Friday, October 07, 2005

The glorious sportsmen and women of the revolution vs. the marketing might of Manchester United. Worker's stadium, Beijing.

Beijing Babylon

Mihaa! (Greetings, viewers, but not in Mongolian.)

I've been struggling with this piece for sometime now, and have eventually had to release it into the wild without having given it a full physical. Even so, despite wrestling with the subject matter, I have not been either shooting arrows at it or horse racing it, for this is not a Mongolian issue. This piece concerns China. China, on the other hand, is probably deeply unconcerned by this piece. Quid no quo. Grab your wontons and green tea and settle in.

China is, as we know, intrinsically vast. Any discussions of China presupposes this massive girth- geographic, demographic, economic, cultural, historical, take your pick; it's a behemoth. There's no such thing as a little China.

Playing the numbers with China is a mug's game, because the figures involved are akin to those used to calculate distances in space, but it may be instructive to mention a few here. 1.3 billion people (that's 20 percent of everybody), spread over 9.6 million square kilometres. Shared borders with 14 other countries. A total of 1.8 million kilometres of roads, with five million private cars purchased a year. Annual growth rates in double figures, despite unemployment rates of 20 percent. The second largest economy in the world, ranked 85th on the Human Development Index. Three hundred million people without adequate sanitation. Whatever point it is one is trying to prove, the numbers for China will make the point for you dramatically.

But what, then, is the point? How to encapsulate all that bigness into one easily digestible intellectual biscuit? Bearing in mind the fallacy of the visitor in any circumstance is to try to extrapolate a grand theory based on a set of thin conclusions, conclusions which are in turn a result of a narrow set of experiences comprised of a fistful of rapid observations. So we're still no closer.

This extemporizing is problematic when considering Lichtenstein or Tonga, but applying this approach to China is unwise indeed. The plurality of the Chinese whole defies comfy theorizing- any operant assumptions are easily contradicted just around the next corner. Much of what one hears or assumes about China is wrong, or at best readily deniable. This isn't particularly unique- the same applies to much of what is written and said about America. Nonetheless, that doesn't stop anyone from coming up with pat assumptions and one sentence summaries.

All of which is to say, much of what follows is wrong.

Through the centuries, China has kept going, come what may. At massive cost and with sometimes retrograde motion, but it is as it has been for thousands of years: immensely powerful. China in this regard contravenes the standard narrative applied to dominion- implicitly, the notion of empire presupposes decline and fall. Rome, the Mongols, The Ottomans, the British, the Soviets-their empires have come and gone, while geopolitically speaking, the Chinese are still in the hunt, and could still ascend further. This is perhaps due to the fact that China's mass is contiguous, and consequently easier to control than a far flung series of satelites might be. This is painting in broad strokes to be sure, but the fact is that the future of a strong China is still playing out, and does not represent a closed historical chapter in the same way that say, the British Empire does. China has declined and fallen flat any number of times- a fair few times in the 20th Century alone- but with every seeming collapse China reinvents itself and carries on, apparently gaining momentum as it does so. Formidable ironies pile up quickly, as yesterday's anathema is today's ordre du jour, but perhaps it is this mutability which keeps China's sails so full of wind.

The result of this ideological pig pile is juxtaposition of everything one might care to ascribe to the concept of China, writ on a massive scale.

As one approaches the sleepy little hamlet of Beijing (pop.15 million), capital of the communist People's Republic of China, it is the forces of capitalism that first emerge from the gloom. Clusters of skyscrapers stand on either side of the road, each crowned with a single giant corporate logo- Nokia, Microsoft,Luftansa- concrete and steel fingers stretched out for coin. The buildings themselves are functional blocks with occasional accents or color, but for the most part simply appear to be unadorned money making factories. This is repeated throughout the city, as one realizes that China is El Dorado- the biggest market and the cheapest labour going.

If you're in the business of making a buck, you simply cannot afford to ignore China and risk losing out. Incredibly posh shops and corporate frontage are purchased at lavish expense to peddle Louis Vuitton and Audemars Piguet at prices that no one can afford, ignoring the inconvenient fact that knockoffs are available just across town for rock bottom prices. A Rolls Royce dealership sits between Burberry and Prada on Beijing's main drag, Chang'an Avenue, fifteen minutes walk from Mao's Mausoleum. The most powerful communist state on the planet is one of the most nakedly venal places on earth. China is for sale, and everything's negotiable.

