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Archive for April 17th, 2008







No food reviews for a change. And, I enclose no tourist pics of temples or palaces: just an assortment of images of daily life as I strolled around Beijing yesterday. I was in a relatively tourist friendly part of the city: there are a few hostels and coffee bars where you can order and be understood in English (not always the same thing!) But amidst the trendy stores and Internet cafes you see the traditional music shop, a pretty girl selling pastries, a truly bizarre animated doll (if anyone knows what fantasy comic book that comes from, please fill me in!), and the glimpses into the entry ways of homes in the ancient hutongs.

Hutong are narrow streets joined one to each other: it is also used to refer to these neigbourhoods: traditional hutongs date to hundreds of years ago. Many of them have been demolished to make way for modern high rises which are slapped up, seemingly overnight. There is some nostalgia among those travelers who remember the old Beijing: a ragtag jumble of single storey homes with grey tiled roofs, enclosed courtyards and narrow alleyways, which stretched for miles. I get lost in them today – I cannot imagine what it would have been like 50 or 100 years ago.
Now I understand why in martial arts movies, the heroine is always running on top of buildings, leaping between rooftops – you simply cannot get your bearings from ground level as you turn from one dead end lane into a switchback which turns you around exactly in the direction you don’t want to go! Some of the hutong homes have been renovated at great expense, and have all the mod cons complete with Jacuzzi, grand red double entry doors and an Audi with dark tinted windows out front. With chauffeur no doubt.

Most however, were crowded, decrepit, lacked modern water and heating and the residents had to use the often odoriferous public loos around the corner. But some older folk prefer to stay in the familiar hutong with its close communal family living. The government has designated certain hutongs as protected sites, and are renovating for the visitors expected with the Olympics in August. Others were glad to leave the uncomfortable and inconvenient hutong in the city for the clean modern suburbs (a familiar pattern of urban migration and renewal).

Beijing has been on a mission of civic “self improvement” for some time: the new Capital Museum was started in 2001, new subway lines are underway (I will talk about subways at a later date – lots of Chinese innovation at work – we would do well to emulate), and in total, Beijing committed back in 1999 to invest 800 billion yuan in fixed assets such as bridges, roads, and infrastructure. In the official project update, the government committed that “the quality of construction projects, especially of residences, will be largely improved and heavy casualty rates should be effectively controlled”. Construction work is not conducive to longevity it seems.

The 2008 Olympics of course gives the effort the sense of urgency and focus which comes with a hard deadline and the prospect of the eyes of the world on their capital. I was asked by my host if I thought that Beijing was ready for the Olympics. My answer is a qualified “no”. I think that they have done a lot of things right and will continue to press on, at a furious rate, right up until the first plane of dignitaries’ and athletes touches down. There is so much of the city under construction; behind the curtain if you will that it is difficult to say what the impact is going to be at the final reveal. I have seen a few high rises and commercial developments that were apparently deemed nonessential and so are sitting half done and abandoned, not to be resumed until the main event is complete – perhaps they are not on the main limo route from the airport to the Games!
One of the pictures you will see is of a series of large trees being planted: that garden was a 2 storey red brick building last week. Every day, the park of trees, shrubs and roses which winds its way along either side of the major city Ring Road 2 moves inexorably forward. Bulldoze building, move in the earth, hand dig the holes for the trees, plant grass and presto – instant civic beautification. The impact is rather lovely. The beautiful flowering trees you see are planted right beside the equivalent of a 4 lane highway circling the city. So it is going to be beautiful, no question.

The Olympic buildings themselves are marvels of architectural vision and ingenious construction (not that you can get inside them yet, even if you are a journalist officially covering that story –again, more that is still behind the curtain) A number of formerly moribund museums have been shined up and are now open for viewing.

So what is still amiss and unlikely to be resolved in 3 months time? Well, it’s springtime in Beijing and the weather is temperate. But Beijing summers are notorious for heat, humidity and pollution. Indeed, even this morning, from the pedestrian bridge I could not see ½ kilometre up or down Ring Road #2. And it’s not fog. It’s not a noxious orange, but it’s not pretty. And if you were an athlete performing at the Olympic level, the prospect should be horrific. But I gather that they can make it rain here at will – so perhaps somewhere some team of elite scientists are conjuring up a solution. Don’t be surprised if it involves satellites.

Something that will also be difficult to address is the language barrier: Chinese is difficult to learn and there are just not many English speakers in Beijing. Street names change and are confusing to the English eye and ear. Buildings have more than one name. So getting around by cab is going to be challenging. It’s cute when the recorded message says: “Welcome to Beijing Cab”: but that’s the last English you will hear for the trip!

There are fixes of course: get the name of your hotel and destination written out for you in Chinese at your hotel; take the super efficient and clean subway system; get a Chinese map from a news stand and prepare to point and gesture a lot! Smile and prepare to be lost. Patience is more than a virtue here, it’s a survival technique!

There are different attitudes towards things like sanitation, cigarette smoke, horking on the street, pedestrian rights (none), personal space (none), just to name a very few : if visitors stay in the cocoon of the Westernized hotel, take the tour bus to and from the events and only eat in sanctioned watered down “Chinese” restaurants, or worse yet, American style joints, yes, they will have effectively avoided all contact with anything that might offend them. But where’s the fun in that!

My colleagues from the ad world would be familiar with the expression “dog and pony show”. It is usually a meeting, at most a day long event where the prospective supplier attempts to put on their best possible face for the prospective client. So the agency decorates their premises to showcase their work and make the client feel welcome, appreciated and at home. A presentation is given or a discussion ensues, which may look casual but is generally carefully scripted in a way that highlights their strengths and positions themselves in the best possible light based upon what they know of the client. After the coffee cups and welcome signs are cleared away, the agency usually reverts to whatever is its normal operating reality. The adrenaline rush of the “pitch” is impossible to sustain indefinitely. But the feelings of positive energy, confidence and satisfaction do linger.

So I think, that when the curtain is finally lifted on Beijing, this massive month long dog and pony show will play out very well. There will be gaffs, based upon misreads of the client, which in this case, is the world community viewing from home, and those on site. But it will look fine. Better than fine. It will be delivered on a grand scale, amazing in the breadth of achievement and we will have an intake of breath or 2 I am sure. And when the curtain goes down, I hope that some of the positive changes that the Olympics have inspired will take hold in Beijing. Now if they could just give the cab drivers a bilingual map of the city!

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