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."
While in Beijing he and his wife have a son, Mack Zhongsheng (the Mandarin part of his name means "born in China"), who grows up singing Cultural Revolution-era songs about the glories of Mao and running through their apartment in imitation of Liu Xiang, the megastar Olympian hurdler. The birth of Scocca's son has an intriguing effect: it both scales down the scope of the narrative, with illuminating takes on Chinese parenting (thumb-sucking is unacceptable), and at the same time increases its stakes. It's easy to discuss Beijing's filthy air with a certain political detachment, but when Mack comes down with a wheezing cough and then asthma, the consequences of China's rise become rather more immediate.
"Beijing Welcomes You" carries a subtitle: "Unveiling the Capital City of the Future." Yet ultimately the book is – valuably but also curiously – an archival reconstruction of a moment already lapsed. August 2008 now feels very long ago, before the collapse of Lehman Brothers and the crushing American recession that, far more than the Olympics, has cemented China's centrality to global power; before, too, the imprisonment or disappearance of writer Liu Xiaobo, artist Ai Weiwei, lawyer Gao Zhisheng, and other critics of an increasingly obdurate CCP.
Scocca left town after the Games, and in an epilogue he returns briefly to see new shopping malls lying amid the rubble of older ones, and luxury high-rises encircling not just the Olympic Green, but his own Chinese home. Beijing remains in the process of "devouring itself," in the author's phrase. But that implies a corollary: in the capital city of the future, even the recent past is already ancient history.
Jason Farago is a Monitor contributor.