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Reflections on the Past

My most recent trip to Beijing did not start out very auspiciously. I spent most of the 4 1/2 hour flight curled up in a fetal position on the plane, suffering from a low grade fever, alternately sweating and shivering. I imagined myself getting pulled aside at the airport and being quarantined. I wondered if I would have to pay any fees if I were quarantined, and thought that given how expensive hotels had gotten in Beijing that it might not be a bad thing to get a free place to stay in the airport, even it if it was to prevent me from transmitting some horrible infectious disease to the masses. In one of the more lucid moments of my haze, I thought about how irresponsible it had been for me to get on the plane with my fever. I had recently finished a book about SARS, that chronicled how the epidemic was spread by unsuspecting but irresponsible travelers who got on their flights despite feeling terrible. I was one of those irresponsible people. I could be responsible for infecting 1.3 billion people. They would trace the vector back to me, I would be the super-transmitter.

Instead, no one paid attention to me as I walked through the airport, passed immigration, and pushed my bags out of customs. It was past midnight and the old terminal in Beijing was crowded, but mostly dark. KFC was still open, and I realized I was famished. It was too late to catch the Airport Express into town, and my attempt to get on the bus was thwarted by me being too polite and not pushing on in time. I got left outside with a Filipino girl and two other patient Chinese people. When told that the next bus would leave in an hour, we all balked, turned our tickets back in for a refund, and decided to split a cab.

One of my grad school classmates was nice enough to offer me her couch for a couple nights. Although I had been there before, both the taxi driver and I had trouble finding it. It was in the southern part of town, away from the most rapidly developing areas but right off one of the newest subway lines. Housing prices were rising, but it was still an older neighborhood, mostly nondescript and without much in the way of recognizable landmarks.

Not that I would have been able to spot them. I don't know if it was the fever or the changes to the city, but I found myself looking out the window of the taxi almost the entire way, thinking, "where the hell am I?" It was disconcerting; Beijing changes quickly, but normally I'll at least know what direction I'm going or recognize some of the buildings I'm passing on my way from the airport. That night, I was lost. Every time I thought I knew where I was, I'd pass a slew of things that looked completely unfamiliar. Not being able to find my friend's apartment, even though I'd been there, felt like a continuation of this strange sense of displacement.

Eventually, the taxi driver got tired of circling around and just dropped me off at the gate of the development. It was already 2am, and I finally wandered into my friend's apartment a bit dazed and extremely apologetic. She had to get to work the next morning after all. I promptly fell asleep and stayed asleep until the early afternoon. I still felt bad and a bit dizzy, but I was hungry enough - a good sign I thought! - that I ended up wandering out for lunch and then, later, dinner. It was comfortably crisp with a slight breeze, as Beijing summer nights often are, as I searched for a pharmacy and some medicine.

I ended up exploring her neighborhood and eating at a local restaurant. People were sitting at tables outside, the streets were small, and I caught sight of a few tubby older men loitering with their wife-beater tank tops pulled up to their chest, letting their bellys air out. It reminded me of a Beijing from years past, the easy, lazy summer evenings I experienced when I first moved to Beijing, where I'd gather with a group of friends to buy a watermelon from our local fruit vendor and sit on tiny stools by the side of the road, eating juicy slices, spitting out seeds, and shooting the shit. Paying for my food, triple what it would have cost in years past, snapped me out of my reverie, but it was still a reminder of a Beijing that - suddenly - I realized I missed.

I could again blame it on the fever, or just on the fact that it took some distance from my experiences here in this city, but I think I finally realized how much I had enjoyed that simple life I led when I first went to live in Beijing. Riding bikes, saying hello to the local crew of senior citizens playing mahjongg on the side of the road, knowing the owners and waitresses at my local restaurant, kicking up dust on a side alley, popping into random little stores while walking home. This is the Beijing I remembered, and the Beijing that... (can I say it? Can I admit it? Is it possible that it's true?) ... that I might have fallen in love with.

It's strange to feel nostalgia for a city when you are smack in the middle of that city, but this is how I feel about Beijing now. I went back to read some of my first e-mail journal entries that I wrote about Beijing in 2002. One, an extraordinarily long and convoluted e-mail was devoted entirely to biking. Something so central to my Beijing experience then, and to everyone's Beijing experience actually, has in the short nine years since, become a piece of historical documentation, an observation of a society that no longer exists.

I have often decried the headlong rush to modernize in the city. The results have been priceless old neighborhoods torn down, historical relics and places converted into tourist traps, and the genericizing (if I may take the privilege of making up a word) of a city. Yet, I have given short thrift to what is really sad about Beijing's "development" - the loss of its soul. It is not just the destruction of tangible structures or traditional city planning - it is the elimination of the communities that called these places home. Cities are, above all else, places where people live. They have the ability to support lifestyles or to dictate lifestyles. Traditional hutongs developed to support a way of life. Roads and paths were put in place to facilitate an approach to movement. Buildings and neighborhoods encouraged a sense of community.

