The 2008 Summer Olympics will punctuate three decades of development and test China's global legitimacy. They've already transformed the way millions of people think and live. Seattleite and Fulbright researcher Daniel Beekman brings you Beijing.
August 17, 2008 4:02 AM
Posted by Daniel Beekman
(Note: No attempt was made to contact the state-owned company referred to below, in accordance with the principal interviewees' wishes. This Blogging Beijing entry, therefore, speaks to one family's experience only. It does not constitute a full investigation. The principal interviewees also asked that their names be withheld. Ayi is the Chinese word for 'aunt.')
Her first day in court, Ayi heard someone say, "What a troublemaker! Does she want to ruin the Olympic Games?"
Months later, the native Beijinger hoisted an enormous Chinese flag above her splintered door.
"I put the flag there to make my heart less worried," she explained. "Seeing it helps me keep faith. I trust my country - I trust what's right.
"I don't want to make a fuss and spoil the Olympics. But I have no choice. That's what the flag means to me."
When it comes to property, modern Chinese law is all a muddle. Ayi is wading through the mud...waist deep.
Others have dubbed her a crusading dingzihu ('nail-house' fighter). A dingzihu can't be bought. A dingzihu hangs on to his or her property, whatever the consequences.
All Chinese land belongs, officially, to the state.
"We don't have private property in China," explained Matthew Gao, Secretary General of the Beijing Planner's Society. "The state wields a lot of power. When these disputes go to court, the common people usually lose."
In booming China, where hard-hat crews raze land faster than Olympic hurdler Liu Xiang flies 110 meters, dingzihu evoke a combination of pity, admiration and impatience.
Beijing boasted between 3,000 and 6,000 hutong - narrow, twisting alleys - in 1949. Less than 1,000 remain today.
"We're trying to preserve the city,' observed Gao. "But we can't preserve it all. Beijing is too big. Most of it will be torn down."
According to the government, some 500,000 Beijingers have relocated from the city's center since 1990. The Geneva-based Centre for Housing Rights and Evictions estimates 1.5 million - 165,000 per year since Beijing won the right to host the Olympic Games.
"I never intended to become a dingzihu," Ayi said.
"I put the flag there to keep my heart less worried," explained Ayi, an unwilling dingzihu.
Ayis's tiny courtyard - no heat, no water all winter.
The house in question, a crumbling, one-story jumble of wood and brick, fell July 15 - nearly after Ayi's battle began. Where it stood, workers are laying down a new road.
Ayi never owned the house. She and her husband were long-time renters. Nevertheless, she balked when their proprietor, a state-owned Chinese company, ordered them out last year.
"We were told a unit security guards would live in our home," Ayi said. "That's all. No notice. No paperwork. Nothing."
The company offered Ayi, her husband a son another place, outside Beijing's 3rd Ring Road. She refused.
"It was an inconvenient, dangerous building," said Ayi. "Plus, the apartment was tiny."
In November, a construction crew visited the neighborhood. After a day of digging, Ayi realized they'd cut her pipes - the house had no water or heat. All winter, she trudged five blocks to wash.
"Ten or twenty security guards settled in," Ayi said. "They sat around yelling and spitting. My son couldn't sleep.
"I asked a boss of the company how he could treat a child this way. I asked him - 'if it were your kid, what would you do.' 'My son is grown and abroad,' he answered. Pah!"
One chilly December day, Ayi remembers watching TV. Suddenly, her house began to shake. The demolition of Ayi's block had commenced.
"My husband ran outside with a knife and made them stop - they ran away," she said.
Ayi and her family received threatening, anonymous phone calls.
In January, the company took Ayi to court, claiming unpaid rent. Ayi explained she'd never paid on a month-to-month basis before.
The court advised she leave and requested that Ayi's suitor find the family another house. Again, Ayi demanded more.
Most of Ayi's neighbors - employees of the landowning company - vacated their condemned homes quietly.
"They didn't want to lose their jobs," she said. "The court, the police, the company - they were all in it together, for the money. Can you believe it?"
"Who should be involved in development? I'd argue four parties: government, developers, designers and citizens," said Neville Mars, a Dutch architect who runs a think-tank in Beijing. "Here, two of those four participate. It's the government and the developers alone."
According to Gao, developers run a gauntlet of red tape before Beijing allows them to build.
"We call it 'five permits and a document,'" he said.
Ayi's dispute dragged on. She moved her eight-year old son in with his grandparents and scrawled three lines of Chinese characters on the home's plaster wall.
"People live here! Proceed with caution! Demolishers will face consequences!"
"People live here! Proceed with caution! Demolishers will face consequences!"
Workers demolished Ayi's house in July.
June came and went. Workers erected a high, blue construction fence around the house - an attempt to "clean up the neighborhood for Beijing's Olympics," Ayi said.
And then, less than one month before the Games, it was over. The company showed Ayi to a new home 500 meters away.
"In most cases, I think people are happy to move," said a spokesman with high-end developer SOHO China (not the company involved). "What's at issue is compensation.
"SOHO generally acquires property already leveled. We don't want to be involved in the painful process of relocation. People get very attached to their land."
Ayi is half-furious, half-relieved. Her family's new house covers 100 square meters. It's larger than her previous place and closer to her son's primary school.
Still, its floors are unfinished concrete. There's a weedy courtyard and a trashed tool-shed. Worst of all, the house may not last long.
"My friend at the company told me this home scheduled for demolition next year," Ayi sighed. "We'll go through all this again."
Beijing will halt for the Olympics; most of the city's 5,000 building sites have already shut down. Organizers want clean air for the athletes - construction dust free.
As for Beijing's common people, they're looking forward to a breather. Because once the athletes leave...an army of bulldozers will, for better or worse, shudder back into gear.
August 6, 2008 5:46 PM
Posted by Daniel Beekman
(Note: Phone calls to the property developer referenced below went unanswered. This Blogging Beijing entry, therefore, speaks to one family's experience only. It does not represent a full investigation. The principal interviewees also asked that their Chinese names be withheld.)
"This courtyard has suffered three great dramas, three great crises," Tina H began solemnly.
Spectacled and graying, Ms. H spoke with her hands - as if she were literally reaching into her family's troubled past, plucking memories from a tree.
"They took our furniture. They choked our goldfish to death with perfume. They burned our apricot tree."
Ms. H has told the story many times.
Spanning a Cultural Revolution, an economic explosion and China's Olympic movement, the story is far from over.
The courtyard Red Guards took from the Hs in 1966, the courtyard Ms. H reclaimed decades later, is in danger again. A well-connected Beijing developer is determined to wrest it away.
Ms. H's younger brother has returned from Seattle; although they possess no deed to the courtyard, the Hs intend to keep their home.
"Our leaders want to build towers. They want to put on a show for the world," remarked Bill H, who deals software. "They want to earn money.
"The people who want our courtyard - we told them off. 'Just wait until the Games are done,' they said. Post-Olympics, the harmony you see in Beijing today will disappear."
Mr. and Ms. H, brother and sister, are mired in an unusual property dispute, their family courtyard casualty to a quirk of history. It was confiscated during China's chaotic Cultural Revolution, afterwards sold to a private firm.
While Chinese leaders later condemned the Cultural Revolution, the Hs were never recompensed. They've waited 40 years.
A young boy explores the H family courtyard, a forest of flowers and vines today.
An abandoned factory sags at the back of the courtyard, left from China's Cultural Revolution.
Mr. and Ms. H's grandfather with Mao Zedong (center right, wearing cap) in the Red Army' s stronghold Yan'an, 1939.
Ms. H remembers her grandfather well. A physician, he kept nine pretty bottles on a sandalwood table in the courtyard's west wing.
One day in 1966, the bottles - valuable antiques - disappeared.
"I asked my grandfather where the bottles had gone," Ms. H recalled. "He said Red Guards would inspect our home, that they'd consider the bottles old and wrong, that even under my bed the bottles wouldn't be safe. I was devastated."
On the evening of August 24, 1966, Ms. H heard jogging boots. Red Guards - Chairman Mao Zedong's young fanatics. They seized the courtyard and forced Ms. H's grandparents to kneel.
The Hs didn't stray far. They settled in a compound across the street, sharing it with five other families - more than 30 people. That's where Mr. H grew up. He lived within spitting distance of his former home for 16 years.
Red Guards targeted landowners and intellectuals during the Cultural Revolution; Ms. H's grandfather was both. In 1967, a radical 'counter-current' swept through Beijing.
"My grandfather wouldn't shut his mouth in defeat," remembered Ms. H. "So he bore the brunt of it."
Ms. H's grandfather was arrested, beaten and held for a year. The Hs shouldered his criminal reputation.
"The other families in our compound were very poor," said Ms. H. "They ate only steamed buns. Yet they taunted us. We had enough money to buy rice, but rarely smiled. I envied the other children, chewing their steamed buns."
Mr. and Ms. H were ridiculed at school. Ms. H remembers the Cultural Revolution vividly: red propaganda posters and neighborhood parades. Meanwhile, the courtyard served as a kindergarten and a state-run electronics factory.
Suddenly, in 1976, the Cultural Revolution came to a close. Ms. H was 20.
"One day, I reached an intersection," she said. "There was a crowd waiting to cross. Someone called my name. 'Your courtyard's been sold again.'
"The news hit me like a bolt from the blue. 'Now,' I thought, 'I have to snatch it back.'"
So began a second crisis. Aided by factory insiders, Ms. H snuck into the courtyard and took up residence. From 1982 on, she shared the space with the courtyard's buyer.
The buyer, an import-export company, took Ms. H to court. A district judge ordered her out. She appealed; a city judge concurred in 1990.
Six years later, China's supreme court tried the case. Ms. H lost again. Thanks to the People's Congress Overseas Chinese Committee, the suit disappeared.
Quarrels over property are common in China, where there's only one official landowner: the Chinese Communist Party. Residents who resist development are known as 'nail-house' fighters - dingzihu.
"We don't have private property in China," explained Matthew Gao, Secretary General of the Beijing Planner's Society. "The state wields a lot of power. When these disputes go to court, the common people often lose."
Sometimes dingzihu hold out for money; that isn't what the Hs are after.
"We're willing to negotiate," said Mr. H. "The bottom line is 'we want to live here.'"
Until 2003, Ms. H shared the courtyard with the import-export company. She often dreamed about what the home had been like decades before - a friendly, secluded abode.
"Our courtyard was peculiar to Beijing," Ms. H recalled. "It had three successive gates and a corridor of scientific design. In the summer, our roof blocked the sun. In the winter, the sun warmed my room."
Thousands of courtyards were destroyed during the Cultural Revolution. Thousands of blockish factory buildings were installed. Only one H family structure remains.
Today, market forces are finishing off Beijing's traditional neighborhoods.
"Beijing still had a city wall 20 years ago," said Gao. "It had 11 gates. Now three are left. The wall is gone."
Legislators have tried to restrict development ahead of the Olympics. They passed a comprehensive plan designating 31 'historical streets' in 2004.
But according to Hu Xinyu, director of the Beijing Cultural Heritage Protection Center, implementation has been spotty at best.
"We're working with neighborhood committees," said Hu. "We want to help the government enforce these measures.
"Unfortunately, awareness is low. Most people have no idea there are such laws."
Mr. and Ms. H's altered home falls outside the sphere of heritage protection.
Ms. H reminisces about her simple courtyard life before the Cultural Revolution.
In the courtyard's abandoned factory, a first floor hallway.
'No trespassing' read the faded characters on the H's back wall.
In 2003, an infamous developer purchased the courtyard.
"They're very evil," declared Ms. H. "A few years ago, they tricked a resident into the street, covered his head with a black handkerchief and led him away.
"When he returned, his home was demolished. They threatened him with a knife; that's how they relocate people."
According to Ms. H, many Chinese developers operate outside the law.
"Some developers in Beijing are very cooperative," admitted Hu. "Others are quite arrogant, completely neglectful of courtyard preservation."
"In most cases, we acquire property already leveled," said a spokesman with high-end developer SOHO China (not the developer involved), who asked to remain anonymous.
"Generally, the city handles relocation and compensation. We are very respectful of the law."
A third crisis commenced March 25 this year. Over 100 men assembled unannounced and pushed over the Hs' rear wall.
Police sent the gang packing, though no arrests were made. 'You don't own the place,' the police told Ms. H. Mr. H hired a handful of guards, installed cameras and strengthened the courtyard's front gate.
On April 1, the gang reappeared; police turned them back. On April 3, they showed up again, to slice through the courtyard's electrical cables.
Nothing has happened for months now. Local authorities, says Mr. H, want no part of the conflict.
"The Olympics are coming soon," he said. "If a violent incident were to occur, the police would be punished and the district leaders would lose face."
Mr. H worries that foreign fans of the 2008 Games won't see 'the real China.'
"Our government wants the world to think China is a developing country, a land of opportunity for Fortune 500 companies," he said.
"Supposedly, we've built a harmonious society. But we want harmony anchored in justice, not force."
Will the Hs retain their courtyard after the Games?
"If you can prove that you owned property before 1949 and can prove it was confiscated, you've got a chance," said H. "It's nearly impossible, because of the Cultural Revolution."
"Things here have changed thanks to the Olympics," said Mr. H. "China has opened up to the world.
"But we still have a long way to go. Can property belong to individuals, or only the state? China needs to answer this question."
Seattle Times in Beijing:
July 17, 2008 3:43 AM
Posted by Daniel Beekman
There's an old Confucian saying, 'he er bu tong.' Literally, it means 'harmonious but not the same.'
According to Yan Xin, a doctoral candidate in Chinese philosophy at Beijing Normal University, 'he er bu tong' could also mean 'a successful 2008 Olympic Games.'
"Confucius taught that we can all learn from one another," Yan said. "He believed in solving problems through dialogue. That's what the Olympic are all about - international dialogue. We compete, yet preserve mutual respect."
(Note: Confucius was a scholar who lived during the 5th century B.C. His conservative, moral, pragmatic lessons on life, relationships and society are basic to traditional Chinese culture.)
China's government has spent billions of yuan on its athletes, transformed Beijing and risked 'face' for these Games. Why? Ask any Beijinger or Olympic volunteer. 'So that the rest of the world may better understand our China,' they'll answer.
It's important to set goals, and Beijing's goals are crystal clear.
But how, I asked a trio of student-volunteers, will China gain the world's understanding - aside from Tang dynasty floor shows, lavish Peking Duck banquets and giant panda sightings.
"Umm," they answered.
Beijing's gorgeous Confucian Temple (Kong Miao) might be a good place to start. Located in north-central Beijing, the leafy complex has been painstakingly renovated ahead of the 2008 Olympics.
Beijing's Confucius Temple and Imperial College
Qufu, a medium-sized city in Shandong province and Confucius' birthplace, boasts China's largest and most magnificent Kong Miao. Kong was Confucius' surname; miao translates as temple. Duke Ai of the state of Lu converted the Kong family home for worship in 478 B.C.
But Confucius, who many Chinese still refer to as the country's first or greatest teacher, was a traveling man. He bounced from ancient fiefdom to fiefdom (there was no unified 'China' in the fifth century B.C.), tutoring monarchs wise and weak in the fine points of benevolent rule.
Confucian temples - usually associated with learning or scholarship - eventually sprouted in Korea, Japan, Vietnam and Indonesia. When the Mongols made Beijing their Yuan dynasty capital in the 14th century, they erected a Kong Miao as well - a version of which remains today.
For centuries, Beijing's visited the temple's sweeping Dachengdian ('Hall of Great Achievement') to offer sacrifices in the name of Confucius.
