Beijing’s shiny skyscrapers are concentrated in the east, in an oblong strip mostly following the 3rd ring road, in an area they call the CBD. Almost everything you’ve ever heard about in Beijing that was built within the last 100 years is there. Banks, corporations, the embassies, the hotels, the funny-shaped CCTV building, the notorious Sanlitun, and the main showroom for just about every car brand. People walk quickly, dress well and over dress, get to important meetings on time and drink expensive drinks with expensive friends.
Tucked away in the southeastern edge of the CBD is a small cluster of older buildings, built of brick, minding their own business amid the towering hive of glass and steel and neon. Most of the structures are only six or seven stories tall, and even the tallest among them (18 stories) are dwarfed by the surrounding monoliths of modernity. They do not glisten at sunrise and sunset, but neither are they burdened by lit-up, multicolored acronyms, and beneath and between them one encounters little more than quiet old people and small, happy dogs. There are trees, and open spaces for playing chess or cards or just standing around looking at whatever drifts by, and tarps on the sidewalks where farmers bring their crops and the quiet old people buy them.
The three tallest buildings are arranged in a row in the northwestern corner, and on the top floor of the northernmost tower, I live. I have a living room with red wooden floors and an old sofa, a kitchen with a laundry machine, a balcony with a refrigerator, and a bedroom with a window, a wardrobe, and a hard Chinese bed.
Viewed from my window at night, the ground underneath my building is a blanket of darkness, punctuated by occasional street lights and mildly stirred by half-seen midnight wanderers. Outside the gates, a brilliant red river roils as passing traffic taps its brakes to go through the intersection between Dawang Road and Changan Avenue, the latter of which continues straight on to the west and cuts between Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City. Beyond the intersection are more interchanges, and beyond that the fourth ring, such that the ground outside the gates appears as an ever-flowing mass of shining red and white, pulsing with the rhythm of modern needs and wants.
Moving up from the ground, my eyes are invited to dazzlement by a host of well-advertised names – Gucci, Prada, Xinguang Mall, Huamao Apartments, Deutsche Bank, SOHO Modern City – so many bejeweled echoes of other people’s dreams – and as my eyes continue moving up, there’s nothing left but the silo of the power plant, quixotically billowing wispy clouds of queer pale beauty into the dim night sky, which is often starless and never truly black and always humming with Metropolitan Background Radiation, the red-tinted residue that accompanies a well-developed compendiums of human striving.
If I allow my eyes to keep moving up, the glow would fade continuously but never all the way, until my gaze would be intercepted by my balcony’s ceiling and the clothes line that has been drilled into it to compensate for the lack of dryers. The whitewashed ceiling would be pleasantly lit by the slightly yellow light flowing in from the fixture in the living room. I would almost certainly be sitting in the office chair I’d placed on the balcony for lack of a more appropriate place, which turns out to be a great place to take an evening beer (XueHua, only tastes good out of a can) before lighting a candle, doing my nightly Chinese review, and reading some sort of fiction until I fall asleep to the faint sounds of people being people 18 stories below.
“I’ve lived here my whole life,” the old man on the elevator told me.
“You’re from Beijing?” I asked.
He seemed slightly offended. “I’ve lived HERE my whole life. This xiaoqu (gated community). Sixty years.”
“I wouldn’t have guessed you were older than forty five.” Actually, I wouldn’t have guessed at all, because I can never guess people’s ages.
I can guess the xiaoqu‘s age, though, and it’s much younger than 60. That man was probably born in a house on this land, almost certainly a traditional courtyard house, consisting of several small buildings connected by walls to enclose an inner courtyard. He and his family were probably removed from the land – possibly voluntarily, possibly not – when development came, and compensated with housing in the new buildings when they were completed. The population of that patch of earth then rapidly multiplied as people from other places – surrounding villages, other provinces, Texas – came spilling in to fill the empty rooms, all stacked on top of each other.
He may have gone through the demolish-and-redevelop process only once. I’d bet that some of his neighbors went through that same process at least twice. Just to the north of my building is Blue Castle, a massively taller and much more modern apartment building, wherein a comparable apartment would cost half again what mine does. To the east and west are high-fashion shopping centers, topped by upscale apartments whose cheapest floorplans cost more than double.
To the south is Soho, a four-building office complex with feet made of coffee shops and a body made of free enterprise. One tenant is a company that makes a kind of unicycle segway. One is a mobile phone manufacturer. On the top floor of one of the buildings (called the 19th despite being the 16th, as the building has no 4th, 13th, or 14th floors) is an “integrated communications” company that services luxury brands and media projects. That company recently hired as a full-time consultant a music major from east Texas. He’s there right now, in fact, in a little loft inside the two-story office, blogging away the minutes until 6:00, when those few employees who chose to come into work on the eve of the May First holiday will begin to clock out with the fingerprint machine by the front desk, wait a painfully long time for the elevator, then disperse into the teeming mass of humanity on the south side of Changan Avenue, blending once again into that endless sea of faces-that-I-may-or-may-not-have-seen-before as it ebbs to and fro, struggles, thinks, acts, contents itself, and carries on, after a fashion.
This is the new lifestyle. Welcome to the next chapter.