Nestled in the hutongs around the Drum and Bell Towers, a
courtyard bustles with the cooing of pigeons, the chirping of swallows, a soft bark from Mao Mao the Pekingese dog, and an entreaty in Chinese to “he pijiu lai” (“come drink alcohol”) from a raucous mynah bird.
The siheyuan belongs to Liu Yunjing, a 65-year-old cricket trainer who has lived in the same house with his wife for over 40 years. I get the chance to visit him as part of Bespoke Beijing’s long-running Cricket Trainer Tour. My guide is Frank Feng, a beijingren who has been working with the company for nearly seven years. Though the popularity of cricket fighting has waned over the decades, the sport still has a niche community here.
Feng picks me up at the Shichahai (什刹海) subway station,
exit A. We cross Di’anmen Waidajie heading east, then turn right into Fangzhuangchang Hutong. Feng points out the area’s different architecture styles, shops, and recent developments in the area. When we reach the end of the hutong, we turn left on Nanxiawazi Hutong, walk about 50m and turn right. Liu’s house is the first door on the right. As we cross the threshold, Feng points out a sigua plant; the vegetable’s fibrous, fully mature form is used as a natural bath loofah.
We find ourselves face-to-face with a smiling Liu, who nods at us and reveals an uneven set of yellowed teeth. He darts around the corner to feed the chickens before coming back to say a proper hello. One of the birds chimes “nihao,” accustomed to the visitors who have been coming to Liu’s home for nearly 20 years. Liu has collected crickets since he was a boy, expanding his menagerie over time to include other animals.
Feng acts as the translator and cultural interpreter for the visit, as Liu doesn’t speak any English. Before heading inside, the men take me around to see the animals. Feng takes the lead as Liu stands aside and watches with the ease of someone who is used to having his house discussed in detail.
We head back to the house, where Liu’s wife sits in a rocking chair reading the newspaper. She looks up and nods towards a pot of green tea, then returns to her newspaper. There are also soft drinks available for a fee. The house has a western-style bathroom that visitors can use and is heated with an air conditioner unit.
No longer able to contain his curiosity, Liu looks at me and asks which country I’m from. I respond “Kenya” in Chinese, to which he gives thumbs up and nods in approval. He says he watched a special on wild animals on TV. The television in question is a 42-inch flat screen affair that stands out against the otherwise traditionally-furnished home.
Liu’s crickets interrupt our conversation with loud chirping, as if to remind us they are the tour’s star attractions. As he pours more tea, our host starts to recount the history of cricket fighting.
During the Tang Dynasty (618-907) fighting was a nobleman’s hobby and trainers held a position of prestige at the imperial court. Nowadays, the practice has both officially-sanctioned and underground versions. The official form is limited to annual competitions, with the winning cricket trainer awarded a certificate. The underground version involves illegal gambling with bets in the hundreds of thousands of renminbi.
Liu shows off an Association for Cricket Fighting certificate from a local competition as well as a scrapbook of the articles he has been featured in over the years. The house is cluttered with keepsakes, including photos with a Norwegian prince, the wife of a former Japanese premier, and the first American couple to visit his house. Digressing a bit, our host moves the teapot aside and shows me photos and currency from around the world sandwiched between the glass topper and the table. He waves to hangings and a Chairman Mao portrait on the wall.
In Chinese culture, crickets are considered a good luck charm. In the past, they held as much value as a horse as a form of compensation. The worth of a good cricket in modern currency can start at RMB 10,000. Though Liu only spends a few hundred kuai on his insects, he lavishes on them a diet of lamb intestine, soybean, fish, ginseng-infused water, and before fights a type of mushroom called the Chinese caterpillar fungus.
Like members of a secret society, cricket trainers are notoriously secretive about their training methods. Liu is no different, but he doesn’t mind showing off his equipment. He brings out a wooden box containing a tool kit and begins to assemble what looks like a scale.
“Would you like to guess what this is?” he asks, holding up a small semi-circular ceramic box. He opens the lid and says with a grin, “This is their bedroom.”
Liu gets a pair of crickets from a large ceramic bowl, places them in the box, and tells us to wait. As if on cue, the crickets move towards the dark sanctuary and disappear from sight.
He then picks up a small scoop and a cotton-tipped metallic stick, and explains that these used to handle the crickets. Grabbing the insects with fingers can cause injury or even amputation to the fragile legs. Liu picks up a five-bristled brush and tells me to guess what the bristles are made of. When I look stumped, Feng replies: “Mouse whiskers.”
Cricket fights only happen once a year in fall for 20 days. Just before a fight, the cricket is provoked with the brush. Unlike more violent sports like dog fighting, cricket fighting consists of getting the opponent to retreat by having your contender flap its wings. More aggressive fights might end with a lost incisor, leg, or both.
Like boxers, the crickets are divided according to weight class; that’s where the scale comes in. “Nowadays people use electronic versions but I still prefer the older versions,” says Liu. He takes out a ceramic bowl and a clear plastic container that looks like a mini-football stadium; these are the “arenas” that cricket fights take place in. If one of his prized crickets dies, Liu buries them in a miniature wooden coffin specially handcrafted by a handful of artisans – a disappearing art.
It’s now time to feed the pigeons. As soon as Liu steps outside, there’s a flurry of flapping, cooing, and chirping. We bid the couple goodbye and head out; Feng promises to come back to have a drink with Liu soon.
In the area, there are several restaurants for families to refuel at. Head north around the Drum and Bell Towers for Korean-Mexican
fusion at Palms or Yunnan cuisine at Hani Gejiu. Just west on Jiugulou Dajie, there’s also Café Sambal for Malaysian or Le Little Saigon for Vietnamese. Further east on Andingmen Neidajie, there’s Xianlaoman for dumplings. For a cuppa, head to Cafe Zarah or Café Alba on Gulou Dongdajie.
To book the Beijing Cricket Trainer tour email email@example.com , which costs RMB 350 per person. Get more information here.
This article originally appeared on p26-29 in the December 2014 issue of beijingkids. To view it online for free, click here. To find out how you can obtain your own copy, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photos: courtesy of Bespoke Beijing, by Mitchell Pe Masilun and Nimo Wanjau