City Journal: If you’re going to bash Beijing, at least pretend like you actually sent somebody to visit…

I’ve been known to kvetch about Beijing not being the most aesthetically charming city in the world, and for those who like their kvetching with a literary flair, look no further than Will Moss’ recent rant on “improvements” in his neighborhood, but the descriptions of Our City of Eternal Smog in this article for City Journal represents parachute journalism at its worst.  It’s one thing to bash Beijing, but for the love of Kangxi at least pretend like you’ve actually spent some time here.

A few of the many howlers in this piece:

“Unmoved by the pleas of some older scholars, Mao also demolished the walls surrounding Beijing, which had stood since the seventeenth century.”

Actually the 15th century but I’ll cut some slack. Maybe he’s allowing for Manchu renovations, but…

“The old city was a maze of neighborhoods made up of one-story houses built around square inner courts and separated by narrow lanes, or hutongs. These traditional neighborhoods could have been saved or modernized, but the reformers razed them in the name of hygiene (the official motive) and real-estate speculation (the real motive), erecting huge office towers in their stead. The hutong dwellers were moved to shoddily built, city-owned shoeboxes on the city’s edge, where rent is cheap but modern amenities like elevators and proper heating are often lacking. The government is now rebuilding a few of the original hutongs, characteristically seeking to please tourists in search of the authentic Beijing.”

Nobody is more distressed at the destruction of the old neighborhoods than I am, but reading that, you would think they were all gone forever and that just ain’t so.  Did the author simply land at Terminal 3 and then spend the whole time cruising the CBD? Maybe, because…

Beijing is not a friendly city. There are few places to walk and almost no parks.

and

Stand-alone shops are rare, since they take up too much space; malls have replaced most of them.

and

Beijing is a dead city after 8 PM, with the exception of a few streets reserved for the nightclubbing of the golden youth—the sons and daughters of the ruling elite.

Seriously. Among Beijing’s few redeeming qualities are its parks and its neighborhoods of small shops and restaurants, most of which really don’t start hopping until after dark when the local people (who according to the article only live between the 6th and 7th rings) come out to shop, eat and mingle.  I’m looking at you Weigongcun, Dongsi Beidajie, Gulou Dongdajie, Guijie, Hepingli/Dongzhimen Beixiaojie…and these are just the ones I hang out at, feel free to add your own because there are plenty from which to choose.

All that remains of old Beijing is the imperial palace, also known as the Forbidden City. During the late 1960s, when I had the privilege of visiting it, the Forbidden City dominated Beijing. Nowadays, tall office buildings surround it, so that it seems to be sinking into the new city.

Um, Summer Palace? Lama Temple? Temple of Heaven? I’m not saying the Beijing Municipal Government are paragons of historic preservation, but Jesus…open a f—–g copy of Fodors why don’t you?  And I have no earthly idea which tall office buildings surround the Forbidden City.  The tallest building in the neighborhood is the Beijing Hotel, whose history dates back to the last days of the Qing Dynasty, and the “new” 20-story section was built 38 years ago.

Apart from fact-checking though, there is also a basic conceptual bias, one which creeps into a lot of writing about Beijing and its urban spaces:

Hoping to improve its undistinguished and often ugly cityscape before the 2008 Olympics, Beijing officials brought in some big-name architects from around the globe. The Netherlands’ Rem Koolhaas designed a new office for China Central Television; the Swiss firm Herzog and de Meuro constructed an Olympic stadium (the Bird’s Nest, as it is known colloquially); the Frenchman Paul Andreu produced an opera hall, the National Grand Theater. Yet the buildings, whatever one thinks of them aesthetically, could stand anywhere in the world and bear no relation to China’s culture or traditions.

Again, no problem with calling these new buildings ugly, I prefer the term “monstrosities“, but the author’s lament that these buildings “bear no relation to China’s culture or traditions” suggests at best an unfair double-standard when it comes to ‘modernity’ and at worst a latent and particularly ugly form of Orientalism.  I guess the Chinese have to build every building as if it were still the Qing Dynasty (or the “Asia Pavilion” at Epcot), and only European and North American cities can be made of steel and glass.

Now, I find the haphazard attempts at urban renewal in Beijing to be ill-conceived, poorly-executed, and many of these ‘modernization’ projects have done considerable damage to the city’s communities and to the preservation of Beijing’s history BUT…the idea that Beijing is/was/should be some timeless museum piece is pure poppycock.  More than many European capitals even, “early modern” Beijing (think Ming/Qing Dynasty) and its buildings and neighborhoods were constantly being renovated and rebuilt, sometimes in keeping with the style and function of older structures or communities, but as often as not the new simply replaced the old.

