September 13-22, 2005
I spent one month in Beijing on my first trip in 1998, and had a few more short trips within the following nine months. Then, nothing for six years, during which incomes in China doubled, Beijing won the Olympics 2008, and the city invested enormous amounts to keep up with economic growth, increasing numbers of cars, the demand for better living quarters, and to get ready for the Olympics. It was time to take another look.
As everyone in Beijing will tell you, autumn is the best time to visit, and so it turned out. Temperatures were pleasant, 20-25°C, and I had three days with sunshine and blue skies, more than during my previous four trips combined.
I stayed in the Wangfujing area this time, which changed the perspective on the city dramatically. On previous visits, I had stayed on the Peking University (“Beida”) campus or at outlying hotels, so visiting the center of the city always meant being confronted with the lack of decent public transit and endless taxi rides. From Wangfujing, it’s easy to walk to the Forbidden City, the China Art Gallery, and the traditional residential quarters. And Wangfujing itself is partially a pedestrian zone and obviously a central meeting place for Beijingers – I actually ran into an ex-coworker on a Sunday afternoon stroll. During my stay, there was a sculpture exhibition on the street, which was apparently related to the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II, but mostly prompted passers-by to pose for snapshots. And then of course there are also the huge modern malls with their huge selection of stores and restaurants. I’m not a fan of malls – streets lined with shops are more to my European taste –, but I suppose the heat and humidity of summer and the cold of winter in Beijing are valid reasons to prefer air conditioned environments.
The central axis of the Forbidden City is obviously designed to inspire awe in anybody who enters it, and it succeeds. But I find it much more interesting to meander in the maze of courtyards and walled-in paths on either side of the axis and peek into the buildings where emperors, empresses, and their coterie once lived. Most impressive everywhere the well-proportioned buildings with their swooping yellow-tiled roofs; on the other hand I couldn’t help thinking that these uninsulated buildings with their stone floors must have been awfully uncomfortable in winter.
North of the Forbidden City is a large area of traditional residential streets, the “hutong” streets lined by walled courtyard residences, the “siheyuan”. There used to be thousands of siheyuan in Beijing, but over the last few decades many of them have been razed and replaced by modern apartment buildings and offices, their residents relocated. Those near the Forbidden City are now being protected as part of a buffer zone around this world heritage site.
On my little stroll I see great variation in the state of the remaining siheyuan – or at least in what I can see of them. In many cases all a passer-by can see is the wall and a closed entrance gate. Some of the gates have been carefully restored, which may indicate that the inside is also well maintained (in fact, in one place I see restoration work in progress). Sometimes a gate to a residential compound is open, and in those cases it usually seems that it’s occupied by several families, the courtyard filled with twentieth century buildings of dubious quality, and the lack of maintenance indicating that people are just waiting to be relocated. In between, a number of courtyards for public use: A little temple, a school, a restaurant; generally in good shape.
A Dream of Red Mansions, Reconstructed
In the 1980es, a set was needed for a TV series after the classical novel “A Dream of Red Mansions”. Instead of cardboard backgrounds, the producers built an actual large garden in Qing dynasty style with all required buildings arranged around a lake, and the result is now open to the public as the “Grand View Garden”. There are a few corners where it seems that the producers decided that a part of a building would never show up on film and saved a few yuan, but most of it is nicely done, and strolling through the park makes for a very pleasant afternoon. A few of the buildings are equipped with traditional furniture and dolls wearing appropriate costumes. There’s also a light-sound-and-water show in the evening, but that turned out to be a rather silly affair.
Changes Around Beida
Wangfujing and the Hutong areas provided an interesting contrast, but since I hadn’t spent much time in them during my previous trips, I couldn’t really tell what had changed. So, for a more direct comparison, I went to the campus of Peking University, where I had stayed during my first trip.
On campus, there are changes, but things are still recognizable. The buildings for foreign students at Shaoyuan haven’t changed much, except for one boxy new building that makes the area feel a little crowded. The cafeteria is still divided into the cheap side, where I imagine the same rude staff still dispensing 油条 and 包子, and the restaurants, where back then already more money bought better food and service. The building where our Chinese classes took place has been nicely renovated; in particular the men’s room has improved dramatically. The area around the Nameless Lake and the water tower is still tranquil and relaxing. The bookstores where books wilted under heat, humidity, and dust, still don’t have air conditioning. On the south side, several new dorms have been built. The east side of the campus looks unfamiliar, but then I never spent much time there. People are much better dressed.
South of the campus, the changes are far more dramatic. The entire neighborhood there has been razed and replaced with a little green strip, about ten lanes of the Fourth Ring, and shiny new office buildings and malls. The old neighborhood wasn’t pretty, but had restaurants, little shops, and residents, and I don’t know where they’ve gone. A Chinese friend who used to live in the area tells me that residents usually get moved several kilometers towards suburbia, but that they generally look forward to the relocation because of the larger and better equipped new homes awaiting them. I have to take her word for it.
An Improved Subway
From my previous trips I remembered the Beijing subway as a rather rundown and useless affair – there were only two lines, and they didn’t go where I needed to go. But when I visited a former coworker at Sun’s new offices at Qinghua University, he reminded me that there’s now a third line, which actually comes pretty close to the office. So I use it on the way back to my hotel, and am pleasantly surprised. The subway stop is indeed close. On both the new line and the old ones (I have to use all three to get back to the hotel) the cars are in good shape, not quite as nice as in Stuttgart, but far superior to San Francisco’s BART trains. The stations I see have been redone in gleaming marble. And the entire trip, including the walk from the office to the station, takes about 45 minutes – ten minutes more than the taxi ride in the morning, which didn’t hit any traffic jams, but probably very competitive with using a taxi during rush hour. Beijing has too long invested too much into roads and too little into public transit, so I’m glad to see some progress.
It seems everybody in China is learning or already speaking English. In many cases it’s just enough to advertise the goods they want to sell – as an instantly recognizable foreigner, I’m constantly bombarded with “rickshaw”, “taxi”, “massage”, “lady bar”, and plain “sex”. But there’s a surprisingly large number of people with more solid language skills. And a visit to a large bookstore in Wangfujing shows that half a floor out of five is filled with books teaching English. I wonder when Borders will offer a similar proportion of books teaching Chinese.