The Last Days of Old Beijing

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 2)

In The Last Days of Old Beijing, Michael Meyer, or Teacher Plumblossom, as he came to be known by his fourth-grade students, recounts how he went to China as a Peace Corps volunteer in 1995, fresh out of the University of Wisconsin. His assignment was in Neijiang in southwestern Sichuan Province, a backwater town known for its sugar cane and heroin trade. For two years he commuted with pigs and vegetables across the Tuo River to train English teachers at the local technical institute. He taught “lively and intelligent” students eight hours a week and learned Chinese. His term as a U.S.-China Friendship Volunteer ended in 1997, and he moved to Beijing to teach English at Coal Lane Elementary.

Meyer describes Beijing’s facelift for the Olympics with a rueful realization that “no one should have to live in poverty, no matter how picturesque.” Sixty Starbucks, a couple hundred McDonald’s, a matching number of Kentucky Fried Chickens, and dozens of Pizza Huts accommodate the hungry citizens, who have been accustomed to such local dishes as Feng’s boiled tripe and Chen’s stewed intestines at Langfang Second Lane. Other Beijing culinary favorites include “knife-shaved” noodles, broad strands of pasta boiled in pork broth, and vermicelli with shredded pork and peppers known more colloquiallyand mysteriouslyas “ants climbing trees.”

As more and more cars pour onto the streets every day, the site of his school amid luxury homes and strip malls convinces Meyer to move to the Dazhalan community in central Beijing in 2005, where he is ideally positioned to witness the intense preparations for the Summer Olympics of 2008. He lives in a two-room apartment in a hutong, one of the many ancient lanes crisscrossing Beijing’s center, an area of prime real estate for developers. Dazhalan’s 114 hutong are home to fifty-seven thousand residents in its half-square-mile area; the shortest hutong is ten yards long, the narrowest is fifteen inches. Red Bayberry and Bamboo Slanted Street, where Meyer lives, runs eight hundred yards through the neighborhood. Life in Dazhalan is colorful. On his way to the men’s latrine, Meyer passes a vegetable stand, a hairdresser, and a gathering of mah-jongg players. The latrine presents four slits in the floor and the admonition No Spitting, No Smoking, No Coarse Language, No Missing the Hole.

The campaign to “Say Farewell to Dangerous Housing” means the end for the crowded hutong as more and more neighborhoods are razed. Everyone dreads the Hand, the symbol pronounced chai that means “raze.” When it appears on a dwelling, the residents have to move. Meyer tells the story of Mr. Yang and his family, who bo ght their courtyard in 1945, but after the Liberation (Mr. Yang’s word) in 1949 they subdivided the rooms and sold them for fear of being labeled capitalists. Then during the Cultural Revolution, the rooms were divided again and given to workers, leaving Mr. Yang’s parents one small room. The end comes when the Hand paints chai on the wall one night. The authorities offer about one thousand dollars per square meter for an apartment, much of which is stolen by a conspiracy between the evaluator and the omnipresent developers. Mr. Yang cries when he describes the razing of his home to make way for rubble-bordered office towers christened Investment Plaza and Corporate Square. A Ritz-Carlton hotel was in the hutong’s future.

Another family victimized by the Hand was the Hans, owners of a small shop on Langfang First Lane. Mrs. Han tended the shop while Mr. Han repaired cell phones at the back of the store. They worked twelve hours a day and lived in one small room in Meyer’s courtyard. The Hans had left their six-year-old son with his grandparents and migrated from China’s northeast a year earlier and had used their life savings to buy a new store on a busy location and were saving money when the Hand left its mark in spring of 2006.

Meyer gives a colorful account of the Evening News, his favorite tabloid among Beijing’s eight daily newspapers. For five mao (seven cents) he gets at least fifty pages, much smaller than the record 208-page issue that the publisher discontinued when the vendors learned it was worth more for scrap. The Evening News enjoyed a circulation of 1.2 million and was “fattened” by supplements advertising “health powders” and other miracle products touted as guaranteeing a woman’s sexual success. The paper’s contents remind Meyer of the weekly community paper he grew up reading in Minnesota, with announcements plastered on the front page and the inside stuffed with stories of crimes and other misdeeds. The police section in the Evening News always...

(The entire section is 1960 words.)

The Last Days of Old Beijing Bibliography

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 2)

Booklist 104, nos. 19/20 (June 1, 2008): 26.

The Economist 388 (August 2, 2008): 85.

Kirkus Reviews 76, no. 11 (June 1, 2008): 93.

Library Journal 133, no. 7 (April 15, 2008): 96.

New Statesman 137 (August 18, 2008): 50-51.

Newsweek 151, no. 24 (June 16, 2008): 63.

Publishers Weekly 255, no. 14 (April 7, 2008): 5.

The Wall Street Journal 251, no. 150 (June 27, 2008): W10.