TRAVELOGUE: Beijing’s Olympic bubble

[10 July 2007]

By Chris Welsch

Star Tribune (Minneapolis) (MCT)

Wang Hai Xia, who knows Beijing pretty well, had to ask directions twice to find the Dashanzi Art District in an industrial area outside the city’s third ring road.

It didn’t look like much at first. Smokestacks rose from endless ranks of low brick buildings. That’s not unusual in the factory-rich capital of China.

Then we noticed a pair of stocky concrete giants—identical old men, 30 feet high, in Mao suits. One stood on the sidewalk and another stood stoically on the roof of another building, half a block away.

Things got weirder. Outside the Long March Space, an art gallery housed in another empty factory, workers put the finishing touches on a life-size plastic brachiosaurus, suspended in a house-sized glass box.

In the Factory 798 Gallery, faded red calligraphy on the ceiling exhorted workers to attend the words of Chairman Mao, while in life-size photos on the walls beneath, a modern Chinese (and nude) woman cavorted with men in tuxedos.

At a fashion boutique, Cultural Revolution met haute couture; silkscreens of Red Army soldiers goose-stepped across the derrieres of the store’s manikins. My friends, flipping through the racks of racy dresses, were as surprised as I was. “I never saw something like this in Beijing,” said Wang Yan.

“This is for maybe 5 percent of the population,” said Stanny Joe, who was minding the store for his sister, designer Feng Ling. “It’s for people who want to say `I am different, I have my own way.’”

Ten years ago, the first time I visited Beijing, there wasn’t much tolerance for people who wanted to have their own way, or, for that matter, for people making ironic use of communist iconography. But a lot is changing in the capital of the world’s most populous country.

A little more than a year from the 2008 Olympics, Beijing is undergoing a phenomenal transformation. Part of it is physical: The city has become a workshop for the world’s most famous architects. Amid soot-stained apartment blocks, otherworldly structures—glass eggs, steel bird’s nests and leaning, gleaming skyscrapers—have risen as temples of China’s economic good fortune.

But other changes run deeper in the nation’s culture. China’s economy grew 10.7 percent last year, and it’s been growing at that pace for some time. As a result, Beijing’s young middle class—well-informed, Internet-savvy and hungry for modern conveniences—is pushing change on many other levels.

“Every year we get 6- to 7-million foreign tourists—at least 1 ½ million from the United States,” said Alice Fan, who runs a private guide service with her husband, Eric. “More come each year, especially because of the Olympics.”

It was a clear April morning, and we were in a shuttle van, stuck in heavy traffic. When I visited Beijing in 1996, the roads flowed with bikes, buses and trucks. Now the highway looked more like home: one passenger car after another with only one person in it.

“Every day there are 2,000 more cars on the road,” said Fan, bemoaning the situation. “By May there will be 3 million in the city. As the living standard goes up, everybody wants a flat and then a car.”

I commented on the makes: Volkswagens, Mercedeses and BMWs glided alongside less expensive Chinese makes.

“BMW is what everyone wants,” Fan said. “We have a joke. `BMW stands for three things: Big Money Winner, Be My Wife and Break My Window.’”

More than 16 million people live in the municipality of Beijing, a governmental jurisdiction the size of Connecticut. It took us more than an hour to get to the Olympic Village, and we were only crossing the center of town.

The village was still a construction zone, with no accommodation for visitors. Alice Fan sweet-talked a guard into letting us park on the shoulder next to a sheet-metal fence, but he wouldn’t let us inside the gate. Still, the view of the National Stadium was stunning.

Rising from heaps of dirt, a crisscrossing network of steel tubes, towering over the toylike bulldozers beneath it, enmeshed the solid concrete walls of the bleachers inside. Here is where ceremonies will open and close the 2008 games, which will run Aug. 8 through 24.

The popular name for the structure is the Bird’s Nest because that’s what it looks like—sticks woven together to create something round and sheltering—and because a bird’s nest has all kinds of positive connotations in China, from good fortune to a gourmet soup. It’s hard to tell how functional the structure will be, but it’s beautiful to look at. The architects, Herzog & de Meurons, also designed the less appealing Walker Art Center addition.

