Beijing Welcomes You: Unveiling the Capital City of the Future


A definitive, and highly entertaining, account of contemporary Beijing, the undisputed capital of the twenty-first century.

Within the past decade, Beijing has debuted as the defining city of the now and foreseeable future, and China as the ascendant global power. Beijing is the ultimate representation of China's political and cultural capital, of its might-and threat. For so long, the city was closed off to the world, literally built around the Forbidden City, the icon of all ...

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Beijing Welcomes You: Unveiling the Capital City of the Future

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A definitive, and highly entertaining, account of contemporary Beijing, the undisputed capital of the twenty-first century.

Within the past decade, Beijing has debuted as the defining city of the now and foreseeable future, and China as the ascendant global power. Beijing is the ultimate representation of China's political and cultural capital, of its might-and threat. For so long, the city was closed off to the world, literally built around the Forbidden City, the icon of all that was ominous about China. But now, the country is eager to show off its new openness, its glory and magnanimity, and Beijing is its star. When Tom Scocca arrived in 2004-an American eager to see another culture-Beijing was looking toward welcoming the world to its Olympics four years later, and preparations were in full swing to create a renewed city.

Scocca talked to the scientists tasked with changing the weather; interviewed designers and architects churning out projects; checked out the campaign to stop public spitting; documented the planting of trees, the rerouting of traffic, the demolition of the old city, and the construction of the new metropolis. Beijing Welcomes You is a glimpse into the future and an encounter with an urban place we do not yet fully comprehend, and the superpower it is essential we get to know better.

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Editorial Reviews

Jonathan Yardley
…Scocca had a good time in Beijing and has written a very good book about it. He writes in a lively, mildly sassy style and has a keen eye for the oddities with which Beijing is abundantly endowed.
—The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly
Scocca, "Off the Record" columnist for the New York Observer, offers a timely chronicle of China's transformation through an eyewitness account of how Beijing refurbished itself for the 2008 Olympics. From 2004 to 2010, Scocca records how the measures China took to present its best face to the world, restricting public spitting, banning the sale of knives in light of a stabbing, and winning 51 gold medals in the games themselves. He excels at straddling the line between the personal and sociopolitical: he marks the birth of his son and celebrating Christmas in the capital as larger changes in consumption and national identity sweep China. These personal touches are welcome reprieves in a text often inundated with sociological detail. The dizzying descriptions of the ringed layout of Beijing or the denizens of his apartment's alleyway are often difficult to keep track of, especially when laced together with the country's athletic preparation, architectural feats, and even attempts at controlling the weather. But in destabilizing the reader, the welter of sensory data and anecdote allows sharing in the author's bewilderment as Beijing constantly reimagines and reshapes itself. (Aug.)
Gene Weingarten
Blindingly brilliant insights about China, the United States and the audacity of empire. Scocca writes with grace, texture, nuance, wisdom and wit. Don't skim this book, savor it. --(Gene Weingarten)
Library Journal
Scocca ( lived and worked in Beijing leading up to the 2008 Olympics. He observed the mammoth preparations undertaken to welcome the world and display China's ascendancy. In this book, he covers the astonishing array of planning for change, such as training the Chinese on the art of queuing. In an antispitting campaign, 10,000 bags for spitting were distributed (the Chinese were used to having spittoons). Cabbies were instructed to bathe, brush their teeth, and stop eating in the cab. Then came the earthquake of May 12, 2008, in which many thousands were killed. The government and the Olympics committee nearly ignored the tragedy. The Chinese press, however, for once did not follow the usual censorship. Thus reality infringed on the best-laid Olympic plans while the nation mourned. Particularly poignant here are Scocca's post-Olympic observations: memorabilia going cheap, ignored, or trod upon, much like the hutongs, rickshaws, and gardens destroyed to make way for infrastructure for the big event. The epilog reveals that Ai Weiwei, one of the designers of the Beijing National Stadium (the "Bird's Nest"), was imprisoned this spring, allegedly for tax evasion but likely for speaking out about the rights of earthquake victims. Meanwhile the three Beijings—the moneyed, the wretched, and the bustling—carry on as usual. VERDICT A brilliant cultural study written in a surprisingly poetic style, this is highly recommended to all interested readers. [Ai was released from prison on June 22 but cannot at this point leave Beijing.—Ed.; see Prepub Alert, 1/31/11.]—Susan G. Baird, formerly with Oak Lawn P.L., Chicago
Kirkus Reviews

A curiously backward-moving but fun book chronicling the buildup to the Beijing Olympics.

