Making Room For The New China

Ooops, was that your house? Well scoots over, China has to change somewhere

My favorite little alley, now an express bike lane!
Zipping by the debris
Recycled bricks do well to fix a sewer line
Working hard mixing cement
If only they could've built the highway before I arrived!
Building the future of Beijing
Today, after driving downtown with
Jingmei to her work, I set off on one of my all-day random bike rides
through Beijing. Taking a different route each day, I’m exploring this
city in the way I enjoy best, serendipitously.

This day, I headed towards Wangfujiang,
the main shopping street of Beijing. Just past Wangfujiang, there is a
little alley that I remembered enjoying when I was here in October
of last year. I almost passed it the first time I rode by, for it was
obscured by construction barricades. Surprised, I weaved past ’em, and
onto what used to be a small, shaded alley with countless little stores
along its sides.

That little alley is no more.
Now, with the shops bulldozed down, and the makings of a three lane road
marked out in the debris, I saw the future of China in orange cones. All
the little streets and shops of Beijing are disappearing in this same
cloud of progress, as the government, in a bid to restart the economy as
much as modernize the country, is radically reshaping the capital to
accommodate its dream of higher car ownership and the realities of 12
million+ (and growing) cyclists.

At first, I was shocked by the
destruction, wondering what level of discord the people must be living
through. That is until I looked closely at the remaining shop foundations.
Built out of recycled bricks, on the old sidewalks in front of the ancient
hutong homes, the shops were never meant to be permanent. They, like the
rest of this timeless land, were accepted as temporary and therefore
disposable when the time came.

I was thinking of those
foundations a little later in the afternoon, as I stood on one of the city
wall gates built in the 14th Century, and surrounded not by the
ancient city walls, but modern apartment buildings and even a McDonalds.
There is so much history in China, that the people accepted long ago, that
if they were to grow and change, they needed to recycle as well as restore
their past.

And recycle they do. I remember
watching a crew demolish a row of houses when I spent a week in Shanghai
last November. The crew would use a sledgehammer to gently knock down the
walls, then with more care and patience than I’d show, they cleaned and
stacked each brick. After they’d made a few stacks of cleaned bricks, a
truck would come and pick up the bricks, taking them to a highway
construction site a few kilometers away.

The highway was like many in
Shanghai and Beijing, built to handle the growing car ownership and
resulting massive traffic jams as the days of bicycles and buses pass for
a growing number of affluent Chinese. Unfortunately, the roads are not
being built fast enough, or with the best traffic planning in mind and
chaos still rules.

The continued chaos is annoying,
especially when it is close to home with a six-lane highway, a stretch of
Beijing’s fourth ring road, under construction near our apartment.
Luckily, we are too far away to hear the noise or breath the dust, but we
do have to fight the traffic each time we head into the city proper. It’s
a pain in the ass now, even though one day when its done, I’m sure it will
be beautiful and efficient.