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Sunday, Dec. 9, 2007

The buildup to Beijing

Architectural wonders take shape, etiquette gets a makeover and millions of domestic tourists ready for the Games to begin.

Staff writer

During the 40-minute drive from Beijing Capital International Airport to the city center, my Chinese tour guide, Ma, had plenty of time to relate his views on Beijing's rapid development.

News photo
News photo
News photo
The new National Stadium, site of the major athletic events at next year's Beijing Olympics; the Great Wall at Badaling; Chinese tourists in front of the Tiananmen Gate at Tiananmen Square. EDAN CORKILL PHOTOS

"With the Olympics next year, and then the World Expo in Shanghai in 2010, Beijing will be good for a few years, but after that it will end up just like Tokyo," he said.

Now, generally, I'm a satisfied long-term Tokyo resident, so I needed to double-check that his dismissive tone did mean that he thought this was a fate worse than death.

"Beijing will lose its character — it will become just futuristic skyscrapers," came his answer.

Slightly controversial, I thought, but perhaps there's a hint of truth there.

After all, many have equated Tokyo's rapid postwar development with a loss of character. But, more to the point, my new friend had given me just the gauge I needed to get a grip on Beijing's much-hyped development in the leadup to the Games next August. And thus I ask, somewhat clumsily, is it conceivable that the Northern Capital (Beijing, literally translated) could become the new Eastern Capital (Tokyo)?

A city's development is often measured by its number of construction sites, and to my eyes Beijing's are now as prevalent as late-1980s Tokyo's. Much of the activity is centered on the Olympic district, a huge 12-sq.-km rectangular swath of land in the city's north, which even pre-Olympics visitors are advised to at least drive by, if only to glimpse the extraordinary buildings popping up there like mushrooms.

Rising out of a dusty, lunar-like landscape — more like a fortified space station than a bird's nest (to which it is often compared) — is the new National Stadium, whose external shell was nearing completion in early November. The arena is the handiwork of experimental Swiss architectural firm Herzog and de Meuron, and the official Olympic site tour guide was keen to emphasize that there was also a Chinese collaborator, the China Architecture Design & Research Group.

Standing nearby, in a location that will become the opposite side of a large central boulevard running down the middle of the Olympic district, the National Aquatics Center was also nearing completion. Its amazing soap-bubbles-in-a-glass-box design is by Australian firm Peddle Thorp and Walker and another Chinese collaborator, China Construction Design International.

All very good, but Tokyo has been there and done that, right? Well, in terms of architectural extravaganza, the Beijing Olympic district rather outstrips Tokyo's effort of 1964. Except in one respect: Tokyo's buildings were by Japanese architects, only. And, while receptiveness to outsiders is hardly a fault, the Chinese might have noted that the National Gymnasium at Yoyogi, by Kenzo Tange, continues to act as a showcase of this country's best modern architecture.

Another of Beijing's architectural must-drive-bys is the still under-construction China Central Television (CCTV) headquarters, by another foreigner, Dutchman Rem Koolhaas. The center's twin towers, which until two months ago were gracefully leaning toward each other, are now reaching out in a gravity-defying architectural handshake some 200 meters above the ground. In terms of architectural ostentation, it makes the suspended globe at Odaiba's Fuji Television building look, well, safe.

With all this driving-by to do, you'll be glad to hear that Beijing's taxis come cheap — around 20 yuan (¥300) for the 10-km trip from the Forbidden City in central Beijing to the Olympic site. As with Tokyo's taxis, though, you'll need to speak Mandarin or at least have an address written in the script. And while you're at it, if you're averse to spitting, you might want to learn the Mandarin for "Hey, buddy, that's prohibited these days," because many of Beijing's taxi drivers still spit out the window, despite the current ban on the practice.

Once you've been in Beijing for a few days, though, you'll be more forgiving. While the air pollution has apparently improved — the skies were a glorious blue for the four days in early November that I was there — a day on the streets still leaves a dry, dusty presence at the back of your throat, kind of like you've swallowed one of those paper facemasks used in Tokyo.

Beijingers' public manners are on the mend on other fronts, too, not that the stereotype of the overly polite Japanese is serving as a model. In early November they were on to J-walking; one sunglass-wearing traffic warden near Tiananmen Square was red-carding jay-walkers with rapid-fire cries of "Oy, oy, oy!" when his charges tried edging into oncoming traffic.

At public urinals, meanwhile, distance-shooters were being told, via signs on the walls, that "one small step forward is a great step forward for mankind."

Xinhua News Agency also reported in October that tissue-bearing patrols are being deployed to discourage the public from spitting, and — again for taxi drivers — unhelpful attitudes, exemplified by common phrases such as "No means no, it doesn't need an explanation," have been banned.

Also on the hospitality front, I was told that pre-Olympic study of English is popular. The fact was born out the first time I stepped out of my hotel and found a middle-age woman on my arm telling me just that: "I want to speak English."

Of the major tourist attractions, the Forbidden City in November was receiving a new pre-Olympics coat of paint — nicely bringing out the details in its ornately decorated roofs and, in the process, putting to shame even Japan's more showy temples in Nikko.

The vast expanses of Tiananmen Square were unlike anything in Tokyo, except maybe the Imperial Palace surrounds. Still, the police presence at Japan's most heavily guarded site was not as heavy as that of the soldiers at the square, even though the fresh-faced boys in green appeared to be unarmed.

The Great Wall at Badaling, two hours by bus from Beijing, was thrilling for the views it afforded of both itself and the surprisingly well-forested hills surrounding it. Almost as thrilling was the number of domestic tourists it attracted. At the bus parking area nearby, I counted 73 coaches. It is sobering to note that the official government projections for visitors to Beijing during 2008 have foreign visitors at 5 million and domestic visitors at, wait for it, 120 million.

Not that the hordes of domestic tourists are likely to compete with the international crowd for the capital's more cosmopolitan delights, which now include youth hostels catering to Western tastes (try the Peking International Youth Hostel, just east of the Forbidden City), design-conscious boutique hotels (such as Hotel Kapok, also just east of the Forbidden City), and a slew of new art galleries conveniently grouped in the northeastern districts of Caochangdi and 798 (home of the new private Ullens Center for Contemporary Art).

After four busy Beijing days I headed back to the airport and reported to Ma that I thought his prediction was a bit off the mark. After all, while foreign architects were providing Beijing with an enviable sprinkle of visual panache, hadn't Tokyo's very preference for locals assured that its unique character survived its modernization? And as for manners and hospitality, well, allow me to just politely clear my throat.

But wait!

When I got to the Beijing immigration desk, I was greeted by a neat, automated "satisfaction monitor" where I could register my approval of the polite officer who stamped my passport. And to think, when I got back to Tokyo, I'd be fingerprinted!

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