Saturday, 2 April 2011

China: back in the P.R.C.

The author on the Great Wall of China. © Andy Brown/2011/China
In 1876, Gore Vidal’s historical novel about the US centenary, narrator Charlie Schuyler returns to New York after decades of self-imposed exile in Europe. He is struck by the transformation of a city he once knew into something brash, modern and unfamiliar, as America rushed to catch up with and surge past the global powers of the Old World. I got a bit of the same feeling returning to Beijing after a ten-year absence.

Driving into town, the horizon was a jumble of skyscrapers and tower blocks, stretching out from East to West with barely a sliver of sky between them. Everything was clean and orderly, with neat rows of silver birch trees lined up behind spotless pavements and well-managed cycle lanes. The tiled ‘hutong’ houses and bicycle-drawn carts I remembered from my last visit were nowhere to be seen. As the light began to fade, we reached the embassy district where Western brand names, neon-lit Chinese characters and a huge Apple logo lit up the sky above a brand new shopping mall. There was even a billboard for a Bob Dylan gig at the Workers' Gymnasium. It felt more like Geneva than the hectic and historic Asian city I remembered.

I had almost forgotten it was winter. I left Bangkok just as the rainy season began, spending my last night sheltering from a particularly spectacular thunder storm. Here it was mid-March but the trees were still bare. Where Bangkok was lush and green, Beijing existed in varying shades of yellow and brown. Dry leaves lay on the lawns and flowerbeds, testament to the lack of rain since they fell in the autumn. At night, the temperature dropped to well below freezing. The air was dry and dusty and I would wake up in the morning feeling as if I’d been chain smoking the night before. A few days later my skin started to flake.


The UNICEF office was a ten minute walk from my hotel, just past the Venezuelan embassy – which always seemed to be doing a roaring trade. The road was lined with impassive military guards in green overcoats. One day, I saw a line of them marching to their posts, their arms swinging in perfect mechanical unison. The main office building was a grand, converted villa but my desk was with the fundraising team (Winnie, Renee, Stella and Heather) in a portacabin. Thick blankets hung over the doorways to keep the cold out, while radiators belted out heat inside. I noticed my colleagues all had a contraption on their desks, with an inverted bottle of mineral water in the top and steam billowing out the front. “It’s for the dry air,” Stella explained. “We buy on them on the Internet.”

Police officers patrolling the streets of the hutong at Nanluoguixiang.
© Andy Brown/2011/China
My job, in China as elsewhere, was to help the country office develop their web presence, including on social media. However, where the Internet landscape in Thailand and the Philippines is broadly similar to that in the UK, in China it’s very different. The normally ubiquitous social media sites like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are blocked by the ‘Great Firewall of China’. This blog site was also off-limits. In their place, however, were Chinese equivalents with (to me) unfamiliar names like Qzone, Renren, Sina Weibo and YouKu. These sites are as lively as their Western competitors and provide a new forum for people to express their opinions, albeit on a narrower range of subjects.

I was doing a training session on social media so I did some research into the local sites. The biggest one, Qzone, has 480 million users, putting it second only to Facebook globally. The way people use the sites are different as well, with photos and blogs the most popular activities, compared to managing profiles in the West. Generally, the Chinese Internet is much more text heavy, with rows and rows of characters filling up the average homepage, which scrolls down for miles. In my second week, I joined Dale and Lui Li from communications for a meeting with Sina.com at their office in Beijing’s Silicon Valley, opposite a huge Microsoft building. As a present, we got soft toys of the Sina mascot – a huge pink eye on a yellow body. It was a cool gift but more surreal than cute.

As the days went by, I started to notice old Beijing emerging from the cracks between the modern facades. The young, urban fashionistas were interspersed with shambling old men in caps and jackets, reminiscent of the fashions of the Mao era. In the morning, the rickety bicycles re-emerged, some loaded up on the back with food produce, broomsticks or even on one occasion a leather armchair. The occasional street stall offered a range of skewers cooked in broth, while roasted sweet potatoes were sold from the back of wooden carts. “The smell of sweet potatoes always reminds me of Beijing,” said Michelle, an English language teacher I met on a weekend hike. “You just start eating them from the top, including the skin.”

A street vendor selling sweet potatoes to young Beijingers.
© Andy Brown/2011/China
I’ve become fascinated by the national character of tuk-tuks. In Manila, these are essentially motorbikes with a sidecar bolted on, while in Bangkok they’re more sturdily designed with seats behind the driver. The Beijing tuk-tuks resemble the Manila version in layout but with a metal box built around the whole thing, presumably to provide some protection from the elements in winter. Where the Thai and Filipino tuk-tuks are brightly decorated with coloured lights and slogans, the Beijing ones are a uniform dull grey or green. They looked more like military vehicles than the garish tourist traps of their South East Asian cousins.

