New Tales in Old Courtyards

2018-04-10 11:04:00 Source:China Today Author:LU MINGWEN & SHI WEIJING
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A total of 56 courtyards built in different eras from the seventh century to the 1950s are scattered throughout the old town of Lhasa. The area surrounding Barkhor Street, the center of the city, boasts quite a few of these time-honored compounds. Having been renovated, these architectures showcase rejuvenated vitality.

Warmth of an Ancient Courtyard

Dekyi Lhamo in her 60s has lived in Rongzha Courtyard for more than half a century. “I moved here with my grandparents when I was five,” she said. However, even a senior resident like her is not very clear about the exact origin of the compound’s name.

According to archives, the location used to be the dwelling of a local official Rongtsaba. The yard we see today was rebuilt some 60 to 70 years ago. But the buildings behind the yard boast of a history going back many centuries.

One of the old courtyards in Lhasa that has been renovated.

Dekyi Lhamo’s home is on the third floor. After passing through the yard and a smaller gate, we had to climb two flights of almost vertical stairs before getting to her rooms. The compound was extensively repaired in 1999. “Pillars were severely damaged by insects and worms,” Dekyi Lhamo recalled. “We were fearful and hoped for repairs.” After a 15-month renovation, Dekyi Lhamo and her neighbors were amazed to see that the ceilings and pillars had been fixed while floors in rooms had been reinforced. To their delight, the restoration preserved the distinct original style and feel.

Nearly two decades have passed since the renovation and new signs of disrepair are emerging. Lately, cement is a necessity in Dekyi Lhamo’s home as she has to repair the roof after every downpour. Hence, the compound is on the government’s list to undergo a second round of restoration.

Around three years ago, Dekyi Lhamo was proudly elected by her community to coordinate daily affairs of the compound on behalf of the 16 households. Among the 16 households, 10 of them have been here for a long time while the rest are migrant tenants. Though the residents are from different ethnic groups such as Tibet and Hui, they are likely to go to Dekyi Lhamo for advice when they get into any difficulties or conflicts. Meanwhile, Dekyi Lhamo is always ready to give help to her neighbors.

Demonstrating talent for singing and dancing at a young age, Dekyi Lhamo was enrolled into an ensemble affiliated with a leather factory in Lhasa. Over the years, she has taken various kinds of jobs – from a carrier to a construction worker. But her income did not see substantial rise until the 1980s when she started to take photos for tourists on the square in front of the Jokhang Temple, a must-see attraction of Lhasa. “I charged RMB 2 for taking a picture. So I could make a profit of more than RMB 350 a month,” Dekyi Lhamo recalled, “it was high income at that time.”

Using her first bucket of gold, she opened a teahouse in Rongzha Courtyard along with two friends. The teahouse added vitality to the old compound. After a few years, she opened a chess and card room in the outer section of her home, providing a recreational place for local residents. Her business has not only benefited her life, but also improved the relationships within the neighborhood.

Last year her husband Ngawang Qunyang set up a studio in his hometown of Medro Gongkar to promote handicrafts of ethnic groups. He has been a frequent traveler between Lhasa and Medro Gongkar for years. But Dekyi Lhamo has always regarded Lhasa as her home and never thought about moving to Medro Gongkar with her husband. “Who is going to take care of my house and look after my granddaughter had I left?” she often asked herself in the past. Although her granddaughter Lhapa Drolma has now left home to study in a senior high school in Chong-qing Municipality, she is still reluctant to leave the courtyard where she was raised.

It is the most pleasant pastime for her to admire the Potala Palace, the Jokhang Temple, and other old courtyards in the vicinity from her rooftop. “This architecture offers superb views and lighting. How would I part with it?” Dekyi Lhamo said. Her emotion is shared by her neighbors who are wholly supportive to the maintenance project implemented by the local government. “Having been listed as a cultural relic site, this compound will be renovated on the basis of maintaining its original shape. If no measures are to be taken, we will lose these ancient buildings forever,” Dekyi Lhamo stated. Her face glowed against the background in which the golden rooftop of the Jokhang Temple basked in the sunset. Her words expressed everyone’s hope for the future in Rongzha Courtyard.

Concerted Effort for a Better Life

A day in the Barkhor Old Corner Restaurant starts at six o’clock in the morning. Kettles steam on stoves and chefs and waiters and waitresses come in one after another. They soon get down to work after brief greetings.

The restaurant is located in Langmomo Courtyard opposite Rongzha Courtyard. First guests, most of which are residents of the neighborhood, usually drop by the restaurant at half past six. Some are businessmen, and some are senior citizens who usually get up early to take a stroll along the Barkhor Street.

The restaurant looks much the same as any of its peers in the city. Nevertheless, several characters on its signage show a difference – it is one of the projects that have been launched since 2013 to increase locals’ income. Every five to 10 adjacent households formed a group and participated in the project as a whole.

