Side­walks and street­lights

China Daily (Canada) - - LIFE -

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 paulined@chi­nadaily.com.cn.

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