August 6th, 2008 | Uncategorized

A Touch of Class

By Austin Shiner

BEIJING, China, 3:47 p.m. — Charm. I’ve been missing it since I arrived in Beijing. This city has much to offer: first-class hotels, wondrous food, and cultural relics galore. Yet it’s no Paris, no Chicago or San Fran for that matter. It is, in nearly all respects, an industrial wonder, a labyrinth of concrete filled with cars and bicycles. But last night I saw a new Beijing: Houhai.

A large square filled with hundreds of swing dancing middle-aged locals abutted a sizeable lake. Paddleboats and 10-person motorized party yachts (I exaggerate – the party skiffs are about 15 feet long) sail this welcome respite from Beijing’s intensity. Surrounding the lake are hundreds of shops and bars featuring traditional architecture, a unique sight as Beijing’s classic hutong alleyways are razed for development. A frozen yogurt joint providing sweaty beasts (me) welcome cooling sat halfway around the water. Unlike most American frozen yogurt (TCBY), this frosty treat is actually yogurt, simply frozen and served with chopped fruit. The flavor startled me – I anticipated ice cream, but what I got was unique and just as refreshing.

Five other Americans accompanied Sam and me, one a high school kid and the others rising college freshmen. We had a lovely time strolling the lake’s edge and window-shopping. We even rented a 10-person party yacht and braved the glass-smooth seas – my stint as captain was remarkable for our collision with a six-person dingy. I swear they hit us (no, really, they did, they were humorously aggressive about it, perhaps foretelling the Chinese Olympic attitude).

Our college-aged female companions attracted a lot of attention from the locals. Two of them are blondes, and one is 6 foot 5 inches, no joke. Men stare for minutes on end — it’s funniest when curious Beijingers covertly nudge their cameras away from the nearby historical monument and towards the American girls. It’s highly awkward for them, but at least it’s attention: Sam and I get none. At all. I’ll get over it.

The taxi back to Hepingdongqiao (where Sam and I live) caught my attention. As we swerved in and out of traffic (as all Beijing drivers do without wearing seat belts) I thought that maybe I’d been too hard on Beijing’s aesthetics — it does sprawl and lacks presence, yet the flower arrangements and immaculately pruned hedges, an Olympic special, are lovely. It’s really the smog that ruins the scene – and plenty of cities, Tokyo and Pittsburgh come to mind, have successfully abandoned their polluted pasts and, if not the epitomes of bucolic splendor, are now clean and content.

Houhai was a new look at a city I’m starting to appreciate. So much of Beijing’s history has vanished: the New York Times writes lovingly about the ancient hutong alleyways and their disappearance from the city. Houhai recaptures that history, I admit in a touristy way, and brings Beijing to life. Yet Houhai is the exception to Beijing’s modern rule.  China’s moving into the 21st century, but the sacrifices it’s making along the way are apparent.