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On the backstreets of Beijing

On the backstreets of Beijing
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First Published: Sat, Oct 04 2008. 12 09 AM IST

Old world: Renovated stores in Liulichang, once lined with kilns that made roof tiles for imperial palaces. Reshma Patil
Old world: Renovated stores in Liulichang, once lined with kilns that made roof tiles for imperial palaces. Reshma Patil
Updated: Sat, Oct 04 2008. 12 09 AM IST
In 2003, before a certain Mr Yang’s house in Beijing was razed to make way for a five-star hotel, he saved its location coordinates using a GPS or global positioning system receiver.
Old world: Renovated stores in Liulichang, once lined with kilns that made roof tiles for imperial palaces. Reshma Patil
“Now I can take my kid back one day and stand in the hotel lobby and say, I grew up here,” Yang told Los Angeles-born writer Michael Meyer, 36, in his new book The Last Days of Old Beijing: Life in the Vanishing Backstreets of a City Transformed.
For a glimpse of Yang’s Beijing, that was hidden from the four billion-plus television viewers during the Olympics, I search for Meyer, alias Teacher Plumblossom, on his last day in China before he left for New York.
Teacher Plumblossom voluntarily taught English at Coal Lane Elementary. He had two rooms without a toilet or bath inside a Vatican City-sized maze of 114 lanes with 1,500 businesses, 3,000 homes and seven temples.
But Vatican City has a population of 557 people. Meyer points out that Dazhalan has 57,000 residents (plus, one Westerner—him) in a half-square mile that is Beijing’s oldest and densest urban space.
Meyer’s life in Dazhalan and the book was the outcome of journalistic curiosity, to see for himself whether the death of old Beijing was, as he told me, “worth crying for”. He found it was, as he mingled with families struggling for fair compensation and alternative housing while ancestral homes, witness to family histories, were razed.
Meyer first came to China in 1995 as a Peace Corps volunteer to teach English in southwest Sichuan, living without a cellphone or computer. He moved to Beijing in 1997. From 2005, he lived in a shared courtyard that had an Internet connection but where the community toilet was a walk away. On sub-zero winter nights, minus even coal heating, his toilet was a glass bottle. But life was luxury compared to Mumbai’s Dharavi, for Dazhalan has no open sewage and fetid garbage.
“Come to Liulichang and walk east,” said Meyer on the phone.
“Does that mean left or right?” I pleaded.
“New to Beijing, aren’t you?” he said, and laughed.
My apartment tower—almost half as high as Beijing’s tallest skyscraper, the upcoming 73-storey China World Trade Centre III— stands in the new Beijing built to impress the world during the Olympics.
Meyer stayed on Bamboo Slanted Street. Reshma Patil
This glass-and-steel hub was once a flat maze of old hutong or ancient alleyways and two-storey structures before the slogan of a “New Beijing, New Olympics” erased the mark of 1.25 million people such as Yang, evicted city-wide from 1990-2007. By 2005, only 1,300 of more than 7,000 hutongs remained.
Meyer’s book recreates the phenomenon of displacement through a character in the Chinese script called chai, or raze, that mysteriously appears on walls overnight. He names it the Hand.
Meyer’s home on Red Bayberry and Bamboo Slanted Street is a short walk from the antique market of Liulichang, which means glazed tile factory, and where roof tiles for palaces and temples were once made.
We stroll past flat houses fluttering with red Chinese flags and laundry. “The flags came up overnight, before the Olympics. We don’t know who put them up,” Meyer says.
We pass a gay bar that was padlocked for the Olympics while the teahouse stayed open; and Beijing’s first China Post office and its shortest hutong (30ft) as cyclists haul coal cakes. “The neighbours stock up on coal while it’s cheaper than October prices,” Meyer points out.
We enter his little house through a narrow corridor, and a doorway over which hangs laundry. “It is across the women’s toilet,” Meyer tells a friend who calls up for directions. His neighbours think he is lucky to have two rooms while entire families make do with one.
His house, with a sealed trap door and tunnel under the bed, will be razed too. “No one knows when,” he says. “That’s the frustration of living here. But unlike my neighbours, I knew I could leave anytime, or bathe in the Grand Hyatt.”
He recorded the changing Beijing—from its dumps, where he travelled with Recycler Wang, to the offices of architects and property agents selling villas. The people stories, woven in and out of Beijing’s 1,000-year history, reveal a detailed and unromanticized insider’s narrative of the personal and community losses behind Beijing’s wilful wipeout of its history and way of life.
The book also records some must-read absurdities that could interest Indian planners looking East. “Safe and Sound boulevard is neither safe nor sound,” Meyer writes about an eight-lane road with only two pedestrian overpasses. The road replaced 3,300 courtyard homes.
Before I leave, architect Theodore Wright, who worked in Beijing before the Olympics and appears in the book, walks in. “The real razing is now going on in the countryside,” he tells us.
Reshma Patil is the China correspondent of Hindustan Times. Write to lounge@livemint.com
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First Published: Sat, Oct 04 2008. 12 09 AM IST
More Topics: Beijing | China | Michael Meyer | Dazhalan | Liulichang |