On my first weekend, I decided to track down what was left of the hutongs. These are alleyways and courtyard houses, originally built by the Mongolians in the Thirteenth Century after Genghis Khan sacked the city, along with the Northern half of China, and installed the Yuan dynasty. At their height there were 6,000 of these alleys in Beijing but most have been demolished to make way for modern buildings. However, they do still survive in some quarters. My colleague Cindy directed me to Nanluoguixiang, which has avoided the bulldozers by converting the main street through the hutong into a tourist destination, with the old grey brick-and-tile houses converted into bars, restaurants and art galleries. This district is also home to ‘Mao Livehouse,’ where Beijing’s top rock and pop acts perform in the evening.

After exploring the main street for a while, I turned off down a side alley. I only had to go 100 metres from the tourist area to find the old hutong community alive and well. A pair of old ladies with careworn faces wrapped up in overcoats sat on stools outside a courtyard house gossiping in Mandarin. Through the doorway, I could see bicycles leaning against the walls and lines of washing strung across the courtyard. Although they pre-date communism by 600 years, these hutong houses are well suited to communal living, with a dozen or more families living in rooms off the central courtyard. Down the road, a man with a bicycle cart was offloading bundles of firewood and two old men played a game of Chinese chess, with characters drawn on flat draughts-style counters indicating the type of pieces.

Old men playing Chinese chess on the way to Yellow Flower Village.
© Andy Brown/2011/China
I also joined a hiking group and made a couple of trips out of Beijing to see the Great Wall of China. I was only here for two and half weeks but in that time the temperature rose from just above freezing to nearly 20 degrees, and it was a pleasant spring day when we set out for the second hike. The walk was from Huanghuacheng reservoir to ‘Yellow Flower Village’, an old Ming-era army barracks that had been converted into a rural village. It sat just below the wall, which dominated the horizon with its massive stone ramparts and towers, then snaked off into the distance, going up and down sharp jagged mountain ridges above flat bottomed valleys. You could spot the towers first, then make out the walls connecting them, like a game of ‘join the dots’.

The Great Wall was built during a thousand year period from the 5th century BC to the 16th century AD. It stretches along the southern edge of Inner Mongolia for over 8,800 km from Shanhaiguan in the east to Lop Nur in the west. The most famous wall is that built by the first Emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang, in the 3rd century BC. Not much of that wall remains, with the majority of the existing wall built during the later Ming Dynasty. The wall was supposedly designed to keep out northern invaders, although it spectacularly failed to prevent incursions by the Mongolians and Manchus, both of whom nonetheless continued with its construction and fortification once they were in power. Another theory that I quite like is that its real purpose was to create a sense of national unity among China's disparate ethnic groups, while keeping the population and economy busy on its construction.

Our walk started with a steep climb through chestnut orchards to the restored wall, with magnificent views across a reservoir. From there we walked along the ‘wild wall’, where it is still in its natural state. Some parts were in good condition, though overgrown with small thorn trees growing along the middle of the path. In other places, the finished stone had disappeared and we picked our way gingerly along a mound of packed earth and loose rubble. Spring flowers were just starting to appear on some of the trees alongside the wall, providing some great photo opportunities.

One of our guides, a young Chinese woman called Huijie, was a history buff and she brought the wall to life with a regular commentary, including some fascinating anecdotes. “Archaeologists have found that the people who made this stretch of the wall mixed sticky rice soup into the mortar,” she revealed as we stopped on one tower to admire the view and wait for the back of the group to catch up.

The first spring flowers alongside the Great Wall of China.
© Andy Brown/2011/China
I’m a big movie buff so before leaving Beijing I went to check out some local films. There was a cinema near the office showing a mixture of Hollywood and local fare, although I had to argue with the girl at the ticket booth who couldn’t understand why I would want to see a Chinese film. “But we have Battle Los Angeles,” she protested. “It’s in English.” I reassured her that I was happy to read the subtitles.

In fact she had a point, as the films showing were a far cry from the high art and drama of a Zhang Yimou or Chen Kaige movie. I saw a slapstick comedy set in an unspecified Imperial era, where concubines broke into Mandarin rap songs and sword fighting warriors turned into computer game characters. I tried again with a thriller that became unintentionally hilarious by throwing every horror movie cliché possible at the screen, from sinister music, mysterious black cats and flickering light bulbs, to a central cast of gullible teenagers who got slaughtered one-by-one by a overacted hammer-wielding maniac.

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