Sidewalks and streetlights
Beijing does not sparkle from the air. Instead, it emits a sort of dim glow like an exhausted firefly at the end of an arduous mating ritual. The reason is really quite simple. The Capital City takes energy conservation very seriously, and has observed the frugality drive it has preached since the tough times of several decades ago.
While the rest of China’s major cities have started to enjoy the rewards of 30 years of an open economy, Beijing still feels obliged to abstain from the guilty pleasures. Perhaps someone forgot to update the austerity standards.
Strange as it may seem, sidewalks and streetlights are now the new indicators of how Chinese cities are getting along.
Shanghai, brash and bold, is very conscious of appearance. Its ancient alleys may shield shantytowns and its rural regions harbor communities breeding pigs, chickens and ducks, but the casual visitor would never know it.
Instead, this southern belle shines with cosmetic luster, impeccably groomed and attentively accessorized.
Shanghai sidewalks are lined with magnolia trees, modern malls and mansions carefully preserved from another time. Its streetlights are both ornamental and bright. It certainly lives up to its reputation as a shining Pearl of the Orient.
Further south, the other jewel along the South China coast has never had any problems shining out. Hong Kong’s skyline is a sight to behold on any night flight in, and it advertises its glamor like no other city I know. Its well-lit highways twinkle like strings of Christmas lights.
As for Hong Kong’s sidewalks, they are crowded, busy, and slightly dirty perhaps, but you would be too busy looking at the bargains to notice the grime.
We recently visited Nanjing and the relatively smaller city of Yangzhou. Here, too, the sidewalks are broad and well swept, with nonslip paths clearly lit up by lights that also decoratively reflect the cultural elements of the city.
Nanjing’s new business district, especially, is efficiently designed and illuminated, with plenty of green space among the towering office blocks. In the old town by the Qinhuai River, gnarled plane trees guard the streets, but the pavements are still straight and true and well maintained.
Another city that manages to fuse modern amenities with history is the port city of Tianjin. It has become one ofmy favorite places, with its sweeping river and beautiful bridges that reflect so much of the port’s past.
New buildings and hotels have been built to consciously blend in with the architecture of the old Concessions, and again, its sidewalks and streetlights do what they are supposed to do — light the way and allow pedestrians a comfortable passage.
In comparison, Beijing has not only lost most of its picturesque old neighborhoods, but the old city walls from the Yuan (1271-1368), Ming (13681644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties are now jostled by skyscrapers that subscribe to no particular style or school except their own.
Our friend, an emigrant who still has strong links to the old country, says she carries a torchlight in her bag whenever she comes back. Otherwise, she cannot avoid the cracks and potholes in the sidewalks.
Sadly, I agree. Our residential estate has the same problem. We have plenty of lamp posts, but they all give out the barest minimum glimmer, so much so that a torchlight in the handbag is no longer an option but a necessity.
It would not be so bad if Beijing sidewalks were smooth and straight.
As it were, apart from avoiding shrubbery designed as an obstacle course, there also seems to be an infestation of a mole species that delights in tunneling under every alternative pavement slab.
We can only hope that if Beijing succeeds in winning the bid for the next winter Olympics, the city will light up, straighten up and fly right. Contact the writer at firstname.lastname@example.org.