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.
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expanding network of highways; the bicycles of old Beijing have been replaced
by five million cars.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.
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.
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
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.
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.”
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.
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.
I met her
when she was translating for foreign journalists at the beginning of her own
career as a writer; she was a young woman with a hearty laugh and an irreverent
sense of humour. Fifteen years later she is the respected author of a
best-selling memoir, the ironically titled Socialism is Great, is writing a
novel on prostitution and also acts as a guide for travellers who want to
experience Beijing’s rich intellectual heritage. “If you come here as a
tourist, the danger is that you only get the big hotels, the shopping malls and
a quick tour of the Forbidden City or the old Summer Palace,” she says.
evening, at her home, writers and thinkers mingle and gossip. The dinner table
is laden with dishes from all across China. There are Sichuan-style fried green
beans with minced pork; a spicy gong bao (cubes of chicken fried with peanuts,
peppercorns and chillies), a dish once denounced by Maoists as politically incorrect
because of its associations with imperial China; and steamed egg with five
spices, which is fragrant with the scent of aniseed and cinnamon.
beside the journalist Raymond Zhou, whose combative columns in the China Daily
reach millions of readers every day. Mild-mannered and genial in person but
with a barbed wit, Zhou regularly scrutinises the pressures of a city
undergoing rapid transformation.
gripped by hatred, which is almost like an out-of-control machine-gun firing
indiscriminately at any moving target,” he writes. The list of hate figures,
according to Zhou, includes Westerners, officials, celebrities, the old, the
young, the rich and the poor: “And we hate ourselves, because our relentless
drive for a better life seems to go nowhere.”
Bookworm is the city’s first English-language bookshop. Young Chinese mingle
with expats over coffee, wine, prose and poetry. Manager Alex Pearson, whose
father was a diplomat in Beijing in the 80s, also founded Beijing’s first
international book fair. “There is a confidence in people which didn’t exist
before,” she tells me. “It feels as if time is on fast-forward and there is
this constant influx of interesting and stimulating people. It’s a fantastic
city in which to experiment with ideas, a great place to establish – and
occasionally lose – businesses.”
On the book
festival’s opening night, Chinese “sensualist” Hong Ying, who was once sued for
allegedly libelling a dead short-story author, shared the stage with an
Argentine crime writer. Also that night, a Hong Kong novelist summoned up the
universal loss of parental death while a Hungarian, Peter Zilahy, related tales
of totalitarian madness in his own land.
one is constantly struck by the tension between old and new, between official
constraints and the striving for artistic freedom. A filmmaker friend who has
lived in the city for decades put it like this: “The artist is constantly
stretching his arms out to see how close are the bars of the cage.” The events
of the Arab Spring have heightened official fears of a revival of pro-democracy
activism, as the recent arrest of the artist and activist Ai Weiwei
illustrates. Yet I feel I am witnessing something very special and enduring – a
cultural flowering overlooked by a Western world obsessed with economics. I
head to District 798 in Dashanzhi, home to the city’s avant-garde artistic
movement. Located in a former industrial complex built by the East Germans in
the Bauhaus style in the 1950s, it is at first glance an unlovely place: an
expanse of old workshops and factory compounds.
is a warren of artists’ studios, galleries and performance spaces, as well as
bars, restaurants and bookshops. There are striking Modernist sculptures and
delicate ink paintings with artistic roots that lie in a Chinese tradition of
calligraphy dating back several centuries before Christ. Artist and poet Fan
Xueyi, who calls herself Sunlight in English, works with water and ink, her
verse and imagery each complementing the other. “I think that by experiencing
Chinese poetry and art the foreigner can see something of the essence of our
culture, which is about achieving a harmony between life and nature,” she says.
Fan is pragmatic when considering the rampant materialism of the new Beijing. “You
can get rich quickly but you can’t have taste or sophistication quickly. But as
people become rich, they’ll need finer things in life and will learn to
appreciate art more. It will drive art forward in China.”
impossible to separate food and art in Beijing – Chinese cuisine is a great
national art form. “To the people, food is heaven,” the old proverb says. In my
time, I have sampled fiery pork dishes in the Cultural Revolution Restaurant,
an emporium of questionable moral taste given the vast numbers of people
persecuted in that era. I have devoured Mongolian hotpot while listening to
Beijing opera in the upstairs room of a small café, where devotees proudly
showed me photo albums of their favourite stars. And I have eaten a delicate
turtle soup while watching dancers from the Dai ethnic group, of subtropical
Yunnan province, flutter mothlike to an ancient melody wafting forth from a
battered cassette player.
