Thursday, October 11, 2007

A Minor Place


I put recent magazine writing here. If you're really interested. I don't heavily recommend it.


Monday, June 11, 2007

In China, Protest by TXT

One million text messages. That's how residents of China's port city of Xiamen spread word to protest -- and eventually halt -- construction of a chemical plant on Thursday, according to local news reports. The $1.4 billion facility was meant to produce the petrochemical paraxylene, exposure to which can cause eye, nose or throat irritation, affect the central nervous system and may cause death. Though international standards dictate that such a plant should be 100 km from the nearest city, the short text messages that mobilized Xiamen's smart mob warned the factory would have been only 16 km away.

While the central government is clearly showing more interest in protecting the environment, local governments, eager to cut corners in the name of economics, are helping block the path to sustainable development. But the Xiamen protests, thousands of people strong, are the latest sign of people power in China, where tens of thousands of protests over tainted land and water are recorded every year, threatening the government's dream of a "harmonious society" while pointing the way forward for environmental action in a place that seriously needs some.

That local officials in Xiamen reportedly began blocking text messages too in an attempt to stem the protests, and that the protests continued apace, is an indication that, try as it might, China's authoritarian controls simply can't keep up with the power of cell phones blogs, bulletin boards, and the smartmobs they might create. (Local governments are getting into the SMS act themselves, using text messages to warn citizens of floods and even stop protests.)

Clearly, stopping protests just isn't possible the way it used to be. Between increasing countryside unrest (there may be nothing scarier to the government) and deadly pollution (China's rural cancer rate rose by 23 percent in the past two years, and more than 70 percent of the country's waterways and 90 percent of its underground water are contaminated by pollution) something's gotta give.

Since the plant's not been completely scrapped, residents are still protesting, according to Reuters. And the more word spreads, the more likely it is that protests will continue elsewhere too. An large expansion of a chemical plant in the southeastern city of Quanzhou that produces paraxylene and other chemicals was announced in March, funded by China's No. 2 oil company, Sinopec, Saudi Aramco, the Saudi government oil company, and ExxonMobil Corp. Paraxylene is a key material in polyethylene terephthalate (PET) saturated polyester polymers--the stuff of which the world's plastic bottles are made.

Friday, February 16, 2007

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Beijing Goes Underground

Fulbright scholar Jason Lee was overheard at a house party last month waxing enthusiastic about one of Beijing’s newest subway lines. “I mean, listen to this. I’m going to be able to go from Zhichun Lu to everything I’d wanna do: Gongti, Guanghua Lu, Guomao … ”

Lee’s ebullience didn’t exactly rub off on the party’s other guests, but his excitement is understandable. While only subway lines four, five and ten will be finished for the Olympics, officials recently announced that when the subway expansion is complete in the year 2020, it will include 22 lines and stretch to 561 kilometers, overtaking London’s and New York City’s subways as the longest metro system in the world.

But the city isn’t stopping there. Last month it made two other groundbreaking announcements: First, Beijing’s strategic underground city (the network of tunnels that currently weave beneath the Tian’anmen area) is currently being expanded so that by 2012 it will occupy 20 million square meters, making it the world’s largest network of its kind. President Hu Jintao has called it an “important strategic effort” for national security and for the safety of future generations.

Embarrassingly, Beijing’s underground city actually lags 40 years behind that of cities in Europe and the United States. In the event of a sudden large-scale disaster or war, shelters in the Western world can hold 80-90 percent of local citizens, while Beijing’s underground city can currently only provide safety for 8-10 percent of its people.

Another development flying below the radar (unless you attended November’s International Conference on Underground Space): Beijing is exploring the possibility of tripling the city’s 30 million square meters of public underground space “to ease ground traffic congestion, land use tension in downtown areas, and environmental problems.” The plan, proposed by the Beijing Urban Planning Commission, includes construction of six underground expressways by 2020 to further ease traffic congestion, mainly within the Second and Third Ring Roads. Aside from the logistical problems of such a project, Duan Jinyu, director of the transport planning department at Tsinghua University, told tbj it’s misdirected simply because “people don’t feel pleasant in underground space.”

Nevertheless, Jason Lee is looking at the bright side of the underside: “The flexibility of this new transportation will give Beijingers a better lifestyle.” However his excitement over Beijing’s subterranean dreams is somewhat hypothetical, perhaps like the plans themselves. “Actually, I won’t still be around in 2008,” he revealed after the party. “But I live so close to where the subway could be.”

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Can't Buy Me

Buy nothing today?

