Digital Dave's Ruminations

This is the place...

...where Digital Dave occasionally shares his thoughts on China, Photography, and other various and random subject-matter.

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Sunday, June 13, 2004

Boomtown Beijing

June 13, 2004 Beijing, P.R.C.

Beijing is booming! It’s really astonishing just how far this town has come in the two years since we were last here. We’ve been here a week and I get it now: this is a Market Economy. In fact, China is seeking world status as such and its recent admittance to the World Trade Organization has clearly hastened many of the changes that have occurred here over the last couple of years. Beijing is a vast, sprawling city of 16 million people and the skyline is packed to the horizon in all directions with scaffolding and construction cranes. Dozens of new developments, some the size of downtown Oakland, are springing up all over town. When Katrinka and I took a taxi to visit the Great Wall at Badaling, an hour and a half drive north of central Beijing, it seemed like there was no end to the city rolling by. Two years ago, there was at least a rural buffer between Beijing and the majestic, craggy-peaked green mountains of Badaling.

Beijingers clearly now have substantial disposable income and lots of new consumer-goods to spend it on. They seem comfortable with their new buying-power, though some locals have lamented the downside of the new Market-Economy. One woman complained of now having to pay for certain goods and services that were heretofore provided or subsidized by the government. Liu Ching Zhu, Director of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences Archaeological Institute (who, by the way, took Katrinka and I out to what I would have to say was the best meal I’ve yet had in China), summed up much of the recent developments as an “invasion of Western culture” (but he said it with a smile on his face). Nevertheless, the Chinese have adapted to millennia of competing and rapidly-changing economic and political philosophies. For a people that only thirty years ago were living in the hell of Mao’s Cultural Revolution and as recently as 15 years ago were still wearing green Maoist uniforms, it’s remarkable how smoothly they’ve transformed themselves yet again.

If the economic and social changes here are readily apparent, the political changes are not so overtly obvious. Politics are still not a subject readily discussed by the Chinese, but one surmises from the looser, more permissive atmosphere in Beijing that the new Chinese Communist Party administration has fostered a political climate, at least domestically, that is perhaps less oppressive than in recent years. Beijing, being the capital of China, appeared two years ago to be noticeably more conservative and traditional than other cities we visited. It was as if Beijingers still weren’t quite sure how to behave so close to the seat of power in China. Those tentative steps toward a more open society in the capital are now great leaps that seem mitigated only by the ubiquitous presence of the green-uniformed Chinese People’s Armed Police Force (a spin-off from the People’s Liberation Army that is charged with keeping the peace, suppression of political dissent and quelling uprisings, among other things) who are still stationed virtually everywhere. They just don’t seem quite as threatening as they once did (not that I’m about to test the issue).

One gets the sense that Chinese efforts at modernization have an irrepressible momentum at this point, up to and including the wholesale destruction of many of Beijing’s storied hutongs, which are quickly being replaced with modern high-rises. At least the architectural sensibilities of the new developments are thoughtful, innovative, and pleasing. Still, the remaining hutongs (in which one quarter of Beijing’s citizens still live) represent a significant aspect of Beijing society, as they provide the setting for so much of the festive nature of life in this city. With their central courtyard, narrow alleys and multiple compact living-quarters, these interconnected neighborhoods, some of which are more than 600 years-old, foster an intensely strong sense of community. Hutong residents all live close together and interact with one another on a daily basis, some in the same hutong for their entire lives.

Beijing is a city that is truly alive and life here is lived on the streets, which are virtually never deserted. As Katrinka and I negotiate the labyrinth of a hutong’s alleyways, it conjures thoughts of a simpler life, a simpler time. Residents sit in little storefronts selling watermelons and ice cream or cigarettes and bottled water (the tap water in China is still unsafe to drink, even by the locals). A group of old-timers are gathered at folding tables on the sidewalk playing cards and Chinese checkers while others are napping in the back of a makeshift three-wheeled motorized cart. A young couple is playing with their toddler, who waves with the help of his parents as we walk by. Giggling teen-aged girls chat on their cell-phones, a middle-aged man pedals down the street with his son straddling the front of the bike and a 4-foot-tall stack of cardboard balanced on the back. A gray-haired woman wearing a sundress is sweeping the street. A kid no more than 18 years old stands stiffly, dressed in the green uniform of the Public Security Bureau, staring straight ahead and trying hard to look very serious. Many folks just sit on steps or in doorways, smoking cigarettes and looking quite content. Most people say “Ni hao”, Chinese for hello, as we pass by. Some say “hello” and make valiant attempts at conversation, as one of China’s most popular pastimes these days is practicing their very limited English. More often, we end up chatting in Chinese (well, Katrinka chats in Chinese, I just nod and say, “Dui, dui, dui”, the Chinese equivalent of “right, right, right…”)

