Wednesday, August 13, 2008

A Corner's View of an Always Changing Beijing

BEIJING - Shortly before the start of the Games, Beijing opened a brand new retail and entertainment district on Qianmen Boulevard, the street that leads straight into the city’s old front gate, Qianmen. An old entry point to the Inner City of Beijing, the area had long been a hub of commercial activities. When Puyi, China’s last emperor, expelled the remaining 1000 eunuchs from the Forbidden City, many of them opened up antique shops in the same area.

Originally, I went to Qianmen to see the recent renovations that aim to evoke the area’s commercial traditions with a modern—and cleaner and more orderly—twist.

But, several blocks from Qianmen, an old village caught my eyes. I went inside and found two women who had been living there since the 1940s. To listen to their stories is to follow Beijing’s transformations in the last six decades. To put the many changes that they have seen into context is to understand the Games in broader historical time.

To protect the women’s identities, I will refer to them as Mrs. Zheng and Mrs. Liao. Zheng was, at times, wary of strangers, and was less likely to jump into the conversation. With a thick Beijing accent, I asked her to trace on her palm the Chinese character for her last name.

“I can’t write,” she said.

“It’s Zheng,” Mrs. Liao jumped in, and did the tracing on her palm. “And mine is Liao.”

Born in Hubei Province in 1934 and arrived in Beijing nine years after that, Liao was never hesitant to share her rich life experiences. She came to Beijing in the midst of World War II during the Japanese occupation. That was six years before Mao Zedong “liberated” the city after having won the civil war against Chiang Kai-shek, who fled to Taiwan thereafter.

“I have lived in this village ever since I came,” Liao added while fanning herself to cool down as mosquitoes circled around in the oppressive heat and humidity.

Essentially a gathering of small huts, most of Zhong Jie (Middle Street) Village’s residents are now gone because the place is set to be demolished within a year, presumably to make way for more modern developments. Those who left were able to buy new flats in the city, usually supplementing the government’s compensations with savings or family help.

“Where can I go?” she shot back after I asked about her plans. The government only offered her RMB 60,000, which is only about $8,700 based on today’s exchange rate. “I have been here for so long, and I will just stick it out until the last minute,” she continued.

Even with all the uncertainties, Liao seems remarkably content. She enjoys living in the village. Her son drives a bus around the Qianmen area, where the modern shops and retail spaces are located—developments that have taken down homes just like her own. With her government pension, she is adequately fed and clothed. And during Spring Festivals, when it seems like almost every Chinese goes home, she marches across the street to buy groceries and makes her own dinner.

In her own private corner, she has seen war, occupations, political revolutions, marches, crackdowns, and remarkable economic growth. Her life is so packed with events that she does not even seem to recall some of the major ones.

“Tiananmen Square used to be smaller?” she asked Zheng, so to confirm my observation.

“Yes,” Zheng confirmed.

It was smaller, until Mao Zedong took down 10,000 homes in the 1950s to expand it for his own political agendas. When the Communist Party gained control in 1949, Mao wanted to remake Beijing into a modern capital worthy of the world’s respect.

Mao also demolished the old city walls quickly—he thought that they reminded the world too much of China’s shameful feudal past. He wanted to open up the city so that streets would be wide enough for tank parades. Like the Chinese leadership today, Mao wanted to jettison the “Old China” for a new one. He wanted a city modern enough to declare China’s “coming out.”

“The walls are all gone,” Liao told me as I tried to persuade her to talk more about Beijing during the early years of communist rule, also a time of great transformations. “But you can still see some of the gates. Have you been to Qianmen?”

Indeed, a few of the city gates—the entryways of the old walls—can still be seen, and Qianmen is probably one of the most visited and most visible, with the possible exception of Tiananmen, or Gate of Heavenly Peace. But, for the most part, they are merely name places, nothing more than a subway stop or a neighborhood for locals and foreigners alike to gather.

Shops and food stalls crowd around Qianmen; a busy transfer point for the subway system is situated at Xizhi Gate; modern high rises now populate all over Chaoyang Gate; and trendy bars can be found near Anding Gate, or Peace and Stability Gate. One may trace and experience the dynamic culture, lifestyles, eating habits, history, political leanings, and contours of Beijing—both old and new—by visiting the gates and the neighborhood of shops, restaurants, people, and public squares that surround them. To experience the gates is to experience Beijing.

But all of these developments are relatively new to Liao, and most of these new projects started around the time she retired from her factory job, where she took part in an assembly line and made telephones, even during the Cultural Revolution. She retired in 1984, only six years after Deng Xiaoping—the Chinese leader at the time—initiated the economic reforms.

I asked her if the two decades since her retirement have been the most fascinating ones. She did not answer. I then asked her to tell me which decade was the most interesting for Beijing.

“Nothing’s interesting if one has no money,” she told me, quite matter-of-factly. “If you have money, then everything’s interesting.”

I looked across the street to the right, trying to kill an awkward silence. But it was difficult, because the city just put up a brand new gray wall with brick tiles on top, complete with a beautiful lawn in front. The wall is a nice cover for Liao’s village, something so seemingly old compared to the Olympic buildings, which are all so modern and glitzy, ready to declare China’s “coming out” during this Olympic euphoria.

“I’m 75-years-old now,” Liao reminded me. “Who knows how much more I have to go?”

Liao and Zheng will most likely outlast their old corner, and soon the new “cover wall” and the old village that it encircles will be gone altogether. The huts and main alleyway that once formed the two women’s comfort zone—their time warp—will be replaced by, yet again, the image of a “New China.”

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