One Last Look
on 08.07.08, a month before the capital hosts the biggest event on earth, greg lypka arrived in beijing on a mission to observe the changes of an ever-changing city Beijing has seen many changes over the years, both in its architecture and culture. The two were inseparably entwined first in 1421 when Emperor Yongel built “The Forbidden City,” now known as The Palace Museum. Originally designed with such greatness that it is still considered a middle ground between Heaven and Earth, the palace was placed directly on a northsouth axis and continues to be at the “heart” of the city, perfectly bisecting it. The Capital of China has always been constructed with Feng Shui precision to be both grand and harmonious. 24 emperors, over two dynasties and two and a half centuries have transformed the city into what many consider an architectural masterpiece. Chinese culture would be set in stone again via Beijing’s cityscape in 1949, when atop Tiananmen Gate, Chairman Mao Zedong proclaimed to the world the establishment of the People’s Republic of China. The city, and especially the area surrounding Tiananmen
Square, underwent another massive construction project. Though over 500 years had passed, the delicate balance of Yin and Yang in the city’s planning was still maintained and even expanded to now 750 square kilometers and the current “five ring” street layout. If the International Olympic Committee, known for being particularly hyper-sensitive to any symbol containing five rings, was concerned with copyright infringement when it chose Beijing to host the 2008 games, may never be known. But once again, seven years and 40 Billion dollars since that decision, Beijing finds itself home to new, large and fantastic structures. And once again, as the buildings change, so too do the people inside them.
To Beijing! Telly was on the train to Beijing. While at one point he requested if he could speak French, he was still eager to practice his English. When asked about the impending games,
HERE! DONGGUAN | August 2008
The Olympic countdown clock in front of the National Museum draws spectators from inside Tiananmen Square.
he said he felt joy, excitement and appreciation at having a chance to host the games. He added that he felt people need to focus on what is really important and that he just hoped everyone enjoyed the games. When asked if he felt people are nervous he responded, “I don’t think so, I don’t feel that. We’ve prepared. We are ready.” “We Are Ready” is a talk show currently being aired in Beijing. It has two hosts, seen seated with the words “We are Ready” in English very clearly displayed behind them. The exact subject of discussion wasn’t discernable, other than it was Olympics related. Later, the “We are Ready” radio jingle came on while in a taxi. With the construction done and the games imminent, Beijing talks, sings and chants with confidence. But as those three eights get closer and closer to lining up, “We are Ready” will very soon become, “We have Begun.” As all dates yet to hold great significance feel an impossible long time
to wait when first heard about and then suddenly become “tomorrow”, 08/08/08 will be the day’s date soon enough, regardless of preparedness. Some hear the phrase, “We are ready” and reply back, “are you?”
Under the City Markus has been living in a Beijing hostel for months now. Needing only his laptop, he’s free to work anywhere in the world, even four stories almost directly under the center of the city. Buildings and businesses aren’t just changing above ground in Beijing. With the projected 2 million new people entering the estimated 3,000 year old city, space is going to be utilized wherever it’s found. This includes Beijing’s, “Underground City.” A massive underground holdout, built to hold and indefinitely sustain one third of Beijing’s population. Thankfully, the shelter was never needed and is finding a new life as a home for backpackers and office space.
The National Stadium, referred to as the “Bird’s Nest” given its “lacy tangle of steel twig cradle.”
With 2 million new people entering the 3,000 year old city, space is going to be utilized wherever it’s found. This includes Beijing’s, “Underground City.” The Finnish freelancer said he’d witnessed the number of foreigners declining as the games got nearer. He expressed concern at seeing the city suddenly overrun by so many people that have never been to China before. He continued on to say that, “traffic especially might get out of hand. Taxis don’t even stop for foreigners around here.” At which point Candy, the late-night attendant, interjected, “many foreigners don’t understand China at all. They hear its cheap then refuse to pay more than 5 RMB for a 20 RMB ride. People don’t want to deal with that.” Candy is one of many that came to Beijing in search of better employment. Opportunities for English speaking Chinese and also Chinese speaking foreigners have become more and more abundant since the announcement of the games. When asked what her plans were after the games, she replied she would stay in Beijing for at least another month. When asked if she felt Beijing would be different after the games she responded, “That’s why I’m staying an extra month.” Markus ended by saying he probably wouldn’t be staying in the city
when the Games officially begin. When asked why, he replied, “I’m paying 100 RMB a night and it will be 600 RMB a night then, but I doubt I’ll get six times as much service.”
