The lost streets of Bei­jing

A mo­tor­bike sidecar tour through the dis­ap­pear­ing hu­tongs of China’s sprawl­ing cap­i­tal

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Destination Asia - TAHIR SHAH

THERE is noth­ing Chen Maa can­not tell you about bi­cy­cles. For 40 years he re­paired them from dawn un­til dusk in a bat­tered lean-to he built him­self a stone’s throw from the For­bid­den City. Then, as the Chi­nese cap­i­tal was made ready for the 2008 Olympics, a wreck­ing ball swung in a sin­gle arc and wiped away his work­shop.

‘‘Ev­ery­one knew me,’’ he says proudly. ‘‘They called me the King of the Spokes.’’ Chen Maa holds up his fin­gers for me to ex­am­ine. His cal­luses have cal­luses. ‘‘Look at them well,’’ he urges. ‘‘You don’t get hands like that with­out tasting hard­ship.’’

Where the work­shop stood there is now a wide stretch of road grid­locked with cars. Chen Maa squats in the gut­ter and rubs his eyes with his thumbs. ‘‘I come here from time to time,’’ he says softly. ‘‘I don’t know why, but it makes me feel warm inside — warm with mem­o­ries. I’m a di­nosaur. No one wants bi­cy­cles any more. Why would they, when they can have cars?’’

It’s not only Chen Maa who has tasted change. Ev­ery­one liv­ing in Bei­jing has ex­pe­ri­enced it, and does so on a daily ba­sis. The city is slough­ing its old skin like a gi­ant dragon that’s been asleep for cen­turies.

And the re­sult is a to­tal re­con­fig­u­ra­tion of the sys­tem. In this brave new world there’s one clear goal: op­u­lence and lux­ury on a mon­u­men­tal scale, al­beit the pre­serve of those with cold, hard cash.

Most of the for­eign­ers you meet in Bei­jing point to the for­est of cranes on the sky­line and shake their heads in de­spair. A banker friend who’s been liv­ing in the cap­i­tal for years takes me to his 38th-floor of­fice win­dow and does just that. ‘‘The city of­fi­cials ought to be taken to The Hague for crimes against hu­man­ity,’’ he says bit­terly.

‘ ‘ One day they’ll wake up and re­alise that they’ve de­stroyed a trea­sure.’’

But surely it’s all in the name of progress? My friend’s face turns scar­let with wrath and his hands be­gin to trem­ble. ‘‘An­other cou­ple of years and all the his­tory will be gone! If you don’t be­lieve me, go and have a look at the hu­tongs for your­self.’’

Alit­tle later I find my­self in the sidecar of a World War II BMW. Well, this be­ing Bei­jing, it is a Chi­nese copy of a Rus­sian copy of the Ger­man orig­i­nal. Crouched over the han­dle­bars is a young French­man named Gael. Slalom­ing vis­i­tors through the maze of old hu­tongs is how he makes a liv­ing. Zigzag­ging past wash­ing lines and bent old men, hook­ers and their pimps, and lit­tle chil­dren with an­gelic faces, we seem to cleave our way back in time.

By the end of the jour­ney I have what I think are an­swers. Stag­ger­ing out of the sidecar, I get a flash of cen­tral Lon­don — where the Ge­or­gian re­gency re­shaped vast swaths of a city whose clas­si­cal ar­chi­tec­ture is held so dear. The same went for Paris un­der Hauss­mann — grand, sweep­ing boule­vards that are at the heart of Gal­lic na­tional pride, cre­ated at a for­got­ten cost.

By good for­tune I am stay­ing at the Op­po­site House, a new colos­sus of a build­ing in the Chaoyang Dis­trict. If it were any­where else, the peo­ple who worked there would be gloat­ing. But mod­ern China is awash with ar­chi­tec­tural mar­vels, which shouldn’t be any sur­prise. Af­ter all, the dragon that sloughs its skin to­day is the very same one that brought us the Great Wall yes­ter­day.

