I just finished watching Miao Wang’s excellent documentary Beijing Taxi. The film both lovingly and critically looks at the changing face of China’s capital through the eyes of three different taxi drivers—a soon-to-retire, smiley older man; an easily contented, middle-aged guy; and an ambitious but frustrated mother. The impression that the movie gives of Beijing is very hazy—both literally (because the city is polluted) and figuratively (because the streetscape is changing drastically, right before the camera’s lens). Huge buildings are being putting up alongside massive, congested highways, and in the time span of the movie (two years) progress is definitely measurable as a function of what’s been added, as well as what’s been removed (the rubble is piling up where older, smaller buildings used to be).
The film was started a couple of years before the 2008 summer Olympics. The iconic venues—the Bird’s Nest, in particular—are a point of pride for the locals and yet look totally alien (they definitely don’t blend into the city and have a distinct air of removal from anything remotely status quo). And as the games get nearer, the city starts to look cleaner and neater and more welcoming. I wonder if that sheen has remained?
Beijing's Water Cube, photo by Wilson Loo
At the end of May, I’m going to Beijing for two weeks. I’ve never been to China before. I’m going to be visiting a friend of mine from University. It’s interesting because unlike other global cities such as New York, London, Paris—places that long before I ever saw them in person, I had seen them repeatedly in film and on TV and in magazines and newspapers—I have almost no real imagination of what Beijing is like. I can’t picture how the streets feel or what the everyday architecture (houses, schools, offices) might be like. Of course, I know some of the iconic buildings from the 2008 summer Olympics (the Bird’s Nest and the Water Cube), as well as the Imperial Palaces of the Forbidden City and the uncanny, Rem Koolhaas-designed CCTV building. But those are all otherworldly oddities (I’m assuming) in the city, and not what you would see walking down your average street (whereas in New York, I was familiar with brownstone walk-ups from the age I started watched Sesame Street). So when I picture Beijing, I draw a blank. But I also feel that visiting Beijing right now is in someway visiting the centre of the earth—the new control centre for the global economy (sorry Washington, Manhattan and elsewhere). So I can imagine that whichever part of the city I go to there will be rumble of construction underfoot, and everything changing all around me almost as fast as I try to register how it is.