"Although Confucius did not advocate revolution," Yan explained. "He argued that an emperor is like a boat, and the people like the water. The water may support the boat, or toss it over."
These days, Yonghegong - known to foreign visitors as the 'Beijing Lama Temple' - attracts more foot traffic than Kong Miao. Yonghegong, the capital's largest Tibetan Buddhist structure, sits at the corner of Yonghegong Street and North 2nd Ring Road.
Stroll a few blocks south of Yonghegong's mighty red walls and hang a right. You'll pass under the a gilded gate onto Guozijian alley or hutong. The Kong Miao complex is enormous and clean; sage cypress trees afford some shade.
If you're into history, follow a tour group through the temple's many pavilions. If you prefer peace and quiet, arrive early and claim a wooden bench. Watch out for Chujian Bai, Kong Miao's legendary mind-reading tree. A treacherous Ming dynasty official lost his hat to its branches.
If China had saints, Confucius would be the patron saint of Chinese students and scholars. It was he who advised the land's monarchs to dispense with nepotism. Officials, Confucius asserted, ought to be selected on merit. And to determine merit...tests, tests, tests.
In 2008, 10.5 million high-schoolers sweated out the gaokao, China's university entrance examination. Millions of college graduates took the national examination for officials, our century's answer to the tests Confucius championed.
"It's a well-established fact that Chinese people do well on exams," said Zhang Xinmin, 25, who's seeking a job in Beijing. "Our whole education system is test-oriented. We're accustomed to exams."
Next door to Beijing's Confucius Temple is the Imperial College, where would-be officials tested into China’s substantial bureaucracy. Candidates completed their exams locked in small, stone cubicles designed to prevent cheating; often they wrote and revised for days.
"Confucius was the first person to teach not only emperors, but common people as well," Yan said. "That's why we revere him."
The Imperial College also played host to emperors, however. Yuan, Ming and Qing dynasty rulers worshiped Confucius there. Tradition called for each emperor to compose a work of calligraphy in honor of Kongzi.
The Qianglong emperor and Kangxi emperor left their mark, as did Guomindang (Kuomintang) leaders after 1911. Emperors delivered Confucian-themed lessons from the Imperial College annually.
After 1949 and China's communist liberation, particularly during the Cultural Revolution, Confucian values came under fire here. China's economic surge and participation in a global market economy has further opened country to competing philosophies.
One important facet of Confucianism is filial piety - respect for and devotion to one's mother and father. Some social critics now bemoan a lack of filial piety among young people. Every day, millions of rural Chinese wave their parents goodbye, then board trains for the country's booming cities.
"How is China Confucian or not Confucian today," Yan pondered. "Confucianism is still present in the structure of our government hierarchy.
"But Confucius instructed people to act morally - to do the right thing, regardless of personal loss or gain. Today many Chinese act according to personal benefit."
And the 2008 Olympic Games - if he were alive to attend Beijing's Opening Ceremonies, what might Confucius think?
"If Confucius could see these Olympics, he'd be very happy," said Yan. "Confucius always encouraged his disciples to 'welcome guests from afar.'"
Interactive map of Beijing/China - follow up on posts and get oriented:
June 26, 2008 10:36 AM
Posted by Daniel Beekman
Come August 8, Beijing will swarm. Its sports stands...and its snack stands. At least 17 million call China's capital home; 3.1 million more will visit during the 2008 Summer Games.
Even worse, Beijing leaders have begun to shut down curbside commerce. It's untidy and mostly illegal. Diarrhea and banana peels - an Olympic organizer's worst nightmare.
If you're a real epicure, however, squirm on. Barrel through crowded Beijing. Get your mouth round a crisp 'candy ear' (tang erduo) or a plump 'donkey roll' (ludaguan'er).
Or quick-fried tripe (baodu), or soy milk (douzhi), or stinky tofu (chou dofu), or sticky rice (aiwowo). Just follow your nose. There's no telling what fantastic snacks you'll find.
'Snacks of Beijing'
"There are so many Beijing xiaochi (snacks or 'little eats'), I can't name one favorite," a middle-aged woman strolling down Jiugulou Dajie ('Old Drum-tower Boulevard') beamed. "I just love the Beijing flavors."
Beijing occupies an odd throne when it comes to Chinese cuisine. A capital for centuries, the city surprisingly claims few famous dishes as its own. Beijing's emperors dined on the best China's far-flung food foci offered.
"Beijing...what kind of place is it? I'll tell you," a sage old man counseled. His three pals nodded approvingly, bellies bare in the summer heat. "It's a place of many people, a place of many customs. Beijingers enjoy snacks from all over China and the world."
Many of the city's most popular dishes are Sichuanese (in the U.S., sometimes spelled Szechuanese) - from Sichuan province. These are hot, spicy snacks, often loaded with enough ma peppers to turn your tongue numb.
There's mapo dofu (pock-marked old lady tofu) and malatang - a fashionable plate. Malantang refers to a boiling vat of deep red brine. Pick your kebab poison - robins' egg, chicken foot, cow tendon. Then plunge it in.
"We're waidi ren ('outsiders')," two Sichuanese construction workers apologized. "Beijing snacks? How would we know?
We're fans of food from Sichuan. Sichuanese treats are great. Malatang, hot pot...it's easy to find such dishes in Beijing. Sometimes we even cook for ourselves."
In the winter, wind-burned men on creaky tricycle carts ply Beijing's alleys, bouncing columns of candied hawthorne fruits in tow. They come cheap - like all street food - two yuan for seven-haw skewer. When Spring Festival arrives, kids clamor for 15-haw towers at the city's temple fairs. Fired sweet potatoes (check for worms) are a filling cold-weather stand-by.
There's a special food for every Chinese holiday: Spring Festival dumplings, moon cakes mid-Autumn and zongzi - sopping sticky-rice triangles swaddled in bamboo leaves - during the Dragon Boat Festival. Beijingers scarf these dishes at home and on the sidewalk.
"Know how to make zongzi?" wondered a powerfully-built man with gray sideburns, cleaning birdcages down an alley near Houhai (Beijing's 'Back Lake'). "You've got to use a special sort of rice - jianmi, and mature bamboo leaves.
Head up to Huimi Xiaochi - it's a restaurant that sells Beijing snacks. It's right next to a McDonald's and a KFC - American garbage!"
No 'Olympic Festival' snack has cropped up yet. There's still time. Perhaps five-colored shaved ices will carry the day. Maybe fresh mangos. Or cold basketball bubble tea. Popsicles sell here for 1 yuan a pop.
Where world soccer goes beer drinkers follow, and these 2008 Olympics should prove no exception. Beijingers load up on Tsingtao and Yanjing - light Chinese beers. Around midnight, they pour out of the city's clubs and restaurants in search of cumin-covered mutton kebabs – yangrou chuan'er.
Beijing boasts a ton of corner chuan'er grills, and they're unmistakable. After dark, you'll notice orange neon cords coiled and hung like a giant kebab - the Chinese character chuan'er. Often, Uyghurs - a Mulsim, Turkic ethnic minority - or Chinese Hui Muslims man the chuan'er grills.
Heavy, flaky cakes (unsweetened pastries) dominate Beijing's snack scene - set in neat rows behind cloudly glass cases. Bing - Mandarin for cake - exist in an overwhelming number of shapes, sizes and flavors.
There's jianbing, crunchy and limp, ludoubing, with green bean filling, shaobing (flat and salty), niuroubing (beef-stuffed) and dabing, plain and big. That's just the beginning.
"Foreigners love dabing because it's so big," joked one snack vendor. "So big you can't take it to-go. You have to eat it right here. And you have to share - it's a social sort of food."
Among the city's reputed 200 snacks, ludaguan'er reigns supreme. Best with a touch of powdered sugar, these rice-flour plus red bean paste lumps are fun to chomp.
"My favorite Beijing treat is ludaguan'er," confirmed a teenager, between bites of malatang and sips of beer. "Why? Because it is delicious."
"Why do we call it ludaguan'er ('donkey roll')?" the sideburned man asked eagerly. "Because you roll it up...just so. And then you cut it...like this!"
There are stories behind all of Beijing's inexpensive treats - how they were invented, who favored them most. Finding a Beijinger old enough to remember those tales is difficult, however.
"Of course there are stories," a red-faced man with a flat-top haircut chuckled. "But I'm not the right person to ask. I'm too young. Go on - see if you can find an 'old head.'"
So grab a youtiao (fried breadstick) and consider yourself lucky. Happy Olympics and merry munching!
June 23, 2008 3:47 AM
Posted by Daniel Beekman
Beijing's migrant workers rely on few constants. Their jobs are typically short-term. Their friends - here today, gone tomorrow. Their savings - easily spent. Their quarters - often temporary.
It's a blessing and a curse, Beijing's dynamism. Unregistered workers dream of returning home - pockets bulging yuan of course. No more smog. No more crowds. No more condescending city slickers. And yet, back home is precisely where most migrants would rather not be. It's tough in the country.
If there's one thing Beijing's dagong ('hired hands') can count on, it's this: hometowns are for dreaming about and cities for living in.
"I came to Beijing because my parents came," a gregarious 16-year old from Anhui province explained, grabbing hold of his friend's shoulders for a rough embrace. "My parents came to work, to earn money."
June is a stressful month for eight graders at the capital's privately run migrant schools . Most of them will head home for high school, leaving parents, teachers and pals in Beijing.
"My students were so quiet last week," said Meg Cassedy-Blum, a volunteer English teacher from Maryland. "I'm not sure they want to leave middle school."
According to students at a K-8 migrant school, fewer than ten of 40-plus eighth-graders will test into Beijing public high schools this year.
"Our (middle) school is okay," a 14-year old seventh-grader said. "It's in bad condition, but we like our teachers. Actually, back home the schools are better."
"If you'd stayed in Sichuan with your grandma you wouldn't be in school," a tiny, 13-year old boy interrupted, referring to that province's devastating May 12 earthquake.
Years ago, children without Beijing residence permits were categorically excluded from public schools. Now migrant quotas and high entrance fees hold enrollment down.
The Chinese government has poured money into rural education - projected US$35.9 billion between 2006 and 2010. In March 2007, Premier Wen Jiaobao promised to eliminate tuition costs in the countryside.
"School is free in my hometown," a 15-year old from Jiangxi province remarked. "And the schools are way nicer. When we left I told my mom - we shouldn't go to Beijing."
The city grows on you, though. Many un-registered children move to Beijing young. China's harsh, sweaty capital is what they know.
"When I grow up, I'll live in Beijing," said the burly 16-year old. "My hometown is old. Beijing is new."
"I'll probably head home for high school - I'm still not sure. I want to stay in the city. There are more opportunities. Beijing is better."
A classmate disagreed.
"There are big differences between my hometown and Beijing," she said. "It's easier to buy things here. The food is good, but the traffic is bad. I'd rather live in the country, where friendships last and the air is clear."
Meanwhile, summer has arrived - school is almost over. Will the city's migrant kids return home or stay in Beijing for the 2008 Olympics? In 2006, Chinese officials announced, then retracted plans to 'repatriate' unregistered workers during the Games.
"We really love the Olympics, because our families will earn money and because the Games are China's pride," a 15-year old girl answered. "Go Olympics!"
"Go home? Why would we go home? The Games are happening here!" her friend chimed in." Anyway, if you go home before the Olympics, the government won't let you back into Beijing. I don't know why."
June 15, 2008 11:20 AM
Posted by Daniel Beekman
(A shorter version of this entry appeared as a story in the June 14 print edition of the Seattle Times, and online here at www.seattletimes.com.)
No matter how far you go, Beijing welcomes you back/
One plus one plus one is three/
In Three, In Three, In Three
Bringing the true Beijing style/
Watching the old heads play Chinese chess/
Keep on speak-singing the true Beijing way/
Enough of these brothers with phony spirits/
Stick to speak-singing the true Beijing way/
In Three is dropping a beat
So begins 'Beijing welcomes you back,' as rapped by the soulful Chinese act In Three (Yin San'er). Chen Haoren, Meng Goudong and Jia Wei want the world to remember their city and the 2008 Summer Olympics.
Blast In Three and you'll hear Olympic China - east and west, old and new.
"Maybe a year from now you'll cry when our song comes on," said Chen, 25, who's lived all his life in Beijing.
The Olympics, fast approaching, have inspired all sorts of Beijingers: athletes, scientists, salesmen, dissidents...even rappers struggling to nourish a hip hop scene. This August, 3.1 million potential In Three
fans will visit Beijing.
Sugary pop ballads dominate Chinese music; teenagers here worship superstars from Hong Kong and Taiwan. Most Beijing venues rock to an expatriate beat. In Three are drawing crowds against the odds.
"In China, hip hop is relatively unknown," said Dr. Jin Yuanpu, who heads the Humanistic Olympic Studies Center at People's University. "But if hip hop catches anywhere, it'll catch in Beijing. Beijingers love to talk."
According to Angela Steele, a rap researcher, Beijing spawned China's first hip hop artists between 2000 and 2004 - rappers like Yin Tsang and turntablists like DJ Wordy.
Jia, Meng and Chen share a colorful pad north of Beijing.
The Olympics...everpresent. The 2008 Games could blow the lid off Beijing hip hop.
Rather than imitate American hip hop, In Three have developed a sound based on traditional Beijing shuochang ('speak singing' or rapping). Mule drivers invented shuochang centuries ago. Comedians and salespeople perform the art today.
"We're not about Chinese hip hop, or American hip hop, or English hip hop," explained Meng, 26. "We're about Beijing hip hop.
"We lead different lives than rappers in the United States. We brag less. We're from a socialist society. We're less competitive."
Although Chinese pop stars borrow from rap - Taiwanese heartthrob Jay Chou, for example - record labels here rarely sign raw hip hop acts like In Three.
"We rap about our environment, about Chinese development," Chen said. "We try to make meaningful music. Beijing's hip hop scene is trash - too many pretenders.
"When I see Chinese kids wearing hip hop clothing - kids who are empty inside, I feel uncomfortable."
In Three's 'Beijing welcomes you back' live from Beijing.
Chen, who speaks a slack-jawed Beijing drawl (sanlitun becomes sanlituan'er), has dreaded hair and pierced ears. Meng sports a fitted baseball cap, Jia stylish t-shirts.
Posters of Tupac and Bob Marley hang inside the trio's smoky, two-story apartment - one light-rail stop from outer Beijing.
Chen and Meng have known each other for years.
"For a while we listened to hip hop, danced and drank in the same circles," Meng said.
African friends - from Nigeria and Burundi - turned Chen onto hip hop. He promoted for local nightclubs. That led to freestyle rhyming alongside Meng.
The pair approached Jia, 21, in 2007, at a nightclub in northwest Beijing.
"We heard him flow, and he was...wow," Meng said.
"In Three is the quintessential underground Beijing crew," Steele said. "They rap with Beijing accents, their lyrics represent the lives of Beijingers and they're outspoken, yet humorous.
"I saw In Three live in Guangzhou. Jia is smooth on the microphone," Steele said. "Chen keeps the crowd hyped. And Meng's delivery is fierce. You felt that they loved their music, and the crowd loved it too."
Chen plays a mean clarinet. In fact, he studied music theory at China's Central Conservatory.
"At first we weren't sure about our son and hip hop," Chen's father said. "We were hoping he'd stick to clarinet.
"We encouraged him to go one route and he went another. But we didn't stand in his way. We wanted him to be happy."
Chen got his start as a DJ - here mixing it up at home.
In Three walk a fine line between Beijing's rap underground and pop stardom.
