Crickets, walnuts and more in Qingta Hutong
Cricket songs are loved around the world but particularly in China, people keep crickets to fill their homes with their cheerful sounds. Those looking for a little singsong bug of their own need look no farther than Qingta Hutong, where the chirpy critters provide a central focus to the cricket market.
Tucked just off the West Second Ring Road, Qingta Hutong is a unique part of Beijing culture that largely survives outside of the collective consciousness. (It's definitely not big on the tourist circuit.) From its south end, Qingta begins in quiet obscurity, but progressing onwards, a chorus of crickets imperceptibly rises. Around a turn, the market reveals itself, and perhaps a thousand crickets in individual containers make a veritable racket.
As one Chinese woman browsed the crickets with her husband, a vendor pulled the insects out of toilet paper rolls with newspaper over the ends. He'd display one for a few seconds before roughly tossing it back in and pulling out another to show the couple.
The woman looked up from the merchandise to explain, "These katydids aren't for fighting; they're for singing. Crickets are for fighting. These insects make sounds for us to listen to." She paused to try and discern the sound of one particular cricket before adding, "The tradition of keeping crickets has a long history. The sound of katydids is really annoying in the summer, but in winter we hold them near our chest and keep them alive for fun."
Ma Hong runs the little Lao Ma Ming Chong store ("Old Ma Singing Bug" store) where boxes of crickets are stacked along the walls. "We have bush crickets, field crickets and katydids," Ma announces. "They're divided into different levels. The ones that are more attractive or the ones that sing more beautifully are more expensive. Smaller ones that don't sing so well are cheaper. Most people believe a cricket that sings at a lower pitch sounds better because if it's too high pitched, it can be annoying."
During this season, singing crickets dominate the supply. But in late summer, fighting crickets steal the market's spotlight. Following the Tang Dynasty sport, people elbow for space to watch and bet on cricket fights held in the central market space.
In contrast to such violence, the market's second focus is walnut exercise balls and carved walnut bracelets. A number of stalls sell pairs of exercise walnuts used to keep the hands nimble and aid circulation. Pairs of walnut balls can cost several hundred yuan depending on their size, shape and weight. Carved bracelets can cost up to 4,000 yuan, depending on the artisans who made them. Many of the bracelets come with the artists' signed photo ID cards.
Further north is where the rest of the non-cricket pets are found. Myna birds, exotic turtles and more are on display inside and outside the stores. A woman sitting on the sidewalk asks everyone who walks by if they want a dog. A crate of writhing mealworms basks in the sun. Schools of feeder fish frantically await their destiny in open metal boxes.
A man selling walnut exercise balls and bracelets looks over the market.
"There's not much history here," he says. "This place started up 10 years ago, and it's already been shut down once. The main space of the market has been shut down for three years now. But some people still come here to play."
If anything, he was being modest. The market is particularly vibrant on weekends, even during the winter months. The crickets manage to chirp all year round, keeping things lively. And come August, the fighting field crickets will bolster the atmosphere as their fights to the death draw speculators, gamblers and curious onlookers alike.
Getting to Qingta Hutong: From Chegongzhuan subway station (Line 2), take exit D, walk south five minutes to Xigongjiang Hutong on the left. Walk 50 meters in before turning right into Beiyudai Hutong.
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