His and Her Adventures at Tiananmen Square
(a husband-and-wife tale)
On May 2, 2010, the day after the start of the May Day holiday, my wife and I decided to visit Beijing’s Tian’anmen Square. Because of holiday-related activities, it had not been practical to do this on the preceding day. After passing through security in the East Tiananmen subway station, we walked out into the hot sun in the square itself. This is the world’s largest city square. Next to a giant portrait of Dr. Sun Yat-sen, a giant video panel flashed images of modern China. Vendors were aggressively hawking post cards, postage stamps, and other souvenirs.
My wife and I walked around in the northern half of the square, shooting a few photos. Then we crossed the street on the west side to visit the public lavatories and sit down in the shade at the foot of a lamp post not far from the People’s Congress building. I ate a popsicle purchased for one yuan (about 15 cents) from a pair of young woman who were continually changing locations because they did not have a permit to sell merchandise there.
I was eager to continue walking to gain needed exercise. My wife, who recently had an operation, had already become too tired to walk much further. She was ready to head back to her small apartment near Sanlihe Street on the west side of the city, about two miles away. Our plan was to walk north to Chang’an street (the main thoroughfare that runs east and west on the north side of Tiananmen Square), cross this street through a pedestrian underpass, and then walk east on the sidewalk past the giant portrait of Mao Zedong back to the East Tiananmen subway station. The West Tiananmen station was temporarily closed that day for security reasons.
Beijing police and other security personnel were out in force, evidently anticipating a terrorist incident on this important holiday in China’s best-known place. A uniformed officer stood at attention next to a “SWAT” vehicle parked near the underpass as tourists snapped his picture. I saw a female officer demand identification papers from a young man standing near us on the sidewalk. She did a thorough search and then handed the papers back to him.
My wife and I spotted another place to sit in the shade. An elderly woman with wooden crutches was sitting on the concrete base of a large street light. There was enough room for both my wife and I to sit in the space next to her. This woman was selling small plastic Chinese flags and 2010 Beijing city maps. We were planning to rest there for a few minutes before walking to the East Tiananmen subway station which was perhaps 200 yards away.
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We had been in Tiananmen Square scarcely more than an hour and I was not ready to leave. I suggested to my wife that I walk around for another fifteen minutes or so while she waited for me beneath the street light next to the old woman. My wife agreed. So I rose and walked east along the thick red wall that marks the outer perimeter of what was once the imperial compound. China’s communist leaders used to stand on top of this wall on major holidays to review passing troops. Tourists today know it as the front entrance to an enclosed area that includes the “Forbidden City”.
Approaching this entrance, I stopped to take a close look at Chairman Mao’s famous portrait hanging over one of the gates. I could see that people were walking through the next gate to my right. From past experience, I knew that there was no admission charge for entering this area. Thinking that that I would take a quick peak at sights inside the wall, I walked past the guards who stood on the bridge over the moat and then through the gate. I was now in the ancient imperial city where tourists now roamed.
I was standing in a walled courtyard perhaps two hundred yards square. At the opposite end was a large gate leading to yet another courtyard. Tourists wishing to visit the Forbidden City (once restricted to members of the royal household, eunuchs, and high government officials) had to walk through three such courtyards before reaching its gate. There is an admission charge for going beyond that point. I had intended only a short visit. My wife was waiting for me.
It was with a sinking feeling that I realized people were coming into the courtyard through the front gate but no one seemed to be returning through it to Tiananmen Square. Where was the exit, I wondered? A sign marked “exit” pointed to the next gate to the right, but it was closed. Evidently, I was trapped in this place. Common sense told me that people would be able to leave the walled area and return to the outside but I could not speak Chinese well enough to ask for or receive directions.
I first walked around the courtyard looking for groups of people who might be leaving the courtyard area. To my right facing south to Tiananmen Square, I could see some persons walking up a ramp and then disappearing through a gate. Perhaps this was the exit? On the other hand, only a few people were headed that way. Maybe this was an exit for group tours? I could also see groups of people passing through the gate on the north end of this courtyard, opposite the front entrance where I stood. The safest strategy seemed to be to try to return through the same gate that I had used to enter. However, as I approached the gate, a security guard gestured that I was not allowed to go further. “One way,” he said in English. I asked: “Tiananmen Square, sy-nar? “Sy-nar” means “where is it?” The guard pointed to the other end of the square. I was being urged to return to Tiananmen Square by walking in the opposite direction? This did not make sense.
