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A portrait of the city of the future: Beijing Confidential

March 15th, 2009 · 4 Comments

Okay, we all need a break from city hall gossip so here it is.

I went to hear Jan Wong, the former Beijing correspondent for the Globe and Mail, give a talk the other night at the library and then read her book, Beijing Confidential, the last two nights. Both were lovely experiences. Jan, who has sometimes been portrayed as a bit of a scary character by other media because of her previous series of tell-all Lunches with Jan Wong, comes across in person as playful and gently ironic, mostly about herself.

The book tells about her hunt 35 years later for a young student at Beijing University who got expelled after Jan “informed” on her to the then zealous Maoist authorities, letting them know that the student, Yin, had told her she wanted to go to America. A thought crime of the highest order.

Jan, who goes to Beijing for a month with her husband and two sons, tells the story of her search, but the book — a zip to read — is also all about the evolution of Beijing as a city, what women there are up to these days (all turning from holding up half the sky to being pliant housewives, apparently), the incredible level of pollution, and the unwillingness of present-day residents to look back at the real terror the Cultural Revolution caused.

I lived in Shanghai for three months, a year after the Tiananmen protests, thanks to an Asia Pacific Foundation fellowship and visited Beijing at length, so it was a trip back in time for me to be there and see, with Jan, how much it’s changed. Also a trip to be reading about China again. Before I went there, I read every book I could get by Orville Schell, the American journalist and historian who wrote wonderfully evocative books about the old 1970s/80s China. Jan is also a wonderfully descriptive writer — I kept wondering when she took the time to write down every last thing they ate or exactly what a particular alley looked like — so that I felt like I was there, picking my way across half-finished construction sites to my apartment at the Beautiful Lodging building.

It’s sad, of course. I loved the old Shanghai and Beijing when I was there. I used to ride my one-speed Chinese bike through the old residential district of Shanghai at night, where big old mansions were surrounded by walls and the streets were shaded by huge trees. All the hutongs — old crowded residential districts — were still there when I was in Beijing and I remember walking around the art district, seeing kids playing hopscotch in the alleys (how does hopscotch spread like that, I always wanted to know) and taking pictures of the cookpots sitting by the houses. Now, it sounds as though it’s like Atlanta only worse. A few residents are trying to save the last of the historic districts but without much luck. It seems to be a worldwide instinct to destroy what is old and charming. And people who think Vancouver is a soulless developer-dominated hellhole will be thrilled to hear that Beijing is even worse. When Jan wrote the book, there was a real-estate frenzy and condo-building mania in full throttle. I wonder how that’s going these days.

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  • urb anwriter

    Ah, I’ll bite on this one. I’ve never made it to China, but my limited experience in Asia suggests that the ‘quaint,’ which I’m very partial to, is tiresome when there is a viable alternative. And, yes, I know there are evil developers out there. I think it was mostly the evil developers that account for Vancouver’s very presence, and, if you’ll allow just this once, the idea that developers, merchants, land speculators, human greed, avarice, desire, and dreams all occupy much the same space, then I think you could say that most cities on the planet are the result of excising the old, quaint, attractive, human-scaled living environment, only to be replaced with ziggurat, pyramid, canals, Soviet housing blocks, and suburbs from at the very least, the Romans.

    Vancouver, up into the 1970s, had housing that qualified as quaint, those rooming houses that are all but vanished now. And I suspect it would be very difficult to convince anyone with a choice that living in one would be better than living in a one-bedroom apartment, with your own kitchen, bathroom, and privacy. They ain’t that quaint.

    But I still think the ‘old’ has a charm, if only because it is a charm we delegate.

    Oh, and the “soulless developer-dominated hellhole” is directly attributable to the people who buy, they have themselves to blame.

  • Wagamuffin

    I loved ‘Red China Blues’. Never a Maoist myself(though for about 5 minutes, I thought I might take up planting oranges on a kibbutz), I did have romantic notions about seeing the ‘old Beijing’, post cultural revolution. Ah well, timing is everything.

