a Memory

Written and illustrated by Lionel Rakai

Ayear or so ago, I posted a WeChat moment of a scene from an old Shaanxi movie and described how some of the streets I walk through in Xian at present still looked like scenes from that movie, a snapshot comparison of certain streets between now and almost thirty years ago could look identical. Though this observation was made without malice, still along this post came a critical comment from a local acquaintance exclaiming that this city is and will always be proud to maintain the traditional look it’s had over the past decades. “We want our children to experience the imagery of life we experienced while growing up”. This line felt like a pin prick in my chest, like I had deeply offended someone while at the same time I’m outwardly applauding their pride for conservation.
But was it an entirely realistic ideal? Or did I just fold to the bruises of their words?
An activity of comfort I tend to partake in is walking around the city, (often in close proximity to my current home) and I like to observe, in a way that I can remember the details of something both physically and intangibly. In recent years, my routine had rarely exceeded the radius of 4 kilometres from my school so within this circle I memorised every street like the lines in the palm of my hand. Unlike my palm lines, things have in fact changed. One restaurant turns into another, a line of old noodle shops gets turned into a brick wall for a gated community, or the small community store I thought would never close down had suddenly turned into another branded milk tea shop. While some of these places may seem so ordinary, there can always be meaning behind the seemingly mundane, so let me take you to a few places I once knew.
The closest and most recent change to affect me was this small convenience store at the corner of my street. I still remember my first day in the city and walking into this store to look around for a drink or a snack, nervous that I couldn’t understand a word of Chinese or that my monotonous-sounding mandarin would need to come into play at the counter. But there were no transactions of words, simply a transaction of goods for money as it should have been (as cold as it sounds). On that day, I remembered the heat of the midday sun that early September and the kindness of the elderly man behind the counter through gestures of facial expressions and body language. Over time, I learnt it was run by this elderly man, his wife, and their middle-aged son. If I were to walk into the store in the middle of a school vacation period, they’d always ask, “You’re not going home for the holidays?” and I’d give the same response ever time, “Not this time”, complemented with a smile. Just a week ago, I walked past the same corner and found a thick veil of blue tarp draped over the side of the building with construction equipment and a hanging sign with a new milk tea store name. Unconsciously, I gasped with a slight breath of melancholy as if I’d lost a piece of something and thought to myself if I would ever see the kind hearted convenience store family again.
Further off my street and facing the East gate of the Shaanxi History Museum previously stood a line of noodle and roujiamo restaurants that had existed there for over twenty years. I knew this because someone special to me grew up in the community close by and shared his own memories of eating noodles with his now late grandpa as a child in these restaurants. This had also turned into another place I frequented over the years, because when you’re on a student budget, classic local food in community stores tend to fit the bill. On the brink of preparing the city for the National Sports Games, these mini restaurants were removed and replaced with archaic brick walls and playground gardens to accommodate the theme of preserving an ancient city. This time, however, I felt sad for the neighbours and my friends who attached their own childhood memories to these places or shared memories with relatives who aren’t with us anymore.
A common place I used find myself jogging along to by the glow of the evening sunsets were the towering grey city walls by the South Gate. Known to many for its niche bars and live music scenes, I always remembered walking by the corner bar half opened out so the sounds of musicians echoed through the dimly lit street and a giant white fluffy dog (easily the size of a youthful polar bear) sitting by the entrance. I once thought to myself “what a smart tactic to attract patrons” because who wouldn’t want to stop to pat and play with the big fluffy dog? Then, as the trend in this article suggests, it changed. Gone were the stir of guitar strings and live vocals, the cute giant mascot of a dog and the bar I first cheered a drink to with new friends I would later consider my brothers. Now, closed up in dark shades of tinted glass, I heard it had recently turned into some sort of electronic music club.
So yes, I agree that this city is great at self-preservation in terms of its traditional elements from past dynasties and timelines that span centuries – The Bell Tower, The Big Wild Goose Pagoda, The City Wall and Qinglong temple just to name a few are clear examples. But when you consider the years and the timeline that reflects our own lifetime or the lifetime of our previous generation, things have changed. From the perspective with barely five years of memories, moments and simply observing, most streets and alley ways can retain the same vibe or look. But certain things have changed and they will continue to. In an effort to fuel my nostalgia, I placed on myself the difficult task of trying to paint these moments with these places I once knew – a cashier working late into the night as the store lights cast into the night streets, a snapshot of happiness between a grandfather and grandchild and that big fluffy dog I was always eager play with by the side of the South Gate. Thinking back, I still hold some comfort in the fact that it gives us the opportunity to reminisce over how we will at least have the hours, the years and those conversations starting with “I remember those days…” about the places we once knew.