Roundtable Discussions Transition periods are never easy. History aside, modern-day Beijing is a high-paced, big-money-metropolis as set in its own ways as the country in which it resides. At dinner, the new ban on smoking in restaurants loses to the popular vote after midnight. Through the growing haze, Bamboo, a singer and fellow diner, lists off the benefits seen around town such as new metro stops and the increasing amount of English used by even the bus drivers. When asked about concerns in the city she answers, “It’s too big. You can’t control it. Every temple around town prays for the Olympics.” When asked if he felt people were thinking more about medals or the cultural significance of the games, Guillmo, a lawyer from France and Bamboo’s boyfriend, replied, “Medals are important, but not really related with Chinese daily
life. The cultural issue is what’s really changing the lives of the people outside of the games. Now there are more chances to let foreigners see China and vice versa. All the companies of the world interacting with all the Chinese companies will significantly improve foreign-Chinese understanding.” One factor directly affected by the economy and definitely shaping the landscape of the city is its pollution problem. Numerous factories were pushed out and cleanup efforts begun immediately after the bid was first accepted. By all accounts, the
city’s air and water quality have improved dramatically. Concerns however over whether it will satisfy the global standards still remain. Efforts to display an “eco-friendly” and globally harmonious Games can be seen in the “Olympic Green,” the area where the majority of the Olympic venues are located. Balance is so precise that if a line were drawn between the Palace Museum and the Olympic Green, it would perfectly split the distance between the National Stadium and the National Aquatics Center.
An ancient Hutong doorway. While threatened by the games, it still stands.
HERE! DONGGUAN | august 2008
one is very friendly and so many people are speaking English.” Standing in the center of the square, on the north side of the Monument of the People’s Heroes, one sees Mao’s famous portrait, directly ahead, which has been hanging on Tiananmen Gate for just about sixty years now. Looking directly to the right in front of the National Museum is the digital countdown to the opening ceremony of the games.
The National Aquatics Center or “Water Cube.” The bubble based structure glows blue at night.
The Nest and the Cube Outside the gate leading to the two main Olympic venues, William Wang attempts to help me explain to the guard how my credentials are real, just not “official,” but to no avail. William, who will be working in Paris during the games but hopes to return after, was another instance of a random stranger going out of their way to help and then take time to get acquainted. All over town, people are seen making first time introductions and exchanging email addresses. The ease of cultural exchange is due in large part by the other message being told to the citizens of Beijing. That message, in less specific terms, is “They are coming.”
lost. Nini, the “Swallow” Fuwa with a kite on her head, throws her green Olympic ring down and it magically becomes a rickshaw. Jingjing, the Giant Panda and “Metal” Fuwa then hops behind the handle bar and takes the misguided couple to where they need to go. Another ad showed a young foreigner with a Chinese girlfriend leave his wallet while sightseeing. The kindly old man that showed the area to the young couple sees what happens and exclaims, the “laowai” left this wallet, before racing after him. The notion of making a suitable home seen clearest in Beijing’s nomination for “Best Olympic Venue Ever,” the National Stadium, endearingly referred to as the
newest, largest and most culturally significant buildings to be built possibly since the construction of the National Museum, the Great Hall of the People, and Chairman Mao’s Mausoleum that, with Tiananmen Gate, make up the four sides of Tiananmen square.
The Square Walking to Tiananmen Square, the young Chinese man that said he’d gladly direct me, “suddenly” mentions he is a calligrapher, right as we are in front of an art store. Inside the store, I meet Sun Wen, the young man’s teacher that also spoke very good English. When asked if his language ability had anything to do with the Olympics, he replied,
“It’s already different. The sky is bluer; the air has definitely gotten better. And people are acting different. Everyone is very friendly and so many people are speaking English.” This message is seen clearest on Beijing TV where the Games are as easy to avoid as they are when walking in the city. An “Olympic English” segment was seen that taught and demonstrated a “tip”, or “service charge.” Another spot showed the Olympic Fuwa -mascots encountering a very “touristy” looking couple that confess to the five that they are
“Bird’s Nest” given its “lacy tangle of steel twig cradle.” Right next to the outdoor stadium is the city’s nomination for “Best Supporting Olympic Venue Ever,” the National Aquatics Center or “Water Cube,” so named after its azure nocturnal glowing structure, based on that of bubbles. The two venues having been the
HERE! DONGGUAN | august 2008
“Well, I’m volunteering…because I can speak English; in 100 years a country might see the Olympics maybe once. This is my way of participating.” When asked if he felt Beijing would be different after the games he remarked, “It’s already different. The sky is bluer; the air has definitely gotten better. And people are acting different. Every-
The flag lowering ceremony in Tiananmen Square attracts quite a crowd. I question a friendly looking soldier to see if the military is learning English. Though his body posture never relaxes, his face does as he recites the few phrases he’s been working on. Quickly though, he went to a nearby police officer also working on the square to help translate. Guan Xiao Di happily told me about all the new buildings, roads and metro stops. I asked him if many of the law enforcement personal were learning English. To which he answered, “Yes, more and more police are learning English. We study it everyday.”