    Side note: a rather notorious local is
    /was building a restaurant/club at the very famous buiding in Beijing where they used to throw folks off the roof, during the Cultural Revolution.

    I know there are several very bad, tasteless jokes there. I shall refrain, but invite others to do the dirty work.

  • gmgw

    Dear urb anwriter (sic):
    You hit the nail on the head when you speak of your own ignorance of things Asian. Far from being a simple matter of eliminating the “quaint”, the forced evictions associated with the ongoing wholesale destruction of old Beijing and its conversion into what the Chinese government fervently hopes is a “city of the future” have thus far resulted in the displacement of at least several hundred thousand people. No doubt many of those in our local development industry, who you so sycophantically praise, would dearly love to have that kind of absolute power over the lives of those impacted by the replacement of affordable housing in this town by innumerable condo towers. It would make things so much simpler to be able to enlist the police to ship the grumbling malcontents and ne’er-do-wells at bayonet point down to the country. Fortunately for we malcontents and unfortunately for those you admire, Canada– and even Vancouver, much of the time– still pays lip service to some of the fundamental democratic principles of human rights, a concept completely anathema to the Chinese overlords and unknown to their sheeplike subjects.

    Incidentally, do you think the people who lived in those now-vanished rooming houses you speak of so blithely lived there by choice? Do you figure they all ran out and bought condos after they were evicted and their shabby homes demolished? Are you aware of the concept of “affordable housing”? Please, do some research next time you feel the urge to make a fool of yourself.

  • urb anwriter

    I just love getting people riled up, and especially when they don’t actually read the post.

    Ah, gmgw (all lower case, I suppose to prove your modesty as a malcontent) I think you should, perhaps, look in the mirror before you become the accuser.

    Working backwards… if you prefer, contact me at urbanwriter@ google’s mail and we can discuss my life-long experience in ‘shabby homes,’ including two in the former CPR freight-yards, while it was still frieght-yards, and there were no facilities, modern or not.

    In addition, though I suspect your math is somewhat rough, you seem to have missed the point that, bluntly put, without ‘developers’ there would be no Vancouver. The sawmills that everyone so fondly remembers as the foundation of Vancouver kept going bankrupt. Do your homework.

    Long before you were born the ‘state’ was exercising its sole right to the use of force, not only in China, but at Ballantyne Pier, the ‘old’ post-office, and beat-cops with truncheons. Do your homework.

    And look at people living in barrios, favelas, slums around the world, and in Vancouver – do you think that the vast majority of those people would turn down housing, built by evil developers, if they could afford (and ‘afford’ is always, always, the question) to move in, as renters or buyers?

    Every house, apartment, SRO, basement (not basement suite, basement, including the old Classical Joint’s, alongside Co-Op Radio) were all, every one, built by a ‘developer,’ by your definition.

    And China?

    You know what? I notice you’re sitting in front of a computer, possibly in the Lower Mainland, and, I suspect, warm and well fed – griping about a post that in my estimation you either didn’t, or couldn’t, read.

    And China? I hate to break it to you, but somebody came along and kicked the local, original inhabitants in Vancouver out, so ‘malcontents’ would have a place to go. So China isn’t doing anything humans haven’t done before. Nor are they doing anything that wasn’t (isn’t?) done in what is now Canada, 400 hundred years ago (in Quebec’s case), or a little over 100 years ago here in Vancouver.

    That, gmgw, makes you as guilty as the Party apparatchik, as the developer, or me, if you apply a consistent level of guilt apportioning. But it was, in part, my folks that got dis-possessed, gives me a slightly different view.

    And, gmgw, could you actually quote the section where I “so sycophantically praise” the development industry? And “affordable housing,” my self-effacing observer, is not only where I live, but what I have, actually, worked on. Again, a slightly different perspective. And my ‘work’ does not including vapid protest, the sort of waving of signs, nor the promotion of friends and rellies to the front of the line when there is social housing available…