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August 19, 2008

The Last Days of Old Beijing: Life in the Vanishing Backstreets of a City Transformed

(By Michael Meyer. Walker and Company; 368 pp., $25.99.)

Michael Meyer’s lamentation, “The Last Days of Old Beijing,” is by turns vexing and haunting, but ultimately deeply satisfying. A teacher and travel writer, Meyer chronicles his experience living as the sole westerner in a Beijing hutong, one of the rapidly disappearing traditional lanes of linked courtyard houses, with tight-knit communities of residents and small businesses. Day by day, and page by page, these lanes are demolished, their dwellers and merchants evicted with a few weeks’ notice by all-powerful government authorities, which Meyer calls “the Hand.”

“The Last Days of Old Beijing:  Life in the Vanishing Backstreets of a City Transformed”: By Michael Meyer. Walker and Company;  368 pp., .99.
“The Last Days of Old Beijing: Life in the Vanishing Backstreets of a City Transformed”: By Michael Meyer. Walker and Company; 368 pp., .99.

Meyer occupies the difficult position of the outsider. He refrains from casting judgments against nearly everyone except the Hand, but his love for the hutongs is as palpable as his anxiety and quiet rage about their destruction. Oddly, as he represents them, the lanes and houses rarely seem picturesque, or even pleasant, places to live. His two rooms lack heat or running water, and he must, in all weather and at all hours, go down the block to use a shared latrine. The conditions are not merely squalid; they are at times dangerous, with fires and asphyxiation from the fumes of coal-burning stoves ever-present threats in winter. 

Overcrowding and decades of neglect by the state, which retains ownership of the vast majority of property in the hutongs, worsen these conditions. Though Meyer bemoans the destruction of the city’s traditional urban fabric, most residents seem, if not happy to be moving to an apartment with running water, at most, passively saddened to leave.

Meyer implies a reason for this. Even beyond the regime’s totalitarian control of speech and assembly, many residents show a languid acceptance of cataclysmic change. This, after all, is a country that has enacted an almost ritualized destruction of its national heritage at least twice in the last 60 years — in the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. So the country’s newest upheaval through hyper-development is only the latest turn in the wheel. To outside eyes, like Meyer’s, this destruction is incomprehensible.

After instructive detours to see preservation at work in Vietnam and Laos, and despite some overly long passages about teaching in his neighborhood elementary school, “The Last Days of Old Beijing” snaps into focus in the book’s final third, in a chapter called “Miss Zhu Remembers the Trees.” Recalling a trip with one of his colleagues to the site of the neighborhood where she grew up, Meyer distills the wonder and horror of contemporary Beijing in one paragraph:

Miss Zhu stood on a pedestrian overpass, surveying her childhood neighborhood. The view was a before-and-after photo. On the right, the web on narrow lanes and courtyard houses. On the left, wide boulevards and high-rises whose signs announced Beijing’s first Brooks Brothers, another Starbucks and the Wal-Mart. The hutong opposite was plastered with yellow posters reminding residents not to listen to rumors, to trust the Party and welcome a new Olympics. 


The Olympics shadow the entire book as the justification for every government action, every eviction notice, every demolition. Fittingly, Meyer closes his book with a visit to the nearly complete “Bird’s Nest,” the Olympic stadium designed by Herzog & de Meuron, which he calls “a sculpture, an image to be propagandized.” Meyer’s book is dedicated to realities deeper than televised pictures and aerial photographs. “Some things are better seen on the ground,” he writes. 

We see today in the skyrocketing price of oil the consequences of China’s rapid development and voracious appetite for resources. “The Last Days of Old Beijing” documents the landscape that appetite has created:

Safe and Sound Boulevard is neither safe nor sound. The eight-lane road running four miles across the heart of the Old City has only two pedestrian overpasses, neither located where the majority of people attempt to cross its 40 yards before the light changes … Listen to the hundreds of horns honking together, smell the exhaust of idling buses and cabs, and see the empty sidewalks that run before shops built to resemble the thirty-three hundred courtyard homes that the road destroyed. I remember them, and the hutong, and the promises. 


Meyer will remember the people and places cleared to make way for the Olympics and the country’s bold new future. It is unlikely that the rest of us will be able to forget or ignore the new China, built on the rubble of the hutongs.