Beijing Briefs Chan Koon Chung

Who Said You Have to Love Me   I once wrote that among all major Chinese cities, the most livable for people like me is Taipei. But Taipei, where I lived for six years and had learned to love, is a place where the world forgets. Even Hong Kong, where I grew up, has been sidelined since it was reclaimed by China in 1997. Now all eyes are on China.     A casual visitor to Beijing can easily detect a sense of unnamed euphoria in the air. People in Beijing seem to have big ideas about the future, their own and the country’s. They think they are on to something interesting – let’s call it the dramatic sense of history-in-the-making, which in this case loosely means the rise (again) of China.      Everyone vaguely believes, even by default, the fortune of the world will fall on his lap one way or another. All one has to do is be there.   However, Beijing could be tough. So everyone complains: sandstorm, smog, soot and the impossible traffic, to name a few among the many often-cited shortcomings. By any account Beijing is not a lovable -- some would say not even a livable -- city. But if so, why is one still here? Apparently, nobody wants to miss the show.   What is relieving is when outsiders complain about the city, the locals often join the harangue, or at least do not seem to mind, and even if they put up an argument in defense of their city, they do it half-heartedly.  Maybe they themselves were from some place else. Beijing is China’s internal migration city par excellence. In some circles, “true” Beijingers are in the minority. They are so used to intruders that intruders become invisible.  Beijing is not unfamiliar with the culture of the intruders – the Qidans, the Jurchens, the Mongols, the Manchus, the Nationalists, the Japanese, the Communists, and now the new phalanges of economic migrants, from expatriates to new rich from the provinces to peasant laborers. It would be historically correct to say that barbarians built Beijing ….  A Desert Strewn with Oases   A mere generation ago, most of what is now called Chaoyang District on the northeast side of the city was considered the countryside, farm lands, by long-time Beijingers. In the early 1960s, this area was designated for the re-location of new international embassies. Then came the Reform and Opening in the 1980s that welcomed back the business expatriates, turning Chaoyang into the most cosmopolitan part of Beijing. Apart from major embassies, it is now the site of the Olympic Games and the Central Business District, to be punctuated with signature architectures such as Rem Koolhaas’ controversial Lego-style China Central Television headquarters. Like the four older, “historic” districts at the core of Beijing, Chaoyang is already quite spectacular to look at, assuming you are being chauffeured through on one of its wide driveways.   Beijing has always aspired to be a spectacle, a majestic place that sends awe to its denizens as well as its visitors. But unlike compact cities such as New York or Tokyo, Beijing adores stand-alone mammoth buildings and insists on long distance between them. It discourages walking, much less idle strolling, and it knows no art of place-making. The new Beijing is an heir to its imperial past that shows a blithe lack of concern for plebeian convivial needs.   Don’t get me wrong, Beijing was and still is endowed with the biggest cornucopia of gems and treasure from Chinese civilization, both ancient and contemporary. No matter how bad we have had trashed them and wasted them, Beijing still owns the highest quota of goodies in any one city. It is without doubt the cultural capital of China.   What I mean is that the bone-dry Beijing is like a desert strewn with life-nourishing oases. As oases, they are dispersed and cut off from each other, and you can insist on walking from one to another only on your own peril.   What is most amazing is that the four older districts, prestine and defined by the majestic city wall as late as the 1950s, have been trying to transform themselves following the same logic that has begotten the newly developed Chaoyang.   The old walled city of Beijing used to be like a big box containing many small boxes of various sizes, to paraphrase a line from a character in Dream of the Red Chamber, a classic novel set in Beijing.   During Qing Dynasty, the walled city was a conurbation of two walled rectangular areas, the aristocratic "inner city" on the north and the common-folk "outer city" on the south.   At the center of the northern part was the quadrangular Forbidden City of the emperors, completed with palaces, shrines, imperial gardens and guards’ quarters. It was surrounded by stately domiciles of nobles and dignitaries, and then wrapped on the outward zone by the residence of chosen citizens, which in Qing Dynasty meant the Manchu tribesmen. Residential compounds were called Siheyuan, literally meaning a yard surrounded by four buildings, rectangular in formation, with front doors uniformly opened at the southeast corner. Some siheyuans were larger than others by having more center yards and thus more buildings. All were then squarely aligned along alleys called hutongs, which checkered each other.   The southern, common-folk part of the walled city, the Han-predominant districts, had smaller, shabbier siheyuans and narrower, messier hutongs, but the configurations were essentially the same.   The inner and outer walled cities combined were about the seize of Paris of early twentieth century, and was largely intact in its Qing dynasty form when the Communists seized Beijing in 1949 without a fight – the Nationalist general was persuaded to surrender in order not to do harm to the historic city.  Irredeemable destruction started under Mao, who was reported to say that he anticipated a day when he could see factory chimneys everywhere from the inspection platform of Tienanmen.   