'Robot Weeds:' Beijing Destruction, Rebirth Coming to Your Neighborhood?
"M ommy, where are we going to buy eggs now?" my daughter asked, as we rounded the corner of our street. We had just spent an hour at the park on our second day after arriving back from our summer in Canada.
"What, honey?" I asked, confused by her question. But, then, I looked up at where she was pointing.
They had shut all the shops that had lined the street at the base of our building. Not one was open. I told the kids we would just need to find another place to buy eggs, but they were distracted and barely registered my answer. They're clearly used to this.
Later that week, I noticed they'd started to tear down the facades and remove the furniture and shelving in the stores. Workers were covered in plaster dust, and there was hazardous debris everywhere, blocking the sidewalks for the safe passage of foot traffic.
Of course, the mysterious shutdowns and "brickenings" (as we foreigners call them in English) have become so common in Beijing that it's not a surprise. I didn't look at the changes and wonder why, or even what was going to happen to our city block in terms of future shops and businesses. In fact, thinking about such questions is irrelevant. No one is around to answer them. The workers don't know. The neighbors don't know. It's all rumor or conjecture anyway. We, the people who live here, have no idea what this city is going to become. It grows up around us like wild "robot weeds," with their own agendas. And the growth can't be stopped.
Since coming to this city in 2007, as a visitor, and then moving here in 2008, I have seen an unprecedented amount of transformation. Certain areas of the city are unrecognizable from what they were. In fact, some of my early memories in Beijing are like dreamscapes. I can never return to "those steps" or "that building" or "our bar" — sometimes the whole street is gone! The rare times I can conjure them up are with friends who have been here as long as I have, and who still remember. And, they're few. Foreigners are transient here; that's just a fact.
Recently, my son asked innocently, "But Mommy, where are the stores? Where did they go?" He lifted his eyebrows with pure curiosity. He wanted an answer.
"They're just shut down, honey." I said. "The shops are closed. I don't know what they're going to build in their place." "But, Mommy," he insisted, "Where do they go?"
"I don't know," I told him. And, it's the truth. They have died a typical Beijing death. Destruction will be followed by rebirth, but what will be born in its place is yet to be seen. Death is a mystery, even in an urban context. No one really knows. For that reason, my glimpses at the nowdestroyed shops below my building have not been wistful. Nor have they been contemplative. I've become a neutral local. The fact that such typical demolitions have only now arrived in our neighborhood after living here for nine years is, frankly, unimportant. Everyone knows his or her block might be next. No one is immune and long-time residents, like me, aren't at all surprised by the suddenness of such change. All we can do is wait and watch.
I must say, however, that when a knock came at my apartment door notifying us that my apartment's "balcony room" would be demolished this fall, it was a Beijing destruction notice that hits even closer to home — it's of our home. (Or, at least, part of it.) More than 80 percent of the upper balconies in these old-style, six-floor walkup tenement buildings have been privately renovated into separate rooms — some even made into rooms with additional rooftop balconies. After the demolition, they told me, tenants or landlords would be responsible for cleaning the debris and reconstructing the interior walls, windows and doors. Of course, my landlord wasn't happy with this news. Nor was I. Our extra room (that used to be a balcony) is slotted to become a balcony again, but there's nothing we can do about it.
So, we wait. In the meantime, we empty that room. We re-organize.
The "robot weeds" are coming. We can't stop them. That's Beijing.