Here at the frontier, the leaves fall like rain. Although my neighbors are all barbarians, and you, you are a thousand miles away, there are still two cups at my table.

Ten thousand flowers in spring, the moon in autumn, a cool breeze in summer, snow in winter. If your mind isn't clouded by unnecessary things, this is the best season of your life.

~ Wu-men ~

Friday, July 11, 2008

The Last Days of Old Beijing

Speaking of books, a friend sent me this. To read the whole review, click on the title of this post. This one is certainly on my wish list.

An American in China

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Life in the Vanishing Backstreets of a City Transformed.

By Michael Meyer.

Illustrated. 355 pp. Walker & Company. $25.99.

This summer, widespread Beijing fatigue is an inevitability. But it’s high-flying Olympic Beijing that may become overfamiliar, a city that’s appeared before our very eyes as in a scene from “The Matrix.” This is not Michael Meyer’s town. The Beijing he has called home is being systematically eradicated, and this book is his testament.

On Aug. 8, 2005, three years to the day before the Olympics’ start date — and exactly 68 years after the Japanese marched in to occupy the city — Meyer moved into a traditional courtyard home on Red Bayberry and Bamboo Slanted Street in the hutong, the “vanishing backstreets” of his subtitle. His neighborhood, Dazhalan, is six centuries old and was once known as the entertainment district, full of artisans, acrobats, antiques and brothels. Meyer assumes the role of the lone Westerner among Dazhalan’s 57,000-odd residents, which provides entertainment of a distinctly early-21st-century sort: the authentic cultural immersion experience.

A travel writer who hails from Minneapolis, Meyer is no dilettante. His motives certainly don’t seem touristic or cynical. He didn’t move to Beijing to write a book about it (or if he did, he isn’t saying). “Beijing was simply love at first sight,” he writes. The hutong beckons after a former resident gives Meyer a tearful tour of his half-demolished house. (“It wasn’t just a building,” the man says. “It was me. It was my family.”) Meyer also acts on a perceived challenge from Le Corbusier, champion of urban renewal: to inhabit the picturesque slums whose razing both historians and tourists sentimentally deplore. And whose razing — from 7,000 hutong in 1949 to 1,300 in 2005, with 1.25 million residents evicted between 1990 and 2007 — he proceeds to record.

After cutting through a mile of red tape, Meyer becomes a volunteer teacher at Coal Lane Elementary and acquires, for $100 a month, two unheated rooms lighted by bare bulbs, with straw-and-mud walls, on a five-room courtyard shared with six others. The latrine is a few minutes’ walk away, as is the Big Power Bathhouse. Since using a refrigerator blows the entire courtyard’s fuses, Meyer keeps his unplugged, storing underwear in it instead. In a singular feat of extreme travel, he lives like this for two years.

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