Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Beijing Lit Fest

It is good to be back in Beijing. I guess I'm odd amongst ex pats who have lived in China, in that I've never lived in Beijing or Shanghai or Shenzhen - only passed through on the way inland. But of all those big cities, Beijing is the closest to me: it's where I first landed - on a Finn Air jumbo which, when taxiing towards the terminal we stopped abrunptly. It was a little odd, and I peered out of the window to see why, and saw that there was a crossroads at the airport, with traffic lights. Our light has turned red, and as I peered out, the opposing traffic - a lone bicycle - had right of way.

Anyay, that was January 1993, and now the new Beijing airport is open: the largest building in the world, and I doubt there are any bicycles allowed on the airport.

Still - it conveys a sense of how Beijing is changing. I never recognise the place, because most of the buildings - from the ancient hutongs to the dull Communist-era blocks of flats - have been demolished and been replaced with skyscrapers. The only bits I recognise are the streets around Tiananmen, which never really change. The city has undoubtedly deteriorated: it has switched from a city of the pedestrian and bicycle, to a city for cars, where pedestrians are like the little figures at the bottom of vast science fiction canvases, put in at the bottom to give the whole place a sense of scale.

And there's a lot of building going on: and vast holes everywhere. In fact, between my hotel, which was opposite Beijing Hooters, was a vast hole (see the size of the digger to get a sense of the size of the hole), being worked on by short tanned little migrant workers: peasants in effect, in hard hats and luminous jackets and I felt at home around them and their curious and amused looks because they come from places where I have lived, and they looked remarkably like the students I used to teach - who were short and dark little peasants.

But it is great to get off the ten lane highways and find the little streets that still exist behind the modern facades. Each time I go back to Beijing there are less and less of them, and little things or people I used to think would always be there have gone.

One of those is jianbing: a breakfast food that combines egg and crepe and a crispy biscuit thing - all smeared with plum sauce and chilli and coriander and spring onions. It's heaven, and there used to be guys all over the little streets making these: but now they're made - if at all - they are in the supermarkets. Which is not the same.

I knew a guy across Beijing, who I always used to go to and he would always remember me even though it was months between each visit. Sensing that street jianbing sellers are fading from Beijing, I got a taxi the next morning and told my wife that I would video 'our' jianbing man, before he disappeared. But when I went to where he worked he had already disappeared.

I managed to find another, and thanks to YouTube here is a jianbing:

And then I thought I should video what it was like to walk through a hutong, just for me to remember when these hutongs are also gone.

This blog was originally written March 9th, but this blog site is banned in China.

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