A columnist at the time for the New York Observer, Slate blogger Scocca and his Chinese American wife moved to Beijing in 2004 (she worked in nonprofit, he commuted back and forth from New York). For the next four years, by the magic date of 8/8/08, they witnessed the extraordinary transformation of the city into a marvel for the world. A once closed-off, cluttered capital city plagued by the rambling hutongs (the old city's lanes and alleys...right-angled jogs and branchings, blind turns and dead ends, parallel lines suddenly swinging perpendicularly away from each other"), traffic jams and smog, Beijing was gradually rearranged, gutted and renovated by enormous, all-devouring construction projects. The single-characterchai("tear down") was painted everywhere. The Stalinist architecture and goofy traditionalist designs were scuttled in favor of the innovative and sculptural: "hatboxes, flashlights, sardine cans standing on end, a giant topiary garden in steel and glass." China would spend $40 billion to prepare for the Games, aiming for a top gold-medal count (only 20 years before, China had won its first gold medal in Los Angeles), hiding its hordes of rustic migrant workers and selecting the Olympic motto "One world, one dream" (Scocca's alternate translation: "Same world, same dream"). Life in Beijing for the foreigners was not always easy or comfortable (such as the manifestation of the security state via Internet censorship), but endlessly fascinating and unintentionally hilarious: the lively, ever-changing taxi fleet, the everyday objects that fell apart effortlessly, the contradictions in the Chinese character, the government's efforts to improve their citizens' manners by prohibiting public spitting and rehearsing orderly lining-up prescribed "line-up day." The last part of Scocca's amusing account marks the suspenseful countdown to the big day, a triumph for China, followed by an extensive assessment that China had indeed "joined the world."

A witty, light-handed chronicle, though after three years, the Beijing Olympics has already lost its luster.

The Barnes & Noble Review

At the start of the last century, a generation of American artists went off to Paris to find a new life; now we're much more likely to cross the Pacific than the Atlantic. Hong Kong has its bankers and Shanghai its ad execs, but for architects, designers, and writers, the magnet these days is Beijing: teeming, glorious, and totally bewildering. It's probably only a matter of time before someone writes my generation's Tender Is the Night, set not on the Riviera but in the heart of the People's Republic, a megacity of 20 million that isn't even the nation's biggest metropolis (Chongqing is, at 32 million and counting). Until then, we have to content ourselves with Beijing memoirs and reportage, a mushrooming category to which Tom Scocca's book is a wry, knowing addition.

Beijing Welcomes You is a street-level introduction to a city that's at once the world's center and its back office, a place where you can feel "on the top of the pile and on the bottom, all at once." Its title comes from the theme song of the 2008 Olympics—a seven-minute, hundred-artist epic that makes Shakira's "Waka Waka" sound like amateur hour—although as Scocca writes, Beijing's welcome is fundamentally an ambivalent one. It's not just the officious government authorities and nervy propaganda officials who might make you question Beijing's congeniality. There are also the monstrous traffic jams, the punishing summer heat, and such awful, endemic pollution that breathing the viscid gray air feels "like being kicked in the bridge of the nose." Welcome to the future!

The Olympics were certainly a hinge moment, the city's and the nation's coming-out party, and the Games form the core of this book. If anything, the Games receive too much emphasis: at times, Scocca can sound like the narrator of those Bud Greenspan Stories of Olympic Glory documentaries ("Valerie Vili, a New Zealand shotputter, went nearly 20 meters with her first toss"). He's far more engaging when he shows us Beijing's breakneck urban redevelopment, especially in the alley outside his apartment where sellers of live poultry give way to a Pizza Hut, and then the Pizza Hut is demolished in turn. "Getting to know Beijing, " he writes, "was like doing archaeology with someone shoveling dirt and rubbish down into the pit on top of you."

While in Beijing he and his wife have a son, Mack Zhongsheng (the Mandarin part of his name means "born in China"), who grows up singing Cultural Revolution-era songs about the glories of Mao and running through their apartment in imitation of Liu Xiang, the megastar Olympian hurdler. The birth of Scocca's son has an intriguing effect: it both scales down the scope of the narrative, with illuminating takes on Chinese parenting (thumb sucking is unacceptable), and at the same time increases its stakes. It's easy to discuss Beijing's filthy air with a certain political detachment, but when Mack comes down with a wheezing cough and then asthma, the consequences of China's rise become rather more immediate.

Beijing Welcomes You carries a subtitle: Unveiling the Capital City of the Future. Yet ultimately the book is—valuably but also curiously—an archival reconstruction of a moment already lapsed. August 2008 now feels very long ago, before the collapse of Lehman Brothers and the crushing American recession that, far more than the Olympics, has cemented China's centrality to global power; before, too, the imprisonment or disappearance of writer Liu Xiaobo, artist Ai Weiwei, lawyer Gao Zhisheng, and other critics of an increasingly obdurate CCP.

Scocca left town after the Games, and in an epilogue he returns briefly to see new shopping malls lying amid the rubble of older ones, and luxury high-rises encircling not just the Olympic Green but also his own Chinese home. Beijing remains in the process of "devouring itself, " in the author's phrase. But that implies a corollary: in the capital city of the future, even the recent past is already ancient history.

Jason Farago is a writer and critic whose work has appeared in the Guardian, the London Review of Books, n+1, Dissent, Frieze, and other publications. Trained as an art historian, he has contributed to several exhibition catalogs on art since 1960. He recently returned to his hometown of New York following a long sojourn in London. Reviewer: Jason Farago

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781594485800
  • Publisher: Penguin Group (USA) Incorporated
  • Publication date: 7/3/2012
  • Pages: 432
  • Sales rank: 1,399,750
  • Product dimensions: 5.40 (w) x 8.20 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Tom Scocca

Tom Scocca was the "Off the Record" columnist and media editor for The New York Observer before decamping for Beijing. Before that, he was an editor and writer for Washington City Paper and Baltimore's City Paper. A Baltimore native, he is settling in New York with his wife and son (a Beijing native). He writes the "Scocca" blog for Slate, and his byline appears regularly in the Boston Globe and The Awl.
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