Saturday, May 30, 2009

The Times...

While studying in Hong Kong in the Spring of '05, some friends and I visited Beijing. It was an incredibly exciting experience as it was our first time in the mainland, and the city amazed us at every turn. However, as much fun as we had, we weren't left with a great overall impression of the city. Although we were living in what's considered one of the most crowded cities in the world at the time, coming to Beijing felt three times as crowded. In addition to the feeling of claustrophobia in the city, the public spitting (even indoors), rampant littering, omnipresent grifting, and an overall general feeling of rude and uncivilized behavior completely rubbed us the wrong way.

For this reason, when I decided to return to Beijing to study, I did so reluctantly. Although I knew the city was definitely the best city in the world to learn Mandarin, I was not looking forward to repeating our experiences from before. I understood that the city had gone through quite a bit of transformation in preparation for the Olympics, so I was optimistically hopeful, yet understood that four years is still a very small period of time.

However, shortly after my arrival to the city, I was absolutely stunned with unbelief and confusion. Quite simply, the city I live in today seems to bear no resemblance to the city I visited four years ago. The city is covered with new skyscrapers, beautiful and modern western clubs, bars, and coffee shops, luxurious upscale shopping centers, all complemented with green landscaping lining the city. The crowded, ancient, dirty subway has now been transformed into a crowded, ultra-modern, clean subway, and the busses are nearly all brand-new.

I was prepared for these aesthetic, tangible changes in the city, but it appeared that China had done a complete surgery on the behavior of Beijing's residents. Public spitting has dramatically been reduced, while littering is now on par with most large cities in the world. While I had heard about the enormous public effort at 'civilizing' Beijing residents in preparation for the Olympics by such focused days as "National Queuing Day" and "Give Up Your Seat Day", I never expected a society could be transformed so quickly. In my amazement, I paid the same price as locals almost everywhere I went. When I got on the bus, it was the same price every time. When I bought something from a street vendor, it was not 10x the price as the guy next to me. People do not stare, point, or request to have their picture taken with you. People queue (at least, more so than any other part in the country). I have not once been "petted" by someone curious about my body hair.

Being an ex-pizza deliverer, I have an uncanny sense of direction, and have been able to retrace the exact paths we followed on our journey four years ago. Perplexingly, each street seems like a dream-like representation of where I was before. As with a dream, everything seems similar, but in an inexplicably dissimilar way. The sleepy streets I remember passing are now full of chic coffee shops and bars. The dirty alleyways are now beautifully paved and immaculate. I knew the hutongs were being demolished in droves, but it seemed as if every single street in the city recieved a complete make-over.

What was going on here? I was honestly baffled.  Had the city indeed changed this much? Did my visit only take me to the worst parts of the city and I somehow missed the good parts? Did my memory not serve me well, remembering things incorrectly? Or was I simply biased, seeing only the negative, and ignoring the greatness of the city?

While the answer is undoubtedly a combination of these things,  I've spent the past few months trying to find which explanation is the most accurate description of reality. Lately, I've come to the feeling that my memory is not betraying me, but the city is really just this different. I had been looking for evidence to support this theory, but was unable to come up with something concrete.

That is, until yesterday. On my five-hour bike ride to the city center, I decided to visit the hostel we stayed at during our previous visit. It was an amazing hostel - not in the fact that it was an amazing hostel (read: not smell like piss and be filthy as hell), but more so in the fact that we were staying a 10-minute walk away from the Tiananmen Square for less than USD $5 a night. But when I arrived at the street the hostel was located on, I stopped in shock: The entire street, along with every building on it had been bulldozed. In fact, it had been turned into a pedestrian-only street. Every building was brand new - so new, that almost 9 out of 10 storefronts were still vacant!

As I walked down the way in amazement, I finally saw the first hard piece of evidence I had been looking for. Our old hostel had been turned into an H&M store. I am certain of it, not only because it seems to be exactly about the same place where our hostel was, but because in the alley behind it, the old building still stands, where it is awaiting its imminent demolition.

While I admit, yes, perhaps we were slightly bias and more affected by the appalling negative aspects of the city during our first visit, it is clear - this is a very different place than it was just a very short time ago.

Photo taken in 2005

Photo taken in the near exact spot in 2009

The H&M store in front of our old hostel

Remnants of the soon-to-be demolished hotel next to our hostel

View of the entire street, May 2009


Cat said...

Wow! I can't believe how much it has changed...

steve said...

It's interesting to read your account of this. In preparing for my visit to the city, I've been reading a book about these transformations, The Last Days of Old Beijing: Life in the Vanishing Backstreets of a City Transformed.

Reading many stories about the city's reconstruction, I still cannot comprehend how swiftly neighborhoods are leveled and replaced.

I liked this quote:

"By 'new Beijing', I meant we want to have a new humanism in Beijing, a new humanistic city. But the local officials and planners took this slogan literally. They think 'new Beijing' means destroy old Beijing and build a new Beijing." — Li Xiguang, who coined the term "New Beijing, Great Olympics"

Simon Lesser said...

That sounds really interesting, I'll have to be sure to see if I can find that book around here.

Michael said...

Thanks for posting this. I remember all of us dodging the people laying on the street grunting at us and the "Postcard?" guys running up to us. I was really looking forward to going back and seeing the places we were, eating the pork dough balls, and staying the night for $5. I think I may actually miss the dirty Beijing. Either way, that's a great post and it makes me want to go check it out for myself.