Insatiable moneymaking has driven property prices sky high, with old buildings being destroyed in order for something more profitable to be constructed. There's a clock on all this: the Olympics in 2008, for which Beijing must be shiny to the point of blinding. China World Trade Centre is looking to throw up a 80 story wonder, in addition to its two existing 40 story towers. Dozens of cranes work single construction sites, round the clock, seven days a week. We walked along streets on which huge billboards in red and white advertised thrilling new residential opportunities coming soon suitable for executives and foreigners. In the breaks between the billboards, bulldozed shanties lay in piles, with folk squatting in locations destined for higher things. Sanlitun Bar Street, a bohemian strip of pavement bars and nightclubs is scheduled for complete razing, renovation and restoration as a high end entertainment mall by 2007. The western side of the street already is rubbled, with one establishment which has somehow held out left adrift in a unlit field of broken stones, with a sign announcing "We Still Here." How long that will hold true is anyone's guess. Probably not much longer, for the future is coming. No one, it seems, is ineligible for destruction.

The pressures on land and sky coupled with the inflow of much much money means that the high end residential market is also booming. Congestion, traffic and and air quality are such that gated communities geared to the international market have been thrown up around the edges of the city, with names like EuroVilla and Paradiso. These complexes come complete with private security, driving ranges, schools, pools, restaurants, and off street parking, at a price which allows one to spend in the style to which one has become accustomed. The alternative of living deep in the city, with the attendant lack of green space, lack of non-Chinese speakers, noise and traffic can be a something of a challenge, especially for the child rearing. Air quality especially leaves something to be desired- for 2005, Beijing City Council is aiming for 230 clear days, up from 228 in 2004. Put another way, that means that 135 days are not clear. Four and a half months of the year, it's a smoggy smog world. How the discus throwers are going to cope with this during peak choking season in 2008 remains to be seen.

All through the city, the sound of currency being counted quickly permeates. Advertising is everywhere- flat screens were mounted opposite the elevator doors on every floor of our hotel to give a you a hit in those critical seconds before the doors slide closed. Soon, all Beijing taxis will have unturnoffable screens installed into the seatbacks to bombard you with product information as you drive around.

Beneath the corps doing billon dollar deals, at street level dozens of markets sell everything, and the bargain hunt is a key element of many tourist's trips to Beijing. We saw platoons of Americans (recognizable because Americans on vacation wear tshirts emblazoned with the name of the last place they went on vacation) lugging bootleg Samsonites into the Pearl Market to fill up with cheap product to take home. After the polite, prix fixe dealings of Ulaanbaatar, the aggro and fluidity of Beijing's markets can be a bit startling. The general rule of thumb seems to be pay no more than 25 percent of the asking price, no matter what. This will involve shouting, some of it angry, so be ready. Inevitably, the first few transactions will doubtless lead to some dubious purchases of uncertain value, but soon enough one is buying Levis in bundles of six. It also helps to keep the exchange rate in mind. Two of our party, jetlagged and unfamiliar, ended up buying some dried fruit and two bananas for forty bucks. Ooops.

Once into the swing of things, one common bargaining manoeuvre is called Happy Price, whereby the seller and buyer agree to meet halfway- all good until you realize that you are dealing with people who are hands down smarter than you, and have a much better idea of the worth of the materials in question. Going to buy a pair of shoes/string of pearls/set of clubs becomes an exercise in vaguely Buddhist market indexing: the true value of anything in unknown, so how much is one willing to pay for anything? Independently of what one is willing to pay, how much can one get it for? Is it worth either of those prices? Only the abacus knows the answer.

All this haggling and money making going on can make one's head spin- and yet, besides this everything must go attitude, there is a humourless inflexible adherence to the rules. For obvious reasons, taking photos inside the markets is forbidden- the same vendor who would sell you the shirt off her back will under no circumstance let the shutter click. You need a visa to set foot in the airport, even if only in transit. Taxis will not stop for fares anywhere except in designated spots off the main roads. Hotel reservations not in pristine order are treated with deep suspicion. At bustops and the airport, queues happen, and seem to keep a degree of shape. In fact, given the sheer volume of humanity in play, it's impressive how relatively well the infrastructure functions. Granted, there are problems with particular elements here and there (traffic flow and roads spring to mind), but overall it keeps ticking over.

