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
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
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 treehugger.com, which is a nice green living website. I studied Chinese for a month, but after a big spate of writing and a trip to
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
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
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
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
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
Yeah, it's easy to get lost and disconnect yourself in
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,
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
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
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
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