Artist Colin Chinnery tries to restore the lost audio of old Beijing

By Li Jingjing Source:Global Times Published: 2017/7/23 18:08:39


 The front gate of the Shijia Hutong Museum in Beijing Photo: CFP


The Beijing Sound Museum Photo: Li Jingjing/GT

The shouts of vendors peddling their wares on the streets, the tweets of pet birds being taken out for a walk, the ringing of bells attached to roving rickshaws… close your eyes and listen to the sounds being played in a small room at the Shijia Hutong Museum in central Beijing and you will think that you have somehow traveled back in time several decades.

The room is known as the Beijing Sound Museum. It is the creation of British Chinese artist Colin Chinnery, who is also widely known by his Chinese name, Qin Siyuan. Most of the sounds he and his team have recorded can no longer be found in the capital today.

"Sounds carry the history and culture of a city," Chinnery told the Global Times, going on to explain that he hopes to use these sounds to invoke certain feelings in people.

Memory lane

Decades ago, when flocks of doves were a common sight above Beijing, a loud whistling sound could be heard as these birds made their way through the air since they had all been outfitted with a special whistle by their owners.

But as the city grew and became more developed, an increasing amount of people found the noise of these whistles bothersome and so pushed to have them removed. Now, this unique sound is nothing more than a memory in the city.

Chinnery went to great pains to attain a good quality recording of this whistling noise. He and his team spent half a year contacting pigeon raisers and locating craftsman who still knew how to make these traditional whistles, then they also had to find the right location to capture the sound at a good quality.

This isn't the only challenge the team faced when trying to record these vanishing sounds. Finding someone who could perform an authentic peddlers call was no simple task.

"Even though there are some young people who learned how to do this from the older generation, they are not the same people who were making a living as peddlers back then," Chinnery explained.

Chinnery had to search the entire city to find the right voice for his recordings.

"It used to be easy to find the right person, but it has been getting harder and harder over the past few years," he said.

The idea for the sound museum occurred to Chinnery about 10 years ago. At the time he was working at the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art. The inspiration to make the recordings hit him after working on an exhibition titled Sound of the City, for which he had invited audio artists from overseas to China.

He said the thing that impressed him the most about the project was that many audio experts who had traveled the world told him that the sounds in Beijing were some of the most unique and interesting ones they had ever heard.

That inspired him to further explore the sounds of Beijing.

Although he would spend the next 10 years collecting sounds in Beijing, the project wasn't a major focus, just something he worked on when he had the time.

However, a few years ago, when some old peddlers he had worked with passed away, he realized that his task was much more urgent than he had thought.

"So many sounds have vanished in just the past two to three years," Chinnery said.

He has now collected a vast library of hundreds of sounds and hopes to continue collecting the thousands more that can be found around the city.

Family connection

The Shijia Hutong Museum, where the exhibit is located, has a unique connection to Chinnery. The compound used to be the home of late modernist writer Ling Shuhua (1900-1990), Chinnery's maternal grandmother.

His mother Chen Xiaoqing eventually met and married his father, famed British sinologist John Chinnery, and moved overseas. Born in Edinburgh in the UK, Colin Chinnery didn't have a chance to get to know his grandparents very well.

"Actually, I wasn't very interested in learning about my family history. My grandmother was just one chapter of this history," Chinnery said. "Most likely, an expert about the Republic of China knows more about my grandparents than I do."

Although he wasn't close to his grandparents, this family connection is what attracted him back to China.

Although born in Edinburgh in the UK, he said that Beijing, where he has been working since 2002, feels like home to him now.

Chinnery said that he hopes the exhibition will be able to travel to other museums overseas, so he will have the opportunity to share the sounds of this new home with people around the world.

Newspaper headline: The sound of history


blog comments powered by Disqus