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.