Chen calls his father an 'ex-bad boy.' Chen Shu was 12 years old when China's leaders launched the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). A music-lover like his son, Chen Shu listened to Beethoven and Tchaikovsky behind closed doors.
"Western music wasn't allowed," said Chen Shu. "It was a dangerous time. When my classmates went out to drill with the Red Guards I stayed at home and studied music."
Thousands of fans bounced to In Three's MIDI Music Festival set last year. Now Beijing authorities have postponed MIDI 2008, citing security concerns ahead of the Olympics.
On 'Beijing welcomes you back,' nevertheless, Chen, Meng and Jia wax patriotic.
From track & field to swimming/
From the Bird's Nest (National Stadium) to the Watercube (National
China's people are realizing an Olympic Dream/
Participating determinedly, achieving victory/
Winning glory for our socialist country/
Our national flag rises above Tian'anmen with the sun
The song fits China's manicured Olympic image - grand and upbeat. In
Three are proud of their city.
Then again, Chen, Meng and Jia speak frankly about the Games.
"The Olympics are a business, you know," Chen said.
"There's so much hype," Jia said. "If you yell OLYMPICS, the guy next to you will pull off his headphones."
Children of the early 1980s, Chen, Meng and Jia remember a different Beijing - grayer and quieter. The city and Communist China opened in 1978, under Mao Zedong's successor Deng Xiaoping.
"Hosting an Olympics is like opening your window," Jia said. "You get a nice breeze coming in. And when the wind picks up, you're covered in dust.
"Some older homes have been knocked down. Some people have been asked to move. So the Games...there's good and bad."
Chen, Meng and Jia listen to American hip hop - Chen wants to see Brooklyn. Beijing's Olympics could lend In Three (and Beijing rap music) global exposure.
"Don't count on it," Chen smiled. "For us, the Games are niubi - of great consequence. But streets will be blocked, nightclubs shut down. There won't be hip hop in the Opening Ceremonies."
Maybe there should be.
Nothing's impossible in 2008, listen to In Three/
Beijing is your home/
Let's cheer together for the Chinese team/
Friendship matters most/
Have fun in Beijing/
We'll welcome you back
In Three music online
In Three music video online
In Three on YouTube
For more information on Chinese hip hop, visit Angela Steele's research blog - 'Dongting'
June 7, 2008 5:53 AM
Posted by Daniel Beekman
A Qianmen hutong district scene (photo credit: Everywhere Magazine)
This spring, I penned a travel story for Everywhere Magazine. My assignment: acquaint the magazine's globe-trotting readers with what's left of pre-1978 Beijing. I profiled six sites - White Cloud (Taoist) Temple, Jingshan Park, Guo Morou's Former Courtyard Residence, the Military Museum of the Chinese People's Revolution, Qianmen hutong district and Beijing's Ancient Observatory.
A hundred years ago, Beijing was an imperial village - a jumble of narrow, stone alleys winding towards the East's most imposing palace. Gugong (the Forbidden City) remains China's symbolic center and the heart of 21st century Beijing. But Beijing is no longer an imperial village. It's an economic miracle, a cosmopolitan boomtown and the host of the 2008 Summer Olympics. In 1979, Deng Xiaoping opened China to the world. In 2001, Beijing won the right to host this summer's Games. Seven years, 2.7 billion square feet of construction, 11 new sports venues and a US$2.8 billion airport later, Beijing is a global city and a city transformed. Still, this was China's capital for five centuries. There are sites yet where an informed visitor may experience Old Peking.
- from 'New Olympics, Old Peking' (May/June Everywhere Magazine)
Check out the full story - plus photos - here.
If you're planning a summer trip to China, check out the Beijing Olympic Organizing Committee's new legal guidelines for visitors from abroad. On June 2, the committee listed six types of foreigners who will not be welcome during the Games. Here's the list (translated and posted on Danwei):
1. People who have been deported or prohibited from entering China by the Chinese government.
2. Those who are suspected might commit acts of terrorism, violence or subversion after entering China.
3. Those who are suspected might engage in smuggling, drug dealing or prostitution after entering China
4. Those suffering from mental disorders or insanity, sexually transmitted diseases, tuberculosis or other infectious diseases.
5. Those who cannot guarantee their ability to support themselves financially while in China.
6. Those who are suspected might engage in any acts that threaten the security or interests of China.
The United States embassy in China has compiled an 'Olympics 2008' fact sheet for American citizens. Beijing bound? Then check it out.
May 26, 2008 3:54 PM
Posted by Daniel Beekman
A violent aftershock - registering magnitude 6.0 by the Richter scale - shook China Sunday, killing six people. At least 1,000 people were injured in the earthquake and more than 70,000 homes were destroyed.
Second-tier tremors have rippled through Sichuan province since May 12, when a tremendous earthquake - registering magnitude 8.0 - hit. Sunday's aftershock was the most powerful yet, hindering relief work in the city of Chengdu. The quake damaged as many as 200,000 homes in Sichuan, Gansu and Shaanxi.
Aftershocks - real and rumored - have frightened many people here, especially in rural Sichuan. The May 12 disaster left hundreds of thousands homeless and 300,000 injured. Just half of the 59,394 who needed hospital treatment had been discharged last Wednesday, according to a Chinese health ministry. China's government has issued an international appeal for tents.
On May 12, entire mountainsides shuddered loose - blocking rivers across Sichuan. Thirty-five new lakes have formed; Chinese soldiers rushed Monday to dynamite several waterways free. Thousands of people have been evacuated from the area below Tangjiashan - a 'quake lake' in Sichuan's Beichuan County.
Officials warned that Tangjiashan could flood, submerging villages and threatening 700,000 earthquake victims.
Earthquake newslinks (more newslinks below story):
When the smog descends. When the crowds press in. When the sun beats down. When the politics heat up.
When Beijing's 2008 Games become unbearable, repair to the Fragrant Hills. There you’ll rest below a breezy cypress, listen to mazhong tiles softly clack and gulp fresh air.
The Fragrant Hills - in Chinese, Xiangshan - are accessibly located an hour by public bus northwest of Beijing.
For nearly a thousand years, city-worn Beijingers have found sanctuary here. Jin Dynasty officials commissioned the park in 1186. China's Qianglong emperor - a renowned calligrapher - scattered temples, pavilions and gardens up and down its slopes.
Today, Xiangshan Park occupies 400 wooded acres. Stone-paved trails and stairs twist 1,800 feet to Xianglu ('Incense Burner') Peak. Follow one past Yanjing ('Spectacles') Lake and an 18th-century Tibetan lamasery - the sixth Panchen Lama's Beijing abode. Or stroll by Shuangqing Villa, the Communist Party of China's onetime headquarters.
Xianglu is hardly a quiet climb - tired toddlers whine, high-heeled hikers screech, elderly lushes bellow encouragement, while sweaty teenagers blast Taiwanese pop.
Dirt paths lead to abandoned outlooks and dappled groves, however. Xiangshan is worth a half-day trip. Smart visitors pack bags of fresh fruit - sold by the jin below the park's east and north gates.
Biyun Si (Azure Clouds Temple) is Xiangshan's most intriguing edifice. First constructed as a nunnery during Kublai Khan's Yuan dynasty and thrice-enlarged since, Biyun Si boasts six courtyards, stacked one by one up the mountain.
Heng and Ha, Buddhism's fearsome gate-guards, snarl ahead of Biyun Si. Inside the temple, lithesome cats explore courtyards, goldfish pools and prayer halls.
One wing has been dedicated to Dr. Sun Yat Sen (Sun Zhongshan) - the 'Father of Modern China.' Mourners carried the revolutionary, unifier and political leader to Biyun Si on March 12, 1925, the same day he died. Four years later, Sun's body was moved to a mausoleum in Nanjing.
Foreign troops - the Anglo-French Allied Forces and the Eight-Powers Allied Forces - burned and plundered the park in 1860 and 1900 respectively, diminishing Xiangshan's historical allure.
The Fragrant Hills rise, gentle and verdant, within sight of Beijing's Summer Palace. But - as a modern tourist site - Xiangshan plays second fiddle to that world-famous imperial retreat.
Which is to say: German back-packers, Japanese photographers and American sightseers haven't overrun the park yet. Admission is only 10 yuan, 5 yuan during the winter (prices may increase temporarily during the Olympic Games).
Chinese flock to Xiangshan once a year to appreciate the mountain's stunning foliage.
A Tang dynasty poet, Du Mu, once wrote of the Fragrant Hills:
Stopping in my sedan chair in the evening, I sit admiring the maples/ The frost-covered leaves are redder than the flowers of spring
Cable cars, rather than sedan chairs, ferry leaf-seekers up Xianglu Peak today. On a sunny day - summer, winter, spring or fall - the views are beautiful.
Beijing squats on a flat, dusty plain. Perched astride the Fragrant Hills, you'll measure the city's gray sprawl against shadowy mountains, puffing smokestacks and lonely factories.
Yellow winds from Inner Mongolia whip over Xianglu on their way to the sea; hold on to your camera and cap.
Beijing is so large, so dense, so full of bureaucracy, car exhaust and history - it's easy to feel swallowed-up, overwhelmed.
When the Olympics hit town this August, head for the Fragrant Hills. Atop Xianglu, smoggy Beijing swings back into focus.
More earthquake newslinks:
May 13, 2008 11:14 AM
Posted by Daniel Beekman
A muscular knot of bright white socks and shaggy black heads surges onto the grass at Beijing's National Stadium - the Chinese Olympic soccer team. Their fans roar with patriotic delight.
When a second group of players take the pitch, confident in royal blue, the stadium grows silent. "France, %$@& you!" someone shrieks. Ten thousand voices join him.
Welcome to Liu Jingmin's worst nightmare. A year ago, Beijing's vice-mayor launched a campaign against foul language. According to Liu, boorish Beijingers pose a threat to China's Olympic image.
"Beijing ball-fans do swear a lot," observed a student from the Capital Normal University. "Some of them are fengkuang - crazy. Go to a game. You'll hear 60 percent of the people around you swearing.
"We don't swear, though. We're college students - educated. I mean, $%@*...there's been enough propaganda on the subject."
Construction workers from Henan curse. So do businessmen from Fujian, bakers from Xinjiang and bartenders from Anhui. Yet Beijing boasts an uncouth lexicon all its own: jingma ('capital cursing').
Some Beijingers consider jingma part of their heritage - an earthy way of speaking that's casual and free. Children break into jingma before they know what &%%# means.
Nonetheless, many Beijingers object to jingma; they liken it to Qing dynasty foot binding, an ugly relic of the city's dark past.
"Jingma is a problem we should address," another Capital Normal student asserted. "Jingma isn't a custom we should preserve."
"Beijingers curse all the time," said a young migrant worker from Shandong province. "You get used to it, though."
"Swearing is definitely a problem in Beijing," a Capital Normal freshman from Heilongjiang province chuckled. "*&*# this, *&*# that - it's all you hear."
A smoky, underground Beijing pool hall...and jingma stronghold.
Older interviewees shared a different account.
"Beijingers don't curse very often," declared one grizzled porter, resting his tricycle cart against a shady wall. "Jingma included - we don't use that sort of language."
"People curse on the ball-field, I suppose," an elderly chess-player said. "Fans curse in the stands. We don't curse. We're a bunch of lao tou'er ('old heads'). We don't attend ball-games."
Beijing's Olympic organizers are scrambling to ensure clear skies this August and keep 'Free Tibet' protestors at bay. But rowdy Beijingers worry them too.
Aggressive nationalism is on the rise, thanks to Olympic torch relay demonstrations in Paris and London. China, as host, stands to gain or lose an enormous amount of 'face' in 2008. Fiery fans could ruin the party.
"Taunting would be in poor taste," said a 32-year old accountant from Inner Mongolia, enjoying his lunch break. "We ought to welcome all the Olympic athletes."
"Cursing? At the Games? Impossible!" a middle-aged woman accompanied by two friends exclaimed. "That would be impolite."
"We Chinese are civilized," explained a young Beijinger, breathing hard from pick-up basketball. "There's no cause for concern.
"European soccer fans swear. That's just soccer culture. Americans swear too. At the Olympics - no. In China - no."
The right way to cheer for China's Olympians...
Jingma and the Games first made headlines in 2001, weeks before Beijing was awarded the 29th Olympiad. An article in the South China Morning Post (SCMP) began:
Beijing officials fear they have an image problem. When fans are unhappy at football matches, they have a habit of chanting an obscenity. A very lewd obscenity. It is a commonly heard insult on the streets of Beijing, but when thousands of people in a stadium yell the phrase in unison, which includes a crude reference to the female anatomy, the effect is rather overbearing. The Beijing Economic Daily has warned that the curse has damaged "Beijing's reputation as a modern international city with an ancient history and culture. People from top to bottom regard it as a disgrace to the capital."
According to the SCMP report, Beijing's Office of Spiritual Civilization would launch a campaign "to clean up the fans' language and restore the city's image." The newspaper quoted Zhao Dongming, head spiritual civilizer.
"If they say our fans are barbaric and rude, this isn't good for the Olympics bid. If we don't guide the fans in the right direction, they'll become soccer hooligans."
Last March, Liu pounced on the issue.
"It's way out of line to have 30,000 people shouting and swearing en masse," said the vice-mayor.
Soon afterwards, 'Starting New Trends to Welcome the Olympics' commenced. One of the campaign's eight aims: reduce cursing.
In July, a Beijing soccer fan was detained after organizing an uncouth online campaign. According to Beijing Today, the 20-year old administered a Baidu.com forum, encouraging Beijingers to curse Guo'an FC opponents and referees.
Members teamed up at home games, calling themselves the 'Jingma League.'
"I've been using jingma since I was a little boy," the fan told Beijing Today. "For our team, it really raised their spirits."
Also in July, Beijing police announced they would punish discourteous soccer fans - days before a friendly match pitting local props Guo'an against Spain's Barcelona.
"There will be a police officer in each stand videoing the crowd during the match in order to collect evidence of fans' bad behavior," Liu said, dubbing the Barcelona bout "a drill for the Olympics."
"I watched China's soccer league final last year on TV," recalled a college administrator. "Every time the ball went out of bounds, the crowd shook and swore."
A Beijing taxi driver pled ignorance.
"I watch soccer all the time and I've never noticed," he said.
Opponent baiting is hardly a Chinese phenomenon; ask any Mariners' fan who's visited Yankee Stadium. But here in China, hooliganism is on the rise.
In 2000, a mob of soccer fans rioted over officiating in Xian, setting police cars on fire. In 2004, Beijing Hyundai fans knocked a referee in the head with a bottle. The same year, Shanghai Shenhua and Shanghai International players brawled.
Four years before the 2008 Olympics (to the day), soccer fans-turned-rioters poured out of Workers' Stadium in Beijing following China's 2-1 Asian Cup loss to Japan. Prior to the game, boos drowned out Japan's national anthem. Post-contest, a crowd hurled obscenities, surrounded the opposing squad's hotel and burned Japanese flags.
Last September in Hunan province, Chinese soccer fans rallied behind Germany for that country's win over Japan...and cursed the Japanese.
Many here still resent Japan's invasion and occupation of China between 1931 and 1945. President Hu Jintao recently visited Japan - the first such trip in a decade. China suspended high-level contact with Japan during the premiership of Junichiro Koizumi from 2001 to 2006.
France irked Chinese nationalists when protestors disrupted the Paris leg of China's 2008 Olympic torch relay this April.
