Lost and found

Updated: 2012-03-15 12:25

By Tiffany Tan (China Daily)

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Lost and found

Song Zhenzhong shows off his collection of old signs of Beijing's streets, roads and hutong. Photos by Feng Yongbin / China Daily

Lost and found

A rickshaw is among Song's collections of items from old Beijing.

The permanent exhibition Old Beijing Gets Moving focuses on the city's residents and formerly everyday objects. Tiffany Tan reports in Beijing.

Song Zhenzhong has found an impressive display area for his collection of "old stuff" - a dimly lit, temperature-controlled room the size of five Olympic swimming pools at the National Convention Center. They form part of the center's permanent exhibition, Old Beijing Gets Moving, about the lives of ordinary Beijingers from the late 1800s to the mid-1900s.

Song's collection of everyday objects, such as embroidered headpieces, dowry boxes, old banknotes, wooden carts and camel bells, shares the exhibition hall with contemporary artworks by old friends.

There's the clay miniature of an Old Beijing commercial street, the scroll painting Looking Around Old Beijing, which shows a bird's-eye view of the city in the 1920s, and a 200-meter-wide film screen that brings the painting to life in digital format. The entire show's price tag: 35 million yuan ($5.5 million).

Amid this costly setup, Song wants nothing more than for visitors to feel at home among his things.

"It's all right to touch them, and it's all right to look at them closely," says the 47-year-old Beijinger, better known by his nickname, A Long. "No matter which museum you visit, you won't find anything like this It's very unrestricted," he says, tugging a child's wooden stroller back and forth on the display platform.

By the hall entrance is a wooden sedan chair, the most expensive item in Song's collection, with a price tag of 100,000 yuan.

"It's probably close to 150 years old now," says Song, who bought it 10 years ago for 1,000 yuan.

His most culturally valuable acquisition is a silver water receptacle, which doubles as an aquarium, facing the hall entrance. Such containers were once kept in courtyard homes to serve as fire extinguishers, says Wang Wei, deputy manager of Beijing Longbien Culture Development Co, the exhibition organizer.

The 500 old Beijing articles on show are just a fraction of the artifacts Song and his older brother have accumulated over the decades. "There are a total of 30,000 pieces, and most of them are A Long's," Wang says. "They are certainly things you don't often encounter."

Song, dressed in a hooded sweatshirt, baggy pants, kung fu shoes and striped cap, does not look like your typical antiques collector. He and a friend ferried guests to the National Convention Center, within the Olympic Center complex, on a tricycle powered by an electric bike.

"I like maintaining the old Beijing life," he says. "I still live in a hutong, and I drive an electric bike even if I can afford 10 of those 400,000-yuan cars."

Song's attachment to old Beijing's creations started in 1976, when he was 12. It was then that he remembers hearing his father reminisce about the ancient city walls and how they were torn down in the 1960s for the construction of Subway Line 1.

"This is China's contribution to world cultural heritage that has been lost," Song says. "Beijing needs someone to collect old stuff and protect old culture."

He started with old currency, which he traded with another boy for an apple. Since then, he has spent tens of thousands of yuan that he has earned through a number of businesses.

About 7 km south of the National Convention Center, in the shadow of the Bell Tower, is a small hutong Song and his fellow collectors transformed into an exhibition room before the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

Here, 55-year-old Wang Jinming, one of Song's co-collectors, enthusiastically shows visitors some of their most treasured possessions: a padlock whose combination is in Chinese characters, rather than numbers; a colorful, beaded costume for street-performing monkeys; wooden winter shoes for the elderly; and a coal-heated hair-curling iron that resembles scissors.

"You wouldn't know what most of these are if they weren't explained to you," Wang says.

Some of the objects, he says, come from the collectors' own families and friends. Others are donated by strangers, who have heard about their work, while the rest are acquired through scavenging.

"Beijing keeps tearing down and building at a large scale. Whatever people throw away or do not want, we pick up," Wang says. "No matter where old homes are torn down, we're there."

Soon, some of these salvaged articles might even find themselves traveling across the sea. The organizer of Old Beijing Gets Moving has outstanding invitations to take the exhibition to Hong Kong, Macao and Taiwan. And you can bet Song will try to get the prime spot for his old things.

The exhibition is closed for refurbishment and will reopen at the end of March.