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'Singing in Beijing' by Kay Sexton

I just came back from a writer’s residence in China. I returned so recently, in fact, that I’m still washing the builder’s grit and airborne pollution of Beijing from my clothes. There are probably thousands of things about this complex and relatively unknown culture that I could share with you: the street food; the fact that dogs living inside the third ring road must be under thirty-six inches tall; the way people play cards and checkers in the street until two in the morning; the incredible amount of building that’s going on—not just for the Olympics but apartments, hotels, shops, and roads The thing that struck me most forcibly about Beijing, however, was the singing. Yes, singing.

'Singing in Beijing' by Kay Sexton
"Singing in Beijing"
by Kay Sexton

Beijing is a pretty filthy city, and I say that as a woman who has visited Mexico City and Mumbai. It’s a pretty poor city too, once you get away from the high-rise buildings and into the dilapidated housing blocks and hutongs (areas that look like a cross between an alleyway and a traditional courtyard housing complex.) Above all, it’s a crowded city overflowing with people from the countryside who flooded the area in an effort to make a living. But in all this, the strongest impression that Beijing made on me was that it was a city people lived in. Unlike London and New York, or even parts of Paris and Brazil, there are no districts in Beijing where the city stops when work stops—no deserted streets where commerce turns off the tap and all the people disappear to the suburbs. Beijing lives at every hour of the day and night.

I knew that China’s public spaces were heavily used: tai chi at dawn, fan dancers at midday, gamblers whiling away the dusk hours. What I hadn’t appreciated before, however, was the extent to which music plays a part in the city. Not just in the parks, although traditional music and Chinese opera resonate from just about every open space, but also in taxis, shops, and streets.

Beijingers have a self-assured willingness to burst into song, or to harmonize with another singer wherever and whenever they come across one. In the parks glee clubs abound, where large groups of both sexes and all ages gather to sing. In the streets, it is common to pass people heartily raising their voices in a rousing chorus of something popular. Even during my “traditional blindman Chinese massage,” I was treated to a jaunty but sotto voce rendition of a Mandarin ditty while my masseur (not fully blind, young, very jolly, and incredibly expert) worked knots out of my neck.

Given the scale of the city, its general confusion, and the number of building sites, visitors easily could feel both lost and threatened, but I certainly didn’t. A woman alone in Beijing can feel as confident and relaxed as a woman alone anywhere. One reason for this is the effect of all the melodious warbling that floats through the air.

It’s difficult to feel lost and alone when the people around you raise their voices in song, and even when you can’t understand a single word, the pleasure that Beijingers take in their efforts makes the city seem friendly and manageable. Singing and other forms of group revelry aren’t just a spectator (or auditor?) sport, however—passers by are invited to join in any group activity in Beijing. If you stand near people playing the Chinese equivalent of football, you will find the feathered weight they kick around soon heading in your direction; the idea is to keep the thing in the air as long as possible, using only feet and chest. If you aren’t careful you will find yourself part of their circle, failing miserably to contribute anything useful to the game except the large number of belly laughs you provide to the other players. If you watch fan dancers they’ll soon hand you a fan and try to get you to join in. Tai chi practitioners always beckon you forward to “part the wild horse’s mane” with them.

In this incredibly participatory city, it’s difficult for anyone to remain an onlooker. There’s a lesson here for cleaner cities: sanitation isn’t everything. The sense of safety and friendliness that Beijing exudes is something that richer places could benefit from. Although I wouldn’t recommend that any city drop its air quality standards to concentrate on singing, there is a real sense that our hermetically hygienic, isolating, urban centers could learn from Beijing. When a street cleaner warbles her way past you while picking up rubbish, or a taxi driver smiles at you and invites you to sing along with him and the radio, you feel as if you’ve been accepted, welcomed even, into a community. A little bit of dirt and a whole lot of song can be a great way to make you feel at home.


BIO: KAY SEXTON is an associate editor for Night Train journal and a Jerry Jazz Fiction Award winner with columns at and Her website gives details of her current and forthcoming publications. Her current focus is ”Green Thought in an Urban Shade” a collaboration with the painter Fion Gunn to explore and celebrate the parks and urban spaces of Beijing, Dublin, London, and Paris in words and images.

Contact Kay at:


Kay Sexton, Author

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