Tranquility lost

Beijing Journal

After stabbing, uneasiness descends on Drum Tower

Beijing 2008

August 11, 2008|By Evan Osnos | Evan Osnos,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

BEIJING - For the past two years I've lived in a one-story house in an alley in the Beijing neighborhood named for the ancient building at its center: the Drum Tower. The view from my roof includes the neighbor's rowdy pigeon coop to one side, and, rising to its left, the massive red-and-green tower, lording over everything around it.

I was in a cab on my way home Saturday afternoon when a friend called with the wretched news that two Americans and their Chinese guide had been attacked inside the Drum Tower by someone wielding a knife. I arrived at the base of the tower to discover that a neighboring concrete plaza, usually occupied by dog walkers and badminton players, had been taken over by the foreign media. A television crew arrived and fired up a diesel generator and a satellite dish to send home live reports.

It was a dizzying juxtaposition on a site first designed by Kublai Khan, grandson of Genghis, in the 13th century. Like everything in Beijing, the tower has had several incarnations, as empires and ideologies rose and fell: first, as the Tower of Orderly Administration, and, later, as the Tower of Realizing Shamefulness. For a while it was used as a museum to memorialize China's invasion by foreign armies.

These days it houses replicas of the oversized drums that once thundered each hour across Beijing to mark the time of day in the imperial era. I've sometimes wondered how the next empire will make use of it.

A killing in the Drum Tower seemed almost too gothic for people in the neighborhood to grasp. "A large forest has every kind of animal," one neighbor said, and locals have been quick to point out that the killer wasn't from around here.

Unlike so much of the city that has been transformed in recent years, with entire blocks of homes being razed and replaced with shopping complexes and high-rises, this neighborhood has been spared because of its proximity to the ancient tower. It survives as one of the best-preserved patches of old Beijing.

Many of my neighbors are retired laborers and office workers who share one-story courtyard homes and, for better or worse, have known each other for decades. Their homes have no toilets, so they use communal washrooms at the end of the block. In the summer, people in their night clothes step outside to mingle and gossip in the alleys, angling for a breeze and huddling over chess boards.

The area is so preternaturally safe and sedate that foreigners have filtered in recently to find quiet homes away from Beijing's 24-hour drone. "It's the safest place I've ever lived," said Peter Caplicky, a world-weary Czech mining machinist in the neighborhood whose nomadic trade has carried him around the world for decades.

The neighborhood was silent yesterday, a day after the attack. Tourists have largely stayed away, and the pall only adds to a strange feeling in the neighborhood. As in much of the city, the Olympics have not been a bonanza for small shopkeepers here. Shops are largely empty.

Late yesterday afternoon, thunder came in and the leaden skies over the Drum Tower ruptured.

It was a classic Beijing summer storm: infrequent but violently soaking, with a flash-flood intensity that often makes its way through my roof into the kitchen. I laid out pots and pans beneath the fattest drops and watched the courtyard outside fill like a bathtub. It was the heaviest rain in weeks, and it felt glorious. An urban baptism. With any luck, it would mark a new day for the Olympics and the Drum Tower.

As night fell, the lights on the Drum Tower blinked on once again.

Evan Osnos writes for the Chicago Tribune.

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