Saturday, March 27, 2010


The city is angry. Speeches distorted by cheap amplification ring across the rooftops and echo against the neighbouring buildings. The meaning is lost but the tone makes it clear. The city is angry.

Intersections are blocked, guarded by makeshift gates and eager young men in bandannas and red t-shirts. Hundreds, thousands of people are animated by an energy not often seen this close to the equator, where heat and humidity conspire to rob you of momentum, of direction. It makes you shuffle and dawdle and crouch in the shade of trees.

Now the people seem possessed with an urgency that is at once calm and electrifying. They drive around, riding in flatbed trucks and pickups, grinning. They gather at the intersections and squares, eating and chatting and listening to fiery tirades and waving at strangers. They walk around with purpose and determination, angry and excited and happy all at the same time.

Their counterparts are the uneasy groups of young soldiers and police that seem to huddle at every street corner. They are armed and burdened under riot gear, with heavy helmets and perspex shields, formerly clear but now clouded with the scratches and insults of previous battles. They too seem alert, but less confident. There is much tension in the air, making it heavy, adding to the heat and humidity and smog that sits over the city.

Amidst all this I sit in the company of bronzed and burnt tourists. We sleep and read and laze around a rooftop pool. Occasionally the wind will shift, and the speeches and rallies are momentarily drowned out by the music from the clubs and cafes that line the streets below. We shift about, in step with the sun as it marches across the sky. Oblivious to the tension in the street, blind to the angry city.

Thursday, March 11, 2010


Given the pace of the changes we witnessed while we lived in Beijing, it should have come as no surprise that 5 years later the town doesn't quite resemble the images it burnt into my memory like a branding iron searing the flank of a very surprised calf.

It's not that Beijing doesn't at first glance appear the way I left it. The differences become a little more obvious the deeper I looked. The taxi drivers still speak an almost impenetrable dialect, but the cars are newer, and the meter now speaks to you in a stilted, robotic english voice, reminding hapless tourists to please remember their things. The high-rises are still there, of course, but there are more and more of them, shinier and somehow more adventurous, embellished with extra facades and angles. The biggest shock came with our first trip on the metro. Gone are the overworked surly old ladies selling tickets, printed on the ubiquitous cheap chinese paper. Gone are the overworked surly old ladies checking those tickets, tossing them into overflowing rubbish bins. They have been replaced by overworked slightly-less-surly younger women in crisp uniforms selling magnetised plastic keycards. There are even automatic machines, complete with touchscreens and english language options. The stations are bedecked with clean white tiles, guarded by x-ray machines and shining, blinking turnstiles. The trains are crowded (that I remember) but people line up at the assigned queues before jamming themselves (sometimes with the assistance of the blue-jacketed platform attendants) into clean carriages, again with english announcements and computerised subway maps. It was almost too easy.

I might go as far to say that the Olympics have ruined this city.

But then we made it over to the west side of town, to districts we once spent a lot to time in. The pavement was cracked. The buses were crowded and we could find our way around. We didn't see any foreigners, and when we did they had that same look in their eye: a studied nonchalance in stark contrast to the mix of exhaustion, frustration and wild-eyed wonderment that marks the tourists of Wangfujing and Tian'anmen. I remembered that look. It says "yeah, I know it's Beijing. It's big, crowded and noisy. It's hard work. But I can elbow those grannies out of the way on the bus, I can shrug off the scammers and beggars, I can get a local price on a knock-off North Face jacket, I can find the best
baozi in town." I may have imagined it, but when I wore that look it felt like I was a member of an exclusive club.

And maybe that is part of the indefinable appeal of China. It is hard work. It isn't for everyone. I've said before that this town could make or break a person. I am certainly not the same man I was when I first came here. I joined a club whose membership is defined by their ability to cope with Beijing and not go mad.

My membership may have lapsed over the last couple of years. In some ways Sweden has made me soft. The buses are too clean, the restaurants are too quiet, the air is too crisp, there are not enough people. So today I am going out to renew my subscription. I am going to haggle over prices and navigate buses and argue with grannies. I am going to find that elusive