I love Beijing.
It was predictable I suppose in the way that Scarlett falling for Rhett was predictable. The way Sally ending up with Harry was predictable. Even before I got here, I knew I would hate this city. But after just a few days under its azure skies (I kid you not! azure!), I’m in love.
Before I came I heard that Beijing would be, in order of frequency of complaint: polluted, congested, expensive, rude, and spread out. It is polluted of course, but the weather this past week has been magical. Tonight I saw Orion — all of him — shining up there in the crystal sky, and most of the past week I’ve seen blue in the sky down to the tops of the low-rise buildings (before the familiar smog kicks in on the horizon). In Chengdu by contrast I took a picture almost everytime there was a blue sky. I think from the year I was there I have five such pictures.
Congested? For sure, but not worse than midtown Manhattan or L.A., and nothing a comfortable pair of shoes and a subway pass can’t handle. Expensive? Of course there are places that can drain a wallet faster than frat boys can drain a keg funnel. But there are also cheap cheap eats: the 10 RMB stomach stretching meal, or the 3 RMB plate of steamed buns. As for rude, I have no idea where that comes, except maybe a language barrier. Beijing folks are the antithesis of rude — from the checkout person who confidentially tells you that cheaper bananas are to be had at the competitor, to the cellphone repair man who spends an hour checking your phone for you and honestly tells you he can’t fix it (without charging you), to the security guy at the bank (the security guy!) who despite not speaking English does his darndest to help you set up your account. And is Beijing spread out? Well, the university area is a schlep from downtown — the way Park Slope is a schlep from Manhattan — but that doesn’t make it spread out per se. In fact, Beijing is spread out in the way that New York is spread out — most of the stuff you need is pretty accessible, but sometimes it just takes a while.
Actually, Beijing is extremely like New York — much more than Shanghai. Shanghai is a developed modern city, but there it feels like it has something to prove. I was talking to a Dutch architect doing an internship in Beijing for a few months, who explained that whereas in Holland, architects don Freud hats and try to understand where a building is coming from, what it needs, what it represents, whom it serves, what its role in the world will be, how it can strive to add something new and fresh to the idea of Thought itself, China architecture demands only three things: to be Fast, to be Flexible, and to be Flashy. Shanghai for me eptimozises these three Fs really well. And its Shanghai’s Fast Flexible Flashy that lands China on the front page of Business Week, that draws so many people to the Wild East to seek their fortunes, and is an integral part of China as a whole. I think of Shanghai’s skyscrapers, which boggle the mind and awe me to pieces, as Bling, those ostantacious jewels that adorn the chiseled bodies of many a rap artist on his or her CD jacket. Shanghai has gorgeous and questionably functional buildings the same reason rappers wear bling: to make sure everyone else knows about the rocks that I got.
Of course Beijing has Bling too. But then so does NY — look at the plans for the replacement World Trade Center, or the hollow Guggenheim, or the shiny headquarters of Lehman Brothers, my pre-China digs, whose billboards are so bright that the residence across the way had to tint their windows.*
But like New York, Beijing doesn’t have a feeling that is has much to prove. It’s the capital of China! And it won the Olympics already, before the Olympics even started.
Of course what happens to this confidence after the Games (starting 8/8/08, thanks to 8 being the luckiest number in China) remains to be seen. Will Beijing use the momentum to surge forward and become the New York of the 21st century? Or, will it burn itself out and fall to a painful silence? If China is one of the drivers of the world economy, and the Olympics is one of the drivers of China, what happens the morning after? Does the world economy grind to a halt as the construction teams go home and unemployment washes over the Middle Kingdom like a sea of locusts? Or will China preemptively pump enough liquidity into the market to prevent a hangover, spurring a second wind to the US housing market, American consumerism and another phase of the cheap and good life? Or what? I’d be really interested to hear what you think.
Look I’ve only been here a week, and there’s a lot I have to learn about this city yet. But there’s a rhythm to the city, a flavor or a tune, that is hauntingly similar to New York. Maybe it’s the way people ride the subways, reading their newspapers or Citigroup printouts or books, rocking their heads in unision with strangers to the same silent beat of locomotion. Or how people step out on the curve sensing when red traffic light is fully ripe and ready to burst into green. How city folks walk quickly (a Beijing friend referred to her house as “15 min from the subway or 10 minutes at a New York walk”) and yet manage to avoid each other without having to promote strangers beyond their peripheral vision. Or maybe it’s just that people drink coffee here.
Other people here think I’m crazy in thinking that Beijing is like New York. It’s reminds me of a wine tasting party of Chinese wines (some of which are actually good) back in Chengdu. After trying two or three dozen bottles of the course of the year, my friend and I had come to notice the more subtle differences in quality and character. He noted with celebrated / exaggerated pomp, “Yes you can taste a bit of apple in there, it’s kind of nutty, but the tannins hang on there with a really heavy after taste. What do you think?” he asked turning to a newcomer to the wine tasting session. The novice considered for a while and replied honestly (and accurately), “It tastes like wine.”
They were both right. Beijing tastes like China, for sure.
But there’s something nutty in there, and I’m darn sure going to find out what it is.
P.S. I of course have things to say about the past month’s loop-de-loop of China, but wanted to get the fresh tracks photographed when the tracks were still fresh… More Aabservations soon…
* By the way, I heard it wasn’t Lehman’s decision to have an eye-blinding marquis. Apparently it’s a requirement for all buildings in the Times Square region, which ends on 50th street.