This piece by journalist and author William T. Dowell was first published by The Essential Edge on 31 May, 2009.
BEIJING — “I’m here for the hip hop,” says Jamel, an African American from Washington DC. At the moment, Jamel, who describes himself as a “cultural researcher” is watching an “art battle” facing off two top Chinese graffiti artists against a French team from Bordeaux. Jamel finds the music Beijing roughly equivalent to New York or Washington. “People here are great,” he says. The graffiti face-off ends somewhat inconclusively, but no one seems to care, it is part of a constantly changing series of attractions intended simply to provide an interesting afternoon experience. You could be in Paris, except that the buildings are newer, everything works, and most people are clearly enjoying themselves. (Note from our correspondent: The Essential Edge has the dubious honour of joining the ranks of those international media sites that cannot be accessed in China).
We are standing in the Sunlitun “village”—a complex of glittering new shopping malls in what used to be one of Beijing’s seedier districts. Legend has it that invading western armies paused at Sunlitun in order to deliver an ultimatum to China’s emperor to accept their presence or face annihilation.
Today the area faces a different invasion, this time by the likes of Armani, Gucci, Apple, Starbucks, Puma and Le Sport Sack, only since nearly everything seems to be manufactured in China these days, it is hardly an invasion, but rather a home coming. The first thing that strikes you about Beijing is that it seems completely normal. This could be Madrid or Milan, except for the fact that the city cover an area larger than Belgium and has a population that is half again as large as Belgium’s.
That said, Beijing enjoys an extraordinarily relaxed and friendly atmosphere. Half the population looks like it is under 25. An avuncular portrait of Mao Tse Tung still hangs over the Forbidden City, but it looks much more like a pop icon these days than an ideological symbol. The Forbidden City is no longer forbidden, only expensive.
The austerity of the cultural revolution has evaporated or simply faded away. The 20th anniversary of Tienanmen is fast approaching, but most Beijingers are too young to remember. The most ideological poster you find in Beijing now displays Kentucky Fried Chicken’s Colonel Sanders facing off against Mr. Lee, a Chinese competitor, who aims to become the Asian king of southern fried chicken. The bus and metro system are more modern than anything Europe or the US has to offer.
Ticket vending machines provide a digital display map of where you want to go and automatically switch into English at the push of a button. Subways and busses announce upcoming stops in English as well as Chinese. A ride on the metro or the bus costs less than 30 cents. Taxis are plentiful and you can cross the city for less than $10. But Beijing’s real innovation is its mass adoption of electric bicycles and scooters. An electric bike goes for around US$500, and everyone seems to have one. The electrification of cycling has not only cut down on suffocating exhaust fumes, it has also reduced the noise level.
There’s a significant danger of getting run over simply because you didn’t hear one coming. The city’s sprawl is mitigated by the fact that traffic operates on three different levels. A series of five concentric ring roads are basically autoroutes that let you navigate fairly quickly from one side to the other. Then you have the “dajie” intimidatingly wide multilane boulevards roughly the size of Paris’ Champs Elysees.
At the local level, you have the hutong, local neighborhoods of classical Chinese houses built along winding narrow lanes. The Nan Luogu Xiang hutong, where we stayed, is filled with charming coffee shops, back packer hotels, and struggling craft shops. It roughly resembles San Francisco’s North Beach or New York’s Tribeca, except that it is a good deal more pleasant. If Beijing seems, at least on the surface to lack the surface tension and frustrations that make a city like New York or Los Angeles into a dynamic powerhouses, it makes up for it in diversity and a ready-to-try anything openness.
“I’ve been living here for 40 years,” says Fan Ke, an artist who recently returned from New York,”and I still can’t say that I know Beijing.” The new cultural freedom has led to an explosion of contemporary art and creativity in Beijing, which recalls Paris in 1900 or New York in the 1950s and 1960s. Art Zone 798, a sprawling neighborhood that used to be a military factory complex, rivals New York’s Chelsea gallery district, and is now Beijing’s third most visited tourist attraction.
The ground-breaking art is coming from “art villages” which are farther out of town. The galleries there resemble palatial estates. Fabien Fryns, who owns F2, a gallery in Cao Changdi, one of the happening locations, notes that the financial crisis has hit the middle part of the market—pieces going from US$50,000 to $500,000, but the high end is still going strong as well as the market for newer artists. “A collector who might have been willing to pay $100,000 for a piece, will probably now settle for one going for $25,000,” says Fryns, but with so many Chinese millionaires and billionaires coming on line, Fryns is convinced that Chinese art remains an excellent investment.
“You can figure that there are at least 500 Chinese billionaires,” says Fryns. “Eventually they are going to want to have Chinese art, and there is a limited supply of the best.” A noticeable change in China, at least in Beijing, is that most people seem more or less happy with the progress they are making. “Americans come here and think that we all want to go America, or be like Americans,” a documentary film-maker noted at a festival here. “But that is not true anymore. We are happy to be Chinese, and we are happy to be in China.” At least for a few weeks vacation in the summer, it’s not a bad place for westerners as well.
Jakarta Espresso is the personal blog of William Dowell, a Lake Geneva-based journalist and co-editor of The Essential Edge. Formerly with TIME and ABC News, he was also Hong Kong bureau chief for TIME magazine during the 1990s. Dowell is currently travelling in China.