The Hutongs Walking clockwise from the northern side of the square, past a clock ticking seconds away from a global event towards the final resting place of possibly China’s single most defining individual, I am again taken off guard, this time by a kindergarten teacher. When asked if she was always this direct with strangers, she responded, “Chinese have a way of asking many, many questions around the actual question we want to ask. I prefer the direct method much more.” As we discussed the many wonderful cultural differences of our two countries in front of the Maosoleum, I turned around to find I missed the flag lowering ceremony. Unsure of what to do next, Joanna surprised me again by inviting me to see some of oldest parts of Beijing, the old hutongs. While I remembered this was a classic scam from first hand reports and warnings posted in many places, I also knew the destruction of the old hutongs was a hot topic in the forthcoming games. If she had asked me to have
a cup of tea at one of the local tea shops, I would have had to politely excuse myself. Beloved by every Beijinger are Beijing’s old hutong neighborhoods made of traditional courtyard houses. Known for their tiled roofs and beautifully ornate doorway covers, the “huntong style” is seen all over Beijing and even in many large and modern buildings. Media has stated, “One of the public shames of Beijing is that its building boom has destroyed most of the city’s old hutong neighborhoods.” When I asked Joanna about this, she replied, “It is a shame, but many are still being preserved. We’re in one now, aren’t we?” She then pointed out a doorway she claimed was over 300 years old and added cheekily, “This doorway is older than your country.” My arrogant, American side wanted to retort, “Well, my country is bigger than your doorway,” but that really wouldn’t have meant too much. Her point was clear. Despite 300 years and unimaginable changes to the city, as unprotected as it was the day it was made, this little doorway still stands with no sign to give any indication of its age or significance. Beijing has preserved just as much as it has changed over the years.
big a difference. People just need to understand that coming to China isn’t what many consider “going abroad,” its very different.” The couples parted by saying the large crowds were going to keep them away during the actual Olympics. Construction of the Great Wall of China began in the 7th Century, B.C., more recent to the landmark are many tourist spots where people are able to see and walk along one of the 8 Wonders of the World. Present day Badaling has added brand new, multilingual signs as well as many new stores and bus stops in preparation for the games. Emerging from the Great “Mall” of China, a gauntlet of stores one is funneled through to get to the Badaling entrance, the Great Wall of China will be seen extending to the south. Further up, one can just turn around to see the north side. There, next to the Wall’s highest signal fire platform in sight, is now an approximately 200 by 30 foot sign with “One World, One Dream” in Chinese and English and an eight-
foot tall “Dancing Beijing” above the “Beijing 2008” and Olympic rings logos. Many have called the Olympics China’s “coming out party.” In the Jundu Mountains, next to China’s long-time symbol of exclusion and repulsion of all things considered “foreign,” a proclamation and invitation has been constructed in true “Hollywood” fashion.
What does it mean to you? Standing on the Great Wall of China, observing the Olympic sign positioned right next to the highest peak in view, I asked Jose and Manie Goncalvesa, a Portuguese couple, what they felt it meant. Manie seemed annoyed to be bothered on what was probably her vacation, but Jose conceded his view as, “China is integrating and becoming part of the rest of the world. They’ve kept themselves separated for so long and are just now joining the global community.”
Despite the years and unimaginable changes, Beijing has persevered just as much as it has changed.
300 years is still just a fraction of China’s vast and ancient history and “perseverance” is certainly what comes to mind when one visits the oldest architectural/cultural destination of interest, the “Great” destination.
The Wall On the 919 bus (careful, there are almost a dozen “919” buses, only the Badaling one takes people directly to the Wall), seated next to me are Espen and Angela Simonsen, the nice couple from Demark that helped me find the right bus. Like me, their first time in Beijing, they were traveling across China to catch the solar eclipse. I asked the couple what they thought of Pre-Olympic Beijing and Angela replied, “The Olympics have actually helped us, we really didn’t expect that. Everyone speaks English and is so nice and helpful.” Espen added,” With this city’s population, another million or two isn’t going to make that
Seeing the new, through the old. The Olympic sign at Badaling seen through one of the wall’s signal fire platform’s window.
HERE! DONGGUAN | august 2008