Not speaking Chinese, I could only guess what the guard was saying. From his gestures, I supposed him to mean that if I went across the courtyard, I would find exits both to the right and to the left just before the wall. To the left, I saw some public lavatories but no exit gate. To the right, I saw nothing.
I had seen people leaving the courtyard by walking up the ramp so I walked back past what seemed to be a ticket line to the beginning of this ramp. A guard asked me for my ticket. I had none, of course. In passable English, the attendant suggested that I go buy a ticket. He did, however, let me return through the line. It did not seem reasonable that the authorities would charge people for exiting the courtyard if they could originally enter for free.
I did make one last effort to find an exit on the front end of the courtyard. I attempted to exit along a ramp to the right. A few people were entering the courtyard there. However, another security guard stopped me. I later realized that this ramp might be for the people who had previously gone up the other ramp. Most likely, they had bought tickets to see the interior rooms of that massive walled structure which the Chinese call “Tiananmen cheng lou” (city building) that faces Tiananmen Square.
The only thing left to do was to walk the two-hundred yards across the courtyard and pass through the gate at the opposite end. Yes, there was a noticeable flow of pedestrian traffic through that gate. After passing through it, I found myself in another courtyard, much like the one I had left. There were no signs of an exit to Tiananmen Square from this area either. The pedestrian traffic seemed instead to be passing through another gate at the opposite end. Therefore, I, too, walked across the courtyard for another two-hundred yards and passed through this gate as well.
In the third courtyard, I could see a different sort of walled structure at the opposite end. This was the entrance to the Forbidden City. At that point, I had a lucky break. A young Chinese woman asked me if I spoke English. I did, of course. This fortunate encounter gave me an opportunity to ask directions in English on how I might return to Tiananmen Square. The woman told me that I needed to exit through the East Gate. To reach the East Gate, one had to walk across this third courtyard toward the wall of the Forbidden City, and then turn right, and follow the crowd. She herself was headed that way.
I had become quite agitated in walking farther and farther away from Tiananmen Square in an effort to return to my wife. This English-speaking Chinese woman gave me confidence, at last, that I was headed in the right direction. After turning right, I did walk through a gate leading from the walled courtyard to a narrow street that ran outside the wall of the Forbidden City along a water-filled channel or moat. Soon, this woman and I, along with many others, were heading due east on this road for at least three hundred yards. The road turned left, and then right. There was a gate at the end of this road. It was the East Gate, my new companion informed me.
Near this gate, another Chinese woman approached me and asked several questions in English. She asked if she might walk along with me for a short time. She asked if her male companion might walk with us. I did not know what to say. I saw that my first companion had stopped and was listening to the conversation. When I took a few steps toward her, the other woman and her companion walked away. I realized I might have escaped a dangerous situation. Maybe that second woman wished to sell me something, or maybe she was setting another kind of trap for unsuspecting tourists.
At any rate, the first woman and I did walk through the East Gate to encounter a north-south street called “Wusi dajie”, which in English means “May 4th Street”. As May 1st is “May Day” or a day celebrating workers, May 4th is “Youth Day”, celebrating young people. “Wu” means “five” and May is the fifth month of the year. “Si”, pronounced “Suh”, is the number four. “Wusi” is therefore May 4th. My female companion said I should turn right on this street and it would take me back to Tiananmen Square, She herself would walk with me part of the way. She hoped to find a restaurant along May 4th Street where she could have dinner.
This woman told me that normally visitors are allowed to leave the front courtyard through the gate by which they entered, but, because May 2nd was part of a holiday, the authorities had instituted the present arrangements to ensure a smooth flow of traffic. She herself was planning to visit the United States as a tourist at some time in 2010. Which cities or places did she wish to visit? Las Vegas was one, and Wall Street was another. I told her that the New York Stock Exchange used to have a visitor’s gallery, but otherwise I was unsure what a tourist might expect to see on Wall Street.
We walked briskly down May 4th street, the woman found her restaurant, and I continued walking alone until I reached Chang-an Street. Here I knew that I needed to turn right. I then walked west past the Tiananmen gate to where I hoped my wife would still be sitting.