However, it was only in the last two decades, the era of “Reform and Opening”, that Beijing was overhauled almost beyond recognition.   Both ruptures, Mao and the Reform, were carried through with the intention to modernize Beijing.   As a result, Beijing is Paris no more. What is most bizarre in hindsight is, instead, Beijing almost ended up becoming Brasilia, only that it was not built from scratch, but by demolishing what were already there for hundreds of years….  The Bohemians Are Coming   Before I came to Beijing from Hong Kong in 1992, I was under the impression that Beijing was a socially rigid and culturally conservative place. I knew it was a political center and a historic city, and through books, I also learned about its famous universities and I had a general idea of the lifestyle of old-time Beijingers. However, nothing had prepared me for the exuberance of its contemporary culture and, to use a trendy term, creative industries. What is more surprising in a pleasant sort of way is its being a paradise of bohemianism, attracting avant-garde artists, rockers, underground film-makers, experimental stage performers, photo-journalists, poets and intellectuals from all over China.   For the budding Chinese bohemians who find life restrictive in their villages or provincial towns, their next stop is Beijing. They have no better place to go, because contrary to the general impression of the outsiders, Beijing turns out to be the most tolerant metropolis in China, partly thanks to the unruliness of its motley denizens.   The bohemian culture is making a great contribution to Beijing’s eager claim as a cosmopolitan world city. In recent years a bohemian colony in the city’s northeast, the 798 Factory cluster, has fired international media’s imagination…..  A Tale of Two Cities in the Gilded Age   The glossiest magazines in China are Cosmopolitan, Elle and Vogue, Chinese editions. Guess where their editorial and sales offices are? You’ve got it, Beijing and Shanghai.    Beijing and Shanghai are often mentioned in one breath. The residents of the two cities know it. Professedly they dislike each other, or at least they think they are unlike each other. But since they are each other’s only formidable competitor, they take each other seriously. Theirs is not the deep-seated superiority they often show to people from lesser cities, or worse, countryside. Theirs is a genuine visceral repugnance that you only reserve for your sworn enemy, in this case it is a shade more mutually excoriating than between East Coast-New York and West Coast-Los Angeles, but also less leaden than Moscow versus Saint Petersburg.   The difference between the two cities however are often exaggerated. After decades of leveling Communist rule, both had benefited from the Reform and are now among the most affluent and cosmopolitan cities in China, excepting Hong Kong and Macau Special Regions. Trends and ideas originated from the two are eagerly copied in other parts of the country. The closest number three, Guangzhou, does not command the same awe from the rest of the country.  Beijing has been the capital for a good part of the past 800 years, while Shanghai is a village by the sea 150 years ago. When western powers impacted on China in a big way after the Opium War around mid-nineteenth century, to Beijing it meant a clash of civilizations and thus its journey into modernity was tortuous and often painful, while to Shanghai it was a natural birth and the coming of age of a modern, albeit mongrel, city.   In the last century, both cities had their moments of glory and humiliation, but Shanghai was more in the limelight after 1927 when the Republican government of the Nationalist Party moved the capital to Nanjing in Jiangsu Province, inevitably dimming Beijing.   However, after 1949, the Communists once again picked Beijing, to which Shanghai must yield. Though remaining an industrial powerhouse, Shanghai no longer set national agenda.   In 1992, the then patriarch Deng Xiaoping gave a green light to Shanghai to move on. It revived in no time to be the New York of China. Well, not quite yet. Shanghai now is glamorous, but if you want to be a national household name, you have to make it in Beijing. Shanghai flaunts money and celebrates fame; Beijing defines money, fame AND power.    Subsequently, long-time expatriates are often divided into two camps, the Beijingphiles and the Shanghaiphiles. Most would agree that to newly arrived expatriates, Shanghai may provide a softer landing. Shanghai looks more like New York in its cityscape, combining modern conveniences with a colonial old-world allure within a comprehensible urban grid. One would be tempted to say Shanghai, at least Puxi on the west band of Huangpu River, is lovely, even voluptuous, which can hardly be said of Beijing. Beijing, well, like it or not, is China.  Beijing Is China, or Is It?       In China, one cannot avoid encountering ideas that sound like a contradiction in terms, antinomies, or oxymorons – socialist market economy, democratic centralism, a multi-party system led by the Communist Party, socialism with Chinese characteristics, and the latest entry -- peaceful rise. Maybe it is time to hold our breath for a moment and sanguinely try to take these oxymorons at face value; maybe they are indeed the key to understand the paradox of present-day China.  According to a legend from Tang Dynasty, there was once a sing-song girl named Jiangxu who could deliver two different tunes simultaneously, one through the nose, one through the throat. Nowadays everyone in the know in China sounds like Jiangxu, breathing in received oxymorons and spitting out earnest double-talks, and the quirky, recalcitrant Beijingers do it most and often do it with great wit….