Beijing in 2008, especially in the years leading up to the Summer Olympics, was nothing short of a madhouse. The games were scheduled to open there on August 8 — “The date,” Tom Scocca writes, “was a cascade of lucky numbers in China”: 8/8/8 — and the leaders of the Communist Party were determined to show the world the city’s, and the country’s, best face. China had emerged from decades of isolation to become one of the great powers, and it wanted to look and act the part. In a frenzy of construction, Beijing was being transformed:
“By 2008, there would be 2,000 extra police on duty and 1,500 new monitors keeping order on the buses. By 2008 there would be a new $1 billion airport terminal, three new subway lines, an express train to the airport, one high-speed railway crossing the Taihang Mountains to Taiyuan and another connecting Beijing to the port of Tainjin. By 2008, rats, mosquitoes, black beetles, and lice would be exterminated in the area around the Olympic sites. Beijing residents would quit their ingrained habit of spitting in the streets. Thirty-five percent of Beijingers would speak basic English. All rivers inside the city’s Sixth Ring Road would be free of pollution, and 50 percent of municipal water usage would employ recycled water. More than a hundred historic sites would be renovated; more than three hundred zones classed as slums would be redeveloped.”
The process had been going on for a long time. In the fall of 2005, I was in Beijing for two weeks, and evidence of the frenzy was everywhere: old neighborhoods (some of them historic) being ripped apart to make way for new ones, traffic on all of the Ring Roads more dense and chaotic than Washington’s Beltway at its worst, cookie-cutter skyscrapers rising almost overnight, the air so polluted from vehicle exhausts and construction dust that at times the sun and the horizon vanished from view and one’s eyes almost constantly smarted. It seemed to me an incredibly exciting place, positively pulsating with energy, but also a singularly unhealthy one, and I worried about my three young grandchildren, even though they lived in expat land out near the Fifth Ring Road.
Tom Scocca worried about that too. A freelance journalist and blogger, he went to China with his wife, Christina, whose parents had “left for Taiwan as children to escape the Communist Revolution, but had moved on to upstate New York, where Christina was born.” She worked for “a nonprofit opening an office in Beijing,” and the two of them made frequent trips there as her work progressed. Finally, they decided to stay for a while, she to continue in her job and he to do the research for this book. They took a fourth-floor walk-up in an alley “outside the Second Ring, not in Old Beijing so much as Indeterminate Middle-Aged Beijing,” in a neighborhood with “sort of an embassy row” but also “aging apartment blocks, new shopping centers, construction pits, massage spas, worker barracks, and office towers.”
It was, in short, almost a miniature of Beijing in 2008, with its three components – “the moneyed artificial one, the wretched and broken one, the live and bustling one” – in uneasy coexistence. Scocca quickly came to love it, but he seems never to have been sentimental about it. His brushes with the Chinese bureaucracy were almost unfailingly unpleasant, he chafed under the obsessive and intrusive security imposed by the police state, and he despised the pollution. The very day the Olympics opened, he and Christina had to take their infant son to the doctor because he had been wheezing and coughing:
“Our son had asthma. There was no use pretending it was the squeaky-clean, sensitive, upper-middle-class kind of asthma. He had the asthma that ghetto children come down with, because they live in the dirt. He was wheezing because at last, today on the morning of the Olympics, the filth of the city where he was born had gotten into his tender lungs. He was sick because we had let him live in Beijing.”
When they finally returned to New York, the boy had a terrible time on the long flight and got “off the plane to spend a week, including Christmas, hooked to a hospital oxygen monitor, with a diagnosis of acute asthma and pneumonia. Something for him to remember his birthplace by.” In time, the asthma probably will fade away and his lungs will recover from the damage done by Beijing, but this little boy’s story is testimony to the folly of romanticizing faraway places where the road to Mandalay turns out to be pocked with potholes and riddled with one-way blind curves.
Still, Scocca had a good time in Beijing and has written a very good book about it. He writes in a lively, mildly sassy style and has a keen eye for the oddities with which Beijing is abundantly endowed. He tried baijiu, “the standard Chinese drink,” and found it odd indeed: “It began with a nose-filling, cloying floral aroma like that of fabric softener, then washed through the mouth like smoky kerosene, leaving in its trail the stinging, acrid taste of the vomit after a vodka binge.” He found a nightclub of sorts that its owner had christened Sex and Da City: “Replacing ‘the’ with ‘da’ was, by Chinese standards, a fairly respectful nod to trademark rights.” He was especially taken by the pre-Olympic hullabaloo:
“Beijing would have a mascot for each color of the Olympic rings: the blue one was Beibei, the fish; black was Jingjing, the panda; red was Huanhuan, the Olympic flame; yellow was Yingying, the Tibetan antelope; and green was Nini, the swallow. Not that they were exactly animals. . . . They were animal-themed, totemic. There was a great deal more to them than met the eye. Their names, taken together in the correct order, made up the phraseBeijing Huanying Ni — Beijing Welcomes You.”
There was no escaping these bizarre totems, and in time there was a song, played incessantly and at top volume, called “Beijing Welcomes You.” As Scocca says: “That pentatonic hook was everywhere: cab radios, DVD shops, wafting over the streets. Beijing Welcomes You! The constancy of it all but guaranteed it would be the ironic backdrop to whatever might go sour in the course of a day. Coughing fit? Traffic jam? Argument with the authorities? BEEI-jinng HUAN-ying NIIII. . . .”