Since the author’s intention is a broad survey of “Asia’s Megacities,” Seoul and Shanghai are also subjected to the writer’s eye for keen observation and nuanced reporting…and I’ll let my colleagues in those cities judge the rest of the article for themselves…but Beijing is my town, and if you’re going to bash it, it might help to spend a little time here and do it right.

UPDATED 10:13 AM

I try to critique the piece and not the author’s background, but given Guy Sorman’s past associations and essays, it’s hardly surprising he did this kind of half-assed hit job on Beijing.  Check out this piece, “The Empire of Lies,” a litany of Sinophobia that makes Gordon Chang sound like Li Hongmei, and one might also want to take his rather idealistic description (read “travel brochure”) of Seoul with a dash of MSG given that M. Sorman in 2008 was appointed “Global Advisor” to Korean president Lee Myung Bak.  Though, to be fair, City Journal does  disclose the affiliation with the ROK government in the author’s bio.  Thanks to Jim Gourley (Rude Noon) and Adam Minter (Shanghai Scrap) for their input.

  • http://rudenoon.com/absalletc/ jg

    I don’t even know where to begin with this City Journal piece. The notion that the new “buildings, whatever one thinks of them aesthetically, could stand anywhere in the world and bear no relation to China’s culture or traditions” is a fundamental failure of understanding architecture. What makes the Sydney Opera House a symbol of Australian culture and tradition? Or the Eiffel Tower, the icon extraordinaire of Paris, French? Or Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, Spanish? Sure wasn’t the welcoming approval of the locals (or critics) when these projects were chosen for construction. Only later did they become what they became, and what they became (or are still becoming) is really unknown when they were chosen to be built.

    Frank Gehry in a recent interview was asked about local resistance to his Bilbao project. He said, “Immediately there was a vigil in the street. Steelworkers, dockworkers, other union people and many others all against me created a phalanx with candles…There was a threat in the newspaper, ‘Kill the American architect.’…They didn’t want it built. They hated it. They were appalled. They didn’t understand it. They didn’t want the change it represented. Now that it’s built they run over and want their pictures taken with me. ‘Señor Gehry, Señor Gehry…!’ I should live there. It’s a love-in, though they’d probably get tired of me. Before, however, they reacted as if I was taking their city away.”

    The Eiffel Tower, the 1889 World’s Fair tribute to technology, mathematics and engineering, was also vociferously resisted. It was intended to be disassembled after 20 years. The Sydney Opera House was hardly met with open arms. The author of the City Journal piece, who “serves as an advisor to South Korean president Lee Myung Bak,” is a man quite comfortable with slinging shallow cliche and obviously knows nothing of Beijing, architecture or urban development.

    Perhaps if the CCTV HQ Building had pastel blue deer-headed rafter tails projecting out over … what/where? Or the Bird’s Nest was not so woven into itself … you know, kind of like a bird’s nest … but instead had sweeping ridges reaching for the sky making it look like NOT a bird’s nest. And Paul Andreu’s “Egg”? Don’t get me started on defending that. A quick glance east across the street will tell you all you need to know. Come back in twenty, thirty, forty years and tell us what the CCTV HQ Building, the Bird’s Nest and the National Theater mean? Good architecture is all about the future, and no one knows what that will look like. What would these building mean in Omaha, Brisbane or Manchester? And what “culture or traditions” would they be accenting, shoring up, or imagining?

  • Handan Bao

    Very fair.

  • http://www.foarp.blogspot.com FOARP

    Can’t say that I’m a big fan of Beijing, ’cause I’m not. Of all the Chinese cities I’ve visited (and I’ve only visited Nanjing, Shanghai, Beijing and Shenzhen out of the cities with a population of more than three million on the mainland) it’s on a par with Shenzhen, and behind Nanjing and Shanghai.

    That said, no night life? Ridiculous. No parks? Likewise.

    Old buildings? Well, compared to London, Paris, or even cities which have seen a lot of devastation like Berlin – there just aren’t a lot of them in Beijing, or in any other city in mainland China, because the last 70-odd years has seen most of them knocked down. But yeah, there’s more than just the Forbidden City.

    I’m not totally jazzed by Beijing’s newer edifices either, most of them seem to be trying the same style that the Xinyi district in Taipei used to better effect, but I’d much rather see Beijing’s grey concrete boxes from the 60′s and 70′s knocked down and replaced by better-looking modern glass-and-steel edifices than left in place. In Beijing, just like in London (thinking particularly of the awful concrete National Theatre), the 60′s and 70′s were the decades when good architecture died.

