Chorus of Life: Pigeon whistle in Beijing
By Wang Xiying

In the 1970s and 1980s, people in Beijing usually woke up to a special morning call – the pigeon whistle, the sound of old Beijing. People living in hutongs (small alleys) traditionally raised pigeons in their quadrangle dwellings. But with the concrete jungle fast-encroaching on the old neighborhoods, residents moved out and lost the best environment for this source of pleasure, so it’s now hard to hear the beautiful orchestration in the modern city.

Ma Kewei, one of the best whistle craftsmen in Beijing, has been making whistles since 1982. They are usually made with materials like gourds and bamboo. Ma plants his own gourds and bamboo to make the best whistles which he says should be lightweight for the pigeons to carry. With different shapes come different tunes, a flying chord is composed. The great Peking Opera master Mei Lanfang called it "the symphony in the sky."

Mu Ruixin is Ma’s friend, also a pigeon fancier. He relocated his pigeons to a remote community near Beijing after moving out of the hutong. He knows the way to attach whistles to his birds’ tail feathers gently and tight. After that, pigeons should be placed in their homes for a while to get used to the weight on their tails.

People say the pigeon whistle is an echo from heaven and carries the memories from generation to generation. The craftsmen are trying their best to protect this intangible cultural heritage from fading in the developing society.