From present one:

Date: Fri, 30 Apr 2004 20:24:07 -0400

Dear Present,
Reverend Billy was arrested on 56th and 5th after he resisted a gang of policemen who started shoving him, and his old-fashioned cheerleader bullhorn, out of the Disney Store. He had led us in there with the zeal of a fervent multinational CEO conquering a ripe market, except this is exactly what he isn't. A wavy mane of blonde hair on top of a white suit and a pair of black sneaks that can't stop bouncing, he had already attracted a crowd in front of the Equestrian statue near the Plaza with his anti-consumerist entreaties. "Brothers and Sisters, We Will not go into STARBUCKS to buy a LA-TTE! What happens to your money when you hand it over to them? You cannot TRACK it! It goes to the pockets of Howard Schultz! It goes to Ariel Sharon! It stays far away from the hands of the coffee pickers of the Nicaraguas, of the South Americas! Can I get a WIT-ness!" Cheers, shouts of “A-MEN!” Next, fifty of us, the (wonderfully festive and harmonic) Stop Shopping Choir, and about the same number of policemen marched behind Billy as he led us across the street to FAO Schwartz, where he declaimed against "WAR TOYS!" Part political and social activists, part revelatory circus of performance art, the parish continued its procession past the overweight shoppers with bags dangling and mouths ajar, delivering the Good News to them as we passed. By the time I was standing outside of the Coca Cola building, listening to another preacher describe the "killer" practices of that company in its manufacturing and union-busting (this part was made less clear by lack of a bull-horn, and the din of traffic and shopping bag covered onlookers), I realized an eager tourist behind me was aiming his camcorder right at my mug. But this was not your average Midwestern gawker: upon closer inspection, he had an NYPD pin affixed to his jacket. Suddenly I felt daring, like a shirtless spring breaker in front of MTV producers: I put on my most concerned-looking face and delivered my own on-camera plea to "put down that camera, and live your own, real life!" Nevertheless, this surveillance persisted in the Disney Store by other "tourists"; there was much to capture. As the Reverened pulled out his megaphone near a large display of stuffed animals and shirts to proclaim the fact that "Your children wear these clothes--Other children make these clothes!", cops began to shove some of the assembled out of the store, their hands twitching over plastic cuffsand pepper spray holsters. It was understandable in some ways, but it was also infuriating: a policeman I and another fellow spoke with afterwards could give no explanation for Billy's arrest, though he did suggest that he had committed a crime of some sort. One charge I heard was "blocking the sidewalk".

As some of us later stood on the corner of 55th and 5th, a heavy-set man with a small face and a trench coat fixed his digital camera on our group. There was no badge but there was also no mistaking this man's familiarity with the words "perp" and "stake-out." Tell me, is anti-consumerist, anti-supercorporate activism really a threat in this day of international terrorism? Or perhaps the better question is, is there any longer a difference between a group of terrorists armed with guns and knives trying to destroy a government and a group of concerned people armed with flyers and songs hoping to make fun of (and, god, have fun, at the expense of) multinational corporations? Perhaps there’s not much of a difference so long as consumerism means being American, “free” speech refers more to dollars than to liberties, and every day our government looks a lot more like one of those big name-brand corporations

/Alex p.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Blogspot is Back in China

Or should I say, for now. They opened the firewall for blogspot some weeks back (along with Wikipedia!) just before they closed it again, and more strictly than before. But blogspot is now allowed once again, a fact evidenced by this very post. (Hello, again!)

It never made sense to me that China would block blogspot without blocking the dozens of other blogging sites. Perhaps it had something to do with blogspot owner Google's unwillingness to play ball with government censors as yahoo had done in notoriously releasing the name of a blogger to the government; but has Google's policy changed?

In fact, that's the worst thing about the censorship: we don't know. The censorship is so random, and it's so hard to know what will be censored, or why or when, that it feels almost calculated to be random. That of course creates the sense that the government has a wide r reach than it really does, and generally messes with your head. You'll never know what site will be blocked, because the government's always on the move, always got its eyes out.

It's the internet version of Foucault's panopticon: power all-visible yet always unverifyable.

... the major effect of the Panopticon: to induce in the inmate a state of conscious and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power. So to arrange things that the surveillance is permanent in its effects, even if it is discontinuous in its action; that the perfection of power should tend to render its actual exercise unnecessary; that this architectural apparatus should be a machine for creating and sustaining a power relation independent of the person who exercises it; in short, that the inmates should be caught up in a power situation of which they are themselves the bearers. To achieve this, it is at once too much and too little that the prisoner should be constantly observed by an inspector: too little, for what matters is that he knows himself to be observed; too much, because he has no need in fact of being so. In view of this, Bentham laid down the principle that power should be visible and unverifiable. Visible: the inmate will constantly have before his eyes the tall outline of the central tower from which he is spied upon. Unverifiable: the inmate must never know whether he is being looked at at any one moment; but he must be sure that he may always be so. In order to make the presence or absence of the inspector unverifiable, so that the prisoners, in their cells, cannot even see a shadow, Bentham envisaged not only venetian blinds on the windows of the central observation hall, but, on the inside, partitions that intersected the hall at right angles and, in order to pass from one quarter to the other, not doors but zig-zag openings; for the slightest noise, a gleam of light, a brightness in a half-opened door would betray the presence of the guardian. The Panopticon is a machine for dissociating the see/being seen dyad: in the peripheric ring, one is totally seen, without ever seeing; in the central tower, one sees everything without ever being seen.

(Also see Rebecca MacKinnon's good post on human rights and the Great Firewall.)

