Michael Meyer's The Last Days of Old Beijing.

Reading between the lines.
Aug. 7 2008 6:50 AM

The Vanishing City

The life and death of Beijing's alleys.

Also in Slate, Andrew J. Nathan reviews The Man on Mao's Right: From Harvard Yard to Tiananmen Square, My Life Inside China's Foreign Ministry, Minxin Pei reviews Out of Mao's Shadow: The Struggle for the Soul of a New China, and Ann Hulbert takes on two novels by Xiaolu Guo, one of China's young expatriate stars.

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Michael Meyer records this orgy of destruction and the ongoing struggle for a new identity in his excellent book The Last Days of Old Beijing. Like Peter Hessler's River Town, it is a haunting portrait of the interaction between change and changelessness in China. Meyer, like Hessler, was a Peace Corps volunteer in southwest China in the mid-1990s, and on arriving in Beijing a few years later, he says it was "love at first sight." Indeed his book reads like a love letter to the hutongs and to Old Beijing itself, a snapshot snatched before the scene disappears for ever.

For two years, while he volunteered as a full-time English teacher in a local school, his home was two small rooms without a bathroom in a hutong in Dazhalan, one of Beijing's oldest and poorest neighborhoods. This, writes Meyer, is one of the world's densest urban environments, half a square mile made up of hundreds of alleyways housing "57,000 people, including one foreigner."

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In The Last Days of Old Beijing, you can smell the public latrines. You can taste the dust in the lanes and feel the claustrophobia. You can hear the shouts of the recyclers as they prowl the alleyways, collecting plastic bottles and cardboard. The locals have a name for the bearded American in their midst—Little Plumblossom—and adopt him as one of their own. In return, he details their lives as they deal with the change all around them.

Dazhalan is a world unto itself, partially insulated from the convulsions taking place in the wider city but aware that it lives on borrowed time. Change inevitably penetrates the maze of the hutong, but the inhabitants still cling on to their old ways, and the characters Meyer portrays reflect some of this confusion: his students, torn between the modernity they see around them and the traditions of their families; Meyer's fellow teacher, Miss Zhu, who longs to have a baby but wonders whether she will bring it up in the neighborhood where she herself grew up; Soldier Liu, who considers Beijing a paradise compared with his home village in the countryside; Recycler Wang, for whom trash is a future, of sorts; and the ever-present Widow next door, who is constantly, affectionately, upbraiding Meyer for his wasteful ways ("Little Plumblossom, you dolt!").

The main character, however, and Meyer's cleverest device, is a figure who haunts every chapter just as it haunts the hutongs, a figure whom Meyer calls the Hand. Everyone fears the Hand, a symbol of the unseen governmental power that still exists and cannot be impeded. The Hand comes in the night and, like some demonic Chinese Zorro, slashes a character in white paint upon the walls of houses to be razed. The character, chai (destroy), is a silent cloud hanging over the hutongs and a silent theme running throughout the book. Every day, the residents wonder if today—tonight—they will be visited by the Hand. "The Hand didn't have to listen to ... residents at council meetings and public forums. The Hand just erased and drew, erased and drew."

The main characters are also the Dazhalan hutong themselves—the living, breathing communities that are disappearing. As the traditional courtyard houses are destroyed, the residents are forced to exchange their close-knit, horizontal existence for the vertical loneliness of a high-rise apartment on the outskirts of the city. Meyer beautifully dissects the tensions between tradition and modernity in the minds of the Chinese people and examines the identity crisis that still persists, for Beijing, and for China. A question lingers throughout the book: How much of your history should you hold onto, and how much should you leave behind?

Perhaps it will all work out. You feel that, in the end, Michael Meyer thinks it will. Perhaps Beijingers will find the balance between the past and the present and the future, and the Chinese people will relax into their new identity, knowing who they are and what they are, as they move on.

But that has not happened yet. As the last of the old hutong neighborhoods are destroyed, it seems that more time is needed for the dust to settle in the streets of Beijing, and in the Chinese mind.

Rob Gifford was NPR correspondent in Beijing from 1999 to 2005. He is the author of China Road: A Journey Into the Future of a Rising Power.

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