China

Lao Jiang gets to the railroad tracks just after dinner every evening and props up his tiny stool. There he sits and smokes and sometimes plays cards until "the big wind" passes.

By the time the old freight train rambles by about 9:30 p.m., most of Lao Jiang's neighbors have joined him along the tracks to enjoy the small breeze stirred by the moving cars.

"You know, when the train goes whoosh," said Lao Jiang, "there's no place in Peking so cool."

That is an arguable point in muggy Peking today, where the hottest summer in 26 years presents the stoic sort here with a new chal- Letter From China lenge. As they do to most survival tests in this difficult city, Peking residents respond with begrudging inventiveness that turns on as automatically as central air conditioning.

"The Chinese know how to suffer better than anyone in the world," mused a Peking school teacher.

The steady diet of 95-degree days has caused a good deal of misery for the city's 9 million people. Electric fans are rare. Air conditioners are almost unheard of even among the elite. The most common cooling device is a popsicle.

The heat has provided a novel solution to the city's terrible housing crunch. Nobody lives indoors these days. The stuffy cement bungalows and apartment cubicles are unbearable for all but the popular Chinese cactus plants.

Now there is a sidewalk crunch. Some of the busiest pedestrian lanes are almost impassable, clogged by refugees of the heat. This is especially true at night when families move their entire bedrooms onto the sidewalks -- cots, nightstands and even alarm clocks.

By 10 p.m. Peking looks like a giant campsite. There are bodies lying everywhere. On patches of grass separating a highway. On bicycle carts. On the cool stone steps of public buildings. On construction materials piled high enough to benefit from a breeze.

The brutal daytime heat calls for greater ingenuity. With the large number of jobless, idle students and retirees looking for relief, the search for a good crossbreeze can get competitive. The old Front Gate of the city has been booked solid for weeks. In the narrow passageway of the 600-year-old portal, about 50 people enjoy the cool currents wafting through the open-ended structure.

Li Jing has not missed a day there for six weeks, arriving at 8 a.m. each morning with a folded piece of cardboard to sit on and a few fried pancakes to eat. She returns home in time for dinner and and an open-air sleep.

"It's nice to have a place to come to," said Li, 30. "You have to get here early to put down your mat or somebody else will take your spot. I've been in the same place against the wall since the real hot weather began. I know everybody's first name by now."

The little society of Front Gate looks like a street in Dickens' London. The dark, 20-yard-long tunnel is home for old men huddled over card games and mothers nursing babies. Fist fights break the monotony from time to time. Housewives nap with their children. Lunchtime produces the smell of garlic and greasy fried dough.

"Would you like to listen to my theory on the society of the universe and the commission of the earth?" asked a frustrated soapbox politician. "Nobody will listen to me in here anymore."

With most of its trees uprooted by highway construction, Peking lacks the graceful shade of many cities. That makes almost any overhanging object a good place to escape the sun.

Little communities have sprung up under the bridges of Peking's beltway, which have become favored places cooled by the wind of passing traffic. Workers curl up on the cement embankment for a nap and women push their baby carriages.

The Chaoyang Bridge is a small haven for Du Shiwei, 68, a retired tin worker and inveterate card player. A Buddha-like figure with shaved pate, he sits in his plastic lawn chair every afternoon, towel wrapped around his neck, playing a game with his cronies called "Getting to the Upper Stream."

Never looking up from his hand of cards, he draws water from a small canteen tied to the arm of his lawn chair. "This is my only amusement," he said.

Despite the relentless heat, residents of Peking shun summer clothing like shorts that makes life bearable in other hot climates. There seems to be no common reason for this, although many say the briefs are "impolite." Nevertheless a compromise prevails. Chinese men and women roll up their trousers to the knee much like Westerners turn back the cuffs of long-sleeve shirts.

Change may be on the way, however. An authoritative Peking newspaper published the suggestions of a sports official who advocated wearing shorts as a way to "improve circulation of the blood" among other things.