Towering Ambitions

Ole Scheeren of OMA is driving the world’s largest architectural project, Beijing's CCTV+TVCC

by Alex Pasternack

Important architects tend to look and sound as ostentatious as their designs, which is why you may not immediately recognize Ole Scheeren. The angular 35-year old German was sitting in a coffee shop in the Central Business District recently, wearing a shirt with an open collar, a pair of jeans, a day-old beard on his schoolboy face, and none of those self-consciously eccentric glasses by which architects are sometimes known. Discussing his latest project, his speech was unassuming, thoughtful, and curious; he even arrived early. He hardly seemed, in other words, like the lead designer behind the CCTV Tower, the hulking loop of a building that, two years from completion, has already become both Beijing’s controversial new icon and the world’s biggest architectural marvel.

“If you would preoccupy yourself with feeling so great about what you’re doing, there is an implicit loss of criticality vis a vis what you’re doing,” he says in his light, clean European accent about CCTV going to his head. “And in the case of this project it would be a fairly fatal to the momentum. It requires total attention at every point at time. There’s very little time to think about it.”

Nor does the project give Scheeren much use for the sort of rhetorical flourishes for which architects, like his famous Dutch mentor and co-architect on the project, Rem Koolhaas, are sometimes known. And when Scheeren does say things like “this may be the most complex building ever built,” he’s not kidding.

Since it was approved in an orgiastic moment of development in 2002, the 450,000 square-meter glass and steel China Central Television headquarters literally twists the conventional skyscraper into a gravity-defying three-dimensional trapezoid in the impossible style of M.C. Escher. Nearby sits a companion building, the public-oriented Television Cultural Center (TVCC), which resembles a cubist boot. They’re a feat of architectural gymnastics (and careful diplomacy) that has left many confused, worried, or downright disbelieving. One might just be just as incredulous about the architect’s age.

“Being 35, in a lot of professions, you’re a grandfather already, but in architecture you’re seen as being young,” he says. Raised by an architect-father, and harboring building aspirations early on, “in a way I have the feeling that I started quite early, so I don’t feel quite that young anymore.” But, how prepared could he be to manage a team that at one point exceeded 400 architects and engineers? When I marveled aloud that this project would be the biggest, in terms of scale, that he or OMA had even built (his last project was a triplet of Prada stores in New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco), he replied with a slight grin: “Actually, it’s one of the largest buildings ever built.”

Scheeren isn't worried about his relative lack of experience. “First, you have to ask what type of experience is relevant to run a project like this. It’s a project that exceeds the scale of anything done so far, and so experience is not valid in the traditional sense,” he says, without a note of pretension. “And it takes an enormous energy that you can hardly generate in your 60s,” an age group that Koolhaas recently reached.

“The point is to say you don’t know how it works, and don’t know how the context works, and to develop a structure that allows change within the process.” It turns out that that sort of radical thinking informed the design all along, from its hastily-imagined loop to the lattice external steelwork that supports the building. But such uncertainty—and at such cost, with an initial reported budget of $700 million—didn’t sit well with either critics or the authorities. A year after a contract was signed, the government ordered a review of all new buildings, and (so rumor went) the television building was to be taken off the air. For one and a half years, the CCTV construction site sat untouched. When the cranes rose again, following a rigorous official review, the budget had reportedly grown to $1.2 billion. But Scheeren wasn't fazed.

“The thing is, we never stopped working on the project,” Scheeren says. Continuing work in offices in Beijing, Rotterdam and London not only helped to maintain the schedule, Scheeren maintains, but also preserved precious morale, which is hard-won in a profession so vulnerable to the kind of political shifts and opaque bureaucracies which are rife in China.

But Scheeren also acknowledges that such a daring design could not have been undertaken anywhere but in Beijing, with its racing-car economy and cosmopolitan aspirations. This is not to indicate that China is a “wild east,” a vertiginous playground for foreign architects to test-drive their imaginations, he says. “I find that repulsive.” On the contrary, China’s progressive architectural vision and ambitious plans have placed on the architect a particular burden and opportunity: nothing less than helping usher in a kind of revolution-through-design. “It’s not a condition you can take lightly,” he says of building in China. “It’s a chance to make yourself part of a progressive environment.”

To be sure, the CCTV project—with its radical shape, recreation areas named the “fun belt” and the “fun palace,” and a section specially designed for visitors—seems an unlikely undertaking for one of the world’s largest propaganda machines, and a government famous for concealment. This (disturbing) irony hasn’t gone lost on Scheeren. Indeed, he practically revels in it.

“[Building] CCTV was seen from the beginning as a tool for change from inside the company,” he says, alluding to a cadre of risk-taking “younger people leading CCTV, lying beneath the skin of the older generation,” who championed the design. When he talked about the building recently at an exhibition in its honor that he curated at the Courtyard Gallery and soon to move to New York’s Museum of Modern Art, Scheeren practically avoided discussing the design, focusing instead on what the building’s open layout might mean to the everyday Beijinger, and for a 21st century China. “It’s a change that exists beyond the realm of architecture. I’ve always been interested in that.”

