I’m often attracted to a building by its windows. Large multi-paned windows. Windows that invite light and shadow. The old factory near Dongzhimen Beixiaojie just inside the 2nd Ring Road is just the sort of building I’m talking about. Walking past on a clear Sunday afternoon, I was seized by the thought of what it might look like on the opposite side of its dilapidated brick facade.
Shu and I slipped inside, past the gaze of a few curious men who were passing their day off in the building’s courtyard with their songbirds in tow. We made our way up the stairs, past open barrels of used motor oil and lines hung with drying workclothes to what appeared to be the worker’s dormitory. The stench of urine mingled with freshly steamed mantou as we made our way down the hall to an open door bathed in light. As we approached, a man in a yellow sweater filled the threshhold and smiled. Shu explained that we were curious about the building and were just looking around. He accepted our story without any hesitation and invited us to come in, have a look at his room and share some tea.
A moment of curiousity turned into an afternoon of conversation as Shu spoke with the man and his roommate, and I struggled to catch the details. The men, it turns out, work for a road construction unit. They don’t mind their jobs because their wage is better than what they would receive back home, and the work isn’t too taxing – they drive trucks full of workers to construction sites and then drive them home at the end of the day. Both men have been in Beijing for a couple of years, while their families remain in the rural provences of Hebei and Henan. The 28-year-old from Henan has two sons – the oldest is seven – while his 25-year-old roommate has just received news that his wife gave birth to a boy 10 days ago. He’s pround to be a dad, but has yet to decide on a name for his son. He asked us to help him, but we politely declined. Names here carry so much meaning – often bearing a parent’s hope for his/her child’s future. That’s not the kind of burden i feel qualified to hand down.