It had been almost two hours since I left her. I was worried that my wife might have gone off to report a missing person to the police. On a major holiday in a city as large as Beijing, I was sure that the city police would not have the resources to locate a tourist like me. They were looking instead for terrorists. If my wife could not be located, I thought I might take the subway and a bus back to the small apartment and wait outside the door. I had not brought a key with me.
Walking west in front of the Tiananmen gate, I spotted my wife sitting where I had left her. Soon what appeared to be an argument broke out between my wife and the old woman with crutches. This woman was handing two or three Beijing maps to my wife, and my wife was refusing to take them. Was this a dispute about payment? No, it was something more benign. The woman wanted to give these maps to my wife who, out of politeness, was declining the offer. Therein lies a story.
As my wife later explained it, she became worried when I did not return. She was imagining that I might have staged a human-rights demonstration or otherwise have gotten myself into trouble with the police. Alternatively, I might simply have become lost. There was no alternative but to stay put. My wife knew that I had her cell-phone number written on a piece of paper in my pocket. In a real emergency, I could have asked the police to call her. I was gone about two hours. It was now about 5 p.m.
In the meanwhile, as she was sitting there under the street light, my wife embarked upon her own adventure. About ten minutes after I should have returned, she noticed that the woman on crutches did not seem to be selling much merchandise. She said to the woman: “Give me two flags. I’ll help you.” The woman gave her the flags and my wife started hawking merchandise.
Most of the red Chinese flags were sold to children, five to ten years old, who nagged their parents for payment. My wife would say in a high-pitched, friendly voice: “Liang quai, liang quai”, which translated into English meant that the flags cost two renminbi each. “Liang” is a word for two. “Quai” means a unit of currency - in this case, the renminbi or yuan, as the Chinese “dollar” is sometimes called. The visiting children wanted those flags. My wife found she had a knack for street salesmanship. After making each sale, she would politely thank the customer and then give the proceeds of the sale to the old woman. “Come back again,” my wife would say to her tiny customers with a smile.
In the course of an hour and a half, my wife sold about a dozen flags for two renminbi apiece and three or four Beijing street maps for one renminbi. She was selling more than the old woman. In conversation, my wife learned that this woman was from another province. She did not have Beijing papers. That meant that the government gave her perhaps 400 yuan per month in old-age assistance compared with approximately 1,600 yuan per month that Beijing residents might expect to receive. She needed to supplement her income by selling merchandise to tourists on the street. Medicine was a big expense for her.
This woman did not have a license to sell on the street. During the mid afternoon, a police officer told the woman that she had to move on. The woman complained that she was poor and needed to buy medicine. Even so, she put the flags and maps in a bag and agreed to leave the area. That satisfied the officer. Then, a few minutes later, after he had walked away, the woman took the flags and maps out of the bag and began selling again. The officer had not questioned my wife.
At some point, my wife asked the old woman how much the merchandise cost her. “Why do you want to know?” the woman asked sourly. She would not answer this question for awhile. However, my wife persisted. Exercising her personal charm, she said she was simply curious about how much the items cost. “OK,” said the woman, the flags had cost her half a yuan apiece. The Beijing city maps cost around .2 or .3 yuan apiece.
Assuming that my wife had sold a dozen flags and three city maps, she had generated in an hour and a half a combined profit of around 20 yuan (around three dollars). It was a significant income boost for a woman with a monthly income of 400 yuan. No wonder she was grateful to my wife and wanted to give her some maps.
My wife remembered several incidents. She remembered, for instance, the little girl, perhaps nine years old, who badly wanted a flag but her mother would not give her the two yuan to buy it. The unhappy girl and her mother walked away on the sidewalk. Then my wife remembers the little girl turning around some distance away and wistfully taking a last look at the flag.
In another incident, a potential customer told my wife that street peddlers were selling flags for one yuan apiece down the street so he would not buy a flag from her. My wife mentioned this to the old woman who simply said, “never mind.” She needed the extra money and would not come down on price.
Before marrying me, my wife belonged to China’s professional class. She was general manager of two different hotels. Her social skills were well developed, and she was putting them to good use selling merchandise while waiting for me to return. By contrast, the old woman was trapped in a life situation that required her to sell those flags and maps on the sidewalk day after day whatever her selling skills.
For a brief time, these two women were business associates. My wife was not “slumming it” or making a social statement but merely passing the time. The old woman on crutches was grateful for whatever help she might receive.
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