Beijing Welcomes You: Unveiling the Capital City of the Future
The rise of China's capital city may be the story of a new era. And it isn't over yet
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At the start of the last century, a generation of American artists went off to Paris to find a new life; now, we're much more likely to cross the Pacific than the Atlantic. Hong Kong has its bankers and Shanghai its ad execs, but for architects, designers, and writers, the magnet these days is Beijing: teeming, glorious, and totally bewildering. It's probably only a matter of time before someone writes my generation's "Tender Is the Night," set not on the Riviera but in the heart of the People's Republic, a megacity of 20 million that isn't even the nation's biggest metropolis. (Chongqing is at 32 million and counting.) Until then, we have to content ourselves with Beijing memoirs and reportage, a mushrooming category to which Tom Scocca's new book Beijing Welcomes You is a wry, knowing addition.
"Beijing Welcomes You" is a street-level introduction to a city that's at once the world's center and its back office, a place where you can feel "on the top of the pile and on the bottom, all at once." Its title comes from the theme song of the 2008 Olympics – a seven-minute, hundred-artist epic that makes Shakira's "Waka Waka" sound like amateur hour – although as Scocca writes, Beijing's welcome is fundamentally an ambivalent one. It's not just the officious government authorities and nervy propaganda officials who might make you question Beijing's congeniality. There are also the monstrous traffic jams, the punishing summer heat, and such awful, endemic pollution that breathing the viscid gray air feels "like being kicked in the bridge of the nose." Welcome to the future!
The Olympics were certainly a hinge moment, the city's and the nation's coming-out party, and the Games form the core of this book. If anything, the Games receive too much emphasis: at times, Scocca can sound like the narrator of those Bud Greenspan Stories of Olympic Glory documentaries ("Valerie Vili, a New Zealand shotputter, went nearly 20 meters with her first toss.") He's far more engaging when he shows us Beijing's breakneck urban redevelopment, especially in the alley outside his apartment where sellers of live poultry give way to a Pizza Hut, and then the Pizza Hut is demolished in turn. "Getting to know Beijing," he writes, "was like doing archaeology with someone shoveling dirt and rubbish down into the pit on top of you."