A Beijing state of mind
Among Beijing’s constants are historic paintings, delicate calligraphy and lively streets. (Matt Munro)
Beyond the futuristic architecture and Olympic hype lies a city quietly evolving, with art galleries taking over old factories and cafés staging literary festivals.
As the city looms ahead, the sun blasts through the morning smog. Watching it filter through the glass skyscrapers, I feel I am entering a forest of mirrors, struggling to recognise anything of the city I last visited 15 years ago. “Too big, too noisy and too fast,” I think to myself.
Close to the airport there are pockets of American-style suburbia – housing estates with names like Yosemite and River Garden, home to Beijing’s expatriate communities and the Chinese elite. Beyond these stretch endless industrial compounds and public housing blocks, all intersected and encircled by the city’s relentlessly expanding network of highways; the bicycles of old Beijing have been replaced by five million cars. On first encounter, this new Beijing can be a powerfully alienating place – the ultimate Asian megacity choking on its own success. Nearly 20 million people live here and the thrum of human noise is constant.
When I worked here as the BBC’s Asia correspondent in the early 1990s, Beijing had already escaped the constraints of strict Maoism but it was still an austere city. The headlong rush to riches had yet to begin. In those days, the great shopping highlight was haggling at the old antique market at Panjiayuan or browsing the stalls on Yabao Road, jostling with Russian traders who came south on the Trans-Siberian Express to buy clothes by the bulk load.
Now, walking along the street near my hotel in Sanlitun, the city’s business centre, I contemplate an entirely new Beijing: one brimming over with Western brand names and trendy bars, a place of concrete, glass and sharp angles. Luxury cars sweep by carrying the new masters of China. Some have made it through hard work, luck and business acumen. Others belong to the class known as “princelings”, relatives and friends of the party elite who have made their millions thanks to powerful connections.
In the years I have been away, the bulldozers have razed many of the city’s hutongs, the traditional narrow streets that survived the rise and fall of dynasties but could not compete with capitalism.
A few minutes later I am slurping my way through lunch in a noodle shop, where the main dish is Malan, a hand-pulled noodle from northern China, listening to my old friend, the writer and guide Lijia Zhang, telling me I have it all wrong: “Give it a chance, Fergal. Wait a few days. I promise you there’s another city.”
Lijia lives in the poetically named village of Jiuxianqiao, or “Wine God’s Bridge”, an area of narrow streets and low-rise brick houses barely 15 minutes’ walk from the mad bustle of Sanlitun. Here, you enter a portal into a city stubbornly resisting the aggressive advance of modernity. Old men gather on street corners to play chess. Families wander in the dusk. A man stands outside his home brushing his teeth. Escaping from an open window, the fumes of garlic frying in hot oil catch in my chest and bring water to my eyes. This is the hour when the city exhales – a slow release of the tension of the day.
Like so many of the capital’s residents, Lijia is not a native. She was brought up in the old imperial capital Nanjing, in the Yangtze Delta. Her story is typical of modern China’s narrative of change. She was a promising student with a love of English literature, but poverty forced her to leave school at 16 to become a factory worker. Within a decade, though, as China’s economic reforms created opportunities for the young and energetic, she quit the industrial drudgery and moved to Beijing.