By Steve Kelman

Blog archive

Beijing impressions

After several previous trips to China, I am finally, for the first time, visiting Beijing.

Over the past few years I have read a number of books on the history and development of the city, but I will say that the visual impression has been very different from what I expected. Having read about the enormous destruction of the traditional city -- some of it right after the Communists took over, when city walls and the traditional north-south line of bell and drum towers were dismantled, and a lot of it in the runup to the Olympics in 2008 -- I was expecting an Asian cookie-cutter city (of which they are many) ... endless streets of characterless high rise apartments and office buildings, punctuated only by the occasional new trophy office building and, of course, the expanse of Tiananmen Square, with its mixture of the old Forbidden City and 1950s-era Stalinist monuments, in the middle.

I was wrong. This city has a unique feel, definitely not cookie-cutter and very different from its sister and rival city, Shanghai. The first thing I noticed was the large number of incredibly wide boulevards, the product of Communist-era urban planning, but more than any city in Russia or Eastern Europe. The most amazing of these, and a truly fascinating and incredible -- if spooky -- experience, is Chang An Jie. It translates to "Long Peace Street" and is the ancient name of the city of Xi'an, an early Chinese capital.

This avenue, six lanes in each direction, runs east-west in the middle of the city, bisecting Tiananmen Square. The Communists built it in the 1950's, in an explicit attempt to challenge Beijing's traditional north-south flow, with the Forbidden City in the center of the north-south axis. It had been built that way out of the belief that "qi" (energy) flowed from north to south, and needed an unimpeded flow through imperial grounds.

Chang An Jie is lined on both sides with massive government buildings, hotels, and post-modern architecture housing the headquarters of large state-owned companies. Some of the buildings have stood since the 1950s, but many of them very new.  However, the sentence I just wrote does not come close to giving a feel for the unique look of the street. These are not skyscrapers; they are generally no more than 10 stories tall.

Instead of soaring upwards, they soar sidewards, each building being the length of a fairly large city block. The appearance they give -- and I have no idea if this was conscious or not -- is of European royal palaces lined up one after another on both sides of the street. These buildings are set back from the street partly by very wide sidewalks, but mostly by grass or mini-plazas in front of the buildings, adding to the monumental appearance. (The closest comparison I can think of is the Depression-era government department buildings on Pennsylvania Avenue, such as the Department of Justice. But Chang An Jie is much wider than Pennsylvania Avenue, this collection of buildings goes on for over a mile, the building styles are more varied, and the setbacks are more dramatic.)

This street makes people feel very small.

However, there actually is more "quaintness" in Beijing than I had expected. What I had read in my Beijing books was that a few tiny blocks of the traditional low-rise gray brick "hutong" housing, with its alleyways and courtyards, had been saved from the wrecker's ball that descended on most of the city, with a sort of artificial Disneyland feel of "look, here is a tourist attraction."

It's true that the area just south of Tiananmen Square is an extreme example of this -- the traditional street market was destroyed a number of years ago, and now has been rebuilt from the ground up to try to make it look like a sanitized version of the original street, dominated by Western chains (Starbucks, H&M, KFC), souvenir shops, and faux local color restaurants, a Beijing version of Disney's Main Street USA. But I explored a quite large area of the city that had a genuine traditional feel, very different from the modern buildings dominating the rest of the city. Although I wished more of the city still had that feel, it would be unfair to present this as just a few blocks, or just preserved for tourists.

I will say only a few words about shopping in Beijing, because I have experienced this the least. (When you've seen one Louis Vuitton, you've seen them all.)  Beijing, especially the trendy eastern part of the city -- I am staying in the northwestern side, near the universities -- is dotted with enormous urban malls, generally five- or six-story squarish structures of colored glass windows and ornamental steel, often with enormous video displays and light shows dominate the facades. I was told, though, that many luxury products, even those made in China, are cheaper in New York than in Beijing.

My bottom line: This is a fascinating city, and I am really glad I have come.

Posted on Feb 23, 2011 at 12:09 PM


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