It was a place that used to exist in the Beijing of that time. It probably doesn't exist anymore-- in fact, I am almost sure it doesn't. I suppose this is not so much a description of a place as it is a childhood memory.
The construction was a large, dome-like structure, blue in hue due to scaffolding on the outside. Why there was scaffolding I didn't know; it wasn't under construction, like many other buildings and sites around it were. Sometimes it's facade would take on a grey hue due to the dust and pollution in the Beijing air. It looked like a very large tent, and in fact that was what the Beijingers called it in Chinese, literally "big tent." It was located on the corner of Wang Jing district, a suburb of Beijing mainly inhabited by local Chinese and a large Korean immigration population. "Big tent" was a market place, and it sold lots of things. The left side was a huge market for vegetables, meats, and produce, the middle and large majority of the place sold housewares, pots, pans, even clothing, and a tiny corner on the right sold pets.
The year was 2000 or 2001. Every week I would go with my ayi-- that is, the resident helper my mother hired to make food and clean our house for 300 kuai a month sans rent (roughly equivalent to 45 dollars) to "big tent" to get groceries for my family. My family was me, my mother, the ayi, and sometimes my father. Later, it was just me, my mother and the ayi. We were a small family, but we still needed our share of groceries. The ayi was young, only 19, but she could cook pretty well. Xiao Luo was her name. So Xiao Luo would take me to the market, and on the specific incident I remember now, after we went to buy vegetables for the day-- she had decided on making a simple dish like eggs stir fried with tomatoes, or potatoes and green peppers and eggplants-- she rewarded me by taking me to the middle part of "big tent" to buy anything I wanted.
"Big tent" was set up so that many merchants operated many little stalls in a large marketplace setting. Consumers would walk through winding aisles with stalls on each side, perusing products and stopping to buy when they wanted to. I was 10 or 11 at the time, and I thought "big tent" sold everything in the world. In fact, it probably did. The kitchenware stalls sold plastic "pens" ( in Chinese, this means plastic bowl-like containers in rainbow colours, printed with floral patterns, that people would wash cloths or their feet in), water thermoses, big woks and stirfry pails, towelettes, sponges, sets and sets of cutlery in every shape and style you could imagine. The decorations stalls sold large ( probably fake) Qing dynasty China jugs, stone-carved lions to guard your house, wood carvings depicting illustrative imaginings of scenes from the poetic works of great Chinese poets like Li Bai and Du Fu, fold-out fans with shimmering gold engravings of Chinese idioms.
But the best stall of all, to me, was the stationary stall. The stalls were an iridescent mass of notebooks, pens, and pencils, imprinted with different cartoons and characters, in different sizes, shapes, and colours, erasers shaped like bowls of ramen, sushi, or little cars, and piles of stickers and notepads and greeting cards and origami sheets. Imagine the imagery of a little kid in a candy store, only I was a little kid with a penchant for stationary and fancy writing utensils finding herself in a world of opportunity.
I would pick out what I wanted; usually a few gel pens, a few automatic pencils, fancy letter paper printed with Japanese and Korean manga characters that I will never actually use to write letters (they ended up becoming the palimpsests for my scribbled diary entries about juvenile middle school crushes), and then Xiao Luo and I would approach the store owner to bargain with her about the price. The bargaining was a long process that the then 10-year-old me took no interest in. Instead I would spend the time standing next to Xiao Luo as I looked around for the next stall I was interested in perusing. A few more rounds, and we would leave, brushing arms with all kinds of people on their trip to the market. Some were like us, ayi and child, some were mothers, wearing pajama clothing and dusty plastic sandals with their thick black hair tied back with elastic bands, their screaming children in their arms, some were construction workers just off work, weary and brown, looking for a piece of comfort to bring home. Sometimes when we passed each other we would smile. We were all regular customers of "big tent," and we called it part of our home.
On our way out and back home, often Xiao Luo would reward me by buying me something to eat. There were so many vendors there! And everything smelled so good. My favorite, which, later in international school my American or European friends would label "Chinese Pizza," but to me will always be "Jian Bing", was a big circular dough pita-type concoction spread with fried eggs, cilantro, and chopped green onions. After it is fried on a pan till golden brown, it would be brushed with spicy sauce and soy sauce, and a crispy fried chip would be put in the middle. Then the merchant would fold up the sides of the pita, enclosing the dough chip within, put it in a thin plastic bag and wrap it with brown paper napkins. He would sell us one for 1 kuai only-- that is less than 30 cents each, and I would be so full after one my stomach would be spoiled for dinner. Now they probably cost 3 kuai at least. Now Beijing is different. Sometimes, also, we would have spicy snails out of a plastic bag that would occasionally give me a stomachache. or a powdery pink sausage dipped in egg yoke and fried in a fryer. There were so many good things there, and I love to eat. That little treat at the end was just another thing that added to the magic of the big tent experience.
Looking back, it was such an ordinary place. Some would call it miserly. It was not the cleanest place in the world and its patrons were not the most well off. They were all local Chinese working class; many probably wouldn't have even heard a word of English before, let alone have traveled outside of China. Everything inside was dirt cheap, and everything outside was dusty and polluted. There was garbage on the floor and sometimes sewage and people rode around on dusty bicycles under the hot Beijing sun ( that's how I always remember it, as hot, dusty, but in fact I lived many winters in Beijing. I don't know why I don't as vividly remember the winters.) But as a naive child, I really looked forward to our weekly excursions. I loved that place. It was everything I knew, holding my ayi's hand and heading to big tent after school and then going home with her and doing my homework while she cooked up something nice, waiting for my mom to come home from her busy office job.
Now "big tent" has probably been replaced by some fancy new high rise or mall. The face of Beijing has changed irrevocably since the early 21st century. But big tent will always be a place that, to me, signified everything I loved about growing up in Beijing. The simplicity of it; of bargaining with gap-toothed storekeepers and buying printed stationary and smelling dough frying on little carts of vendors on the sidewalk, is so refreshing to think of now. But even then construction was going on all around us and the taxis were being re-inspected and the city was cracking down on health and sanitary violations. Beijing was developing. The construction, that was why it was always so dusty. Even the sky told us about change.
Now I don't know if a place like "big tent" even exists anymore, but I still think back to it fondly. I'm 20 years old living in a world of responsibility, sitting in a chair in a high rise in the middle of New York City, a continent and ocean away, but I still remember that 10-year-old little girl who went to "big tent," glancing around in awe at the myriad of choices surrounding her as she surveyed that stationary stall.