Saturday, 9 August 2008

Monday, 4 August 2008

Beijing ~ Where it Sizzles!!

Beijing where it sizzles

By Constantino TejeroPhilippine Daily InquirerFirst Posted 04:13pm (Mla time) 08/04/2008

ONE IMPRESSION OF Beijing is that it’s forbidding. Its structures are gray hulking monoliths, particularly the government buildings. And its people look grim-faced and more robust than those in Taipei and Shanghai, for instance.
In China’s 5,000 years of history, since this city was made its capital some 850 years ago, one of the visions that stay longest in the foreigner’s mind is of bloodshed: the Boxer Rebellion, which laid siege to foreign legations and had to be put down by an international expeditionary force.
And then, all of a sudden, the world comes here to play. And the battle cry is “One World, One Dream”—the slogan of the 29th Olympic Games, which opens in Beijing at 8 p.m. on Aug. 8 (note the triple eight, considered a propitious number).
One might say it’s an empty slogan. We’re rather more charmed by the adages ubiquitous all over the city, such as this one writ large across an old building in a busy intersection: “History creates today, tradition creates civilization.”
Natural poetry
Such solemn maxims are taken matter-of-factly in this land of sages, along with the natural poetry of its people. As in the names of these establishments in the financial district: Everbright Bank; Dazzle Jewelry Shop.
Or these two salons near embassy row: New Feeling Styling Hair; Silk Flow Hairdressers. And this joint in the bar row: Pure Girl Bar. The poetry can be found even in the supermarket: Carefree Coffee; Golden Swallow Snack Foods.
Naturally it creeps up to the suburbs and countryside: Hundred-Fruit Orchard; Jujube Picking Garden; Sweet Hill Farmhouse. And this is not to mention those innumerable cultural and historical landmarks like the Red Sandalwood Museum and White Cloud Temple.
Peculiarly Chinese, yes, and frequently making one’s toes curl. But wait till you’ve seen how these people can turn a delicious pun, as in this ramshackle shop: Comfoot Shoes.
Shopping and dining
These are the signs of the times the visitor is likely to encounter all over the city this week, along with the emblem called Dancing Beijing, an abstracted image combining a seal, a Chinese character and the Olympic rings; and the cutesy mascots Beibei (the fish), Jingjing (the panda), Huanhuan (the Olympic flame), Nini (the swallow) and Yingying (the Tibetan antelope. See? Tibet is part of the Games).
Olympic T-shirts and toy mascots can be had quite cheap from itinerant vendors on the streets, but the official ones of top quality are better bought at Silk Street Market in the Central Business District. Here you can get anything from Mongolian handicraft and The Little Red Book to jade, silk, tea and electronics (better acquired in Beijing’s two versions of Silicon Valley).
For rock-bottom bargains, go to the numerous flea markets such as Panjiayuan. But be careful with the haggling. If you’re not buying anything, just quietly walk away. These people can make a scene so much more dramatically than the Vietnamese vendors.
Shop only for those you can’t find in Manila, such as local products, as most items here are a little pricier. In the supermarket, a canister of potato chips is 35 RMB (1 yuan or RMB to P7), three pieces of banana are 20 RMB, and a bottle of bird’s nest is 1,700 RMB.
A Szechuan dinner of five dishes with a bottle of beverage in a wayside eatery is 75 RMB. Taxi flagdown is 10 RMB plus 2 RMB per kilometer. If you know your way around, go by bus for 1-11 RMB and by subway for 2 RMB or by bicycle for 10 RMB a day.
Wining and partying
For hip entertainment, fine dining and people-watching, go to clubs, restos and bistros such as Lan, Block 8, Centro, The World of Suzie Wong, Babyface, Blu Lobster, La Baie des Anges, Whampoa, Cargo, Aria.
Some of these are reused courtyard houses, apparently heritage structures, but you’d be surprised to find that the interiors have been designed by a Philippe Starck or a Johannes Thorpe.
For all-the-way entertainment, try what locals call Bar Street. These clubs and bars along Houhai Lake have plushy velvet sofas outside, looking ready for action right there on the sidewalk.
Foodies and nightlife lovers would be enchanted to discover that among the most happening places in the city are those funky restos and wine bars in the hutong, those interconnecting alleyways of Old Beijing rowed with boxlike houses.
This is the counterpart of our tenements and squatters’ area – see how the Chinese have turned them into what would eventually become heritage sites.
Cultural landmarks
If you’re culturally inclined, you may want to watch the Peking opera at the Imperial Granary or the Chinese acrobats at the Universal Theatre. Or visit any of the museums and art galleries such as the Ullens Centre for Contemporary Art and the Working People’s Culture Palace.
If you have longer hours during breaks in the Games, you must see at least five landmarks: Tian’anmen Square; the Forbidden City; the Summer Palace; the Temple of Heaven; and the Great Wall, of course. Without having seen any one of them, it’s as if you hadn’t been to Beijing.
China is now touted by Westerners as a new superpower on the rise. We can only smile, because based on just those five heritage sites, China had been a superpower ages and civilizations ago.
Most probably it is its recent ascendancy in world economy that has occasioned that irrelevant epithet. The so-called proletariat state is now in the grip of capitalism which it purportedly renounces.
Of the country’s 1.4-billion people, 15 million live in Beijing—so you can imagine if even only a third of them are entrepreneurs what that can do to the economy. And that’s not counting the foreign investors.
We’d rather call it China’s neo-imperialism. This is palpably evident in Beijing’s rapid development, and not only for the Olympics but also because of that ancient sense of imperial birthright, the sense of privilege and supremacy, we suspect.
Chinese officials have cleverly used technology and architecture to send their message across, as Hitler once did with Albert Speer.
Architectural marvels
These marvels of new technology and design have become surefire crowd-drawers even to local tourists. They come in hordes, from toddlers to doddering old folks, from far-flung provinces to see some, even on crutches and in wheelchairs.
Two of the most recognizable structures of the Summer Games venue can be found near China Agricultural University. The most popular is the National Stadium, also called the Bird’s Nest, designed by Herzog & De Mueron with Arup and the China Architecture Design & Research Group. The other is the National Aquatics Centre, or the Water Cube. Even world-weary Westerners stare and stare.
Another new marvel of architecture is the odd-shaped China Central Television building, or CCTV, designed by Rem Koolhaas and Ole Sheeren. This has been selected among the Top 10 buildings in design by a British paper. Walking in its shadow is like something from Magritte — imagine the Rock of Gibraltar hovering above your head.
The apex of Chinese gigantism must be the new Capital International Airport, designed by Norman Foster. Touted as the biggest airport terminal in the world, it is the ultimate symbol of China’s neo-imperialism.
In this mad rush to build, Beijing’s ultramodern structures and futuristic skyscrapers seem to be nearly overtaking its sprawling historical and cultural landmarks. However, rapid development doesn’t necessarily mean one canceling the other.
In fact, we see the modern and the ancient comfortably coexisting in the palaces and temples shadowed by malls and high-rises, or in the onrushing Peugeot along a street swerving by a slow-moving camel from the Gobi Desert.
In this city of metaphors and contrasts, that about encapsulates everything under heaven.