Indeed, dramatic change and breadth have been the motif of Scheeren’s work as much as his life. It was an early introduction to the profession through his architect-father and his first commission at age 21 that initially burned him out. For a while, playing rock music seemed more appealing. “You’re so close to it, it’s uncomfortable,” he says of his architecture pedigree. Things changed when he heard a presentation by Rem Koolhaas, whose own interests beyond architecture (he had once been Holland’s most promising young screenwriter) reignited Scheeren’s interest. “I realized that someday I wanted to work with him.”

After butting heads with teachers at the design academy in his home town, the south-west German city of Karlsruhe (“They were impressed but not in a pleasant way…At the end of the year, all my models were destroyed with the excuse that they fell off the shelf”), Scheeren decided to continue his studies in London. On the first day of school however, he found himself driving to Rotterdam, where OMA’s main office is located, in a friend’s borrowed car. It mattered little that when he woke up at a local youth hostel, he found his car ransacked: he marched over to OMA with all that remained, the clothing on his back and his portfolio.

“In retrospect, it’s hard to figure out how it all happened,” he says as he stares at the table, slightly smiling. “Maybe I had the feeling that I had nothing else to lose.” Koolhaas threw Scheeren onto a project that seemed on the verge of failure, with two weeks until deadline. The 18­-hour days paid off, he says proudly. “It was the only competition oma had won in a year and a half.”

But the restless Scheeren left OMA almost as quickly as he had arrived, taking a graphic design gig in New York, and reenrolling at school in London. But he stayed in touch with his mentor-cum-colleague Koolhaas. When the designer Muccia Prada called on OMA to design some new boutiques in the U.S., Koolhaas called Scheeren. “I never wanted to go back to Rotterdam,” he says, “but the project was so intriguing.”

When OMA bid on the CCTV project in 2002 (declining an invitation to make a proposal for Ground Zero), Scheeren made his biggest shift yet, from designing clothing boutiques to constructing one of the largest buildings in the world.

Having relocated to Beijing that year, Scheeren discovered that the first challenge was figuring out how to explain the wacky design. The initial model for the building, which, cast in plaster, looked more like a deranged sculpture than a television headquarters, proved unimpressive to some of CCTV’s leadership. “It’s a very direct, literal culture and that’s an issue that you have to deal with when you enter the realm of conceptual issues,” Scheeren says. He and Koolhaas scrambled to build a more literal, transparent model, and weeks later a contract was signed.

Aside from not having enough time to study Chinese (“it’s the biggest frustration of being here… My plan is that before the building is finished. I need to get a whole step ahead”), Scheeren is still adapting to the process of constructing buildings in China, which “at such a breathtaking speed, cannot happen in a fully coherent matter.” But he hopes to inspire some change, too.

“I think part of the role of architects coming to build here is not only to bring a different sense of design but to try to step back and urge them,” planners, developers, clients and contractors, “to open up more lines of communication.” Scheeren says he aims for slower, careful consultations when proposing projects, like his successful bid for a new Beijing Books Building and a Prada “epicenter” store in Shanghai (When we met, Scheeren said OMA’s chances to renovate the stock exchange in Shenzhen were “promising.”)

Though the CCTV Tower’s exterior design work is essentially complete, and the first floors have started to peek above the scaffolding, Scheeren and his 20-person Beijing office have shifted to working on the building’s interior. And then there’s the job of still convincing people that the building is actually going to be built.

“Many people still don’t believe it’s going to happen,” Scheeren says, with some exasperation, but also a bit of delight. The truth is, neither can he.

“You think it can’t happen. And then you finally see the piles being driven into the ground, and the steel rising,” he says, with a faint smile. “These are the only moments that you believe that it is really happening.”

this article was published in that's Beijing magazine (tbjHome), August 2006

Thursday, October 19, 2006


Some places I really like in Hong Kong


Old School
2/F 17 Yun Ping Road
Causeway Bay
2983 2130

This unmarked upstairs cafe, floating above a corner of Causeway, is cool for school. Kat took us there originally, and she had been taken by some local friends of hers, who had in turn been taken by their friends. It's that sort of place, off the map, but it's also unlike any sort of place at all--except for a homeroom you never had. And with tasty cakes and things. My favorite bathroom in the shopping mall city.


2/F 40 Lyndhurst Terr

Good used books, especially if you're headed to China for a year.


White Noise Records
1/F, 4 Canal Road East
Causeway Bay

Best record shop + place to sit and look at big glossy art magazines.


G/F. 9, Dragon Road, Tin Hau.
Tel: 254 99 2564



38-44 D'Aguilar St
Lan Kwai Fong
2810 1510

If I have to tell you... Better make sure you're a model, preferably from Ukraine or Finland, or tell the bouncer your name is Ilya or Austin.



No woman is an island.

