Trips ans Tales: Part 135
If you think you are getting lost, you are probably close #6
We left SD last time with her photographs: aides for the memory and critical bookmarks from her time spent in Beijing. Although not wishing to witness this new environment from behind the lens-glass, the camera is a constant, though measured companion…A companion that is especially useful for capturing unscheduled or opportune moments down sidetracked-streets where the spontaneity of Beijing life rolls out before her, paying SD no heed.
We talk again about a seemingly fundamental misunderstanding on the part of the powers that be to appreciate just what makes Beijing – and other destinations – appealing to tourists from around the world. It’s a phenomena that bears revisiting as if re-examination will somehow make sense of it, but no, not this time. As outsiders, we still don’t get it. The authorities appear to be demolishing gold mines in order to build shopping centres. It’s the ‘old stuff’ of course that visitors want to experience, now progressively torn down in favour of halls of modern touristy tat that could easily send travellers such as SD running in the opposite direction.
Shrewd residents of Hutongs under the threat of demolition have worked out that the way to survive, at least for now, is to compromise. Keep the original structures functional and in order, update and repair where necessary and then ‘modernise’ in a traditional style that preserves as much of the location’s authenticity as possible. Perhaps even throw in a touristy concession or two, just to tick the box: a modern gift shop disguised by its ancient edifice. Modernity’s tasteless wolf in authenticity’s clothing. But as we’ve mentioned before, these traditional neighbourhoods are still there and holding on to their integrity in some ways.
The other form of preservation, SD relates, comes across as strangely sad: that of framing history behind glass, forcing her to look in on it from a distance rather than being part of the experience herself. So, picture darkened rooms where no tourist foot shall tread, and through the silent, windowed gloom: ornaments and furniture of such wonder that they visibly mourn the lives that they once had. Even if, like an ‘ancient’ shovel, the handle and blade have been replaced ten times, each SD still values the authenticity that such an object retains through its use and context. The same with the buildings and neighbourhoods that surround her. For some commentators, the local adaptations being made to outside institutions (such as Beijing’s fast food chains) is also of much interest.
Back out in the evening streets, she rattles down the bustling thorough-fares of bright lived-in Beijing, benefiting from some fortunate misdirection to wind up amongst the sizzling food bars and sellers of porcelain and scarves, fans and trinkets. Even the bustle has its own kind of appeal. There is so much functionality crammed into such small spaces, for example: shops that are just kiosks where you may point out your desired purchase and the assistant performs the necessary exchange. “It’s touristy,” she admits “but it’s fun and lively”. Perhaps in small doses. And there again: those ornate, grand traditional buildings whose existence is somehow justified by the modern trinkets and trappings on sale within. Their plasticised hearts keeping them relevant and alive.
She has time to catch the bizarre normalities that seem to make sense to everyone else in on the cultural reference: the shiny black-faced, black costumed guy on duty outside Starbucks or the trolley-pusher with cages of whirring bugs for sale. Folk would buy them for luck, apparently. Shame that the bugs weren’t lucky enough to avoid capture in the first place I have to conclude.
“They were everywhere,” SD tells me, sounding like miniature machines powering up. Never seen unless caught and caged, but frequently within earshot and seemingly close by. Just like the modernist threat waiting – given half a chance – to tear these old streets down.
Next time: Trips and Tales (Part 136) Arrival Beijing #25