Tuesday, January 3, 2012

A Beijing State Of Mind

Executive summary by Darmansjah

Beyond the futuristic architecture and Olympic hype lies a city quitely evolving, with art galleries taking over old factories and cafes staging literary festivals, by Fergal keane

As the city looms ahead, the sun blast through the morning smog. Watching it filter through the glass skyscrapers, I feel I am entering a forest of mirrors, struggling to recognize anything of the city I last visited 15 years ago. “Too big, too noisy and too fast,” I thin 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 interestected and encircled by the city’s relentlessly expanding network of highways; the bicycles of ole Beijing have been replaced by five million cars. On first encounter, this new Beijing can be a powerfully alienating place – the ultimate Asian mega city 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 hanggling 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 concret, glass and sharop angles. Luxury cars sweep  by crrying the new  masters of China. Some have made it through hard work, luck and busniess 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’ve been away, the buldozers 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’m slruping my way through launch 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 ita 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 onstreet 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.

Lijia Shang came to Beijing seeking opportunity in her twenties. the city's tall skycrapers, such as the China Central Television building (in the distance,far right), are emblematic of its continued enthusiasm for progress and modernity

Like so many of the capital’s residents, Lijia is not a native. She was frought up in the old imperial capital Najing, 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, thogh, as China’s economic reforms created opportunities for the young and energetic, she quit the indstrial drudgery and moved to Beijing.

in the hutong of beijing old men play xiangqi, or chinese ches

I met her when she was translating for foreign journalist at the beginning of her own career as writer; she was a young woman with a heartly 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.

these narrow old streets are also home to places like the Dali Courtyard, serving food from Yunnan province

That evening, at her home, writers and thinkers mingle and gossip. The dinner table is laden with dishes from all acrross 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 onc denounced by Maoist as politically incorrect because of its associations with imperial China; and steamed egg eith five spices, which is fragrant with the scent of aniseed and cinnamon.

At the summer palace, performers leave the stage after a display of traditional Chinese Dance

I sit beseide the hournalist Raymond Zhou. Whose combative columns in the China Daily rach millions of readers every day. Mild-mannered and genial in person but with a barbed wit, Zhou regularly scrutinieses the pressures of a city undergoing rapid transformation.

“China is gripped by hatred, which is almost line an out-of-control machin-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 gon nowhere.”


The bookworm is the city’s first English-langugae 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 times is on fas-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 plac eto establish – and occasionally lose – busniesses.’

stingkly modern national grand theatre

On the book festival’s opening in 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.

the summer palace gardens are filled with historic artworks

In Beijing, one is constantly struck byy thension 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 colse 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 artis and activist Ai Weiwei illustrates. Yet I feel I am witnessing something very special and enduring-a cultural flowering overlooked by a Western world absessed with economics. I head to District 708 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 expnase of ole workshops and factory compounds.

a rickshaw driver tales a breather as he waits for his next fare

But inside is a arren of artist’studios, galleries and performance spaces, as well as bars, restaurant and bookshops. There are striking Modernist sclupture and delicate ink paintings with artistic rooots that lie in a Chinese tradition of calligraphy dating back several centuries before Christ. Artist and poet Fan Zuey, 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 quicky. But as people become rich, they’ll need finer things in life and will learn to apprecate art more. It will drive art forward in China.


It is imposible to seperate food and art in Beijing – Chinese cuisine is a great national art form. “To the people, foo is heaven,” the old proverb says. In my time, I have sampled fiery pork dishes in the Cultureal 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 cafe, where cevotees proudly whowed me photo albums of their favourite stars. And I have eaten a dlicate turtle soup while watching dancers from the Dai ethinc group, of subtropical Yunnan porvince, flutter moth like to an ancient melody waiting forth from a battered cassete player.

artist and poet Sunlight's delicate calligraphy

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 honor of the great Beijing opera singer. Mei Lanfang, Mei always played women’s roles and is said to hve maintained his feminine appearance by avoiding fatty foods. The resident chef here helongs to tghe same family that cooked for Mei. The cooking stressed the original flavours of hte ingredients: there will be no hot spices to mask the stewed pig’s head, the meatballs and crab, or steamed fish.

long strings of dough are pulled over and over to form nodle

But my 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 stalholders 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-foth banter of cook and customer in accents from all over China.


In purely 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 froms across China’s vast hinterland in me of the greatest migrations in human history.

The Bookworm is a library, bar,cafe and bookshop combined, and runs a popular literary festival each year

According to a recent etimate, one in three Beijingers is a migrant worker and many are employed in service industries. They form a silent army that weeps the streets, waits on tables, and cleans the hotel rooms of tourist. The state has tried to stem the flow, steadly rolling back the number of residence permits given to newcomers. Yet they keep coming.