"I’m a big ball-fan, but don't swear," said a young real estate agent trolling for home-hunters in Beijing. "If the Chinese team plays France or Japan, a few of us will turn rowdy - most of us won't. On the other hand, the Olympics have been politicized, thanks to the Dalai Lama. People are angry now. It's hard to say what could happen."
Most interviewees differentiated between Beijing's soccer crazies and the city's common folk - laobaixing.
"We care less about sports and politics, more about making money," a rail-thin fruit seller remarked. "We laobaixing don't swear. What would be the use? Swear, and afterwards you're still poor."
China's top taunters beg to differ.
"If the referees were fair, we wouldn't curse," one Beijing fan informed the SCMP. "Cursing is a way to show love," argued another. "If you aren't cursed, no one cares about you. That's a tragedy."
Wang Wen of the Beijing Soccer Fan Association doesn't think cursing will spoil the capital's Olympic image. Cursing allows fans - under pressure at work or at home - a kind of release, Wang told China Daily.
(Note: For one Beijinger's eloquent defense of jingma, click here.)
Liu's anti-cursing campaign belongs to a larger 'civilizing' movement sponsored by Beijing's government ahead of the 2008 Games. Billboards, banners and blackboards throughout the city encourage Beijingers to support the Olympics and jin wenming ('advance civilization').
For people here, jin wenming has meant resisting the impulse to spit, litter, cut in line...or curse.
"Beijing is changing," an elderly woman said. "We've been educating the laobaixing for years now - preparing for the Games."
"Cursing is common at soccer games - if you're a defender, you'll be heckled for sure," admitted a man from Hebei province. "But in general, people curse less these days. The television PSAs delivered by athletes and film stars have been effective."
Beijing's Federation of Trade Unions runs Olympic cheer classes for local firms. Beijing University has contemplated a student ban on Internet cursing.
"We win, we cheer; you win, we boo - that's not right," a sports journalist and cheer coach advised Agence France-Presse. "This is just training...They don't have to use these slogans or moves. Just as long as they behave well in front of the whole world."
"I only curse among my best friends, and when I'm fighting with my girlfriend," said the Capital Normal freshman from Heilongjiang. "When I watch sports? Yeah, I guess I do swear...a lot!
"But I'd never curse Olympians. None of us will."
May 2, 2008 6:48 AM
Posted by Daniel Beekman
'Olympic Dream,' carefully penned and posted, was photographed in a Beijing middle school classroom where the sons and daughters of migrant workers learn.
The story celebrates Xiao Ming, a Chinese student who speaks excellent English and treats foreigners with respect. Ahead of the 2008 Olympic Games, Beijing's young people have been encouraged to volunteer, study English and identify themselves as 'citizens of the world.'
Protests of China's Olympic torch relay in the West and disagreements over Tibet have challenged such lessons. Many students here feel disillusioned (see 'Protests and counter-protests' - April 18). Will Xiao Ming welcome the planet's top athletes this summer? Or will Beijing's wounded, nationalistic youngsters?
April 29, 2008 11:19 AM
Posted by Daniel Beekman
According to the Wall Street Journal's Geoffery Fowler ('Where have you gone, Lei Feng' - April 12), Liu Xiang - Shanghai's handsome hurdler - belongs to "a new breed of Chinese hero: the global champion."
Liu won a gold medal for China at the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens - dashing 110 meters in 12.91 seconds. He's since become a Chinese media darling - the country's first-ever track star.
"Traditionally, hero making has been the job of the state," Fowler writes, "and most state heroes are idealized former leaders and soldiers who exemplified the Communist ideals. But in an era of reform and commercialized media, China's emerging icons are looking less like heroes of the state than heroes of the people. From athletes to nimble and wealthy entrepreneurs, today's Chinese heroes are exalted for both global achievements and peoples' ability to relate to their success."
According to Fowler, Communist heroes like Lei Feng - a selfless soldier who died young - are fading from this nation's imagination. Modern Chinese idolize Taiwanese rappers and Internet wizards. Modern Chinese admire winners, not martyrs.
Fowler quotes Jack Ma, a celebrated Internet speculator - CEO of the e-commerce firm Alibaba.
"Many years ago, all of the heroes were made by the government," Ma told the WSJ. "Today, people make you a hero. The things you achieve make you a hero. That is a huge change."
Lei Feng was a soldier of the revolution and China's favorite son during the 1960s. Born an orphan in 1940, Lei grew up by way of the Communist Party. His diary was published after his death - struck by an army truck in 1962. A year later, Chairman Mao Zedong urged all Chinese citizens to 'Learn from Comrade Lei Feng.'
Mao applauded Lei's faith in the communist party, plastering Lei slogans thoughout China. A reliable soldier - cheerful, noble, hardworking and helpful - Lei served as a role model. His legend suffered slightly following Mao's death in 1976; Lei, however, is still admired.
Liu Xiang, born in 1983 to a truck driver and waitress, competed at high-jump until his state-sponsored sports school 'gave up on him.' That's when Liu took up hurdles, breezing past local competition.
According to his coach, Liu was initially an awful hurdler. A determined runner nonetheless, Liu won the 110-meter hurdles at Osaka's 2001 East Asian Games and Beijing's 2001 World University Games. Last year, he became China's first athlete to achieve track & field's 'triple crown' as world record holder, world champion and Olympic champion - all at once.
Liu, whose given name means 'take flight,' was raised by grandparents; the 24-year old dedicated his 2004 gold to his grandmother. Possessing a sweet face and sweeter disposition, Liu has earned the adulation of China's young women.
He's taken to fame, charming reporters and consumers alike. Beaming Liu Xiang billboards endorse Nike, Cadillac and Coca-Cola where decades ago Lei Feng's posters hung. Yili, a Chinese dairy firm, pays Liu 10 million yuan (US$1.5 million) a year.
In April, Chinese youngsters - more than 2,000 polled between the ages of 8 and 24 - voted Liu 'most popular athlete'. The hurdler beat out Chinese basketball luminary Yao Ming and soccer's David Beckham.
Liu has clearly achieved iconic status; he's favored by patriots, jocks, gossips and advertising executives. Perhaps Liu does belong to a 'new breed of Chinese hero' - Fowler's 'global champion.'
Blogging Beijing hit the streets to find out...Is Liu Xiang China's new Lei Feng?
"No way," shouted a middle-aged man selling popsicles near Beijing's 'Big Bell Temple' - Da Zhong Si. "Yes, I know Liu Xiang - the runner. I like him. Chinese athletes don't often win medals in track.
"Lei Feng was a soldier - someone who helped other people. Liu Xiang, he's a sports hero. Beyond that...running is one thing, contributing to society is another."
An out-of-town couple visiting the temple agreed.
"Liu Xiang is an athlete," they observed. "We all like him. He sets a great example - with respect to sports. He's no Lei Feng though. He's an Olympian. Lei Feng served the people. Lei Feng was a hero."
"I guess you could compare the two," a 24-year old chuckled. "Although I'm not sure you completely understand Lei Feng. Liu Xiang is China's treasure. He gives us strength. In fact, I prefer him to Lei Feng. I'm a young person."
Liu Xiang's name drew smiles from three women chomping pears outside Da Zhong Si.
"He's an Olympic champion - the whole world knows who Liu Xiang is," lectured one of the women, an icredulous, retired schoolteacher. "He's our hero, the pride of China and a gold medalist. We Chinese all love him.
"We tell our kids - look at Liu Xiang. Work hard to improve your body. Do you best. Practice. Don't worry what other people say. Liu Xiang is a good boy. When he's not running, he helps people. He's young like Lei Feng was young. He's our heart."
This may be Liu Xiang's year - many expect him to win a second gold medal - but he's hardly eclipsed Lei Feng. Most Chinese seem to sincerely respect the soldier's memory and value his deeds.
"I like Liu Xiang - he's a hero on par with your NBA stars in America," commented a 62-year old doctor. "We're all very proud of him.
"But he isn't China's new Lei Feng. That's not right. Lei Feng was a helper. Running isn't the same. Today's kids should study Lei Feng in addition to Liu Xiang, Yao Ming and Kobe Bryant. We old men and women were young when Lei Feng was alive - we care about him very much. He's important to us. He volunteered because he wanted to. Now I suppose Liu Xiang is more popular."
"I really like Liu Xiang because he's a winner," said a Beijing high school student. "I wouldn't say he's the new Lei Feng though. I studied Lei Feng in elementary school. He's still worth studying."
"I know Lei Feng and Liu Xiang," a six-year old answered. "I like them both."
"Liu Xiang runs very fast," his friend added.
Liu Xiang the commercial pitchman and global sex symbol may belong to a 'new breed of Chinese hero' - a self-made man sans socialist state. And yet, not so much has changed.
A few months ago, Liu found himself elected to the National Committee of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference. Mao's precious Lei Feng never achieved that.
April 15, 2008 1:37 AM
Posted by Daniel Beekman
A flock of construction cranes have swung and dipped here, stirring up dust and monumental structures for seven frantic years. The Bird's Nest. The Water Cube. A new opera house. Rem Koolhaas' bagel-shaped CCTV headquarters. Asia's 23rd tallest building. Since the International Olympic Committee awarded China its first-ever Games, Beijing has recieved a dramatic face-lift.
For a comprehensive glimpse of new Beijing - sans five-hour cab ride - head southeast from Tiananmen Square on Qianmen Dongdajie ('Front Gate East Street'). The city's Urban Planning and Exhibition Center boasts a shockingly accurate, 302-square meter model Beijing.
Breezy and attractive, the center was renovated in 2005. Wings dedicated to transportation, environmental protection, water systems and energy conservation complement the mini-city - a four million yuan (US$482,000) project that took 150 workers 12 months to build).
Don't miss the nine by ten meter Beijing bronze relief on your way upstairs. Historical maps and plans reveal how the capital has grown. Admission is 30 yuan. Ten more and you'll strap on goggles for a 3-D film.
Most visitors to the center head straight for mini-Beijing - 750 times smaller than the real thing. Why is the model so fun and fascinating?
It boasts stunning detail: every office plaza and apartment tower inside the city's Third Ring Road, rendered true to style. A sliver of turf studded with graceful gymnasiums runs north into forest - 2008's Olympic Green. Raised over a blown-up satellite image, the model sprawls where Beijing sprawls, heaves where Beijing heaves.
And yet...The capital's construction sites - absent. Its slap-dab corner stores and midnight kebab stands - missing. Mini-Beijing (the work of urban planners, after all) hints at what could be. Neat, affluent and modern, it's the sort of city Olympic organizers aim for.
In fact, Beijing's urban planners and 2008 organizers are battling traffic, pollution, a water shortage and energy over-consumption. The center approaches each issue separately, emphasizing a set of values that supposedly define Olympic Beijing.
A cartoon music video, poppy and bright, applauds the city's improved commitment to healthy, safe transportation.
Every day and every year/
Traveling for school, work and pleasure/
Beijing transportation is part of our daily life/
Smooth traffic delights everyone/
Harmonized transport is the wish we all share/
Walking is relaxing/
Cycling is good for exercise/
Traveling by car is, of course, most comfortable/
Riding the bus is money-saving/
You can get anywhere on Beijing's well-executed transport network/
More roads, bus lanes/
Preserving the hutongs as our precious heritage/
And the speedy, comfortable BRT, another accomplishment/
Metro trains carry us all upwards to the ground/
Beijing is my home/
Oh, my Beijing is developing/
Harmonized transport is becoming another symbol of Beijing/
Beijing is changing every day/
For the year 2008/
Harmonized transport will be another name-card of my Beijing/
I bought a car and made more money than before/
But it was really annoying that gas prices have been rising ever since/
It's wise to take public transport on weekdays/
Saving money and the environment/
Use my private car on weekends, when I go shopping or driving/
Most important when going out is traffic safety/
Speeding, overloading, driving drunk/
A fluke coupled by improper operation might bring you your end any minute/
Beijing's green skyline is based on environmental protection/
So take care of your car's emissions, use unleaded gas and new energies/
Change your habits/
Transport is developing fast/
Running red lights and jumping fences is really bad conduct/
Jumping the queue while driving might save you a few seconds/
But it'll be really embarrassing when your kid says "Dad, bad driving!"
Posters warn against polluted water and tick off measures intended to 'green' Beijing.
According to one notice: "Clean energy will be used in a larger scale," "traffic pollution control further strengthened," "coal-based small boilers in urban areas retrofitted," "more stringent vehicle emissions standards implemented," "construction of wastewater treatment and recycling plants accelerated," "aquatic environmental management strengthened," "90 percent of urban sewage treated" and "afforestation carried out."
"During the 2008 Olympic Games," the notice promises, "the indicators of major atmospheric pollutants will meet World Health Organization guidelines."
Nearby, wall charts follow Beijing's waterways. Glass cases display efficient bulbs and clap-on lights. On the center's top floor, an Olympic exhibit includes scale models of the nearly completed National Stadium and the recently finished National Aquatic Center - nicknamed Bird's Nest and Water Cube.
"My personal opinion of the designs?" laughed a Qinghua University architecture student from Jiangsu province. "Too controversial. I'd rather not get in trouble. Today's my first as a volunteer here."
Best laid plans aside, Beijing remains a city in flux. Fittingly, the center itself is under construction. Migrant workers in yellow hard hats have thrown up a new facade.
"I've lived in Beijing a year," remarked one man, originally from Henan province. "This place we're working on? I've never been inside."
April 10, 2008 1:38 AM
Posted by Daniel Beekman
It's been four months since Blogging Beijing's first post, which means the 2008 Olympic Games are four months away.
Since December, snowstorms have buffeted, Tibetans protested, marathoners abandoned, Hollywooders disowned and meteorologists questioned China's Olympic push.
Since December, sponsors have milked, hurdlers glorified and Chinese politicians championed the Games.
If a city can change in just four months, Beijing has. Underground, where migrant workers scraped out new subways. High above, where unique stadia shine. Among Beijingers too. Some warmed to the Olympics - so exciting, so colorful, so important for China. Others cooled.
Beijingers, sensibly enough, went on living as well. Teaching, learning, cooking, cleaning, dancing, biking, working, eating, crying, kissing, sleeping, playing. Not for the Olympics, or China, or Communism. Rather, for the same reasons Seattlites did - family, friends, honor, confusion, jealousy, love, boredom and necessity.
They'll likely keep it up, from now until August 8. And there's nothing right or wrong with that.
A Tiananmen tourist gets behind Beijing's Olympic motto 'One World, One Dream.' (below)
Join the discussion:
Four months in, Blogging Beijing welcomes comments and suggestions.
What aspects of life in Olympic China have you found interesting thus far? What posts have you enjoyed? How has Blogging Beijing failed to deliver? Moving on, what would you like to read?
Thank you to all readers who have commented or offered suggestions already.
(Note - A long-planned post on grassroots environmental protection ahead of the 2008 Games in Beijing will appear online soon.)
March 18, 2008 6:42 AM
Posted by Daniel Beekman
As ethnic conflicts escalate around China and dusty winds rake Beijing, the Olympic Games are becoming more than ever a 'universal signifier' - an event by which we the word's citizens may represent/explain/resolve anything.
The Olympics have always involved competition, dialogue, entertainment, fitness and health - not to mention politics (despite what the International Olympic Committee claims). From Atlanta's pipe-bombings to the Moscow boycott, high drama tends to trail the Games.
But these 2008 Beijing Olympics have busted the bell-curve. Just pick up a newspaper. Athletes and activists, actors and advertisers, Chinese and American - people of all stripes are jostling for position vis-a-vis this year's Games.
