Peking has gone to the birds. Nowadays you need a special license to have a dog, and it's been illegal to breed them since 1958. Not so birds, however, which have become the preferred pet and a popular hobby for retired seniors, especially men.
Not only are birds good company, but they look pretty, sing nicely, don't take up much space, live in pretty little cages, and are bred easily. And in Peking the bird market is a great place to socialize with other bird lovers.
``People used to buy cats to catch rats, but now there are not so many rats, so you don't need cats,'' says Cai Ziang Bao, a 70-year-old bird salesman with a mischievous gleam in his eye, who amuses himself by using a peashooter to hit unsuspecting fellow bird sellers and customers in the Guanyuan Bird Market.
The peashooter, however, is also the weapon with which he increases his inventory. (It just stuns them, he says, presumably in an attempt to reassure his questioner.)
The Guanyuan Market, the biggest of the five in Peking, is open every day, rain or shine, from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Legitimate salesmen need a letter of introduction from their former work unit to get a license to sell. The others try to sell illegally at the front entrance, avoiding the 110-yuan-a-month ($30) fee for a selling space, hiding the birds in their jackets when an official-looking person comes along.
Inside the open-air market, on one of the slower days - Sunday is the busiest - about 25 salesmen sit quietly, surrounded by cages, the birds' tweeting and singing the best form of advertising.
Duan Xinwu has 15 kinds of birds for sale, but says the ``little yellow ones'' are his best sellers, because ``they're good egg layers.'' They go for 14 yuan ($3.80) a couple. Mr. Duan started selling birds when he discovered he had moire than he could handle at home. Now his inventory includes more exotic breeds, such as a parrot with a price tag of 200 yuan ($54). But one-year-old parakeets are still a bargain for only 3 yuan (80 cents) each.
One customer hopes to trade in his bird for a new model. The bird he has just doesn't sing. He'd rather have a warbler. He combs the two aisles in search of a replacement.
These are tough customers. They know their birds. One man holds a foundling up to his ear, listening to its chirping to see if it's healthy. Conversations are constant and heated and all about birds. Crowds gather frequently around the well-informed birdmen, checking legs and wings for a purchase.
Every type of bird paraphernalia is readily available: beautiful hand-crafted bamboo cages with ivory decorations, porcelain water and food cups, and a large variety of food, including bowls full of wiggling worms.
Next door are the fish, but they don't make much noise. The bird part of the market is clearly more popular. Besides, you can't walk a fish, and bird walking is a very popular activity.
``It's mutually beneficial to bird and owner,'' says Cao Yulieng, an elderly bird salesman with a lined face and long, gray beard - ``fresh air for the bird and exercise for the people.''
The exercise part comes from walking briskly through misty parks while vigorously swinging a cage or tow of birds. When the people get tired, they simply hang the cages from a tree branch so the birds can be ``aired out.'' Birds like that, supposedly. Then the people get to sit and chat while the birds sing and take in that fresh air.
It's all about avoiding loneliness. Bird walking and the bird market.
``For old people, they take the birds for a walk. They're too lonely when they walk alone,'' says Mr. Cai as he inserts another pea in his peashooter and takes aim.