Artist and poet sunliht in her studio in District 798. an art space in a former electronics factory designed by East Germans in the 1950s

One of the great challenges they face is education. By one estimate, there are 300 migrant achools catering to 500.000 children. Bijing is the great crucible of social reinvention, and every child learns that hard work at school is a potential escape route from poverty.

Some of Beijing's traditional huttongs, narrow streets, have survived modernisation.

The road to Bowen School cut across dusty fields and through grim indstrial zones in southeast Beijing. As we arrive in the yard I spot two boys, aged about 10, racing ahead into the school. It’s 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’m greetd 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 reslish. Clearly much effort has gone sinto their learning.

I am here on a Beijing Buddy visit, one of several programmes runs by the Migrant Children’s Foundation, which pomotes cultural exchanges between foreigners and the schools. Helen Boyle, who runs the programme, has watched children grow in conficence: “When we started teaching over a year ago, they weren’t able or very willing to speadk at all and were quite shy. Now they can make sentences and are always very entusiatic.”

Konwing the Chinese fondness for legends, I summon up some Cltic 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.

The Buddhist Fragrance pavilion in the Summer Palace is a fovorite spot for school groups to learn about China's history

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 Chines national pride. Parties of schoolchildren pass by, doubtless being regaled with stories of inquitous oreigners in times past ; they pay me  no heed. I sit by the edge of the Kunming Lake and, beside hat wide expanse of water, after all the stimulation of the previous days, I feel a sense of pace.

Beijing are hawkers making youtiao, or doughnuts, a popular choice for breakfast

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 street you wander through yesterday dan tommorrow, 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.

Migrants children sit down to lessons at Bowen School 

Make It Happern
Beijing, it's sometimes hard to keep up with the speed of change in Beijing, but its imperial palaces, cherished cuisine and bargain-hungry shoppers are among the city's constants.

Getting There; Air china (airchina.com) flies direct from both singapore Changi international airport and Kualalumpur International airport to Beijing.

Getting Arround; Beijing's ever-expanding subway network is usually a faster option than taking a taxi through the traffic, with a flat 20p single journey fare. if taking a taxi, try to have your destination written down in Chinese beforehand.

Further Reading; Pack Lonely Planne's Beijing City Guide  or the pocket-sized Beijing Encounter.

The Final Word, " Be not afraid of going slowly but only of standing still" Chinese proverb.

Three Ways To Do IT
See. Browse the 708 Art District for free to see Beijing's Changing modern art scene (798space.com). Take a taxi from the centre (around US$5), or bus routes 909 (US$0.15; from  Dongzhimen subway station) and 403 (USD$0.15; from Beijing Station).
Sleep. with lovely rooms and a hutong setting, City Walls gives a taste of Beijing's traditional courtyard house, just a few minute's walk from the north gate of the Forbidden City (from USD$57; beijingcitywalls.com).
Eat; Jiaozi dumpings are a quinteessential Beijing snack. Nuige Jiaozi, east of the Forbidden City, dishes up dozens of varietes (dumpling portions from US$1.50; 85 Nanheyan Dajie, northeast of Tianamen Dong subway).
Do; Chaotic Panjiayuan Market is the best place to shop for arts and crafts. Vendors can start at ten times the real price so bargain hard (off Third Ring Rd, Jinsong subway). 

Mid Range 
See; behind the modern line of the Capital Museum  are first rate galleries of porcelain and other treasures (US$5; capitalmuseum.org.cn/en; closed mon).

Sleep; The Park Plaza is a good-value find, with a well-presented four-star tyle. it's close to Tiananmen Square, next to its sister hotel, the lavish Regent Beijing (from US$130; parkplaza.com/beijingcn).
Eat; Beijing Dadong Roast Duck Restaurant's bird is crispy, lean and delicious, and this plac is always teeming, so book ahead (half duck US$15; 1st fl, Nanxincang International Plaza, 22 Dongishitao Lu; 00 86 10 5169 0328).
Do; A xombination of bar, cafe, restaurant and library, TheBookWorm is run by Alex Pearson. There's also a roof terrace in summer (mains from US$11; beijingbookworm.com).

See; The splendid Summer Palace was the old imperial lakeside getaway. Modern Beijing residents keep up the tradition in great numbers on weekends and holidays (US$8; Yiheyuan;Xiyuan subway statopm)
Sleep; its extravagant foyer, through professionalm and assortment of gorgeous restauarant make the St Regis a marvelous five-star choice, it also has a 24-hour butier service if you are feeling lazy from US$405; stregis.com/beijing.

Eat; The elegant setting of Dali Courtyard, in a restored hutong house, makes it an idiylic place to sample the suble cuisine of Yunnan Province (set menus from US$16.67 Xiaojingchang Hutong; 00 86 10 8404 1430).

Do; Atmoshphere, on the 80th floor of the China World Summit Wing Hotel, is the highest bar in town - for now. Head here to see Beijing's cosmopolitan face and sweeping views tof the modern city while you sip coctails (shari-la.com).

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