Once all bargains have been safely negotiated, it's time to go and poke at the lasting achievements of China's history. Of the various stops on the circuit, there are two highlights of truly sublime dimensions. Specifically, the Forbidden City and the Great Wall are extraordinary places to visit, and worthy of all the hyperbole pointed in their direction. Anywhere which maintains an emotional punch in spite of the domestic and foreign hordes milling everywhere, bloated tourist tat shops, and wilting humidity is worthy of visiting, and no more so than those two. On a more miniature level, the caliber of workmanship on even the cheapest of items is very high indeed- lacquerwork, painting, and ceramics are all exceptionally wonderful. Of course, there's a vast cornucopia to choose from, so individual mileage may vary, but something for everyone can be found. And then there's the food.

Unless one is a particular kind of freak (hi Bob and Ali!), reading about other people's meals is rather like hearing about other people's minor ailments: it's hard to keep from scratching oneself to stay awake. The food in Beijing deserves better than that, so we'll keep it brief. In a word, transplendentdelicioustastyyumyum. And that was just the cracker we found on the floor at the airport. The highlights of the meals inhaled are plural, but a shout out is in order for the romaine with sesame dipping sauce, barbecued trout at the Great Wall, green onion dumplings, prawns cooked on hot stones, multiple wonderfuls with aubergines and garlic, and the mystifying ability to take fish as marginal as carp and turn it into a centrepiece dish. Once one gets used to the fact that food seems to arrive in arbitrary order, and you remember not to touch, move or otherwise disturb the meal chit filled in by your barrage of servers that rests at the end of the table, everything will arrive in a regular rotation of tasties. And if, after all, you thought the vegetables could have been more exciting, or the squid was less than you hoped for, then solace awaits when you get the bill. Even with a revalued yuan, China is kind to the holder of hard currency. Smack your lips, burp up the vapours, reach for a toothpick, and ask to see the menu again.

And on that rich, aromatic and tasty note, we will draw an beaded curtain with a pitcure of a dragon on it over these proceedings. As a digestif, I would offer the following.

Traveling around Beijing with a blond haired blue eyed baby is an extraordinary thing to do. More times than could be counted, we were stopped by random strangers, asking to take Natty's picture, either by himself, or with them arrayed around him. 'Asking' is perhaps the kind way of putting it. Dozens of people picked him up or carried him out of sheer 'i want to hold a baby' joy. One night at a Thai restaurant called Banana Leaf, he woke from his sleep and when roused, started dancing to the music from the band. Tables cleared of patrons who came piling round to watch the scamp do his thing. A bank of camera phones was popping like Cannes- I counted seven at one point. We have a photo taken inside the Forbidden City, in a gallery filled with jade and vases of inestimable value- every single person in the place is looking at the boy standing around doing nothing much. The combined beauty of the imperial heritage have nothing on a toddling boy. There was no let up for this the whole week. It was all good natured, but unrelenting. If it ever got too much, the only recourse was to return to the hotel, and even there- one morning at breakfast he was pinched off his chair to play by the lady in the carpet shop before he'd had a bite.

I mention all of this not to big up my son, but because it was a manic, nonstop of the visit. Given how many people there are in Beijing, there are surprisingly few babies. Granted this may be different in more residential areas, but compared to the streets of Ulaanbaatar, the difference is obvious. The one baby policy is still in effect, even if it is less rigidly enforced, and there is nowhere for China to sluice off the unrequited maternal/paternal instincts. Perhaps this is an inadequate explanation, but even compared to kiddie friendly places like Mongolia or Italy, the degree and urgency of attention Natty got was striking at the time, and slightly melancholy thereafter. What will all those people who took jpegs of a random foreign baby do with them? Save them? Add them to their holiday album? Why take a photo of such a thing in the first place? All of the possible answers are depressing.

To be continued at a later date, viewers. This will not be our last visit to China, and I look forward to contradicting myself imminently.

Bai bai,