Are you curious about Beijing now that the Summer Olympics have begun? Of course, on any given day you can watch NBC, PBS or the Travel Channel and see kaleidoscopic images and all the sights and sounds of this highly populated historic city. But, for a dose of the real unadulterated Beijing, pick up the book The Last Days of Old Beijing: Life in the Vanishing Backstreets of a City Transformed by Michael Meyer. Meyer is a native Minnesotan who moved to China with the Peace Corps and volunteered to teach English in a Beijing elementary school. He’s one of the few Westerners who has had the opportunity to live among the native Chinese and experience the city, culture and cuisine in a manner that most outsiders could only dream of. This is a fascinating mix of history, politics and customs and gives an inside look at this mysterious city.
Meyer resided in what’s known as a hutong, one of a vast multitude of traditional lanes or streets, surrounded by a courtyard that housed hundreds of thousands, if not millions of Chinese citizens during the past century. Under the guise of progress, these hutongs have been slowly demolished over the last decade in an effort to ‘modernize’ the city and replace these neighborhoods with new high rises, highways and shopping malls. Modernization is considered more important than protecting historical sites and architecture and is going hand in hand with the new ‘pseudo-capitalism’ that is thriving in communist China. On any given day, people who live in the remaining hutongs wake up in the morning to find what’s known as THE HAND plastered on their door. THE HAND is a Chinese symbol indicating that their building is going to be razed. Often the families are given only a few weeks or months to find a new place to live. The effect is that neighbors and friends who have lived together in neighborhoods for generations are separated and dispersed around this mammoth city.
This relocation will probably not be highlighted during the Summer Olympics. Rather, the pride that the Chinese people feel for their country and government will most likely be emphasized. While the country has been preparing for the Olympics and the chance to showcase the new modernized Beiing for years they have also been preparing their citizens by offering mandatory etiquette classes for those Chinese who will be meeting foreign visitors. Meyer also mentions some of the signs that could be found on the street or in public buildings as reminders that the Olympics were coming. Some translate into peculiar English such as “BE CLEAN THE OLYMPICS ARE COMING”.
Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress by Dai Sijie is a little slip of a story that won critical acclaim and has been very popular with book clubs and reading groups over the past five years. Pick it up and read it during the Olympic commercials! Many young people were forcibly removed from their villages to be ‘reeducated’ by the government during Mao’s Cultural Revolution. The two young teens in the book are banished to the mountains where they’re given the job of entertaining the villagers with stories and plays. They come upon a suitcase filled with forbidden Western novels and begin to read. They’re enthralled by the contents and find themselves immersed in Balzac and Dumas letting their minds and spirits soar beyond their forced imprisonment. One of the boys falls in love with a simple country seamstress and begins to read her Balzac thinking the moving stories will make her return his love. This is a deceptively complex and poignant story that captures 1970s China and will stay with you long after you turn the last page.
A new mystery series by Diane Wei Liang is set in contemporary Beijing and begins with The Eye of Jade, featuring Mei Wang, a young woman who opens a private investigation agency. She is asked to search for an ancient piece of jade and her quest leads her and the reader to various parts of Beijing – hutongs, parks,antique stores, government offices and restaurants. The realistic portrayal of everyday life and family relationships in contemporary Beijing paints a very atmospheric picture and may be just what the Olympic watcher needs as a break from his or her television viewing.
So pick up one of these books before you watch the Mens’ badminton finals. Oh, and good luck U.S.A!