Saturday, August 12, 2006

The For-Building City

It was largely whimsy that drove me here after an internship in Hong Kong. But all roads were leading to Beijing; I'd spent a week here with my dad some weeks before I decided to return, which wasn't merely enough time, I have some great family here (cousins Jonathan and Alexa and their newly 2-year old daughter Ava and uncle-in-law Roger are here) who have been my guiding lights, and friends who've told me to come even as they've issued stern warnings about the place. I was eager to escape Hong Kong, and be part of a city that didn't have the feeling of a modern airport, and I didn't feel like returning to New York.

While in Hong Kong—which is just China's most recent (re)acquisition, but can feel like London or NY—I read of a red dragon that was changing, feeling the pressure that comes with 9 percent year on year economic growth, and the pressure that comes with thousands, millions of people who are losing their homes and farmlands to the factories and dams meant to sustain that growth. I heard and saw a bit of how Beijing, readying for the Olympics, was changing so fast in such (relatively) new ways. Children in backwater Kentucky were studying Mandarin. Either way, I was already over here, and when would I get to come back? I was hungry for more. I asked my cousin for advice and his response was titled "Stay!" Ok, two more months in Asia. I was supposed to return to New York at the end of June. An email in my brain was titled, again, stay.

The hardest part of being here has not been the language or the culture shock, although those have been pretty hard; it's been the environment. I mean the pollution, to which I was quite rudely introduced on my first visit, back in April when the biggest sandstorm of the year struck Beijing, and which has ever since unbalanced my humors. The taste and smell and feel of smog in the air hint at an environmental crisis the government is just beginning to tackle; the ailments that come with all of this could turn anyone into an environmentalist. This week, I happen to be afflicted by a sore throat, runny nose, pounding headaches, upset stomach (the local alcohol will take some of the blame for that), itchy back, and sore feet. The latter is due to the other part of the environment I find less than charming, and it's sort of related to the first part: Beijing's physical environment, its actual spaces. Because of the sheer scale of the city, it's hard to get anywhere except by vehicle; not only are those vehicles great contributors to the city's pollution (the highest sulfur-dioxide levels in the world) but taking a cab or a bus in smoggy Beijing traffic can be an exercise in masochism. The subway is fine, but only fine; not only are its two lines seriously limited in scope and thus its stations few and far between, but in a city of 15 million people, it's always rush hour down there. And with irregular and relatively slow trains and only sparing socialist-style artwork, it's a poor imitation of Moscow's.

What I'm doing now, besides breathing in excessive amounts of carbon dioxide and all sorts of other junk, writing for magazines here, especially That's Beijing, a fine and substantial English-language monthly which is essentially Beijing's answer to New York magazine (plus light censorship—unlike foreign media, this magazine is overseen in part by the government). It's through that job that I've learned a lot about Beijing and met more than a few characters, like architects, swanky club owners, environmentalists and Dashan, westerner-in-chief (check the photo below--it's not me I promise). The gig was largely thanks to Jonathan (Hollywood Reporter bureau chief) and Alexa (AP reporter), who hooked me into the large journalism scene here. I'm also covering environmental stuff for, which is a nice green living website. I studied Chinese for a month, but after a big spate of writing and a trip to Hangzhou as a roadie for a local punk band that plays Johnny Cash covers (there's a long story there), knocked me off balance. In a good way. Now I'm studying on my own, but I'll need to return to class if I'm going to learn. In the meantime, I've taken to such things as traveling out to the Ming Tombs for a few days to judge an English language competition as a "foreign expert." I know right? I'm also trying to determine next steps. Will China be one of those? Hard to tell. It can be as appealing as it is repelling.

One wonderful and horrible feature of this country is that you can do whatever you want—as long as it doesn't include voting, protesting, looking at the BBC News website (and sometimes, my god, Google), distributing materials related to the [REDACTED] or writing news articles about natural or environmental disasters without government approval (disasters? No idea what you mean. –Ed.). What do you mean, Alex? For instance, you can get hired as an English teacher, or a "foreign expert" or a consultant or a editor or the president of a company just by showing off your English language skills or diploma from a good American school. Actually, you needn't have gone to the school, but merely mention its brand name—and if you need a diploma from that school, you can always get one printed here. You can walk around, run, or dine with your t-shirt pulled up above your belly without drawing the least bit of attention (except inside banks apparently). You can, if you're a foreigner, receive high praise for your Chinese skills from locals after poorly venturing a phrase or two in Chinese. You can stare at anything or anyone you want, though you must be ready to be stared at as well. You can (and might as well) do a crazy dance whenever you want to (or take all your clothes off onstage, as I saw a friend do recently after his punk show), because you are already always treated like a circus monkey. You can choose to eat a delicious lunch for the price of one American dollar, or you can nosh on an Alaskan black cod with baby bok choy and a cigar for the price of a used Chinese car. If you don't opt for the cod, you can speed your used Chinese car through intersections at high speed paying little heed to pedestrians or bikers, or, assuming you have not already been hit by a car while riding your nifty folding bicycle (I purchased one for half the price you'd pay in the U.S., and it was stolen at double the speed), you can ride your bike anywhere you want without wearing a helmet. If you get hit, you can get high quality care for a pile of money, or, if you're like most people in China, you can lie down on the side of the road for as long as you want, and maybe draw a crowd, while withering away. For a bit more than the price of a car, you can start building your own house (after you have demolished someone else's), or you can spit anywhere you'd like, which you'll have to do if you don't want to taste construction site dust or the Gobi desert all the time. You can buy anything you need at a bargain, and you can sell people items that either don't "work" or aren't "real." You can go around making quotation mark symbols with your hands while speaking without being ridiculed, and you can go for months without knowing the least bit about American pop culture. Or without being in touch with people back home. But mind you: such permissibilities don't necessarily extend across borders. If I've been out of touch it's partly because of distraction. And all of this free-for-all and whirling newness has knocked me off my bearings somewhat.

