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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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