At 9 PM on a Thursday night, men are getting haircuts and women are being made-up in tiny hole-in-the-wall storefront salons. Groups of people are gathered under the orange glow of tasseled Chinese lanterns in restaurants large and small, classy and dank, eating dumplings and drinking beer. Two or three hundred people are settled in the plaza in front of one of Beijing’s two old Catholic churches, listening to three musicians play classical Chinese music on Ming-period instruments, while across the street, teenagers are hanging out in front of a small shop selling NBA accoutrements (basketball is HUGE here) as American rap music is emanating from a portable radio (earlier, we passed a beauty salon in which youngsters were listening to rap music with Chinese lyrics). Young couples stroll in the evening heat with their infants and young children, eating ice cream while elderly women lounge in random chairs and dilapidated couches set out on the sidewalk, appearing for all the world to be just exactly where they belong. A man wearing a red hat and apron deep-fries scorpions for Katrinka…

Beijing’s broad boulevards and narrow back-streets are also the setting for the daily Zen-ritual of millions of people transporting themselves through the city. Like a great dance, they walk, ride bicycles and scooters, and drive all manner of improvised and cobbled-together vehicles - with little attention to traffic regulations, which seem to be regarded as mere suggestions rather than actual rules. It’s as though if one pedestrian, car driver or bicycle rider were just a millisecond off the timing of his role in the dance, the whole city would simultaneously crash into itself. Yet somehow it all flows as though perfectly choreographed. A bicyclist rides by on the street in the direction opposite the flow of traffic and disappears harmlessly into an onrushing sea of cars and bikes, just as a little Citroen automobile drives down the sidewalk, parting pedestrians like Moses parted the sea. Nobody seems particularly surprised by it, let alone disturbed.

At the risk of making a very broad generalization, I find the Chinese to be playful, sincere, flirtatious, and warm and I’m completely charmed by them. The Chinese haven’t been jaded (yet); they have a youthful innocence about them that’s unfettered by naivety. These people have been through a lot; they’ve just mutually agreed, it seems, to get along with each other and to be for the most part happy. Despite the fact that oceans of people are constantly competing for space and resources, the pace of life is unhurried and civilized. No one appears frustrated or uptight; on the contrary, people seem to be rather enjoying their experience and living good-naturedly in the moment. It’s disarming and it’s infectious. I suppose that if one is accustomed to living among over a billion other people, one simply accepts it as ordinary. Still, it’s remarkable to realize that I never feel claustrophobic or crowded, surrounded by so much humanity. Indeed, I generally feel quite at ease. Katrinka and I have been treated with nothing but genuine respect since we’ve been here (which comes as a relief given the current nature of America’s political position in world affairs). But more significantly, the Chinese treat each other with real and palpable respect. It’s refreshing!

One of the highlights of our stay in Beijing was a visit to the enormous Beijing Dirt Market, where acres of antique Chinese furniture and art are sold and tens of thousands of stone, ceramic, and bronze statues of everyone from Buddha to Chairman Mao are lined up in formation like sentries along with lions, tigers, dragons, frogs, horses, and bizarre creatures that combine the aforementioned with human bodies. We had lunch that day at a nearby McDonalds, where Dinosaur McNuggets and Shrimp pies were featured on the menu.

Another highlight was a day at the Beijing Zoo. Nothing could have prepared me for the experience of standing six feet away from a Giant Panda. All of a sudden, it dawns on you: Wow, I’ve never actually seen a panda before! These glorious creatures are even more beautiful and amazing than you would imagine. The pandas have an admirable lifestyle, too: they eat copious amounts of bamboo, rub their tummies for a few minutes, then they eat some more bamboo. This goes on for hours. I could’ve spent hours more watching them do it.

We’re off to Anyang now to get started on Katrinka’s dissertation research. We’ll be in touch from there.

- Dave