Blogging Beijing will follow suit, posting on Olympics/exercise habits, Olympics/Shenzhen and Olympics/local hip hop very soon. Until then, enjoy these 'odds and ends' - fragments of life in Beijing ahead of the 2008 Games.
More Paralympics (See 'Beijing's Paralympics' - March 12):
Below you'll find the Beijing 2008 Paralympics mascot Funui Lele - Lele the Happy Cow. According to the official Beijing 2008 website, Lele's design "derives its inspiration from the farming cultivation culture of ancient Chinese civilization..."
"Cows," the website explains, "symbolic of a down-to-earth, diligent, staunch and never-say-die spirit, are adopted to show the unremitting spirit of athletes with a disability in being the best they can be."
Lele was unveiled by a number of high-ranking Chinese Communist Party officials and Liu Qi - president of the Beijing Olympic Organizing Committee - on September 6, 2006 at the Great Wall, exactly two years before the Paralympic Games.
Also below you'll find the Beijing 2008 Paralympics logo.
Snapped around town:
In some ways, Beijing looks like an American city - square blocks, department stores and thundering highways. Upon closer inspection, though, strange/unfamiliar sights abound.
On Chang'an Jie, outside Beijing's cavernous Military Museum - admission 20 Yuan (US$2.75)
"2008-Olympic-Beiijing --- Olympics Cartoon Police Display --- Please install window protection net in first floor. Please be alarm of breaking into the second floor (upper-left). Park with the bicycle in the parking lot that somebody keeps watch on, please (upper-right). Please lock your door and close your window when going out or sleep at night to prevent from breaking into your house (lower-left). Prevent the bicycle from being robbed" (lower-right).
Migrant laborers from China's countryside sleep in this tent, pitched between two Beijing apartment buildings. They're landscaping a small park.
A Coca-Cola bus stop banner from February - the theme was Chinese New Year's. Notice National Basketball Association star Yao Ming on the left and gold-medalist hurdler Liu Xiang on the right. Coca-Cola is a Beijing 2008 Olympic sponsor.
A community blackboard - "'Development is for the People / Development depends on the Peoplew / Development is the People's shared achievement' - North Neighborhood Residents' Committee"
"Harmonious Olympics water service / Saving water for later starts with me"
"World Water Day / China Water Week / March 22-28 / Develop water conservation / Improve the people / Safe water service / Safe Olympics"
Scraps of news:
Thanks to 'Beijing Olympics Blog' for highlighting an interesting report way back in January. China Daily (the country's biggest English-language newspaper), published the results of a survey asking people what they most wished for from the Games this year.
Among the top ten wishes: 'to become a torchbearer for the Games,' 'to see Liu Xiang (the Chinese hurdler) win Olympic gold in person,' 'to pose for photographs in front of newly built Olympic stadiums' and 'smooth traffic during the Games.'
For a complete 'top ten' list and more commentary, link to Beijing Olympics Blog above.
And then this story, originally published through Xinhua (China's government sponsored media outlet): "No rats for Beijing, even in the 'Year of the Rat'".
Rights activists have decried a (tentative) government plan to forcibly sweep beggars, prostitutes and migrant workers from Beijing in August. So far, no one has rallied behind the city's rats.
Beijing's Olympic organizers are determined to prepare a clean, wholesome city - they will host more than 500,000 overseas guests during the Games. With thousands of foreign reporters soon to arrive, poverty's representatives in Beijing - human and vermin (not to actually compare the two) - may be dealt with severely.
According to Deng Xiaohong, deputy director of the Beijing Municipal Health Bureau, the campaign will begin on February 26, targeting Olympic venues. Rat poison will be employed and distributed around the city at non-Olympic areas including apartments, wet markets and fowl breeders.
"Beijing health workers will send teams to inspect the rats-killing work, and will impose fines on those who failed their job," Deng said.
March 15, 2008 6:18 AM
Posted by Daniel Beekman
For years, China has poured money down Beijing's boulevards, flushed resources through Beijing's subways and cast about for legislation capable of solving Beijing's traffic problems.
Now shiny 'green' buses barrel down freshly paved streets and a new subway line cased in blue/white porcelain is nearly complete. But less than five months ahead of the 2008 Olympic Games, the host city's thoroughfares remain jammed, its subway cars packed.
After losing ground for years, bicycles are suddenly back in fashion - try slipping between lanes in a clunky sedan.
"It takes me about an hour by bus to get from my home to work - I'm an interior decorator," said a young man buying fruit near Beijing's Third Ring Road.
"The bus is crowded and I wake up at 6am. The Olympics should help. 'A positive influence on our society' - that's what all the news programs say. I've heard that by 2010 a subway line will run by my home, in Daxing (District)."
In west Beijing's Gongzhufen subway station, a hurried high-school teacher slowed down to talk.
"I ride the subway something like 10 times a month," she said. "It's convenient - more so recently thanks to the Olympics. No traffic jams down here. I usually ride with my husband to work. He drives our car.
"But I prefer the subway. Take the subway and you won't be late. It's cheaper and safer too. Of course, the subway is very crowded - too crowded."
Following its successful bid for this summer's Games in 2001, Beijing launched an ambitious subway construction program. Seven years ago, the city's light-rail system consisted of just two lines.
A north-south line opened last year in east Beijing and three more will begin operation before August, including an 'Airport Line' and an 'Olympic Spur Line.' Work will begin on yet another new subway line next year.
"My morning commute is only ten minutes, by private car," said a Beijing CEO, who perused a high-end department store trailed by three eager underlings. "It takes me 40 minutes to get home. As the city has built new subway lines, rider-ship has increased.
"In theory, this should alleviate our traffic problems. But we're buying private cars even faster."
"Traffic on the Third Ring isn't getting better - it's getting worse," a young man said. "The city is developing rapidly. Too many people are buying cars. Waiting for the bus takes a long time, and you never know when yours will come. If I leave home for work after 8am, I often arrive late."
With the exception of the Olympic Spur Line, planners have calibrated recent improvements to Beijing's infrastructure for the future. When the subway expansion is done, lines will criss-cross most of the city.
Today, Beijingers hop subways and buses wielding the city's efficient yitongka swipe-card, introduced in 2006. To further promote public transportation ahead of the Games, Beijing cut ticket prices last summer, reducing bus fares to 4 Mao (5 US cents) and subway rides to 2 Yuan (25 US cents).
Beijing has also marched toward stricter fuel standards - requiring local gasoline and diesel retailers to meet the Euro II standard in 2002, the Euro III in 2005 and the Euro IV for 2008.
And since 1999, the city has deployed more than 1,900 buses running on compressed natural gas; at 4,000, Beijing's fleet is the largest of its kind in the world. Meanwhile, nearly 79,000 new low-emission taxis troll the capital for passengers.
Beijingers have in general applauded the city's late transportation initiatives. Any progress - just ask an I-405 or I-5 commuter - beats no progress at all.
"There are fewer people waiting at stops these days," a Beijing bus driver said. "The city has added more lines."
It would be wrong to claim, however, that Beijing's traffic has markedly improved. Try to cross town after 4pm on a weekday and you'll sit forever.
"It takes me two hours to get home from school," said a young woman who studies at Capital Normal University. "I take a bus, then the subway, then another bus. Rush hour is awful. And why? Beijing has too many people."
"Traffic on the Second Ring is deadly," a 65-year old grandfather groaned. "My son bought a car three years ago - he really loves to drive. But he got so tired of Beijing's traffic; he sold it back last year.
"My other son works at the airport, and rents an apartment out there. When the airport subway line opens he'll probably move back into the city. By car, it's an impossible commute."
Bankrolled by China's economic boom, moneyed Beijingers are pursuing 'the good life' - as prescribed by Hollywood America. 'One family, one child,' has given way to 'one family, one child, one car.'
Beijing has yet to impose heavy taxes on vehicle owners, as similarly challenged cities around the globe have done. But staggering gas prices haven't curbed car sales yet.
"It costs more to drive than to take a taxi everywhere, everyday," one Beijinger remarked.
In a city where dust storms buffet bus stops and subway patrons trample each other, Audi and Hyundai are synonymous with sanctuary. Last month, Reuters reported furor over a Beijing subway ad. The ad read: 'Squeezed in? Then go buy a car!'
"Private cars are clogging Beijing and ruining the environment," said a skinny young man. "Still, I'd buy one myself if I could afford it."
Sadly, there's no room in Beijing for another 3 million vehicles. Desperate to pull off an efficient Olympic Games, the city's leaders are resorting to clumsy, short-term tactics.
Like Sydney and Athens, hosts of the 2000 and 2004 Games, Beijing will rope off more than 280 kilometers of road for Olympic use. Beginning in July, certain cars will be banned from the city's streets entirely.
First, vehicles from some government departments and state-owned agencies will face restrictions. Then cars with even and odd-numbered license plates will alternate - one or the other banned every day.
During a test last August 17-20, 1.3 million vehicles were ordered off the road daily, reportedly reducing traffic by 30 percent.
Such measures could certainly transform Beijing into a drivable city for two weeks. Indeed, the traffic ban has become a hot conversation topic among Beijingers.
"One day odd, one day even - that's a great plan!" said a garbage man who lives by Beijing's Qinghua University. "Will the ban remain in place after the Olympics? That's hard to say."
"During the Games, the government will impose a whole bunch of restrictions," commented an aerospace engineer and Olympics volunteer. "Afterwards, traffic will return to normal."
"The government has tried hard to beat Beijing's traffic and pollution for the Olympics," the Capital Normal student said. "But it's very hard."
A high-school boarder exiting the subway at Gongzhufen was more cynical.
"The Olympics haven't changed my life or my weekend trips home," she said. "We write stuff about the Games on the blackboard, but it doesn't mean much. It's just propaganda."
Four elderly men ambled by, laughing together.
"The traffic is bad, sure," one chuckled. "But we walk everywhere. We're old and we're friends. We don't need to go far."
March 7, 2008 1:31 AM
Posted by Daniel Beekman
Seven years ago, shopping for clothes in Beijing meant sifting through racks of padded grandma pants and faded Mao hats. Seven years ago, shopping for greens in Beijing meant strolling through ramshackle markets and foggy alleys. Seven years ago, shopping for cheese in Beijing meant a trip to the Friendship Store, a Cold War relic built to keep ex-patraites and Chinese apart.
But Beijing, which won the right to host this summer's Olympic Games in 2001, will emerge in 2008 a consumer's paradise.
Zhongguancun, near Beijing University, has exploded into a hotspot for hi-tech goods and electronics. In Beijing's Central Business District (CBD), foreign luxury retailers like Prada, Gucci and Louis Vitton have set up shop...after shop, after shop. Western-style supermarkets are attracting more customers, foreign and Chinese - stocking peanut butter alongside chicken feet. Wal-Mart has invaded Beijing.
What's good for the jet set hasn't categorically enriched Beijingers, though.
Controversy has stalked housing evictions; activists have protested the construction of shopping malls and Olympic facilities at the expense of 'Old Beijing.' Old-guard cuisines have shed tears to see high-rise apartments strangle the city's best vegetable markets. Foreign newspapers have covered municipal efforts to crack down on un-licensed street peddlers.
Only small-time shopkeepers and their plight vis-a-vis Beijing's commercial boom have received little attention.
These are the Beijingers whose tiny shops cluster below empty buildings, in poorer districts, along shady lanes. They're often sleepy, but chatty enough. They know their customers. Their costumers know them.
They run legitimate businesses - pushing laundry detergent, yogurt, down coats and hair pins.
Most pay rent on their stores.
When Beijing's Olympic organizers send bulldozers and cranes to re-work a piece of land, they compensate whoever owns it. A property's tenants have no choice but to leave empty-handed - never mind how long they've made the doomed site their base of operation.
On Feburary 29, a Xinhua (government-sponsored news agency) headline trumpeted the temporary closure of three high-rolling nightclubs spread beside Workers' Stadium - a 62,000 seat Olympic facility.
The district's small-time shopkeepers - buried, seven paragraphs down. "Almost a dozen sports shops under the stands have been closed and moved out of the stadium since 2006, when the venue started renovation."
Xinhua interviewed just one shop-keeper for the story: Wang Zhongdong.
"At first, I planned to sue...but I gave up after my lawyer's mediation," Wang, who sells golf equipment, told Xinhua. "For a successful Olympics, I'm prepared to make a contribution."
In the shadow of an abandoned stadium across Beijing, a score of sports shops have been shut down with even less fanfare.
"I'm not happy about this," says a middle-aged woman and former tenant, leaning against a rack of hooded sweatshirts rolled onto the street. "I don't know what to do."
Beijing officials snatched her lot last year. Where bargain-hunters roamed, a new subway line is taking shape.
She jabs a thumb at her old stall, until recently packed with soccer jerseys and urban wear. It's nailed over with plywood now. "I rented my place for five years, at 1000 yuan a month." Her gaze shifts to a glassy new office building fifty yards away.
"Some of my fellow shop-keepers have moved into that tower. But they're out of sight. And they're paying 5000 yuan a month. I can't afford that."
Through the new building's swinging side-doors, twenty-odd stalls have been filled. There are badminton specialists, roller-blade purveyors and Sean John boutiqes. One sneaker shop has stocked up on Olympic -edition Air Force Ones.
A moon-faced girl squats facing away from Timberland sweaters stacked four feet high.
"It's more expensive to rent in here, yeah," she says. "But I like the environment. It's clean and bright."
"At any rate, we had no choice but to move."
Business is slow, though. A teenage boy and his mother palm basketballs outside a store down the hall. More than a few stalls are empty - white and bare.
A different scene entirely opens up to the tower's rear, beneath the abandoned stadium. Something like a subterranean city, it buzzes with housewives, businessmen and students skipping school. There are no tidy stalls here, only fiercely defended territories marked out with netting.
Purse-vendors, fabric dealers, tailors and stationers huddle in rows or hug the monstrous structure's wet, concrete walls. Sunlight or no, the market lies out of harm's way. Beijing's Olympic developers haven't ventured down yet.
"Our little kingdom is safe," brags a lamp-hawking couple, ten-years underground. "Of course the tenants up there lose money. They never recieve compensation. It's the landowners who walk away paid."
Beijing will have gained over 4 million square meters of commercial space ahead of the Games - easily doubling what existed in 2001. The city's developers are stacking real estate above CBD - five soaring skycrapers will soon add 1.5 million-plus square meters of office space alone.
All togehter, China has thrown roughly US$40 billion at Beijing - financing subway lines, Olympic arenas and environmental mitigation.
In Haidian District, near the city's foremost foriegn-language cinema, a moldy market recently turned to dust. Smelly, even dank, it had housed butchers, bakers and fishmongers for at least a decade.
"The market just got shut down," confirms a shy chesnut-roaster, who once called rural Henan province home. "It's too bad - there aren't many cheap markets around. Look...he used to sell belts inside. Now he's on the street."
Hereabouts, buildings disappear fast. Beijing Chengguan (city mangers) dropped by on December 20 to break the news. Less than a month later, every tenant had vacated the premises. There was no debate - as their might have been in Ballard or Renton. Nor did the city invite a neighborhood vote.
Hefting pick-axes, a pack of workers climbed the market's roof. More workers launched a frontal assault. By mid-January, scrap collectors had picked the rubble clean.
"Yes, this has to do with Beijing's Olympics," one tenant grumbled - calmly stoking a last-minute fire sale. "It's coming down to make way for a through-street. Our area is close to the Olympic stadiums, and is congested. The new road will beluhua de (forested)."
"We've been here for years," she said. "We're looking for another place in the neighborhood. You know, the Games are good - but they're damaging our business."
