shu and joe

mauling the mainland

Published on February 23, 2006

I’m sure there are 100 urban planning theses currently being written on this topic, and for good reason. It’s impossible for anyone who spends time in this city not to be aware of it: the cranes, the rubble, the dust, the half-built towers, the coal-grey sky. Everywhere you look there are signs of urban development. Everyday more neighborhoods fall to the bulldozer, as if (Robert) Moses had returned to part the slums and lead the legions of middle-class Audi drivers into a brave new world of luxury highrises and shopping malls.

What’s interesting to me is how, in the face of all this erasure of the past, the city has gone about making provisions to preserve some fragments of that past. Maybe preserve is not the right word; replace might be more accurate. Take, for example, the case of Old Beijing Street. Located beside an inauspicious side door to the popular Sun Dong An Shopping Center along Jinyu Hutong is a plaque that describes the history of Old Beijing Street – one of the oldest streets and outdoor markets in the city.

The street itself no longer exists. The city grid on which it was built was cleared years ago, and yet, the small sign above this shopping mall emergency exit beckons me to experience the Old Street of Beijing. Which I do.

After forcing open the seemingly ill-hung door, I descend two flourescently-illuminated flights of stairs and arrive at…a fitness club.

Realizing that I’d made a wrong turn, I backtrack and find the “real” Old Street market. The market is set in an open space with fleck-toned tile floors, white drop ceilings, about 20 vendors peddling panda-shaped backpacks and an escalator rising up in the middle.

Most of the visitors to this once emblematic site of China’s vibrant market culture appear to be foreign tourists looking to have their photo taken with a wax Mandarin and maybe pick up some cheap silk pajamas. The locals can all be found two floors up, rushing from shop to shop through the 7-storey mall, chatting on cell phones and taking home the latest arrivals from Hong Kong-based chains like Cabeen, 5cm and Izzue.

It gets me thinking: how does this shift from a culture of bargaining – of active, daily social engagement with local business people – to one of browsing – passive, silent examination and consumption – affect a society? How does it alter the way people interact with others in public space?

One of the things I really enjoy about life here is the level of informality that accompanies most activities (sure, there’s heaps of bureaucracy, but if you’re going to be waiting in line at the bank for an hour, you might as well take your shoes off, pull out a thermos of tea and sing along to the Mandopop that’s piped throughout the building). There’s a certain candor and disregard for self awareness that seems instilled in the older generations here, those used to living and interacting with others on the street. It seems harder to observe that same quality in the youth of Beijing.

Filed under: Beijing, China

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