It’s actually an excellent picture of Beijing life seen by the lowest rank of the social ladder. There are lots of quirky characters, lots of life and feelings, and contrary to many Chinese books that are often crude and cruel and teary about social woes, this book actually manages to have a happy ending of sorts.
(Don’t expect a Disney happy ending though. We’re talking migrants, lowlife and tricksters here. I should probably say that we’re spared a very gloomy ending that was kind of expected in this genre)
Lao He is a gardener for the city, but he isn’t a Beijinger himself. It is clear to him and to others that no Beijinger would really take such a harsh job, living in communal quarters, having to empty their toilets to make manure for the lawns (sorry if you’re digesting, Liu Xinwu’s writing is witty and realistic but goes straight to the point), being covered in sweat and dust, despised by his boss and by all city dwellers. That’s what Mingong workers are for, hacking a life in the big city away from their village to send money back home (Lao He is from Sichuan, Liu Xinwu’s birth province). They’re tolerated (albeit without any legal status) as long as they work hard and keep still.
We follow Lao He on his day off, as he has time to stroll around town close to the temple of Earth (Andingmen and Ditan Park), visit one of his four daughters in the suburbs (four daughters in China is a sure sign of bad karma) and ponders about the funny twists of fate. Lao He watches the city in its evolutions, from morning to evening, as he reflects on the events he’s lived through since the late 1950s.
This thin book reminded me of course of the places I knew in Beijing, as I lived rather close to Andingmen myself at the date of publication, and I must have walked by people with same background and adventures. If you want to travel to China for free and see Beijing through a Chinese’s eyes, I warmly recommend you this book!