Blooming Beijing


There are many ways you could describe the city of Beijing, but by no stretch of the imagination could you ever call it beautiful. It is not.  In fact as a whole it is a down-right unattractive city, though, like the Curate’s egg, it is good in parts.

In March this year I had the good fortune to meet the author Lionel Shriver at a book reading here in BJ where she launched her new novel ‘Big Brother’ at the Bookworm International Literary Festival.  There was a reasonable turn-out of ex-pats,

Bookworm audience and at the end of her session she spent as much time questioning us about life in BJ as we did asking her questions about her writing.  Shriver had arrived in China the previous day, and was horrified by BJ and by the air-pollution.

Now she has set the cat among the pigeons by writing two articles excoriating the city.  In one she says ‘it is the ugliest city I have ever seen’, and ‘Beijing is like a modern-day Gomorrah. It’s like an urban venereal disease. Beijing is the city Detroit looks to when it wants to feel better about itself.’  Don’t mince your words Lionel!

I’ve only lived here for three years, but I found my hackles rising when I read what she had said – well I would wouldn’t I?  since she also said she couldn’t trust us ex-pats because ‘they had over-adapted to their dystopic town and could no longer see it.’  

I grew up in what is (in my opinion) the most beautiful city in the world, Cape Town,

cape_town

so it is somewhat ironic that I find myself wanting to stand up for this crazy, hazy megalopolis of 22 million souls which has developed in place of the ancient Manchu city that was here before 1949.

There are surprising pockets of visual pleasure to be seen here – and in summer one of them is the roses. Beijing roses 2 From mid-May onwards, BJ is awash with roses, blooming lavishly down the center of the ring roads and express-ways,

Beijing roses 1 on traffic islands, in parks, at the BJ Galaxy Sohocorner of streets, in big pots in the hutongs and  in  101 places you’d never expect to see a rose.

Lionel wouldn’t have seen roses in March; but then she never even made the time to visit the Summer Palace,  to stroll down a hutong, view the Egg and other examples of stunning modern architecture – such as Zaha Hadid’s Galaxy Soho complex.

Heaven’s above – she didn’t even go to see the Great Wall.

the Great Wall

I felt as though someone had insulted a member of my family.

About herschelian

Recently moved to Beijing from London - its all new to me! Trying to learn Chinese, and what makes this city tick.
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7 Responses to Blooming Beijing

  1. Well written, Jo! As a recent visitor to BJ, I would not exactly describe it as beautiful, but the criticism seems unduly harsh. I loved my time at the Great Wall and Lionel certainly missed out by not visiting it.

  2. Kit says:

    Funny how protective you get about adopted home towns. Very much like a member of the family who you feel entitled to criticise yourself but defend hotly against outsiders.
    Those roses are truly amazing – never thought of them as hardy plants to put in amongst the traffic!

  3. Sheila Taylor says:

    Go for it Jo. Always a mistake for someone to judge harshly and intemperately on the basis of one visit. It ill befits a supposedly educated woman like Lionel Shriver – is it a cynical attempt to drum up a bit of a media storm for her new book?
    Like the roses!

  4. Teuchter says:

    I agree with your sentiments about Beijing; parts of it are lovely and they could teach us a thing or two about municipal planting. I thought Aberdeen could do good roses.
    Just can’t understand why someone like Shriver would go all the way there and not make a point of seeing the Famous Sights.
    The Egg must be a fairly recent addition? The buildings of the moment when we were in BJ were the Bird’s Nest and the Water Cube.

    I once overheard a college lecturer telling her students what a ghastly place Glasgow was. When one of them asked if she’d been there, she said she’d been through it on a train once.

  5. James says:

    I have my reservations about some high-flying novelist/journalist/what-have-you landing in an Asian city for a few short days, letting out a stream of intense criticism before flying back to her home comforts in the West. The best journalists and writers make an effort to understand a place and its people, rather than relying on preconceptions fomented in the media, and from the sounds of it Shrivel didn’t, in any way, scratch the surface of Beijing. The fact that she didn’t even bother to see some of its historic sites seems to smack of condescension – rather than getting a feel for the city, she would rather be in the familiar confines of a bookstore surfing the internet for news from halfway around the world.

    I visited last February and was fortunate to experience both blue-sky days and others when the soupy, yellow-brown haze descended on the city; you could really feel the pollution collecting in your throat. But even under those circumstances, the Summer Palace was extremely beautiful, and I had one of the best days of my trip with a local teacher who kindly showed me around, taking me to an aging food court for Beijing specialties before returning to his flat for tea and homemade rice wine. It’s really not that difficult to look beyond the grime – I imagine Dickensian London was somewhat similar, and many forget that it was only in the 1950s when that city was still grappling with appalling levels of air pollution.

  6. Edwin Wang says:

    I will see for myself this summer. I am visiting China for the first time in my life. My father was born in a small town in Hebei Province and went to Taiwan with the Nationalist government when he was 20. My uncle and cousins live in Beijing.So I will be seeing quite a few relatives there.

    Thank you for defending Beijing 🙂 It is not easy being ancient and modern at the same time while suffering from pollution and overpopulation.

  7. gkm2011 says:

    Interesting point of view. I think visiting and living in China requires seeing what the potential of a place may be – or what it was. If you get stuck in the now, you will get depressed many times. Unless of course it is a blue sky day. After almost six years blue sky days make my heart jump for joy!

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