My banker friend phones late in the af­ter­noon. He steers the con­ver­sa­tion on to the glory of hu­tongs, all cramped and forlorn. Then he asks about the ho­tel. I scan my enor­mous room — sleek lines, calm seren­ity, all of it pep­pered with amus­ing quirks of con­tem­po­rary de­sign, not to men­tion enough space to swing a tiger by the tail. ‘‘It’s hor­rid,’’ I lie. The banker ex­presses ap­proval and says he’ll be right over for drinks.

Af­ter a good many sin­gle malts in Punk, the base­ment bar, he leads me out­side to in­spect San­l­i­tun Vil­lage, the pris­tine plaza of lux­ury shops that has sprouted up ad­ja­cent to the ho­tel.

On the only other oc­ca­sion I have vis­ited Bei­jing, I spent most of my time lost in the labyrinth of the in­fa­mous Silk Mar­ket, buy­ing pi­rated DVDs of just about ev­ery movie ever made. So my mem­ory of Chi­nese shop­ping is one based not only on dis­count fakes, but one in which space sim­ply didn’t ex­ist.

San­l­i­tun Vil­lage wal­lows in the kind of neat, de­signed land­scape that’s such a nov­elty to the nou­veau riche of mod­ern Bei­jing. There’s ev­ery imag­in­able brand name in the line-up, but the la­bels aren’t as much of a thrill to the vis­i­tors as the pure sense of ex­panse, which only those who’ve made it can af­ford to pop­u­late.

The next day I read an item in the lo­cal English­language news­pa­per about how the lat­est zil­lion­aire in town has made it big by rent­ing out wreck­ing balls. But even he, the ar­ti­cle con­fesses, fears the day when there is noth­ing left to wreck.

Just as I fin­ish read­ing the piece, a stu­dent of English ap­proaches me, hop­ing for con­ver­sa­tion. I ask if he is both­ered that all the old build­ings are be­ing torn down. The stu­dent stares at me blankly, then blinks.

‘‘We don’t need his­tory in a ma­te­rial way like you do,’’ he says, ‘‘be­cause we hold our his­tory in our hearts.’’

Not long af­ter that con­ver­sa­tion, I fly to Hong Kong. I am still think­ing about change and Chi­nese cul­ture, and about space as well. On the sur­face, the for­mer British colony is so very dif­fer­ent from the main­land, but it makes for a fas­ci­nat­ing lens through which to peer into the fu­ture of China.

Roam around Hong Kong and you can’t help but be struck by the sense of self-con­fi­dence, mixed with a longestab­lished ground­ing in per­sonal wealth. I’ve never seen so much bling or so many sky­scrapers jammed into such a con­fined space. But at the same time I am deeply im­pressed at how Hong Kong has held firmly on to its hy­brid cul­ture. As with main­land China, the broad strokes may change, but the de­tails stay the same.

At the Wet Mar­ket, I get chat­ting to a woman who is pris­ing shells off live tur­tles. She says there is no meat like fresh meat, and that even though the mar­ket isn’t as ram­shackle as it once was its soul has re­mained un­changed. I ask if she is fear­ful of change. She grins a big, toothy grin and rips the shell off an­other tur­tle with her hands.

‘‘If you can’t keep up, you’ll get sucked un­der,’’ she says. ‘‘What’s the good of sell­ing tur­tles if no one wants them any more? If they don’t want these, I’ll sell cat­fish, and if they don’t want that, I’ll sell eels in­stead.’’

I think back to Chen Maa, King of the Spokes, and how he has been left be­hind. He hasn’t kept up in a city where all the old al­leys are be­ing re­placed by broad av­enues, a place where bi­cy­cles are things of the past.

The woman picks up a live shell-less tur­tle and chops it neatly down the mid­dle with a cleaver. ‘‘Change is good,’’ she says, bring­ing the cleaver down again. ‘‘With­out it we would be stand­ing still.’’ Tahir Shah’s most re­cent book is Tim­buc­too (Se­cre­tum Mundi Pub­lish­ing, $US50); tim­buc­too-book.com. bei­jingside­ways.com theop­po­site­house.com

‘One day the city of­fi­cials will wake up and re­alise that they’ve de­stroyed a trea­sure’

CORBIS ALAMY

this page Yandaixie Street is home to one of Bei­jing’s old­est hu­tongs op­po­site page A blind man busks on Yandaixie Street

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