    As for his theory that Seoul is shaped by democracy whilst Beijing and Shanghai are shaped by authoritarianism, well, I’ve never visited Seoul, but if it’s anything like Tokyo or Osaka, then the difference between authoritarian and democratic countries when it comes to city planning is not an easy one to spot.

  • Steve

    His lack of in-depth knowledge of Beijing aside, he has a pretty valid point – cities with some degree of responsiveness to residents in the planning process turn out more interesting.

    The example of the troubles encountered by the Shanghai and Beijing arts “districts” is a pretty clear example – just as they were starting to get traction in the global tourism and art market, they came under pressure from bureaucrats with a more parochial vision who would rather use the land for something whose benefits are easier to quantify.

    Interesting neighborhoods that create something distinctive about cities usually evolve from areas which are somewhat marginal and whose value is poorly understood by bureaucrats.
    Gay-friendly districts are now pretty well understood to be prime incubators for distinctive neighborhoods that become style and tourism magnets (in NYC the West Village and Chlesea exemplify this process) I can’t see any Chinese city official supporting the emergence of a “gay village”. When faced with a low-cost district which is becoming a destination for artists and the creative-but-poor, the default response of Chinese or other authoritarian planners is to knock it all down and build some condos.

    Looking once again at New York, citizen pressure groups were citical in preserving the more distinctive parts of the city from city officials more interested in building infrastructure and housing developments.

    Beijing may not be as bad as Moss makes out, but it definately punches far below its weight in terms of urban quality and he gets at the reason why.

  • http://granitestudio.org Jeremiah

    Steve,

    Thanks for your comment,

    I have no problem with that interpretation, but distorting facts in journalism to make a point is a non-starter for me. He could easily have made his case without relying on preposterous half-truths or misrepresentations of the city. The fate of Nanluoguxiang or Qianmen or, as you mentioned, 798 and its predecessors, would have adequately served the argument without painting Beijing as (more of a) dystopian nightmare (then it is already).

  • http://granitestudio.org Jeremiah

    FOARP,

    Just to be clear: Nobody whines about Beijing’s many foibles more than I do.

    My list of Cities in China where I Would Move in a Heartbeat if I Could:

    5. Qingdao
    4. Suzhou
    3. Hangzhou
    2. Nanjing
    1. Kunming

    Thanks for your comment.

  • Jiong

    I generally find the best parts of Beijing are the bits where you can cross the road without having to go via the aid of a ‘sky bridge’ in order to negotiate a 6 lane motoway! On the subject of roads…Beijing traffic doesn’t look like it’s gonna get any better any time soon!

  • http://www.thehumanaught.com Ryan

    Great post Jeremiah — and Suzhou’s the bomb. ;-)

  • baogong

    A fair and balanced ripping apart of incompetent journalism. Beijing has the capacity to eat away at your soul, but on the flipside there are still so many fantastic places (thinking parks, nightlife and historical areas) to discover throughout the city — if only Mr. Sorman had stepped outside the hotel.

  • http://monkeystealspeach.blogspot.com/ Winslowalrob

    Way to go, don’t let that bull stand, but the five greatest cities in China are:

    1. Mianyang
    2. Mianyang
    3. Mianyang
    4. Mianyang
    5. Mianyang

    Kunming is tight (And I rated it highly most because of the quality of the Dairy Queen I went to), but I’ll take Dali over Kunming any day (Even though its a hippie tourist trap, there’s a lot of fun to be had there).

  • canrun

    Seems like Sormon has more than a passing knowledge of Chinese culture.

    “Yet with enough patience and will, one can plunge into the real China. Since 1967, I have visited the country regularly, and I spent all of 2005 and part of 2006 traveling through her teeming cities as well as her innermost recesses, where few Westerners go. I make no claim to know China fully, an impossibly ambitious task. I merely want to record the words and impressions of some exceptional Chinese men and women, who mostly suffer in silence, raising when they can the demand for a free nation—a “normal” nation.”

    http://www.city-journal.org/html/17_2_china.html

    Perhaps this comment…”It’s one thing to bash Beijing, but for the love of Kangxi at least pretend like you’ve actually spent some time here”…is not exactly accurate then.

    Is it his conservative political stance that you disagree with? Serious question.

  • http://granitestudio.org Jeremiah

    Canrun,

    As I responded to M. Sorman’s increasingly “Palin-esque” rants in the comments section of the original article, the fact the he has been in Beijing before makes the inaccurate and misleading bits I highlighted above even more odd and disturbing.

    I’m not sure why his “conservatism” would put me off, this space was in grave danger of becoming a bit of a All-Liu Xiaobo All-the time blog a couple of months back…my problem is with a poor and muddle-headed characterization of Beijing (see above).