x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Going for a song

The last word As China's Communists celebrate their 60th year in power, Xiyun Yang meets Zang Hong, who devoted his life to the party even as it discarded the traditions that defined his career.

As China's Communists celebrate their 60th year in power, Xiyun Yang meets Zang Hong, who devoted his life to the party even as it discarded the traditions that defined his career. For eight years of his childhood, Zang Hong sang his way through the narrow streets of Beijing (then called Beiping). He sang that he was first with the day's newspaper, that his watermelon slices were larger than boats and sweeter than lumps of sugar, that his jujube fruit could be tried for free before purchase, that his preserved tofu came with free sesame oil ("that was my version of an instant rebate," he says today). He always sold out his merchandise before he arrived home.

This was in the 1940s, long before most of Beijing's low, sprawling courtyards, with their scale-tile roofs and upturned eaves, had been replaced by glass and steel skyscrapers. Back then, you didn't go shopping - your shopping came to you. Street merchants carried their products, whether fresh cucumbers or pots and pans, on carts they pushed through the city's spider web of alleys, or hutongs. In the absence of eye-catching storefronts, these mobile vendors used their voices to lure customers in. Over the years, their calls had become increasingly elaborate, morphing from musical shouts into full melodies. These tunes drifted through the hutongs in a constant stream, mingling and overlapping in their attempts to travel over heavy wooden courtyard doors and into the ears of the women on the other side.

"Your call has to draw them out," Zang says. "There are special rhythms, timbres, melodies, tones" for each product. He says he knows over 100 distinctive cries. "It's not a noise. It's a song." Zang was born into a Manchurian family in 1932 in the same eight-room house where his family had lived for 11 generations. The ancestral family business was, in essence, events management: pitching and dismantling ceremonial tents for celebrations and funerals. After the Second World War broke out and the Japanese invaded, business suffered terribly. At the age of nine, Zang quit school and took up selling newspapers to help fill the family grain bucket.

He tried his luck selling in tea-houses and in bathhouses. He smiled and bowed when he was supposed to, and his stack dwindled - but never disappeared completely. He didn't know what he was doing wrong until, one morning, he got some free advice from a wise older boy on a bike. "You're not doing it right," Zang remembers the boy saying. "You have to draw out your vowels. You have to say: 'Heeeeeeey, the daaaaaay's first neeeeeewspapers.' You have to project so the mistresses of the house can hear you whether they're on the second floor or in the courtyard." By noon that day, Zang had sold all 200 of his papers; with his profits, he bought four kilograms of cornmeal and one kilogram of pickles. He was an entrepreneur now, a businessman who wanted variety in his diet.

He branched out quickly, because with newspapers "you can only use the leftover for toilet paper". He started with tofu, which he sold throughout his impoverished neighbourhood on the city's south side. As he grew older and stronger, he added increasingly heavier foods to his baskets: first soy sauce and vinegar, then seasonal fruit. If there were bruised leftovers, he ate them. He begged his despotic wholesaler for better deals and charmed impoverished housewives with an ever-increasing repertoire of traditional hawker songs - "everyone has nine fen for half a kilo of chives". Over the years, he came to love these songs, and he learnt close to a hundred of them, many related to products he didn't even sell.

In 1949, when he was 17, Zang signed up for a three-month stint as a rickshaw runner. He had been attracted by the profession's greater earning potential, but "didn't have the strength to pull any fat people". Every day, he heard reports of Mao's army marching inevitably towards the city, carrying with it hopes of equality and deliverance from poverty. When the Communists marched into Beijing, Zang dropped his rickshaw and ran towards them.

Once informed of his family business, the party put Zang to work as a scaffold builder for the state-run railway. During Mao's disastrous Great Leap Forward, he and his co-workers were sheltered from the worst of the food shortages because their superiors, fearing men on scaffolds would become lightheaded and fall to their deaths, cut their own rations rather than risk lives (or a slackening of pace on their watch). When the workday was done, Zang would head to a rehearsal or performance of the neighbourhood performance troupe, where he acquainted himself with several Chinese theatre and comedy forms.

Eventually the performance troup became an official part of the government's propaganda office; Zang travelled the countryside singing praise of Mao, the party, and its family planning policies. Half a century later, he still receives a railway pension of about $300 per month. "To this day, I am a loyal follower of the Communist party, of Mao Zedong," he says. In 1981, Zang found work as an extra in a movie by the noted director Shui Hua, who discovered Zang's repertoire of hawker's songs, which were by then an almost forgotten medium used mostly in films and television shows to help evoke a romantic conception of old Beijing. Over the next three days, Zang recorded almost every song he knew for the Beijing Film Studio. These recordings have since been used in over 100 movies and TV shows, including Farewell My Concubine and Bernardo Bertolucci's The Last Emperor. For his three days of work, Zang was paid 200 RMB (about $130 at the time). Despite many protests, he has not received any more compensation since.

Zang, now paunchy with thinning white hair and a few missing teeth, lives with his wife in a tiny, dark, one-bedroom apartment. They moved there in the mid-1990s after the government knocked down his family's ancestral home. The apartment block is built low in the Soviet style, with dank hallways but a bright, leafy garden. The green paint is peeling, but it's hard to notice: the walls are filled with photographs and calligraphy sent to him by his admirers, many of whom contact him after his regular appearances on televisions, in newspapers, at store openings and at festivals, where he appears as a scion of Beijing's past. These appearances don't pay much, and he makes extra cash by emceeing traditional ceremonies like the ones for which his family used to pitch tents. He uses the money to pay for the education of his grandchildren.

There are others who perform old hawker songs in public, but none of them can claim to have learnt them as Zang had, by selling the produce themselves. Zang recently accepted three students, but they are from the wedding industry, eager to learn old customs as expensive traditional ceremonies become increasingly popular. When I last saw Zang, a man who collects old electronics peddled by his apartment on a bicycle cart. "Collecting rubbish! Collecting rubbish!" he yelled in a drawn-out, lulling tone. As more and more of Beijing's alleyways are knocked down, and its street vendors are chased away by city management, men like these are increasingly all that is left of the hawker song tradition. "This has nothing to do with what we did," Zang notes. He and his wife miss the camaraderie of their old neighbourhood, where neighbours would share meals, and "you knew exactly how many quilts every family on the street owned".

"There is no emotion between people anymore," Zang says, his wife nodding slowly in agreement. "In the old days, life was a lot more interesting." He pauses, thinks about it, then says, "but we were so poor." Xiyun Yang is a freelance writer in Beijing.