Using a technological analogy, in essence, the "hardware" was in place to allow the "software" to run. The wholesale destruction of the hardware has forced the software to change, and this software - the culture and soul of the city - has been lost. What is intriguing is that this disconnect - between hardware and software - manifests itself in numerous ways. Last year, I got into a physical fight with a guy who almost ran me over in his car. This year, I found myself screaming at a guy cutting in line in front of me at the check-out counter of a cheap ass Ibis Hotel. These incidents are also symptoms of a culture lost in a new city. The city may look new and modern, but the lifestyle and societal norms are having lots of trouble catching up.

I've written about these things in the past, but I think my ideas only fully crystalized on this trip. The beauty of Beijing before was that it was a collection of little communities and neighborhoods and areas. It was large and spread out, requiring long stretches on public transport to get to other parts, but when you got there, you could once again walk aimlessly around, exploring the local flavor and character.

No doubt, even when I moved there, some places were already Westernized while others were less unique. But I remember a trip to the Lufthansa center as a trip into the west, where as taking a bus to Xinjiekou meant a day of eating street food, dodging cars, and buying bootleg movies. I could hang out with the Koreans and the students in Wudaokou, shop for electronics in Haidian, or do some serious shopping at Xidan. Wangfujing was reserved for tourists, cheap goodies and sketchy alleys could be had at Qianmen, and the best fake goods were at Hongqiao or Fuchengmenwai. Each place was distinct, but more importantly, when you got to each place, you had the option to walk around and discover. The city offered endless possibilities and layers. Like an onion, you could peel and peel and peel, and while it would sometimes make you cry, you would still keep going.

Put it another way - Beijing used to be a big city made up mostly of small, distinct neighborhoods designed for walking and living. That has changed, and changed drastically. Incredible automobile growth has dictated that roads are bigger, parking lots more numerous, and that places become shopping destinations. Even subway growth has encouraged this hub feel by encouraging large-scale developments above major stations. So today, I meet my friends at one of a couple dozen large malls, to eat at clean but non-descript chain restaurants, before window-shopping at chains that I can find everywhere in the world. Often, we'll never step foot outside, and if we do, we might get stuck walking along huge roads that are guarded by mammoth, non-human scale buildings set far back from the sidewalk with little to nothing to look at. From a place that encouraged community and interaction, much of the developed parts of Beijing today feel like any modern conglomeration of consumerist suburbs. That is, you drive somewhere, go about your own business, and drive home.

It is when I get out further into the less developed parts of the city, like where my friend lives, that I am reminded of what Beijing used be. Yet, I feel it necessary to state that I am not a hopeless romantic, selfishly wanting to drag Beijing back into a past that I felt more comfortable in. I asked a friend what she thought about the changes in Beijing, and she said she thinks its great. Her reason? "I can get anything I want here now, we have all the brands, all the stores, everything." It's a fair enough assertion, and true. There were alternatives though.

A city like Hong Kong, Taipei, or even Tokyo shows that you can have a hyper-consumerist city, but still retain character, personality, and distinct neighborhoods. It is what makes these cities interesting, what makes them engaging, what makes them addictive. I have been to Hong Kong dozens of times, and I know it like the back of my hand, but I never tire of walking its back alleys, of soaking up the atmosphere in Sheung Wan, Wan Chai, or Yau Ma Tei. I spend a good deal of time in malls in Hong Kong too, but when I do wander outside, which is often, I find myself engaged and enthralled.

No, Beijing has done too much, too fast, too similarly - with little thought given to anything other than profits and pride. There is no doubt that Beijing is more "modern" than most cities in the world now - people from around the world leave the city with their eyes glazed over from how different the city looks in reality compared to what they pictured in their minds. Certainly, as my nostalgia suggests, the city looks and feels almost nothing like I remember it. It boggles my mind when I consider that I first moved there less than a decade ago. The entire place has been flipped on its head, in less than half a generation. It is incredible, unimaginable, and a bit incomprehensible. Modern doesn't mean better though, and the impressions left by a one week trip on foreign tourists doesn't make the city any better, even if it gives people something to feel proud about.

Yet, Beijing is what it is today, and it is most definitely not going back. More subways, more neighborhoods torn down, wider roads, and more skyscrapers and malls going up - this is the direction of Beijing, and it is not changing, not even with the time and luxury to reflect. I think this time back, I realized that. In doing so, I also realized that I miss Beijing, the old Beijing, my Beijing. It is true, sometimes you never know what you have until it's gone.

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It reminded me of a Beijing from years past, the easy, lazy summer evenings I experienced when I first moved to Beijing, where I'd gather with a group of friends to buy a watermelon from our local fruit vendor and sit on tiny stools by the side of the road, eating juicy slices, spitting out seeds, and shooting the shit. Paying for my food, triple what it would have cost in years past, snapped me out of my reverie, but it was still a reminder of a Beijing that - suddenly - I realized I missed.

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