For instance: my new neighborhood—and my old neighborhood, if you count my first weeks in town when I lived with my cousins. Here we have a convenient portrait of this do-as-you-wish (but, to be fair, not laissez-faire) society. The road is Ya Bao Lu, and if you were to get knocked out somehow (and this is far from improbable on Ya Bao Lu) you might awake to think you've been kidnapped, stuffed into a shipping container and all the dust that involves, and left on some side street on the outskirts of Moscow. The signage contains more Russian than Chinese, and more often than not, the Russian says things like "Cargo," "Shipping," "Train: Peking to Moscow," "Sauna," and so on. This is a land-locked port of sorts, a clearing-house for all things imaginable coming across the continents through central Asia into Beijing and vice versa. It's not completely clear to me why so much stuff is coming through, what that stuff is, and why it's coming through here. But nobody asks questions on Ya Bao Lu, unless the question is "DVD?" or "can I take you somewhere [in my rickshaw]?" or "change rubles?" These questions are asked in Russian by the many Chinese men who congregate on the streets, adding to the surrealism of it all.

Here are shipping depots that are more than shipping depots, fur coat stores that are more than fur coat stores, night clubs that are more than night clubs, minivans that are more than minivans, banyas that are more than banyas, brothels that are more than brothels, and other more thans that aptly demonstrate the transformative power of capitalism. At night long-legged ladies slip in and out of the clubs and 24-hour shops and cabs, while legions of shirtless Chinese men, a good number from the country's (almost) Islamic western region, Xinjiang, emerge to pack, stuff, tape and load boxes of anonymous goods onto trucks piled dangerously to triple their height and bound for a train, new silk roads, a boat, wherever. By day, the amount of tinted glass on the cars and vans rivals that on the eyes of the many once-athletic, middle-aged Russian men and their gaudily-dressed big bleached-blonde brides, both looking like they've just come from a mafia funeral held at the gym.

The gym is probably not the one at the St. Regis hotel, located not ten minutes away by rickshaw, along with the nicest pool, in a club to which my cousins belong and to which they retire every chance they get. Next to the St. Regis happens to be a range of western-style establishments: a Haagen Daaz café (the fanciest ice cream place I've ever seen), an Americana-laden TGI Fridays, and Pete's Tex-Mex, where satisfactory burritos rule the menu and Willie Nelson rules the stereo, on repeat. The neighborhood has historically been a foreigner-haven, due largely to the fact that you can't spit out the dust in your mouth without hitting an embassy. Not far from me are the embassies of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, the Democratic People's Republic of the Congo, and other lovely democracies. Actually, Iraq is just across the street from me.

Every night young Iraqi children play football in the alleys and playgrounds within the diplomatic compound in which I live. What is a diplomatic compound and why live in one? I would tell you but then I would have to bore you. To make it short, the place was an offer from Newsweek's bureau chief at a real bargain—1500 yuan down from 6000—but perhaps not when you consider it came unfurnished. However, there is, remarkably, an oven. There is also a real bathtub that says "American Standard" on it in the old cursive writing. Along with the "Norway, Land of the Vikings" mug, this place is pretty foreign—in terms of construction quality (it actually looks quite Soviet, but high Soviet), in terms of population of course, as well as in terms of what I've been used to. I last lived in a modest but still lovely apartment a few subway stops away with a great friend-of-a-friend named Claire, who's been in town off and on since high school. There we shared the traditional curiously-scented bathroom, with showerhead just above the toilet. Adorning the walls were a reprint of a soviet realism painting in which Mao is reposing in a wicker chair in the countryside and a monstrous, unironic and luminsicent photorealistic green and blue painting of a waterfall. A construction site was just across the street from us.

In fact, the whole city is under construction. The weekend I arrived, I accompanied a friend, Elizabeth, who was back in town after a three year stint here, tying up loose ends, to pick up a rug from her old house (it really tied the place together). Her old apartment happened to be inside the hutong, the traditional, low-slung, courtyard housing area that once made up the city as it spread out around the central Forbidden City. The hutong, mostly located within the second-ring road (the road around the Forbidden City being the first), are, like many things here, fast become an endangered species. My very first time here—that is, back in April, when I visited with my dad—I took my first stroll to the south of our hotel, into the neighborhood known as Qianmen. This just so happens to be one of the largest hutong graves in the city, as I soon discovered: dozens of shirtless workmen were lethargically chipping away at the old grey and brown brick and tile with their pickaxes and shovels. Later I watched a group of men yank on a rope, at the other end of which was what remained of a two-story façade.