Wealthy shoppers in particular will benefit from Beijing's building frenzy. About 300 top-end stores were preparing to open before the Games, as of September 2007. That's 280,000 square meters of virgin luxury space. Here in Beijing, wages are up. So are retail prices and domestic demand for designer goods.
The city's first mega-mall - Oriental Plaza - opened in 2001. Malls in Beijing now cover a total floor area of 6.33 million square meters. One shopping center contains 700 international brands, 90 luxury lines and covers 180,000 square meters. Another boasts the globe's largest LED video-screen.
Beijing's small-time merchants, it seems, are waging a losing battle.
"We used to get foot traffic," said a CD/DVD salesman, gazing down his store's narrow street. "No one window shops here anymore."
Beijing's small-time shops, supermarkets and shopping malls (please allow time for photos to load):
March 2, 2008 3:21 PM
Posted by Daniel Beekman
About 1,000 Chinese households will host foreign tourists during the 2008 Olympic Games. Organizers have suggested that the home-stays could complement Beijing's traditional lodgings - sure to be booked right through August.
"I hope the families can become friends with their guests," Xiong Yumei, deputy director of the Beijing Tourist Bureau, told CNN last month. "They need to introduce the history and culture of Beijing to the foreigners, making them understand and get closer to Beijing and the Olympics."
China's capital expects to accommodate at least 330,000 visitors every day during the Games, more than 500,000 foreigners in all.
None will be staying with Mr. Zhu, however.
Mr. Zhu lives in a poster shop.
So many Beijingers do. Not only poster shops - but beauty parlors, phone booths and convenience stores as well. Real estate prices have soared ahead of the Olympics, pushing city-dwellers into the suburbs and suburbanites onto the streets.
Now that China's New Year celebrations have passed, the search is on for home-stay locations. According to Xiong, each host need provide a well-lit extra room, good ventilation and sanitary conditions. In other words, they must have money. Additionally, each home-stay need include an English-speaker.
Mr. Zhu is friendly, and generous too. He smiles at strangers and bargains half-heartedly. He works in the city. He has a wife and a daughter in school.
Unfortunately, his shop has no space for a German trio or an Argentine couple.
Actually, Mr. Zhu rents a small apartment in Beijing's northern suburbs - a real home. His wife and daughter live there. So does he...one or two days out of seven. He usually treks back, three hours each way, on weekends. Mostly, Mr. Zhu pads down a half flight of wooden stairs at the rear of his shop to a closet-like bed.
He rarely sees his daughter, a high school sophomore. She wakes up every morning at 5am, sleep-walks to class and doesn't return home until 10pm. If she's lucky, the 16-year old spends five hours per night in bed.
She's studying English and testing quite well. Mr. Zhu is quietly proud of his child. Perhaps she'll go to college. Perhaps she'll land a high-paying job, he says. Perhaps she'll move to Shanghai and host a foriegn guest during the 2028 Games.
Or perhaps, a few foreign tourists - sweaty and bothered Olympic fans - will happen upon Mr. Zhu's shop, where they'll dawdle among heaps of black-and-white movie posters and bask in genuine Beijing hospitality.
February 7, 2008 2:31 PM
Posted by Daniel Beekman
Since winning the right to host the 2008 Olympic Games, Beijing has introduced 'Olympic Education' to more than 200 'model' schools (see 'Jump for Development' - posted January 10).
Thousands of teachers have been trained to extol cultural tolerance, hard work and exercise - to develop in their students a will to succeed not unlike that possessed by the world's greatest athletes. Hundreds of mini-Games have been held. Scores of foreign pen pals have corresponded with Chinese students and visited Beijing. Olympic Education, in many respects, has been a hit.
Beijing's model schools are theoretically responsible for spreading Olympism throughout the capital and all across China. Many have succeeded - Huajiadian Experimental Primary School for example, was recently recognized for an ongoing 'Hand in Hand' partnership.
With Huajiadian's help, students at a poor mountain school in Hebei province three hours away have formed their own (mock) International Olympic Committee (see 'Budding diplomats' - coming soon).
But west Beijing's Haowan* Primary School is not a model for Olympic Education. Nor has it partnered with one of the city's model schools. Haowan is a private school for the sons and daughters of migrant workers. Like other migrant schools, it offers classes to those children who can't attend public school.
"All of our students' parents are migrants," Haowan's principal, Zhou Leili*, told me. "They come from both smaller cities and from the countryside - mostly from the countryside."
China is now home to between 120 and 200 million rural-to-urban migrants - largely former farmers. Beijing's migrant population exceeds 5.4 million.
"I moved to Beijing four years ago," said a 24-year-old electrical worker from Henan province. "I miss my father, but I don't have enough money to visit my home."
Both country and city-dwellers are subject to China's household registration or hukou system. Although East Asian states have kept family registers for hundreds of years, the word hukou ('house-mouths') is today commonly associated with an apparatus of former Chinese Communist Party Chairman Mao Zedong's design.
In 1958, all Chinese citizens were assigned residency permits that defined where they (and their descendants) were expected to work and live. Mao's hukou system was intended to ensure demographic stability and to keep Chinese farmers in their fields. It was also used to identify criminals and political dissidents.
The hukou system disadvantaged many of China's peasants. In general, their urbanite counterparts attended better schools, found better jobs and received better healthcare. After Mao's death in 1976, millions of farmers bolted - rather than watch China's reformed economy explode from the sidelines.
During the 1980s, municipal authorities clamped down on unregistered workers. In particular, 'custody and repatriation' regulations authorized police to detain and send home people with rural hukou permits living illegally in Chinese cities. But China's peasants remained very poor - the migration continued.
Every year, more rural Chinese find jobs in the country's rapidly developing cities. The hukou system has, more or less, collapsed. One third of Beijingers lack a Beijing hukou permit and they now form the backbone of urban society - serving as cooks, nannies, garbage collectors, peddlers, salespeople and construction workers.
"I've got a son and a son-in-law - they're both dagong (migrant workers) like me," a graying construction hand told me. We chatted inside a tiny office at the entrance to his site, where two brand-new subway lines will intersect. "My son-in-law lives in Guangzhou. My son's here in Beijing."
But steady jobs have not guaranteed for migrant workers equal rights or fair pay. More than half of Beijing's dagong, for instance, earn less than US$160 per month and live in poorly equipped rental dorms. According to government-sponsored media, 60 percent of the municipality's migrant children drop out before reaching high school due to financial problems.
Beijing's migrants are blamed for crowding, pollution and crime. They may experience discrimination; many aren't regularly paid. In 2006, Beijing construction companies alone defaulted on US$200 million in wages.
I recently walked past a crowd of ragged, hard-hatted migrants standing outside my neighborhood police station. What are you waiting for? I asked them.
"We're going to get paid," one replied. He wouldn't elaborate further.
"The police aren't paying them - the police are making sure those workers' boss gives them a good deal," a woman selling fruit down the block explained to me.
Less than eight percent of Chinese migrant workers are satisfied with their lives, according to a 2007 study conducted by Shanghai's Fudan University. The survey, which polled 30,000 workers in major cities, found that 68 percent feel shunned by wealthy urbanites. More than 80 percent of workers polled reported working more than eight hours a day, 18 percent more than ten hours. And 55 percent admitted they receive fewer than two days off per month.
"I'm from the countryside," my graying friend explained. "In Henan I worked construction. My wife is back there, but I'm not going home for Spring Festival. It's too expensive. My job is ok - we get paid between 1500-2000 yuan (US$215-285) a month. In the countryside that's a great salary, but in Beijing it's not so great."
"The city folks treat us dagong pretty good," he said. "Some say we're less cultured because we're from the countryside, and I guess they're right. But we're building Beijing. That's what matters more than our suzhe ('civilization' or 'quality')."
Some migrant workers in Beijing have expressed fears that they will be forced to return home later this year. In 2006, behind closed doors, officials with Beijing's 2008 Environmental Construction Headquarters floated a plan to 'repatriate' unregistered workers for the duration of the Olympic Games.
When questioned publicly by local media, city leaders insisted that repatriation had been suggested but would not be implemented.
But the BBC has reported that Chinese migrant workers must declare their political affiliation when applying for urban residency permits - a recent policy change which some international human rights groups have speculated reflects Beijing’s determination to keep the Games poverty and protest free.
Last month, the Guardian newspaper accused Liu Qi, Beijing's Olympic chief, of preparing to launch a 'social cleansing operation' prior to the Games. According to the Guardian and other media, migrant panhandlers, prostitutes and peddlers will be forced into holding centers this summer and then sent home.
"The problems of vagrants, beggars and unlicensed businesses must be solved before the Olympics," Liu Qi said, as quoted by the Beijing News.
(Note: The Chinese government's media organ, Xinhua, ran a story praising the incorporation of migrants into legislative bodies late last year. According to the report, 28 of the 770 newly-selected deputies to the People's Congress of Beijing Municipality are 'workers,' compared to just 10 five years ago. There are now 13 'farmer' representatives as well. Migrant workers were elected in Beijing for the first time ever this year.)
"I started coming to Beijing three years ago," a middle-aged woman selling sweet potatoes on the street told me. "I drive a mianbao che (loaf of bread van) here from my village every few days. The trip back can take more than three hours."
"I live in Hebei province, in the countryside, in a village you won't find on the map," she said. "I'd like to keep coming during the Olympics, but I probably won't. The government may keep us out. In fact, I'm very afraid of the chengguan ('city guards' - responsible for low-level crime like unlicensed vending). I'm lucky I haven't been given trouble by them. They're in the right, of course - illegal stores like mine shouldn't exist. That's what the law says. But life is hard and I've had no choice."
"Because I always do business here and am very polite, so the people who live around here don't call the chengguan."
Twenty years ago, young adults peopled China's rural-to-urban migration. But yesterday's migrants have become today's city-dwellers and are raising children. Statistics released by the Beijing Municipal Education Commission (BMEC) show that roughly 400,000 school-age migrant children live in Beijing.
Until ten years ago, children from families without Beijing hukou permits were barred from attending public school. In 1998, China's central government granted migrant kids access to urban education.
However, many municipalities responded by boosting enrollment fees. Hundreds of ill-funded, shoestring schools - generally staffed by migrant adults - grew out of the slums ringing Beijing.
For nearly a decade, uncertainties legal and financial have hamstrung migrant education in China's capital city. Political opinion here seems to swing back and forth; migrant school shutdowns have more than once followed close on the heels of beneficent reforms.
"Some of our students have spent most of their lives here in Beijing," said Zhou, a Haowan teacher since 1999 who took over as principal in 2004. "Others have just arrived. We must account for a wide range of educational backgrounds. It's hard."
"To our advantage, we're flexible. We can add students throughout the semester, if necessary. But compared to Beijing's public schools, our classrooms are in poor condition."
In fact, Haowan's students are lucky. Of the 300 or so migrant schools currently operating in Beijing, roughly 250 are unregistered and illegal. But BMEC has licensed Haowan. According to Xinhua, only 58 migrant schools had received government authorization as of last year.
"Obtaining government authorization has kept our school from being shut down," Principal Zhou said. "Many schools aren't licensed because they aren't up to standard."
Reportedly, 63 percent of migrant children in Beijing attend public schools. About 26 percent attend unregistered schools. Only 5 percent attend registered private schools like Haowan. At least 6 percent receive no education at all.
"Migrant children are allowed to attend public schools, but there isn't enough room for all of them," said Zhou. "There's a quota and the quota is fairly low."
According to the Human Rights Watch, migrants are supposed to produce five separate certificates - a temporary residence permit, work permit, proof of residence, certificate from place of origin and household registration booklet - when enrolling their children in Beijing schools. Just 10 percent of Chinese migrant families possess all five documents, the U.S.-based organization has reported.
In 2006, Beijing embarked on an anti-migrant school initiative, citing safety concerns and poor teaching. More than 100 unregistered schools were slated for closure. At the time, city education officials promised that migrant children affected by the initiative would be absorbed into Beijing's public school system. They weren't. In all, about 50 schools were closed.
Afterwards, officials promised to give migrant schools a leg up. Haowan has begun to receive some government funding. Roughly 1,200 students attend the school.
"Things are much better now than when I started in 1999," said Zhou. "The government is paying more attention to our school. From buying coal, to fixing our electric circuits, to financing our 2005 remodel - the government has become increasingly involved. We've also upgraded our classroom facilities with help from the education committee."
As a licensed school, Haowan enjoys a number of important advantages. It's sponsor, a wealthy businessman, may freely solicit philanthropic donations. Haowan boasts 50 computers and a basketball hoop - amenities that, for most migrant schools, remain well out of reach.
"We have three ping-pong tables," Zhou said, smiling. "When class ends, all the boys rush outside and snatch them up. Our students really like to play."
Best of all, Haowan - founded in 1994 - has escaped the perpetual insecurity which defines migrant education in Beijing. Before it was licensed, Haowan closed down, moved and re-opened 14 times.
"We had to leave our last location because it was falling apart," said Zhou. "We were running the school out of an old industrial building."
It's unclear whether Haowan's legitimization means Beijing is headed for widespread educational reform. At any rate, the school has become valuable to local politicians - a shining example of their generosity. On Children's Day in 2004, Chinese Premier Wen Jiaobao visited with students from Haowan.
A photo of 'grandpa Wen' swarmed by students hangs in the school's chilly main office - where 30 teachers eat lunch, grade papers, and prepare. I asked one teacher whether she been able to speak with the great man.
"Nope," she replied. "I've been here for less than a year."
In March 2007, Wen pledged that his government would eliminate tuition fees for rural students. China's leaders have poured US$35.9 billion into rural education for 2006-2010; unable to provide for migrant children, Beijing would prefer to see them stay home.
"My kids went to school in Henan for free," said my friend the construction worker. "For free!"
"I moved to Beijing from Anhui province in 1998," a gentle cake vendor and father-of-two told me. "I don’t make much money. My sons went to school there."
Between 10 and 20 percent of Zhou's students go on to attend Beijing public middle schools. Most return to their hometowns, with or without their parents, after sixth grade.
If 'red tape' keeps some migrant workers from enrolling their children in Beijing schools, cost forms the greater barrier. Although the schools do not charge tuition - for city kids, a basic nine-year education is compulsory - parents are asked to help pay for books, transportation and meals. Some Beijing moms and dads pay more than US$5,000 per year.
A Haowan education is far less expensive. Zhou's teachers earn less than 1000 yuan (US$115) a month.
"We pay our teachers," Zhou said. "We pay our students' books and board. We pay other expenditures."
The school does charge tuition. In fact, many Haowan families are doing okay. In Beijing, they're the minority.
"She's 20 years old," an amiable mother told me, jabbing her thumb at the young woman cooking cabbage inside their magazine shop. "She went to high school in Henan, and then joined me and her dad in Beijing. We all work together from 7am-9pm. Except for clothes and food, the money we make goes to her brother. He's in college."
"Both of our sons live in the country," a phone-card stand owner from Hebei province said. "They don't go to school in Beijing. They'd get a better education here - their teachers aren't too cultured. But we can't afford it."
"Migrant kids in Beijing have to pay enrollment fees. Putting our boys through six grades here would cost us 12,000 yuan (US$1,750). We don't make much money. They'd love to live here. They miss us. But it's impossible. My parents take care of them."
I asked how long he and his wife had been in the city.
Did they live nearby?
Smiling, he glanced over his shoulder - at a slim, messy mattress laid down in the stand.
What about Beijing's migrant schools?
"They're all in the suburbs," he said.
