Reflections on Beijing

For almost as long as Beijing has existed people have continually warned about its cultural last days. Whenever I mentioned to my well-travelled friends that I would be living in Beijing they without fail would spin some line about how it’s just not the real China anymore. I imagine these are the same people who with every Burning Man lament it is never as good as it was.

Beijing may have once had a glorious past, but given that this now lies buried under a Starbucks, I may as well enjoy the supposedly culturally apocalyptic world that remains.

It’s true that a part of me wishes that I could live in a Hutong – a traditional single-storey street of courtyard dwellings.  These once crisscrossed the city in their thousands until Beijing decided it wanted to host the Olympics. Instead, I’m confined to the 22nd floor of a generic apartment complex soaring almost ashamedly into a haze of pollution; a cloud with the dubious silver lining of an increased likelihood of respiratory problems.  

I also wish I could have seen the original temples and palaces which represented a historical legacy of three millennia, but instead, I must be content with thinly-veiled illusions which upon closer inspection reveal hastily erected concrete beneath.

However, for me, the spirit of the city no longer lies in the lost buildings which were swept away in the name of development but instead is embodied by Beijing’s hipsters filling techno club Dada on a Saturday night and the gaggle of high-schoolers crooning songs in a KTV. I see it in the hustle of my friends working in Beijing’s startups who, when I call them in a counterfeit-Belvedere induced blur in the early hours, will invariably still be in the office. The spirit is also in the smell of Hot Pot that for some reason I can never get out of my clothes for all the Persil in the world.

My Beijing is not your Beijing, and it’s not anyone else’s Beijing. You can create your own bubble, curating your personal levels of cultural exposure. You might mix with the well-dressed perfectly manicured expats in San Li Tun drinking cocktails at prices that would make a Londoner blush.  Alternatively, you can while away the hours in a park watching a sexagenarian catapult small stones at a tree or be stage-managed by chain-smoking old men as you try to unravel the nuances of Chinese Chess. The history might only be as real as the alcohol, but what makes me love the city is the newly emerging culture that reveals itself more with every day I spend here.

Increasingly, the metropolis is being fuelled by waves of migrants from across China driven by an idea embedded in the Chinese consciousness that Beijing is the Chinese dream. They’re bringing with them fresh ideas and perspectives that are shaping the Beijing of tomorrow. The truth is that while the culture of old Beijing may have disappeared, new stories are already starting to be written. The city is not the ubiquitous high-rises that replaced the beautiful chaos of the Hutongs or the rough concrete facsimiles of historical landmarks, but rather the 20 million minds working on creating a future that matters to them.


Chinese Studies Book Club #1


Welcome to the inaugural post in my Chinese Studies Book Club.
Every week I will be reading a different book related to China. It might be about history, art, culture, literature or anything that captures my interest. Every Sunday I’ll share my thoughts on the book, what I learned and what I think the writer did well.

I’d encourage you to read the books along with me, and if you do I’d love to hear what you thought of them. You can reach out to me through my contact form or on Twitter (@benedictaltier). Alternatively, just wait until Sunday to get a summary of what I thought were the most important ideas in the book.
The first book this week is called ‘The Last Days of Old Beijing‘ written by Michael Meyer and published in 2008. I want to read this book to discover some of the heritage of the city which for over a year now I’ve called home.

The Last Days of Old Beijing

I moved to Beijing in September and am sharing an apartment with three friends on the 22nd floor of a high-rise building. The building is situated a fifteen-minute scooter ride from Peking University where I study which is some way out from the centre of the city in the North West of the capital. Almost every building in sight aside from on university campus recently built. However, when I venture out in central Beijing I sometimes hang-out in the last remaining ‘hutongs‘ of the city. In fact, my favourite bar ‘Modernista‘ is tucked right in the middle of one. The term ‘hutong‘ refers to the narrow streets and alleys intersecting one-story dwellings often centred around a courtyard. Hutongs at one time used to be commonplace in the city. However, in recent decades the Chinese government began a concerted effort to clear these supposedly hazardous dwellings and instead replace them with homogenous high-rises. In doing so many critics claimed they were obliterating the priceless cultural heritage of these narrow streets and alleys that once numbered in their thousands.

Hutongs were the cultural heart of Beijing

The Last Days of Old Beijing is a chronicle of an English teacher’s experiences living a Hutong just before the 2008 Beijing Olympics watching as Hutong culture was all but resigned to the history books.
This Sunday I’ll share my thoughts on the book in a post, and at some point, I hope to make a video although that could be delayed by my upcoming trip to South Korea on Thursday.

See you Sunday.