One of the
jewels of Beijing’s traditional architecture and cuisine, the Mei Mansion, is
set in a 200-year-old courtyard and named in honour of the great Beijing opera
singer, Mei Lanfang. Mei always played women’s roles and is said to have
maintained his feminine appearance by avoiding fatty foods. The resident chef
here belongs to the same family that cooked for Mei. The cooking stresses the
original flavours of the ingredients: there will be no hot spices to mask the
stewed pig’s head, the meatballs and crab, or steamed fish.
favourite dining experience is to wander along the prosaically named “snack
street” in Dongcheng district, or through the nearby night market, which
vibrates with life after dark. The air is filled with the calls of the
stallholders offering everything from the ubiquitous noodles to spicy Sichuan
soup and Shangdong-style pancakes, deep-fried crickets and scorpions. With
Lijia as my guide, I can eavesdrop on the back-and-forth banter of cook and
customer in accents from all over China.
economic terms, Beijing in the 21st century resembles what Manhattan meant to
the “tired, poor, huddled masses” of Europe in an earlier epoch. It is a giant
magnet, pulling people from across China’s vast hinterland in one of the
greatest migrations in human history.
to a recent estimate, one in three Beijingers is a migrant worker and many are
employed in service industries. They form a silent army that sweeps the
streets, waits on tables and cleans the hotel rooms of tourists. The state has
tried to stem the flow, steadily rolling back the number of residence permits
given to newcomers. Yet they keep coming.
One of the
great challenges they face is education. By one estimate, there are 300 migrant
schools catering to 500,000 children. Beijing is the great crucible of social
reinvention, and every child learns that hard work at school is a potential
escape route from poverty.
The road to
Bowen School cuts across dusty fields and through grim industrial zones in
southeast Beijing. As we arrive in the yard I spot two boys, aged about 10,
racing ahead into the school. It is a cold, two-storey building of the uniform
drabness that characterises the China of the toiling masses. Forget the tyranny
of first appearances: the boys have alerted their fellow pupils to our arrival
and I am greeted by a vibrant mass of children. They clap, they cheer, they
surge around us like a living sea. “Hello.” “What is your name?” The English
words are carefully pronounced and with relish. Clearly much effort has gone
into their learning.
I am here
on a Beijing Buddy visit, one of several programmes run by the Migrant
Children’s Foundation, which promotes cultural exchanges between foreigners and
the schools. Helen Boyle, who runs the programme, has watched children grow in
confidence: “When we started teaching over a year ago, they weren’t able or
very willing to speak at all and were quite shy. Now they can make sentences
and are always very enthusiastic.”
Chinese fondness for legends, I summon up some Celtic tall tales from my
childhood that involve ferocious warriors, vicious kings, an improbably large
potato, a brave young prince and the inevitable triumph of good. An
enthusiastic Chinese volunteer translates. My heroes are cheered. My villains
are hissed at. And the laughter and smiles stay with me all the way home.
Late in the
afternoon, I go to see the old Summer Palace, the Yihe Yuan (“Gardens of
Nurtured Harmony”). Here, the Empress Dowager Cixi spent vast sums of money
reconstructing the complex after it was attacked by vengeful allied troops
during the Boxer Rebellion in 1900. It’s a powerful symbol of restored Chinese
national pride. Parties of schoolchildren pass by, doubtless being regaled with
stories of iniquitous foreigners in times past; they pay me no heed. I sit by
the edge of the Kunming Lake and, beside that wide expanse of water, after all
the stimulation of the previous days, I feel a sense of peace.
Beijing may not capture your heart immediately.
It is a proud, quirky, challenging place, a city of hustlers and of poets,
where hard realities and dreams collide every day. On its streets you wander
through yesterday and tomorrow, from ancient history to accelerating future,
sometimes in the same shimmering minute, and there is nowhere, absolutely
nowhere, quite like it in our world or in our time.
The article 'A Beijing state of mind' was published in partnership with Lonely Planet Magazine.