Haowan is hemmed in by poverty - buried behind a garbage-strewn neighborhood 45 minutes by car from downtown Beijing. Yongcun* looks and feels like a village, exactly what it was ten years ago. It's dusty and windy. In Yongcun, greasy mutts lap bathwater out of rank, open sewers.
"Most of my neighbors are migrant workers, but I've lived here for 70 years," a friendly old woman told me. "Since our village has been incorporated, we've had nowhere to farm. My grandsons are 22 and 21. They don't have jobs, or culture, or education. They live upstairs."
To keep food on the table, she bundles scrap cardboard and sticks. There's a large field across the street. Lined with newly planted trees, it's off-limits for farming - part of Beijing's Olympic 'green belt.'
The world's fastest, most daring cyclists will congregate near Yongcun this year. Beijing's Laoshan Velodrome, Mountain Bike Course and BMX Field will each host Olympic events within walking distance of Haowan.
Yongcun's matriarch doesn't much care. "The Olympics haven't changed anything here," she said.
Zhou has adopted a different attitude.
"Our students have studied the ancient and modern Olympic Games," she said. "We've also held sports competitions to better understand Beijing 2008. As Chinese people - as Chinese elementary students, they should make some contribution."
I requested that 65 fourth-graders (one class) write, in English (see photos below), what they'd most like to do in 2008. Almost every student hoped to attend the Games. But will they?
"Probably not," Zhou said. "All they can do is study hard and share what they've learned with their parents - some of whom work in Beijing's service industry."
There's Olympic education, and there's Olympic Education. Zhou's school doesn't sparkle like Huajiadian. And yet...
Excited for August's Games? I asked three Haowan sixth-graders - migrants from Henan and Hebei.
"Of course," one of them replied. "We love basketball and soccer. The air has improved. It's China's first Olympics. We're so proud of Beijing."
(Note: *Names have been changed.)
February 5, 2008 2:44 PM
Posted by Daniel Beekman
One minute you're dodging bikes and pedicabs on Beijing's Zhongguancun Nandajie - a broad, windswept, chaotic street.
The next...you're pacing down a lonely art gallery tucked close to the pavement.
I don't know who all took paint to the wall south of Renmin (People's) University of China, but their collective work evokes an enthusiasm I've come to associate with Beijing.
What is modern, urban China?
It is government-sanctioned grafitti. It's an unkempt teenager scrawling Beijing's banal slogan for 2008..."One World, One Dream." It's Maoism meets Hollywood meets Mencius meets Hollis Queens.
The Olympics are cool here, despite 'The Man's' endorsement.
Check out the wall below - click 'view on SlideShare' for full-screen slideshow (please allow time for feature to load):
January 29, 2008 2:42 PM
Posted by Daniel Beekman
Beijing's ayis are headed home for the holidays, leaving dirty dishes and cranky babies behind.
According to China Daily, thousands of white-collar families will go maid-less during next month's Spring Festival - beginning February 7 on Chinese New Year. And they'll do so reluctantly.
Most ayis (live-in maids - lit. 'aunts') here spurn double or triple wages when fleeing Beijing, ignoring their employers' desperate pleas. Very few have roots in the capital - the vast majority are migrant workers.
The ayis' annual exodus inconveniences over-worked, wealthy Beijingers - so much so it's acquired a headline-appropriate name: 'maid shortage.' Spring Festival, China's most important holiday, sweeps 20,000-30,000 "indespensible" ayis away from Beijing every year.
"Chunjie ('Spring Festival') is my one chance to go home every year," an ayi from Hebei province told me, waiting to buy a train ticket in Beijing's West Railway Station last Tuesday. "I've worked in Beijing for five years - my first three, I didn't go home. I don't earn much. Rather than spend on a train ticket, I saved for my family."
According to the London Telegraph and the Sydney Morning Herald, Beijing's maid shortage is part of a larger trend in China today. The country's labor reserves are nearly spent. Rural migrants - who have powered China's economic revolution - aren't so expendable anymore. Consequently, their wages are rising.
Still, Beijing ayis and other migrant workers here have it rough. With the exception of Chunjie, most receive very little time off. That's why the city's trains and train stations stay crammed from January until March.
"I work construction," said a middle-aged dagong (migrant worker) killing time outside Beijing's Main Railway Station before an 18-hour train back to Jiangsu province in southern China. "Last year I worked on an Olympic stadium, although I don't know what sport it will be used for."
"This is my first trip home all year," he explained. "My wife and kids all live in Jiangsu. I send them my money. During my vacation, I won't get paid. We dagong love Beijing - it's so beautiful. And it's our country's capital. It's really great. But I'm always happy when it's time to go home."
The holiday season started January 16, amid widespread concern. Experts estimated that 30.09 million passengers would pass through Beijing - up 7 percent over last year. The capital, unfortunately, is set to handle just 21.03 million.
As a result, tickets are hard to come by. Every morning, huge queues form outside Beijing's railway stations and neighborhood booking windows. On the second day of the season, Beijing police nabbed 17 train ticket scalpers operating out of restaurants and phone booths around the city's West Railway Station. I visited the station with an English-speaking Chinese friend.
"I don't think I'm going to get my ticket today," a migrant worker sitting on her luggage sighed. "I work every day from 7am to 10pm (as a security guard, paid to keep squatters out of newly constructed buildings) in Beijing. My husband lives in Henan. At least my two sons are grown. One's a dagong in Zhejiang province. The other is in high school."
Across China, 178.6 million people are expected to ride the rails this Spring Festival season - making Chunjie the world's most massive annual migration. For perspective's sake, the United Kingdom's total population is about 60 million. In 1994, 40 passengers died and 44 others were injured in a train platform stampede. Even those Spring Festival travelers with tickets push and shove to board first - there's never enough room.
On Monday, snowstorms and ice had stranded more than 500,000 Spring Festival passengers in Guangzhou - a large southern city and railway hub. Temporary shelters were arranged and police dispatched to handle the frustrated crowds. Most stuck in Guangzhou were migrant workers returning home. Guangzhou is the capital of Guangdong province, a center for China's export industry.
"I've been working in a Beijing family," the Hebei ayi I spoke with said. "But the old man of the family died yesterday and I'm out of a job. When I return to Beijing next (lunar) year, I'll have to look for work. I have four children. My husband cares for them at home."
According to the Telegraph, maids in Beijing make between 800-1,500 yuan (US$100-180) per month.
"There is an big income gap between China's rich and poor," said a bleary-eyed People's Liberation Army janitor on his way home to Chengdu. "Many migrant workers live very hard lives."
Three friends I chatted with at Beijing's Main Railway Station were particularly excited to usher in the Year of the Rat.
"We're just dagong, so we have no real connection to the Olympics. But we're really happy the Games are coming to Beijing. Our families back home in Anhui like the Olympics too - the Games are helping China's economy."
A friendly man wearing all black, in line for a ticket at the West Railway Station, expressed a similar opinion.
"I go home once a year to see my family in Jiangxi province," he said. "But today, I'm not sure whether I'll be able to buy a ticket. I enjoy all the Olympics sports. I think all Chinese people should participate in the Games. Myself, I try to do small things - like picking up garbage. The Olympics are very important to our economy - they have boosted China's development."
I asked if the 2008 Games had or would change his own life.
"There's been no change to my personal economic situation," he replied.
"I work for an electricity company in Beijing, and I've noticed the government has invested a lot in our electricity system for the Games," a tall young woman from Hubei province's capital city, Wuhan, told me.
"I've been living in Beijing for one and a half years. I've been really impressed by the new stadiums and the environmental programs. Of course an income gap exists - every developing country faces that problem. It's natural. Generally speaking, we live in a harmonious society."
My Chinese friend helped me ask a young man from Anyang, a city in Henan where Chinese civilization began, his thoughts.
"Income gap? I've never heard of it."
Some travelers were dismissive of the 2008 Games.
"I'm just switching trains here. We in the military don't care about the Olympics," a young Hubei-bound PLA solider told my friend and I. "We protect the Motherland. We don't care about other things."
A billboard beside Beijing's Main Railway Station reads "New Beijing, New Olympics" (see photo below).
Yet many people leaving Beijing for home are taking the Games with them. I counted more than three official Olympics stores inside Beijing's Main Railway Station.
"These Olympics are very significant for China," a young salesman wearing a red Adidas shirt told me. "People want a piece of the Games for themselves. There are more and more people coming through our store now that it's Spring Festival season. Our most popular items are Olympic dolls - for family members - and Olympic coins - for friends."
"I like sports," said the Hebei ayi. "I like arm exercises, leg exercises. I like using the exercise machines in the park. I've watched the Olympics before, and now I want to see with my own eyes. I want to see what the Games are really like. But I probably won't get that chance."
Interactive map of Beijing - follow up on posts and get oriented:
January 27, 2008 7:24 AM
Posted by Daniel Beekman
In upscale east Beijing, the night may belong to Salintun Bar Street - where sin-bent Western ex-pats exercise their 'right' to excess. But Yaxiu Market's relentless bootleggers own the day.
"Hey American! Hey friend! Shirt, ok!" they shout, zeroing in on a dazed Danish victim. She's middle-aged, money-belted and unprepared. They've clutched her sleeve. "You pretty. You say price. What you like? Come back now!"
Foreigners flock here for name-brand jeans, phony cashmere sweaters and cheap 'antiques.' Tommy, Ralph, Louis, Calvin - churned out after-hours (perhaps in south China's sweatshops).
And they'll descend on Yaxiu in sweaty droves this August - Beijing officials expect 500,000 foriegners to attend the 2008 Olympic Games.
Or perhaps not.
"The Olympics are going to be bad for business," a young Yaxiu t-shirt vendor told me. "Back in my hometown, I heard people talking about the 2008 Games. So, in 2007, I moved to Beijing. I wanted to learn English."
"Now I'm studying, on my own. But there are lots of things we won't be allowed to sell - like these brand-name shirts. During the Olympics, we'll sell only Chinese brands."
In all likelihood, Beijing's Olympic organizers are behind the change. Years ago, they pledged to crack down on all sorts of product piracy, particularly Olympics merchandise.
Public education campaigns here stress respect for intellectual property rights as key to hosting a 'civilized' Games. The International Olympic Committee is known for aggressively protecting its five-ringed brand.
Hoping to head off Beijing's copycats, organizers have opened a slew of official Olympics stores - one at Yaxiu (see photo below). The demand is there. But who wants to pay three hundred yuan (US$42) for an infant-sized doll? Despite the government's sternest warnings, bogus 2008 merchandise has popped up everywhere.
I asked a DVD vendor - her Yaxiu stall features a tall selection of box-set American T.V. shows (Deadwood, The Hills, 24, Gray's Anatomy etc) - why the Olympic crackdown.
"The government and organizers want to boost Chinese brands," she said. "They're also afraid that, to foreigners, China could look like a jiade ('fake') country."
On January 24, China Daily - Beijing's top English-language newspaper - reported that the Silk Street Market (Xiushuijie) has unveiled its own brand: SILKSTREET. Like Yaxiu, Xiushuijie is considered a one-stop shopping destination for overseas tourists.
According to China Daily, the SILKSTREET line will include t-shirts, jeans, jewelry, luggage, tablecloths and scarves. Though the newspaper story failed to state so explicitly - the market's highly popular counterfeit goods will probably be replaced.
Silk Street was once an open-air market, favored by tourists for years. In 2005, it moved indoors. Like Yaxiu, Silk Street now boasts hundreds of commercial stalls spread over six crowded floors.
Only those shopkeepers "with no record of selling fake or shoddy products within six months" have been authorized to sell SILKSTREET, Wang Zili, the market's manager told Beijing Evening News.
Although Silk Street's and Yaxiu's stall-lined corridors suggest variety, most shopkeepers manage a number of stalls and all report to one market manager. Cruise Yaxiu's basement and you'll notice the same flashy Nikes displayed over and over again.
That’s why Yaxiu's hawkers - rural migrants, overwhelmingly - clutch sleeves and scream.
"I rarely sell more than one pair of shoes in a day," one salesgirl admitted to me.
Chinese policies are frequently vague. In theory, Yaxiu banned fakes long ago.
"The Olympics will be great for business," a middle-aged saleswoman said. "We're not allowed to sell knock-offs, and we never do."
"Of course we sell knock-offs," a young man showing sweatshirts exclaimed. "Reebok, Adidas, Abercrombie. We're not supposed to sell fakes, but we do all the time."
Come August and the Olympic Games, even Yaxiu's most committed bootleggers say they're planning to toe the IP line.
"We'll sell Chinese brands during the Games, sure," said the same young man, who lived in Henan province before Beijing.
Some Yaxiu hawkers are eager to support China's first Olympics.
"When we won the right to host the Games, in 2001, I was at home, in Beijing," a 37-year old toy seller - originally from Sichuan province - recalled. "Home was the restaurant where I worked. We were watching T.V. - my co-workers and I all together."
"We were so happy! You'd have felt the same. Everyone was lighting fireworks (at that time illegal inside Beijing's Fifth Ring Road) and nobody cared. The taxi drivers were all giving rides for free. It was beautiful."
Many at Yaxiu believe the Games won't affect them.
"A whole lot of people are coming to visit Beijing," a jacket vendor from Anhui province explained. But they're coming to watch the Games. They're not coming to shop."
"We'll see whether the Olympic tourists have enough time," said Yaxiu's DVD seller. "If they do, we could make some money. If they don't, the Games won't really matter."
"I moved to Beijing from Zhejiang province in 2006," a tailor's assistant told me. "The Olympics are very important to me. I don't know why. They have nothing to do with my life."
I approached a young woman checking and re-checking her nails, pushing US$3 dress shirts.
"Our boss told us not to sell jiade during the Olympics. Don't ask me why," she said, sighing. "I have no idea. I'm not a boss."
Interactive map of Beijing - follow up on posts and get oriented:
January 18, 2008 6:45 AM
Posted by Daniel Beekman
There are ducks to roast, cell phones to sell, bumpkins to fleece and towers to build. Taxis swerve past SUVs, buses cut off motor-carts. Pedestrians scatter. It's overwhelming - the manic pace of Chinese development.
When people here tire of racing and honking and drilling, they chat and they cook and they eat. Sometimes, they also escape - into Beijing's neighborhood parks.
Parks here are quiet. During the week, it's grandparents and grandbabies who visit. On the weekend, families and couples come too. Tai Chi is a popular park activity. Its devotees' slow, measured movements hint at what Beijing used to be - a city wrapped tight in tradition.
The 'new' capital's buses and subways are chronically crowded, its dance clubs and fast food restaurants packed through the night. Amidst much social and physical change, neighborhood parks offer Beijingers something Wo Er Ma (Wal-Mart) can't: peace of mind.
Tai Chi is just the beginning. There's plenty to see and to do. Every morning in Yuyuantan (Deep Jade Pool) Park, off Beijing's West Third Ring Road, rambunctious middle-aged men strip on the banks of a half-frozen lake and plunge in. Scores of seniors, grasping what look like over-sized ping-pong paddles, dance, guiding small rubber balls through the air.
Calligraphers paint Chinese characters on the park's stone-cobbled paths - dipping their brushes in buckets of water and squatting to lecture a crowd. Couples launch into a waltz nearby.
'Park Sounds' - leave Beijing's busy streets behind and pick out the noises listed below (please allow time for audio to load):
'Park Sounds': construction - the radio - birds chirping - choral practice - a friendly quarrel
- jianzi (similar to hacky-sack) - creaky exercise machines - a string quartet
Yuyuantan isn't Beijing's most famous park - that's Beihai (North Lake) Park - but it boasts a colorful history all the same. Located east of Yuetan (Temple of the Moon), Yuyuantan was once known as Diaoyutai (Anglers' Terrace). During China's Jin dynasty (1113-1234) an official hid there disguised as a fisherman. The Jin emperor Zhangzong may have fished at Diaoyutai as well.
