Sunday, July 31, 2005

Just Back: Beijing

Last December’s trip to Beijing was a really rushed affair as I booked myself on a tour from Zhuhai in a jiffy. Speeding through the thoroughfares of Jianguomenwai and Dongzhimennei, spending time the equivalent of a firefly’s lifespan at sights like Forbidden City and the Great Wall, I felt I have been watching a movie on the side of my tourbus all this while.

This trip (on my own, and with complete autonomy) I was interested in doing local. Poking into people’s homes in the hutongs was mandatory—without necessarily intruding, and with my camera stuffed in the ocean depths of my yellow duffel of course—as were RMB3 subway and RMB1 bus rides. Squeezed in there with the locals on bus 988, I hobnobbed with the locals to the tune of the honky wonkies and wasted engines, deep breathing in exhaust fumes in all its unfettered/unadulterated glory. RMB3-4 noodles at the neighbourhood eatery were also daily affairs. Like a Londoner spending a pristine Saturday afternoon at the galleries of Hoxton/Shoreditch, I combed mine at the Dashanzi Art District where the world-famous 798 Art Gallery resides. The old disused factories reminded me of parts of London’s Spitalfields and Zürich’s Industrial Zone, especially with their raw brick facades and chimneys reaching into the sky. (The East End Chaochangti Art District is another one which I have yet to see.)

I am deeply enamoured by the Soviet charm. The prefab buildings are straight out of Ost Berlin’s Friedrichshain while the subway platforms, while short of the artistic beauty of Moscow’s and Pyongyang’s, has more flavour than the ancient relics of Ost Berlin. I could stand and stare at buildings and subway platform designs (lamps, murals, spatial design) for eons.

It is not hard to like Beijing. The people are friendly, unlike the denizens of the South whom I have to put up with a great deal. I am saying this even though I am technically a Southerner, with roots in Xinhui, Guangdong Province. The Bejingers, like the Romans, live in a city enveloped by history. Places like Qianmen, Jianguomen, Dongzhimen, Dongdan and Xidan etc all have a story to tell. Finally, I speak of Beijing’s great size with the same passion as size queens do. It’s me in the embrace of the Goliathic boulevards and skyscrapers; the great generosity city planners lend to city planning suggests a certain sense of big-heartedness in such a big city (and by extension, country), and even the humongous portions of food are microcosmic of the city. I like how such a big city swallows me whole as I gawk at it; me, a big-small city boy indulging in the romantic make-believe role of a third world rural-urban migrant (RUM, as geographers love to say). When size combines with great design at Jianwai Soho, Pan Shiyi’s chic urban development, you could be sold. (Though regrettably, some shabby tenants don’t quite match up to Pan’s vision)


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