaller, still with many bicycles blocking the entrances. The trees are much thicker, with their shades much greener than in my dreams. The coal mounds are long gone. The dragonflies have all disappeared, only occasional katydid chirping can be heard from some windows far away. It’s quiet.

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