"Grass grows lushly on Yuyuantan/
The gurgling spring flows into distant streams/
Weeping willows line the dykes before darkening hills/
Peach blossoms float on the water at sunset."
So a poet wrote, eight centuries ago.
A number of ornate, imperial structures once graced Diaoyutai; by 1949 and the Communist take-over, most had been destroyed. Today, a bus stop, a neighborhood and a government guest-house - where Mao Zedong's wife watched American films and sat out the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) - bear the name.
Built in 1959, the 15-villa guesthouse has hosted Mikhail Gorbachev and Princess Diana. Richard Nixon met Chinese Prime Minister Zhou Enlai there in 1972. A villa (including 40 private attendants) runs about US$20,000 - per night.
When Diaoyutai/Yuyuantan's original lake was expanded in 1956, city workers planted poplars and willows on its banks. Today, bridges, rock gardens and small picture-book hills can be also found. Peaceful during the winter, Yuyuantan attracts hordes of Beijingers every spring. In April, they swarm to the park with cameras and parasols to enjoy blossoming fruit trees (diplomatic gifts from Japan).
Like much of Beijing, Yuyuantan is currently under construction. Banners posted along the lake promise stunning new vistas, paid for with Olympic money.
I spent an afternoon in the park, chatting up locals with the help of a Chinese friend.
"Recently there have been lots of improvements," an elderly man on a walk with his wife told us. "We're proud of how the Games are bettering Beijing's environment - even parks like this one are under renovation. They added stone steps to that hill. With the steps, it's much safer."
"We're old, so we plan to watch the competitions at home - we won't go to the Games," his wife said. "We know very little about the Olympics."
Not true. Like most Beijingers, these two were clearly informed.
"The air is better these days," said the man. "We now have more than 260 clean days a year. Unfortunately, it's impossible for the government to eliminate all of Beijing's pollution right away. We have to be patient - our environment is slowly improving."
My friend and I interviewed a young couple as well.
"We applied for Olympics tickets on the Internet months ago," said the young woman, a 25 year old banker. "But the Games are so popular here - there aren't enough tickets. Beijing's organizing committee must select applicants randomly. We probably won't be selected, even though we booked tickets for every event."
One and a half million tickets for the 2008 Olympics were allocated during a first round of sales last summer. Applicants were awarded tickets by lottery.
Phase Two was supposed to be different - 'first come, first served' - starting October 30, 2007. But the organizing committee's online ticketing system, designed to handle 150,000 applications per hour, had - three hours in - received 20 million hits. It crashed, Phase Two was postponed and Beijing's head of ticket sales, Rong Jun, was chastised, then fired. Only 9,000 tickets were sold.
Rong's fellow officials regrouped. They collected 340,000 Phase Two applications, accounting for two million Olympics tickets, between December 10 and December 30, 2007. As with Phase One, applicants will be awarded tickets by lottery. Rhythmic gymnastics, table tennis and diving have proven especially popular.
"Overall, we believe that the Games have been good to Beijing," said the young man, a publishing house editor. "Tickets or no tickets, the Olympics are still beneficial. But I wish we'd had more time to prepare. The stadiums and athletic facilities will be fine, but our new subways are being built hastily. Their quality can't be guaranteed."
In terms of hosting the Olympics, I asked, are Beijing's officials doing a good job?
"It's very unlikely that there will be problems during the Games," he replied. "But the government hasn't given enough thought to what will happen after the Olympics. They've been focused on this single event. In the future there will be problems, perhaps."
We stopped to chat with three 10 year olds skipping home - two pig-tailed girls and a shy chunk of a boy.
"We love the Olympic Games!" they cheered.
"Because we'll go on holiday!"
"He's the Olympics newsboy for our school," one of the girls told me.
"Yes, I read the news to my classmates five days a week," said the boy.
What kind of Olympic news do you read? I inquired.
"Just news about athletes, the environment and the ancient Olympics in Greece. Stuff about the Games. Like, why is there an Olympic torch? I know a lot about the Bird's Nest and Watercube (Beijing's brand-new National Stadium and National Aquatics Center)."
"Well, the Watercube is designed to look like it was built out of bubbles."
How have the Olympic Games changed your life? I asked him.
"Before we started preparing for 2008, I didn't care about sports very much. But now we learn about the Games in school and I watch Olympics cartoons on T.V.," he replied. "We're very proud that the Games will be held in Beijing. If China wins many gold medals, we'll applaud. Actually, I want to become a soccer player."
"You can't, fatty," the girls chimed in.
My friend and I also spoke with a husband and wife who grew up in Beijing.
"This is a popular park," the husband said. "People come here to exercise and to play. The Olympics have improved the peoples' awareness with regard to personal health. Our physical vigor has reached a new level."
And outside the park?
"The government's public education campaigns are great - the line-up and anti-smoking campaigns. They are improving the people. Native Beijingers are okay, but many people who come here from other places have bad habits. Now that we're hosting the Games, they are better."
"The Olympics have raised our standard of living here in Beijing," he continued. "We love the Games. Although Beijing is becoming an international city, the Games will allow us to introduce our local culture to the rest of the world."
We caught up with a 52 year old man moving gingerly down a dirt path. He turned out to be a retired city official.
"I walk every day," he remarked. "But I have a blood disease and my body is deteriorating fast. It's hard - all my kids are living abroad. They won't come back. They say they want to be 'free.'"
"These Olympics are primarily the business of the younger generation. But, if they asked for my help it would be my pleasure to serve."
"I'm happy when China wins gold. I always watch the Olympics. Of course, international friendships are more important than medals. The Games will showcase our food, our culture and our historic buildings. Old Beijing is getting a boost from these Olympics," he assured us.
"There will be air pollution during the Games - that's inevitable," a snack-vendor explained. "Beijing's government is doing everything it can - they'll pull cars off the road, etc. But there will be pollution. In that sense, the Games symbolize Chinese development."
My friend and I approached two elderly women. They sat on a bench, watching the water.
"We're just old wives," one of them told me. "But we do our part nonetheless. We come here to dance and sing Olympic songs. We're so happy for China - in fact, it's hard not to be happy these days. Before 1949 we were poor. We didn't have food, clothing or shelter. Now we'll host the Olympics, and it's all thanks to Chairman Mao. We admire him very much."
"You're an American," her friend said kindly. "China's old wives welcome you and your sportsmen."
If he were alive in 2008, I wondered aloud, what would Chairman Mao think of Beijing's Games?
"He would love them, of course! In 2001, when it was announced that China had won the right to host the Olympics, we all cried. Many people filled up Tian'anmen Square. President Hu and Prime Minister Wen gave wonderful speeches. They care about us - the common people. That's why we support them."
A retired pilot jogging around Yuyuantan agreed with the park's 'old wives.'
"If it weren't for the Games, our children would be abandoning Chinese traditions much faster," he said. "We're behind our leaders. Beijing will - without question - hold a successful Games."
Observations, suggestions, park experiences to share? See Blogging Beijing's comments feature below.
A tired, old boat rocks gently in the canal just west of Yuyuantan/Diaoyutai. Emperors once rowed past here on their way to Beijing's luxurious 'Summer Palace.'
Dancing might be the number one activity in Beijing parks. Sometimes people hop to live music - more often they spin records.
An elderly man and young boy examine a map of Yuyuantan. The park is huge - I've spent hours there and still haven't seen all of it.
From a bridge spanning the lake at Yuyuantan: a view of Beijing's CCTV (Chinese Central Television) Tower. The tower, located just west of Yuyuantan is 238 meters high (405 meters with antenna). It was built in 1992.
Most parks in Beijing contain free, outdoor weight machines and exercise equipment. I recognized some of the contraptions at Yuyuantan. In order to try out others, I had to use my imagination.
Beijing isn't known for its green spaces, making Yuyuantan's wooded hills all the more special.
Garbage piles up in between old houses just outside the park.
When the lake at Yuyuantan freezes over, there's skating and sliding galore.
It wasn't originally named "Angler's Terrace" for nothing - many Beijingers still ice-fish here. "We catch about one small fish - about this big - each day," one angler told me, holding his hands just a few inches apart. "This actually isn't the historical Daioyutai - that's to our east. Now it's a government guesthouse and we aren't allowed in. China's leaders fish there."
Beijing park goers enjoy jianzi ('featherball'), a Chinese folk game also known as 'shuttlecock.' Although jianzi involves kicking a stack of feathered coins instead of a ball, it's similar to hacky sack.
Not even a thick coating of ice stops Yuyuantan's 'polar bears' from hitting the water.
Before diving into the water and while drying off, these brave Beijingers let loose thunderous, good-natured yells. "OhOhOHHHHHHHH!"
Free time on a Sunday afternoon? Why not carve a swimming pool out of Yuyuantan's ice?
He may not be an Olympian, but this gymnast had picked up a following.
A park-goer treats herself to a post-workout massage.
An elderly Beijinger checks up on Yuyuantan's ongoing Olympic restoration.
'Park Scenes' (please allow time for video to load):
Interactive map of Beijing - follow up on posts and get oriented (please allow time for map's features to load):
January 7, 2008 7:58 AM
Posted by Daniel Beekman
This blog's first entry introduced a Beijing public education campaign called "Embrace the Olympics - study the 'ten dos and ten don'ts.'" Below I've posted all 20 'dos and don'ts' - gathered from a subway poster.
Do protect Olympic intellectual property rights - don't buy or sell pirated imitations.
Do observe regulations regarding the use of Olympic symbols - don't abuse the Olympic flag or songs.
Do defend traffic safety - don't jump guard-rails or barge through red lights.
Do line up according to the rules - don't push and shove.
Do beautify the city - don't spit all over the road.
Do treasure the capital's ancient cultural sites - don't post messy advertisments everywhere.
Do cherish the sport stadiums and facilities - don't stir up trouble or create a scene.
Do safeguard security and order - don't bring your own beverages to competitions.
Do struggle to be a civilized, lawful audience - don't threaten the peace by gambling.
Do improve others' awareness of Olympic law - don't let illegal activities ruin the whole thing.
(Note: not a word-for-word translation.)
Interactive map of Beijing - follow up on posts and get oriented (please allow time for map's features to load):
December 17, 2007 8:35 AM
Posted by Daniel Beekman
Construction in Beijing exploded in 2001 after the city won the right to host a Summer Olympics.
When (if) the dust finally settles next August, 2.7 billion square feet of property will have been developed - an area roughly the size of metropolitan Seattle.
For the journalists - 10,000 new flats. For the athletes - 11 new venues. And for the fans - countless new restaurants, shops, hotels and a US$2.8 billion addition to Beijing's international airport.
Astounded? Rightly so.
Check out "Higher and Higher" (below) - a brief 'construction introduction' (please allow time for the show to load).
Around noon each day, a sea of hard hats engulfs the sidewalks surrounding Beijing's Olympic Green. Construction may have slowed somewhat elsewhere, but it's sprinting up here.
Not far from Beijing's Olympics Sports Stadium, two fathers from Sichuan province work underground. More than 1,000 miles from home, they're hacking out a new subway line. Line 10 will run east-west across the city, linking the rest of Beijing to Line 8: the Olympics Spur Line.
It's a tough gig for these middle-aged men, who enjoy little job security. The air is bad in the tunnels and a few of their friends have fallen sick.
"If you're too sick to work, they'll re-hire," I was told. "There are so many others - wo men tai duo."
Of course, things could be worse. Combined, my Sichuanese friends are pulling down US$250 a month, not bad for a pair of migrant laborers. They weren't sure they'd find steady employment when they moved east together last year.
(Note: In 2006, Beijingers earned, on average, US$420 per month.)
Line 10 will be ready soon. And then what? I asked them. "We'll have to move on." To where? "We don't know. In fact, we don't really care."
A half-mile east, a 50-year old farmer from Henan province hangs telephone line. He makes only US$100 a month - hardly enough to feed himself and his family. "Do all Americans speak Chinese?" he asks me.
My Henan friend has a wife and a son. Both stayed behind last month when he left for Beijing. "There are too many cars here," he observed. "I'm going home for New Year's."
Farther south, a gaggle of "Lao Beijing" (elderly native Beijingers) dissect the construction boom from the steps of a neighborhood restaurant. "We're happy to host the Olympics!" I'm told. "Our health has improved - we're exercising more. But all these expensive new apartments and gyms? We're not quite so sure."
"They're building too fast," one woman growls. "Too fast means poor quality - that's bad."
Two construction workers were killed and four injured when scaffolding at a site in South Beijing collapsed last month, according to Chinese government media. In September, at least six laborers died and 20 were injured in a similar incident.
In March, six migrant laborers, five from Sichuan, died in a Line 10 subway collapse. Rather than report the incident to Beijing authorities, the project's managers mounted a rescue operation of their own. Workers not trapped in the collapse had their cell phones confiscated.
Beijing authorities arrived on the scene more than eight hours later - only after a worker from Henan called home and his family sought help from local police.
Government media reported in January that migrants employed at Olympic construction sites (who number more than 30,000) would receive substantial wage bumps this year.
A community center rises behind green netting.
Migrant workers break ground on a subway stop just south of Beijing's National Stadium. A tricycle porter looks on.
Redmond East: Microsoft has dug in near the Olympic green.
Many Beijing construction workers believe they have little to do with the Olympics. "We're just regular guys," I was told.
Cold weather and construction have temporarily turned the Olympic Green gray.
Interactive map of Beijing - follow up on posts and get oriented (please allow time for features to load):
December 13, 2007 2:25 AM
Posted by Daniel Beekman
Hello and welcome to Blogging Beijing - an online journal about China's capital city and the 2008 Summer Olympics.
Beijing is a fascinating place. Unlike its extroverted cousins, Shanghai and Hong Kong, Beijing is an urban preserve - for Chinese culture, Chinese history and the Chinese Communist Party. Foreign influences have always met resistance here.
Yet Beijing is changing, and in a monumental way as it prepares to host next August's Olympic Games. Preparations for the Games have already transformed the city physically, attracted global attention and sparked international exchange.
As a U.S. Fulbright Research Grantee, I'm here to study Beijingers' ideas and feelings vis-à-vis the Olympics. As a native Seattleite and the author of Blogging Beijing, I'm here to give you an inside look at this changing city.
Blogging Beijing will explore a different China than often appears in the news. It won't cover Party politics, or global warming, or Pacific-Rim business. It will comment on each - as each relates to Beijing's dynamic culture, landscape and people.
A street vendor weighs oranges in front of a government-sponsored advertisment. "Embrace the Olympics - study the 'ten dos and ten don'ts,'" the ad's smaller characters read.
"Do protect the Olympics' intellectual property rights. Don't buy or sell pirated imitations," warn the ad's larger characters.
More 'dos and don'ts' are plastered nearby. Behind the ads, construction workers carve out another subway line. Infrastructural improvements and public education campaigns have defined Beijing's Olympic preparations.
That's all for today - stop by again for stories, insights, travel tips and more. Thanks for visiting Blogging Beijing!
Post categories will include: 'Exploring Beijing,' 'Olympic Countdown,' 'Cultural Exchange,' 'Green Beijing' and 'Travelogue.'
Below each post, you'll find Blogging Beijing's interactive map and web-links to China/Olympics news.
Interactive Map of Beijing - Follow up on posts and get oriented (please allow time for features to load):
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