Given the location of the Barkhor Street, the community mobilized locals to set up a Tibetan-style restaurant as a means of increasing income. In November 2014, the Barkhor Old Corner Restaurant opened with capital totaling RMB 223,000, part of which was from a government fund for people’s welfare and the rest were raised by the community.

The two-story restaurant covers an area of 220 square meters. The interior decor is in authentic Tibetan style, providing a pleasant environment for dining.

According to Qiangdan, the person in charge, he and head chefs work full-time in the restaurant whereas other positions are taken by 10 out of 99 households in turns every month. All of them not only get paid monthly, but also receive dividends at the year’s end.

Norbu Wangdu, 53 years old, is a representative of the community he lives. According to the rotation schedule, his working days in the restaurant usually amount to more than one month each year. Cooking Tibetan noodle is his main duty. His monthly salary has grown from RMB 2,000 in 2016 to RMB 3,000 in 2017. The days of being off duty are not paid but a year-end bonus is guaranteed.

The restaurant has been doing healthy business thanks to a ceaseless flow of visitors to the Barkhor Street. Qiangdan expressed his confidence for the future: “Local government has given the go-ahead to our plan of setting up a chain restaurant in another old courtyard,” he continued. “The success in management and profit won us good reputation. Increasingly more people are looking forward to taking part in this undertaking.”

Tibetan Medicine in the Old Courtyard

Some ancient shops and courtyards can be found along Dongtsesur Alley at the end of the Barkhor East Street, Niangrongxia is one of them. Housing a clinic and an old-style private school in the past, the building has witnessed generations of outstanding professionals on Tibetan medicine and language.

Rigzin Lhundrup Paljor, founder of Niangrongxia Private School, was born in 1898 in a small village in Tarrong Town of Nyemo County near Lhasa. Three generations before him in his family had been devoted into careers in medicine. After completing his study, Rigzin Lhundrup Paljor established a private school in a courtyard on Barkhor East Street in 1920. In addition to teaching Tibetan calligraphy, he practiced medicine at the same time. As his private school was getting famous, the compound was too small to accommodate the growing number of students, so Rigzin Lhundrup Paljor rented Niangrongxia Courtyard from an aristocratic family named Surkhang.

In this new location, he continued teaching and practicing medicine. To the students and patients with poor economic conditions, Rigzin Lhundrup Paljor never charged any fees. Moreover, he often assisted them with food and money. His benevolence and remarkable medicinal skills were widely known. People showed their respect to him by calling him Mr. Niangrongxia. He eventually handed over the baton to his third daughter, Awa Trinley Paldron, who later grew into a well-known doctor. Although the private school moved to Yuthok Kangqiong Courtyard on the same street in 1954, the honorific title – Mr. Niangrongxia – remained.

Rigzin Lhundrup Paljor passed away in 1978. But his cause has been carried out by his offspring. Tseten Dorje, the son of Awa Trinley Paldron, had been taught Tibetan language and medicine by his grandfather in person for eight years.

Tseten Dorje is in his 50s today. Recalling his childhood, he believes that being kindhearted is the most precious heritage his grandfather left. “Every patient is equal. A doctor should treat them equally no matter they be rich or poor,” Tseten Dorje said.

Pharmacology constitutes an important part of traditional Tibetan medicine. With deep knowledge learnt from his grandfather, Tseten Dorje is good at both giving treatments and making Tibetan medicine. Like his grandfather, he has earned the esteem of locals for his medical skills and ethics.

Although he is addressed as Mr. Niangrongxia like his grandfather, Tseten Dorje has never had any experience relevant to the Niangrongxia Courtyard. But the more he learns about the history of the clinic and the private school, the more frequently he would visit the courtyard – simply to talk with current residents. He often collects stories about the courtyard in newspapers and shows them to residents. As a sixth-generation doctor in his family, Tseten Dorje is determined to carry forward the title of Mr. Niangrongxia and pass on the legend of the undertaking his grandfather initiated.

On the basis of the clinic in Niangrongxia Courtyard, the local residents’ committee established the Barkhor Tibetan Hospital in 1975. At that time, Tseten Dorje was an intern and his mother took charge of the hospital’s management. Over four decades, the hospital has built up a well-deserved reputation and Tseten Dorje has grown into a veteran doctor having cured countless patients. According to his experience, Tibetan medicine has particularly good effects on such diseases as stomach problems, cerebral atrophy, and high blood pressure.

In Tseten Dorje’s office, a letter of appreciation written in English is posted on the wall. It was from a U.S. patient in 2002. “She caught a cold and got altitude sickness during her tour in Lhasa. But I cured her with Tibetan medicine. She sent me the letter after returning to the U.S.,” Tseten Dorje said.  


LU MINGWEN and SHI WEIJING are reporters with Tibet Commercial News.

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