Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Got till it's gone

I live in a gated community in Beijing’s CBD, Central Business District. It is one of the many high-rise apartment complexes that are shooting up in Beijing’s posh neighborhoods, which are many, catering to expats and rich Beijingers (don’t ask why I’m living there). Where I live, the rooms all have Western-style amenities, and the complex has a gym where half of the people exercising are white. Everyday at the community gate and in the building lobby, I pass by security guards who look barely out of their teens. They make \600 (US$80) a month and always smile at me courteously.

My neighborhood is undergoing a dramatic change. To the south there’s a complex called SOHO (Small Office Home Office), one of the earliest high-rise complexes in Beijing modeling after Western architecture and management. To the west are Gold Field and Wanda, two brand-new communities consisting of commercial and residential buildings. To the east is a complex called China Trade which will include a Ritz Carlton and a J.W. Marriott, in addition to some of the most expensive residential buildings, a water park and a huge mall.

One of the real estate person I know predicted a glitzy future for the area. There will be wide promenades, dancing water fountains, and a huge happy shopping destination for Beijing since every building in the area has set aside a mall space. The real estate price will continue to climb, of course, according to him.

But before that glitzy future arrives, the area outside the gated communities is nothing but China-style chaos. Construction cranes are doing their smooth but persistent dances in every direction you look. Dust everywhere. Huge billboards promoting new residential complexes with fancy Western names like “Upper East Side” and “Yosemite” everywhere. Few observe traffic rules. During rush hours, donkey carts would fight with pedestrians, bicycles, buses, private Audi’s, taxies and illegal taxies for rights of way; and the buses, private Audi’s, taxies and illegal taxies would angrily honk back at the donkey carts. Traffic simply stalls.

I find the chaos endearing. A daily reminder of China’s reality for me who spend too much time living in the comfort zone inside the gates. When I walk to the subway station, I would pass stalls selling beef cakes, newspapers and fruit mixes. In front of these stalls would be the illegal street vendors peddling everything from Tibetan trinkets, pirated copies of popular or underground books, fruits, to cheap cameras “directly from the factory”. Scattered between the illegal vendors would be beggars of all kinds and shapes, some with their whole family, some playing the Chinese traditional instrument erhu, some deformed and prostrating on the ground. Pedestrians would rush and stop haphazardly, causing traffic jams on the sidewalk, as the voice of peddlers and speakers from the stalls rise with the dust. Sometime someone on the lookout would spot the police coming near. Then the whole sidewalk would clear instantly, leaving waste paper, rotten fruits and other garbage to the pedestrians.

Then last weekend the government came in and cleared the trees on the sidewalk. The street is to be widened and the trees were in the way. When I talked to the cab driver about this, he said: “Those trees are poplars. They are useless.” I asked what he meant by useless. He replied: “Oh, they are just useless. We need wider streets.”

At dinner with my expat friends from various gated communities, we lamented the disappearance of the trees. It felt strangely spacious now walking on the street. And the little trunks left above the ground pain the eyes.

The Ritz Carlton is finally coming to the neighborhood.

I can foresee the day, definitely by the 2008 Olympics, when the neighborhood will be glamorous and clean and spacious and full of happy shoppers. All the beggars and peddlers and donkey carts will have been cleared off. I’m confident there’ll be new trees, young trees still growing tentatively. The area will be the face of the new Beijing, an ideal the whole country is aspiring to. And all the past chaos and the old trees will have been gone in people’s memories, including those of my own and my expat friends’. For most of us do enjoy the comfort of Western-style amenities in quiet gated communities, which will continue to be the dream that will never come true for most of the Chinese people.


shapinba said...

Just wanted to let you know that your emoting in front of computer has certainly not gone in vain. Your writing brought me to tears taking me back to my past life in Beijing and town where I grew up. We are lucky enough to acquire certain skills so we can distant ourselves from mass and chaos and not subject ourselves to making a living by profiting from the innocent. Hongyu

Beijing Loafer said...

Thanks. That's one of the best compliments a write could hope for.