Elizabeth's old hutong apartment happened to be still intact when we arrived. Actually, it was located in a historic area that had been protected, either before the destructive urge overtook Beijing, or after the fact, possibly with the realization that these hutong houses were a) historic and b) could be used to the cities advantage. While many are being and have been torn up piecemeal to make way for Beijing's future—swathes of shiny malls, office complexes, and apartment buildings named after swanky American neighborhoods, museums, or idyllic gardens—with the added explanation that, with their communal bathrooms and measly plumbing if any, the hutong presented health and safety hazards (not that that concern has ever bothered the government before), some of the hutong will remain. After all, foreigners with very disposable income are arriving in droves, foreigners with a yen to see traditional Chinese ways of life, and a yen, also, to (sort of?) build their own amenity-filled hutong houses and live the life themselves. And there goes the Chinese, out to housing complexes outside of the fifth ring road, and despite everyone's best intentions, there goes the hutong.

China's best intentions now involve building 200 cities of a million-plus people each by 2020, cooling rapid growth of 9 percent a year (but not by too much), and turning Beijing into the international cosmopole it aspires to be by the 2008 summer Olympics. That last word has of course become the mantra of possibility for everyone from officials to school children to construction workers to foreign inhabitants, some of whom, cousins included, also see the Games as a convenient moment to make the crucial "Clash" decision (should I stay or should I go?). Everything feels so provisional, so expectant, but also so uncertain. The word, looming over Beijing with its Olympian connotations, practically has a silent question mark at its end. This is the reason that few of the foreigners I know here feel any pressing need to plan more than a year or so in advance. I was strongly warned that Beijing sucks—I mean, that it sucks you in, the foreigner, with its offers of random opportunity and promises of exciting, ferocious change, to the point where it can be hard to knock the addiction. It's the addiction to danger and absurdity and exuberance and novelty and removal. It's living in a city built on a history unfathomably deep and withering in the face of a future unfathomably unknown, a city now circulating between the unreal drawings of remote architects, the impossible promises of a faceless autocracy, and the environmental dangers of an encroaching desert and encroaching countryside populations. Simultaneously, the verge of utopia and disaster. (Sorry a bit of Chinese exaggeration there!)

Yeah, it's easy to get lost and disconnect yourself in Beijing. It might be because the world's fastest expanding city—the megapolis, with its five new subway lines this year, and plans for a fifth, sixth, (and seventh? eighth?) ring road—looks like it's lost its memory. Forget nostalgia—with the hutong are also going what remains of the old Beijing. Of course, the Forbidden City and the Summer Palace and the Temple of Heaven and the Yonghegong temple are not going anywhere, and an expansive history is of course the country's biggest point of pride. But as the Olympics calls out to Beijing demanding billions of yuan and an infinity of bamboo scaffolding and steel, no one, no one in command, seems to be looking back. In Berlin, there was kind of a schizophrenic split personality, the corner with preserved war ruins and poor sidewalks and so many memorials to one direction and the futuristic Sony center in the other, bulging and shining. Here the schizophrenia is pointing in only one direction, covering up the dust and the dilapidation and age as quickly as possible. And in a way, who can blame them?

Some historians and urban planners can, especially the foreign ones (the same ones that are moving into the hutong perhaps). But hypocrisies aside (there are many), the urban planners have a good point to make: get rid of the past, but also discard the schizophrenia that might destroy the city. Already enormous in scale and population, already the world's dirtiest traffic jam with 1000 new cars added to its streets daily, Beijing is in desperate need of smart design that it's not getting. Instead of razing the hutong for new foreign complexes or office buildings that are separated from the city and uninviting and deterrent to foot traffic, make things open. Expand roads, make better-designed public transit, add green space. Limit cars. Don't go back to the hutong, but don't forget it either.

The bidding has stopped, the investement is slowing down (if the government can help it). But the building never seems to end. It so happened that the woman now living in Elizabeth's old hutong apartment is an architect—a profession that includes some of the city's biggest foreign celebrities now. Her particular project these days is perhaps Beijing's most ambitious new construction and soon-to-be-icon, the CCTV Tower. The name evokes images of gargantuan, angular and drab Soviet design and great ideological ambitions. The state-owned China Central Television is after all the world's biggest propagandist and maybe the world's biggest television company. The old CCTV tower is already that vision—ugly, boring, triumphal in a broken way, like Berlin's tragic TV tower.

The CCTV Tower she is working on is nothing like the old one, or like anything else. CCTV wanted a skyscraper to house all 10,000 of its employees. Architect Rem Koolhaas, brutal, insane Dutch visionary, and his Office of Metropolitan Architecture, twisted that skyscraper into an impossibly folded, leaning loop of a building that Borges might have described somewhere. It's crazy-looking, frustrating and awe-inspiring, and, from what I've learned (at length—I had the chance to interview the architect, not Koolhaas but his protégé, Scheeren, who's managing the project here) it's kind of a logo for the city's more forward-thinking ambitions (public access, public space) I think, and for what's so thrilling about being here now. (Also see the new "bird's nest" stadium, below).

