Many of Beijing’s traditional alleys, or hutong, used to offer a plethora of sights, smells and sounds including the distinctive din of man-made pigeon whistles, and hawkers selling snacks.

Yet as the capital has developed and technology marches on, the sounds emanating from these alleyways have gradually diminished as people tend to ignore goings-on a few feet from their gadgets, and heavy traffic and high-rises keep many confined to cars and office towers.

Colin Chinnery, 47, a British artist who has lived in Beijing since he was eight, is recording the sounds of the hutong to preserve the past, as he feels some may soon disappear forever.

He started recording sundry sounds of traditional Beijing culture in March last year.

“I didn’t want to let the memories disappear,” said Chinnery. “They still existed in people’s minds and will be renewed when I release my recordings.”

For Beijingers, many hutong sounds have been part of their collective memories since childhood. Chinnery plans to use his compilation to help people keep memories vivid and intact.

“The sounds are like personal histories,” said Chinnery of the noises associated with hutong.


An elderly woman pedals her three wheeled bicycle past buildings and through an alleyway, also known as a hutong in Beijing. Photo: Bloomberg

“I’d like to have more people know that some sounds we are familiar with are easy to ignore, but they have their own unique places in real life.”

Beijingers had been fond of raising pigeons since the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). Flocks of pigeons can be seen darting and weaving in unison through Beijing’s skies on any given day.

When they take to flight or jet past those at street level, a distinctive symphony of flapping, whirring and cooing creates a distinctive noise. Enthusiasts have looked to intensify this sound by attaching small, lightweight reed structures to pigeons’ tail feathers.

Chinnery said he feels the pigeon whistle, which is listed as an intangible cultural heritage, is a unique Beijing sound that merits being recorded. However, it was not easy to get his project off the ground.

Chinnery, whose mother is Chinese, joined a WeChat group that includes more than 500 pigeon whistle users. He sent messages asking whether anyone could help him record the whistles in flight, but he received no replies.

Fortunately, he was introduced by a mutual friend to Zhang Baotong, a master craftsman who makes pigeon whistles. He was happy to introduce the artist to other pigeon owners, allowing the recording project to get back on track.

Still, there have been challenges. While working with a pigeon whistle user in Heiqiao village, in Beijing’s Chaoyang district, the flock of birds Chinnery was recording was attacked by an eagle, causing them to quickly disperse.

“Luckily enough, the eagle didn’t scare off all the pigeons and they returned that night,” he said.

When Chinnery wanted to record in Heiqiao three months later, he found the village had been levelled to make way for modern high-rises.

“Urban development is an unstoppable force,” said Chinnery. “But I’m still mainly interested in people who raise pigeons in garden settings.”

In Beijing’s Temple of Heaven there were once plenty of pigeons flying about. Now few remain because of regulations restricting the raising of the birds.

Despite the pigeon restrictions, the city has become noisier as it expands, which makes it even harder to isolate remaining sounds amid the cacophony.

In the 1970s, every hutong in Beijing had at least five or six households using pigeon whistles, Chinnery said.

“Now you’re lucky to find even one person who dabbles in pigeon whistles in a single district.”

To record culture through sounds is a way Chinnery feels he can help preserve some of the capital’s revered traditions and historic assets.

“Memories are alive and can be kept forever,” he said. “I hope to keep memories in my own way, by using sound to stir memories.” – China Daily/Asia News Network