The neighborhood of Houhai in the heart of Beijing, with its bevy or bars and cafes surrounding an oblong lake (also called Houhai), teems with tourists and day-trippers during these warm months. But for as long as I can remember, I’ve associated Houhai with its swimmers, locals who have been coming to this place since the 1970s regardless of water quality, in spite of “no swimming” signs, adding old-timey charm to an area that at any time can seem to be drowning in kitsch and consumerism.
And so it is, above: one spandex-clad man, relatively young amongst his swimming peers, on the bell lap of a placid summer’s day, about to go for a final dip from the white balustrade of the shore to Houhai Island out center.
Notice the sign just behind him. “No swimming,” indeed.
And do these people do it year-round, you ask?
Oh yes, do they ever:
Pictures via Noemi Cassanelli’s “The Lives of Others” photo project
As Jim Yardley wrote for the New York Times in 2004, “For Mr. Zhang and at least 1,200 other arguably nutty Beijingers, winter is perfect for swimming. And not just a once-a-year polar bear plunge for the cameras. The Beijing swimmers arrive daily from around this chaotic, sprawling capital for an icy dip in a willow-lined lake that is a rare remnant of the city’s disappearing past.”
I’m not sure a thousand-plus people still take dips there these days, but “swimming in Houhai” is one of those small, easily overlooked traditions that happens to be ingrained in my Beijing consciousness. I hope it’s there forever.