Sometimes it's exciting in a not so fun way. For instance: visa renewal. Not wanting to deal with that hassle not long ago, I planned a quick escape to Mongolia. From there I could reenter with a new visa, and see some of Genghis Khan's old dunes and steppes. The other ways of renewing your visa, as far as I know, are good illustrations for the ways one does anything in China. The first way is to go to the Public Security Bureau and stand on one line for ten minutes before realizing that you must first fill out a form which happens to be hidden on a desk in a corner of the room and which requires a photograph that can be made after you stand on another line, after which you wait on yet another line to deliver the form to a immigration official but not before you've gone back downstairs to photocopy your residence permit (getting which is another adventure). When that's all done, they ask you to come back in a week, and wait on two more lines (one to pay for the thing the other to actually get it). The other option is to search the back of one of the expat magazines for a phone number, the voice on the other end of which promising to get you any sort of visa you want for a price.

So not wanting to pay the price, and eager for the adventure, I got on a train in Genghis Khan's one-time capital and headed for the capital of his own country. It was after all the 600th anniversary of his empire, and it was a happy coincidence that three friends (Sarah, Abigail, and David, whose nom de voyage was s.a.d.) would be coming to Mongolia via trans-Siberian train shortly. I rushed to the station (well not quite, there's another long story of lines and such here) and purchased a ticket for Ulan-Bator. Strange and decaying, and only recently entering what might be called the developed world, the city was awash in Soviet concrete and newer cheap construction of the colored-glass-and-tile sort—the dusty question mark at the end of what was the world's most influential empire.

On the surface however, it is mostly a living relic not of the Mongols influence but the Russians. The most memorable building today is the gargantuan cultural center, located near the central Sukbahtor Square; more than anything, it resembles a Stalinist cruise ship, with a fake golden trim at its towering deck, and barren columns running along the bow. What windows there were were either barred or dark yellow with dust. It would have seemed empty if not for the modern art museum I discovered in one of its atria, and the musical performance that was taking place the first day I visited, complete with women in feathers and men in Mohawks and leather. Some young fashionable men stopped me as I wandered through an alleyway nearby; they turned out to be local hipsters, and one of them, a DJ at the local rock radio station, which was also housed in the building, proudly gave me a brief tour by map of the city. Yurts dotted the edges of town and the edges were not far from the center; unlike china, expansion was not in the cards, not now. The folk cultures and its trappings—wrestling, herding, riding—were alive and well inside the city, where preparations were ongoing for the annual Nadaam festival, a cultural extravaganza held every July. Because of the anniversary, this one would be especially important. We escaped quickly to the countryside to ride horses, live in a yurt, drink salty Mongolian tea, and confound ourselves by standing on hilltops staring at deeply-colored green landscapes under blue and pink and red skies all on a scale I've never seen. Overtaking one green hill or seductive sand dune only to encounter another on the opposite side, one can imagine—again paraphrasing Becker—the temptation to own the world that must have overcome Chingis Khan.

Of course, the Tatars and the Russians sought to undo not only that temptation but the very legacy of Khan with their own conquering in the past two centuries—the most bloody landmarks of which involved a rogue and insane Siberian baron and a deputy of Stalin who carried out an order no other Russian emissary could: to execute thousands of monks, along with their monasteries. The least populated country in the world got no help from its other neighbor, the most populous country in the world, which has been no less fierce, but perhaps more clever, with its own imperialism. The train to Tibet just opened—cousin alexa went on the first voyage as the AP's correspondent—a symbolic and literal assertion of China's control over that region. The more nationalist of the Uighurs over in Xinjiang—China's northwest and largest territory—from which the people who hang at the Muslim dives on my street come—have lately been rebranded as Muslim terrorists. (A few were actually captured in Afghanistan and sent to Guantanamo for a few years before the US realized they were harmless; instead of returning them to China, where they would face certain death, the US repatriated them to Slovenia or something.) The Xinjiang region is a lovely mix of nationalities and ethnicities and foods and un-Chinese languages. But China has banned the teaching of Uighur, and is fast flooding the place with Han settlers. I'm planning on getting out there soon myself.

Ok enough of this long march; let's have a nice long August. Please let me know where and what and when you are.

Saturday, May 20, 2006

Notes from a distance

Yes, get out of Hong Kong, but not before you really see it. It's a gorgeous place, and I'm not just saying that because I'm in the world's biggest, most polluted wasteland/futuropolis (and the greatest), but because it is in absolute terms. Even if so much is surface, that surface is great, and even penetrable if you let it be. NT, Kowloon backways, the Walled City, harbor front, Sheung Wan, Lantau, the elusive and maybe forever extinct Tiger Balm Gardens, Shek O, (O!) Lamma, the views of city against forest, your hoods. Just the shinyness and the colors. Maybe, hopefully, you've figured this out already. I wish I had made myself see more of it. Maybe, probably (it always happens to me), you dont see what you've got until you let it go.