The hutong, or alleyway, leading to Michael Meyer's apartment in Old Beijing was so narrow that he couldn't walk its length with an open umbrella. In his neighborhood of Dazhalan, which measured a half-mile square, 57,000 people lived in a tight grid of buildings rarely more than one story tall.
It was a long way from Wayzata.
Over a decade, Meyer spent two four-year stints in China, amid what's proving to be a pivotal moment in its urban development. Ancient neighborhoods are being razed at an ambitious rate, a shift that Meyer documents in "The Last Days of Old Beijing" (Walker, $26). Yet the book is not a Westerner's rant about gentrification.
"My goal was not to pass judgment about a lifestyle, but to describe a lifestyle," Meyer said. In fact, many of the displaced residents are not especially upset about the change. The book thus is a delightfully observed view of a vast part of Chinese society that barely was glimpsed during the recent Olympics, yet is fading away.
Consider one of Meyer's jobs. With the Olympics on the horizon, the police needed to hone their English skills. In particular, they wanted to learn swear words so they would know when a foreigner was cursing them. "So I'd take them out for dumplings and call them every name in the book."
Meyer joined the Peace Corps after graduating from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, intending to go to Latin America where he could use his skills in Spanish. But all the postings were for non-Spanish countries. Finally offered a post in China, he decided to go for it.
After four years in China, he returned to the United States to get a master's degree in education, only to find that he wasn't done with China. He returned to Beijing in 2004 and was struck by the piles of rubble he would encounter each week as blocks of buildings came down. The razing actually had been going on since 1990, when Beijing bid to host the 2000 Olympics, which ultimately went to Sydney, Australia. When China was named host for the 2008 games, the demolition and redevelopment really kicked in. Today, only 800 of 6,000 hutong remain. More than a half-million people have been relocated to the suburbs.
Meyer decided he wanted to live in a place that may never be seen again and so moved to a hutong at Red Bayberry and Bamboo Slanted Street. In some ways, he wasn't far from Wayzata. The climate was similar and the hockey was just as fast and furious. But the signs on the rink's fence were peculiarly Chinese: "Overpopulation is our nation's most pressing problem."
A visit from the Hand
His two-room home, vast by his neighbors' standards, had no heat, and the public latrine was a well-clocked six-minute walk. Yet he also had broadband Internet, which let him listen to Twins games. From the window of the elementary school where he volunteered as an English teacher, he could see the new Wal-Mart.
From a historical perspective, Meyer said, most of the world's great cities have undergone such redevelopment. "I think Beijing will end up looking like Paris or London," he said, "with gentrification, but always a sliver of the old."
In other words, this is not Americanization. "They want to live not like Americans, but like other Chinese with conveniences," he said. So while the method of learning that your home will be razed leaves something to be desired -- a faceless government entity called the Hand posts the demolition notice in the middle of the night -- many residents want to live in the suburbs.
Not all, of course. There are tears and resistance, but the momentum is impossible to fight. The modern transportation system put in place for the Olympics helps on some level. "The Olympics were better for Beijing than worse," Meyer said, but air quality plummeted soon after cars returned to the streets.
So, is such development one more reason to heed those who believe that China could soon wield power on the world's economic stage? Meyer isn't convinced. "I always say China is rising, but it's rising from zero."
For now, he and his wife, whom he met in Beijing, are living in the United States. His apartment at Red Bayberry and Bamboo Slanted Street is slated for demolition next April.
Kim Ode • 612-673-7185
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