January 03, 2010


As some of you know, I've recently bought a new camera of relative worth.  This event coincided with our coworkers' vacation to Thailand, and as they agreed that it would be difficult for them to ride their bicycle while they were gone, they decided to lend it to me.  I've had it in my head for a while already to get out on the country roads and see the villages around Beijing, and it also seemed like a good time to get in some practice with the camera.

Now, some geographic background is necessary here.  Beijing is a city that is growing at an unimaginable rate.  In Winnipeg, they periodically announced that certain roads would be closed off due to construction, or that new subdivisions would be built.  But I don't think it's any exaggeration to say that at any given moment the total amount of construction going on in and around Beijing is equal to the total area of Winnipeg.  Maybe two or three Winnipegs.

That being said, I sometimes wonder just what the purpose of some of the buildings being put up really is.  It's plain to see that the new chrome-windowed office building or high-rise apartments are intended to meet demand, to be teeth on the cogs of progress, all part of the enormous engine of growth.  And yet, if the millions of empty square footage of office space in Beijing mean anything, then perhaps the demand, or the market in general, is a wee bit sluggish.

I don't want to sound as if I'm railing on growth.  That's not what this entry is all about.  It's about change.  As I slipped quietly out of the house at 6 am, the sky still lemon-coloured from the streetlights reflecting on the underside of the coal haze, I thought eagerly about what I'd see as I pedaled northwards.  If the maps said anything, I'd be out in the "environs" by the three-and-a-half mile mark.  But, embarrassingly, after 10 months of living in Beijing, I still had only vague ideas of what this would look like.

When I was younger, I knew a boy who had a massive train set in his basement.  There was a table about 30 feet long, covered in foam and papier-mâché hills, plastic houses, and lichen-topped trees.  You could watch the train move along the track, but if you looked too far, your eyes just dropped off the edge of the table.  As I cycled north along Guangshun Bei Da Jie, I suddenly reached a point that reminded me an awful lot of that strange HO-scale world.  The road didn't end, but it was abruptly transformed into a narrow two-lane thing that squiggled its way under an overpass, riddled with potholes that would bottom out the moon buggy.  The high-rises and the shops just ceased to exist, and in their place were squat buildings of brown brick.  They hunched, windows smashed and dark, as if the people inside were impervious to the elements.  The people I passed on that road were dressed in thick, quilted coats, scarves and hoods pulled up against the cold.

I rode on, as the sky turned to charcoal and then to smoke, never quite reaching blue.  The smell of coal was thick, spilling out of tin chimneys and obscuring the road.  I crossed frozen canals, choked beneath an inch of pale dust.  Then the buildings fell away again, and I found myself alongside corn fields that had been harrowed until they were smooth as felt.  There were greenhouses, half brick and half curving plastic shell, something like a polyurethane hermit crab spilling out of an open book.  Inside, I suspected that the vegetables I would eat later that night were being harvested, protected from the cold by long straw mats that look a bit like Venetian blinds.

Further on, the villages became more discrete, with long stretches of field or poplar woods in between.  It's easy to understand why they are referred to as nong cun, or "farm villages".  At first, I doubted the name, thinking that they were too close to Beijing for them to really be farms.  But the villages are a mix of courtyard-style houses, crooked alleys, and tiny gardens.  The rooftops are covered with the crispy remnants of this summers' cucumber vines, and every window sill is piled high with twisted leeks and corn cobs.

But as I traveled, the also I passed the shattered remains of houses, recently bulldozed to make way for some new development.  I met an old woman in one village.  She was lifting a bulky sack onto the back of one of the many flatbed trucks parked in the alleyways.  She explained that she was moving, and everyone in the neighborhood with her.  I learned a new word that day - Chai (拆), which means to demolish.  You can see it scratched into the plaster or spray painted across the bricks of a building slated for destruction - the mark of progress.

It is often bemoaned by Westerners that the city is chai-ing vast areas of old-style brick, one-storey housing to make room for the new.  The old China is being knocked down, they say, sifted through, and buried beneath 30 floors of reinforced concrete.  However, many Chinese that I have spoken with are brightly optimistic about the whole affair, pointing out that the Lao Fangzi (old houses) are draughty, cold, and leaky.  They also observe, with a wry smile, that the same Westerners who decry the destruction of Chinese history are hardly lining up to live in these houses.  In fact, far from lying in front of the bulldozers or strapping themselves to the wrecking balls, they seem quite a bit happier to move into the villas that get put up soon after.  They swim in their new pools and putt on their new greens, never thinking once about what life once breathed there, never hearing the voices that whisper from within the burial mounds.

I don't know what to say about it all.  I realize that my personality is such that I am prone towards idealizing "the old".  But it should be remembered that the old was once new, and that the mortar was once quite moist between the bricks of those lao fangzi.  Someday, perhaps, there will be crowds who mourn the loss of the quaint turn-of-the-century high-rise apartment buildings, and the symbols of what Beijing used to be, back in 2010.

Whatever the case, as I pedaled, I wished I could remember the entirety (instead of just fragmentary snatches) of Shelley's poem, "Ozymandius".  Here it is, in full:

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
"My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

Somewhere along the way, I met an older gentlemen who put it best.  When he asked me why I was taking photographs of the old buildings, I answered that there weren't any like them in Canada.  "Buildings these days", I said, "are all exactly the same."

He shuffled his cloth shoes on the stone alley a bit before he smiled and said, "These houses, they're all the same, too."

p.s.  Happy Birthday Jess!

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