Thursday, January 24, 2008

Chico writer-photographer’s delicious new children’s book features old Beijing


Time was when Chico’s Doug Keister loped around the country photographing buildings for his books on Victorian or Storybook styles. But in recent years, as he has honed his writerly voice (his blog is at, his photographic subjects have become impressively eclectic—from classic travel trailers to cemetery symbolism and now to the hutongs, the older neighborhoods of Beijing.

“To Grandmother’s House: A Visit To Old-Town Beijing” ($15.95 in hardcover from Gibbs Smith, Publisher) is a simple documentary told in both Mandarin and English. Featuring Keister’s full-color photographs, the story begins with Zhang Yue: “Today my cousin Han Li and I are going to visit my grandmother and learn something special. In Beijing, the grandmother on our mother’s side is called Laolao.”

The author is scheduled to sign copies of his book at Lyon Books in Chico on Thursday, February 7 (the start of the Chinese New Year, the “Year of the Rat”) from 4:00 – 6:00 PM. Children and other people are invited.

Keister also includes a pronunciation guide for key words. Zhang Yue is pronounced “zang whee”; Laolao “rhymes with cow-cow.”

Grandmother lives in one of the hutongs (“hoo-tong”), “some of the oldest neighborhoods in Beijing. Some houses are more than three hundred years old.” Zhang Yue and her cousin take a pedicab and along the way stop at various shops, some featuring intricate paper cutouts, others selling candies. They visit a drum tower, “more than seven hundred and fifty years old. In the old days, drums were beaten at certain times in the day so people knew what time it was.” The ritual practice continues today.

When Zhang Yue and Han Li arrive at Laolao’s house, they find “she is going to make us special dumplings we call jiaozi (“jee-oh-zee”). . . . Laolao tells me she has another surprise for me. She says we are going to make the dumplings together.”

There are pictures of rolling the dough, adding the filling, pinching the ends. At the end there’s a detailed recipe for the dumplings, as well as dipping sauce, and an invitation from Zhang Yue for readers to visit Beijing and explore the hutongs.

In an author’s note for teachers, Keister notes that “Beijing is a city with a long, rich, complex history. There is a special texture to Beijing. It’s an intoxicating blend of old traditions, beautiful scenery, and stunning architecture.” Though modernization has cost a number of hutongs, others are being preserved. They reveal a different Beijing, one well worth visiting. “And have some dumplings when you’re there!”

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