Behind the Bird’s Nest is what I call the Fish Tank. The plastic facade of the National Aquatic Center mimics soap bubbles. A translucent, honeycombed skin stretches across the boxlike framework where swimming and diving events will take place. At night, the structure will glow bright blue, like a B-movie alien invasion vessel.

The city has been preparing in other ways, too. More than 200 million trees were planted in the past 10 years to provide shade and absorb carbon dioxide, and some coal-burning plants were moved out of the city. But the people I spoke to in Beijing said pollution is still a big problem. The government counts “blue sky” days and said there were 200 last year, which would be a big improvement from a decade ago. I was in the city for three days in April—one blue sky day, two grays.

As I veered back and forth across Beijing, I kept finding fragments of the past folded into the present.

I visited the dwindling neighborhoods known as “hutong,” mazelike neighborhoods of narrow alleys where elaborate doors signify the courtyard homes behind the walls. Most of the hutongs have been knocked down to make room for apartment blocks or corporate buildings, but small enclaves remain.

Victims of nostalgia, they have become tourist attractions. Residents must endure streams of peeping tourists, from elsewhere in China and abroad.

For a couple of bucks, a rickshaw driver showed me one elegant home with a garden courtyard that had been returned to its pre-communist era owners. And he showed me his home, a room half the size of my bedroom where he, his mother, his wife and 9-year-old son lived. Not far away, I saw men squatting on the curb playing the traditional board game mah-jong and across the alley, a cafe advertising “Wi-Fi, Mojito, Coffee, Draft Beer.”

My favorite place in Beijing is Tiantan Park. Designed according to the principles of feng shui, it’s a harmonious composition of ponds, flower beds and ancient cypress, cedar and peach trees. When the temples were built 500 years ago, they were among the pinnacles of world architecture. That’s an echo of today’s Beijing, which expresses pride in its wealth and power with world-beating temples of sport and commerce.

Tiantan (Temple of Heaven) was where the emperor went to pray for good harvests. Until the turn of the last century, no one but the emperor and his court could see this place, and even then, only during the solstice rituals. It was believed that the emperor was the sole agent of heaven on Earth; it was up to him to bring good fortune to the kingdom.

Now it’s one of the places where Beijingites go to practice tai chi, dance, sing or play cards—and to practice the ancient retail arts.

As I walked through the park with a tour group, hawkers followed our every step, pleading with us to buy Mao watches, jade pendants and Mont Blanc pens (or reasonable facsimiles). But the most popular items were those commemorating Beijing’s latest pitch for good fortune: T-shirts and baseball caps commemorating the 2008 Summer Games.



Tickets for the Summer 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing went on sale in April, and already more than 2.2 million tickets have been sold from a total of 7 million. About one-fourth of the available seats are reserved for foreigners, according to Xinhua, the official Chinese news agency.

Seats to the opening and closing ceremonies will be hard to come by unless you pay a premium price for an all-inclusive package. The second phase of ticket sales will begin in the fall. For more information, go to the official ticket sales site:

Most Chinese tour agencies are government-run, with strict itineraries and dull, scripted patter. During an Internet search, I lucked into A&E, one of the new private agencies opening up as the government loosens control. Alice Fan was fluent, flexible and candid and charges about $100 per day, including car and driver, for private Beijing tours.

Every first-time visitor to Beijing must see the Forbidden City, the Great Wall and the Summer Palace. Add to that list the Dashanzi Art District, which showcases the best of Beijing’s avant-garde artists, along with some interesting boutiques, restaurants and nightclubs. There are more than 100 venues, and one could easily spend a full day. More information:

The gardens and temples inside Tiantan Park are spectacular, but during the day, they are swamped with tourists. Take advantage of your jet lag and go to the park when the gates open at 6 a.m. Serious practitioners of tai chi (a martial art) and chi gong (exercises for generating energy and health) show up early, when chi (energy) is flowing most strongly. Almost any green space in the city will be used for exercise, but Tiantan’s atmosphere is hard to beat.

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