Thursday, December 16, 2010

"No Construction without Deconstruction"

It’s one of those clichés of contemporary China reporting, at least of the big cities: the only constant is change. I don’t like thinking in clichés, and I like to find the exceptions, in any case. That’s one of the reasons I’ve been so drawn to the Gulou area, the Drum and Bell Tower, one of the last holdouts of old Beijing.

I mean, Qianmen is a joke. A reconstructed Main Street Qing Dynasty Disneyland, with Starbucks and a Canon store and all manner of luxury goods that people may or may not actually be buying. Off Qianmen proper, there are still alleys of sorts, with vendors selling Mao tchotckes and shoes and jackets and toys, but the surrounding hutongs, most of them are gone or abandoned: gray ghosts of half-destroyed buildings, walls surrounding rubble. This surprised me, a little, that there was still the faux wall, the plastic mural demonstrating how the area would be improved and “reconstructed,” which I thought had been put up in haste for the Olympics, to cover up what hadn’t been finished. But there are still vast tracts of destruction that haven’t been replaced by anything.

I’d heard of plans to “reconstruct” Gulou, replacing the hutongs there with something called a “Time Culture City,” complete with shopping mall. If you haven’t seen this area of Beijing, it’s hard to picture just how absurd this plan seems. Most of the buildings are original architecture, or close to it: one story, modest, made of gray brick. A shopping mall? Here? What could possibly be left of the neighborhood after that was done? The Drum and Bell Towers, surrounded by Starbucks, Cold Stone Creameries and Apple Stores?

Preservationists, both Chinese and foreign, howled in outrage. So much of what Beijing once was, is gone forever; was it really necessary to “improve” this one, last hold-out?

For once, the planning agency backed down. There would be no “Time Culture City,” no mall. Just a small museum.

Maybe a line in the sand had finally been drawn.

But a friend of mine who has a house in the area had warned me that the area had already seen a lot of demolition. All those food vendors on the west side of Jiu Gulou Street? Gone.

NOT the yangrouchuanr vendor! I wrote back. This guy made THE best mutton skewers in Beijing. He took pride in his work. Beautiful cubes of meat, heavily spiced, and he cooked them perfectly, turning them just so.

Afraid so, my friend responded. And the squid-on-a-stick guy too.

Still, I wasn’t prepared, when I finally saw it.

I and a friend were meeting other friends at my favorite hutong bar. The friend I was with is Chinese but not familiar with this neighborhood. I don’t think she understood why I started ranting about the destruction, about how angry I was. “Barbarians!” I believe I said. More than once.

Some of this demolition had already happened a year ago, the last time I was there, but the scope of razed landscape has expanded. All along the west side of the street, as I’d been warned. There are buildings behind blue construction walls that had been recently renovated, which makes no sense at all. And on the east side, several blocks from Andingmen south are…gone. Just a pile of dirt, a lunar landscape behind tin barricades.

A few blocks below that, things seemed normal. That was a relief. My alley shortcut to the Drum and Bell Tower plaza was there. And the towers themselves still stood, not that I expected them to be gone, but still, it was a relief, seeing them there, the plaza itself and the surrounding buildings unchanged.

On the southern terminus of Gulou Dong Dajie is another huge mountain of dirt.***

(***EDITED: If I'm reading the GT article correctly, this will be the location of the new "Time Museum." Actually this seems like a good location for it, and I'm hoping that I've got this right)

“Why?” I ranted. Why had they done this? Why do they need to tear down everything, to make it all new? I get building a strong and modern China, but where is all that pride in “5000 years of civilization,” anyway?

Walking down the street toward our destination, I had an even worse surprise.

I’d always noticed the military base on the north side of the street, in the middle of the stretch between the Drum Tower and Nanluoguxiang (a popular redeveloped alley full of shops). It seemed out of place in the neighborhood, but you could pretend it wasn’t there: the gate to it was small, with a single soldier standing sentry, and the little shops surrounding it hid most of what was behind them.

Now, it’s as though the base has nearly engulfed the neighborhood. It’s almost impossible to exaggerate how out of place these monolithic buildings are, with their red seals of government, surrounded by cranes promising even more cancerous expansion. It’s like some bad science fiction movie, where the oppressive imperial invaders have taken over some planet of peaceful locals, their machines and installations looming over everything, promising destruction if the natives step out of line.

Okay, I’m being dramatic here, and I realize that. I’m a foreigner, after all. It’s not my country, not my place. But it breaks my heart all the same. It’s especially painful, not just because of a bunch of old buildings being torn down. As a lot of the people who live in them will tell you, the hutong housing can be pretty grim. Slums, really. There are plenty of hutong residents who would take compensation, if it’s decent, and move to some nice high-rise, with modern plumbing.

But this particular neighborhood is alive with small, unique businesses, cafes, and clubs. It has a bohemian vibe and a vibrant street-life. Why here?

(Apparently many of the people who live and work near the installation are furious with the construction and the disruption it’s caused, and the paltry compensation they’ve received or have been offered to relocate).

“I can’t believe this!” I near-shouted to the friend I was meeting—I’d had to call him because I was so disoriented that I was afraid I’d miss the bar.

“Well, the only upside is that in thirty years, they’re really going to regret it,” he said.

“That’s not really an upside,” I replied, and he agreed that it really wasn’t.

I have to hope that what replaces the rubble is something appropriate to the neighborhood. Reconstructed hutong buildings are far far better than high-rises, and who knows? Maybe they will be an improvement over what was there before. Maybe.

At least my favorite bar is still there. Crowded, filled with a smoky fug from having the windows sealed against the winter cold. The owner’s two cats were there as well, one curled in a chair, which she refused to vacate, the other stretched out on top of a cabinet.

There, with my friends, a mixed group of Americans, Chinese and Brits, I felt what it was I love about coming here: the buzz, the unique mix of excitement and contentment I have when I’m engaged, listening to the stories of people who have something interesting to say, with whom I have something in common. And when I and two of my friends went out to the tiny courtyard, to get some fresh air, the owner brought me his coat to wear, so that I wouldn’t be cold.

It’s easy to forget what’s outside, when you’re in a little hutong bar, surrounded by friends.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Reporting from Swedish Town

Apologies for the paucity of posts — I have not had access to my own laptop for most of the trip. I have a bunch of stuff to share, and I should be able to start posting it in a couple of days.

Including a visit to Swedish Town! Just outside of Shanghai. Where my friend and I are drinking a "Fetish Coffee."

Thursday, December 09, 2010

Beijing, Greetings From!

I am sitting in a Starbucks in Haidian District, which those of you who've read my book might appreciate. But you know, they have good coffee and internet. Two of my life essentials.

I don't know why it is that I almost always end up in Beijing in the winter, but here I am again. I could smell the coal dust the moment I stepped onto the jetway, which puts me in a nostalgic mood. And makes my bronchi hurt, but oh well...

I hope to be blogging more regularly while I'm here, depending on internet availability. Unfortunately the Great Firewall is in one of its "Blogger is a danger to the Harmonious Society™" moods, so I can only get here when I am on my own laptop or at another computer with a VPN.

In the meantime, I'll be scouring the neighborhood (which I don't know well) for other life necessities such as Kleenex, a China Construction Bank, Yanjing Beer and dumplings...