The Streets of Beijing

The Beijing of 2005 was a city in the grasp of reinvention. Property developers raised entire blocks, tennants evicted without recourse. Monuments were bulldozed in favour of modernity. Qing Dynasty furniture was consigned to giant, cold warehouses on the edge of the city. Contemporary aspirations desired ready furnished apartments. In the Great Rush Forward, pedestrian access was forgotten as quickly as the lives of residents who had lived Beijing their entire lives. Later, they too were to be relocated to beyond the 5th Ring Road.

Cars were a new thing. There were no used car dealers. Older residents said twenty years ago one could walk down the boulevards of Beijing in the evening and not be passed by a single car. They told me of being born to the sound of bicycles, one of their earliest memories. Often their recollections into the summer stench of communial lavatories, where a jaunty line of glowing cigarettes would signal the position of men squatting in the dark.

As the skyline of Beijing began to change so too did the profile of its people. In the middle of the city, in the neighbourhoods between busy avenues, it was not unusual to see Beijingers communing carefree in light cotton pyjamas. After a harsh winter Spring carried a sense of relief. And here Spring lasted no more than two weeks. Just enough time to appreciate the warm and gentle wind. To love once again tough trees with bright blossom. To sense that one had survived another winter and that perhaps the next year would be more fruitful than the last. These hardy people, who lived on the edge of the Gobi Desert, who had survived revolution, purge, firebrand idealism, the Great Leap Forward, and so much more, they smiled. They laughed. They courted. They dined. They smoked. They joked. They cloaked their ideas in metaphor and homophone. Hospitable, cosmopolitan, and always funny. Perhaps they would be lucky this year. Perhaps a daughter might marry a wealthy man. Perhaps they wouldn't be banished to government accomodation built on the edge of the city. Actually, no-one believed that wouldn't happen. But hum, Spring was a shortlived reward for surviving the winter. And this year would be a good year as the city reinvented itself, the economy sprinted ahead, and young people scrambled to catch up while their parents, with the perspective of a previous century, looked on.

Soon the scorching heat of summer would arrive.