The Last Days of Old Beijing: Life in the Vanishing Backstreets of a City Transformed

The Last Days of Old Beijing: Life in the Vanishing Backstreets of a City Transformed

5.0 1
by Michael Meyer
     
 

Soon we will be able to say about old Beijing that what emperors, warlords, Japanese invaders, and Communist planners couldn't eradicate, the market economy has. Nobody has been more aware of this than Michael Meyer. For several years, he lived as no other westerner-in a shared courtyard home in Beijing's oldest neighborhood, Dazhalan, on one of its famed hutong

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Overview

Soon we will be able to say about old Beijing that what emperors, warlords, Japanese invaders, and Communist planners couldn't eradicate, the market economy has. Nobody has been more aware of this than Michael Meyer. For several years, he lived as no other westerner-in a shared courtyard home in Beijing's oldest neighborhood, Dazhalan, on one of its famed hutong (lanes). There he volunteered to teach English at the local grade school and immersed himself in the community, recording with affection the life stories of the varied people who make up the fabric of this unique neighborhood, whose way of life is being destroyed to make way for shopping malls and high-rise buildings. With the kind of insight only a local can provide, The Last Days of Old Beijing is an invaluable witness to history, and brings the ebb and flow of daily lives on the other side of the planet into shining focus.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly

Just in time for the Summer Olympics in Beijing, the Old City's narrow lanes and shops are being bulldozed and their residents displaced to make way for Wal-Marts, shopping centers and high-rise apartments. Part memoir, part history, part travelogue and part call to action, journalist Meyer's elegant first book yearns for old Beijing and mourns the loss of an older way of life. Having lived for two years in one of Beijing's oldest hutongs-mazes of lanes and courtyards bordered by single-story houses-Meyer chronicles the threat urban planning poses not only to the ancient history buried within these neighborhoods but also to the people of the hutong. The hutong, he says, builds community in a way that glistening glass and steel buildings cannot. His 81-year-old neighbor, whom he calls the "Widow," had always been safe because neighbors watched out for her, as she watched out for others: the book opens with a delightful scene in which the Widow, a salty character who calls Meyer "Little Plumblossom," brings him unsolicited dumplings for his breakfast. The ironies of the reconstruction of Beijing are clear in the building of Safe and Sound Boulevard, which, Meyer tells us, is "neither safe nor sound."Meyer's powerful book is to Beijing what Jane Jacobs's The Death and Life of Great American Cities was to New York City. 25 b&w photos. (June)

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Library Journal

Meyer lived in a Beijing hutong(narrow lane) for two years while he worked as a teacher, having gone to China as a Peace Corps volunteer. Eventually, he was given the nickname Teacher Plumblossom. Meyer was often asked by his neighbors if he knew when their neighborhood would undergo the same razing occurring everywhere in preparation for the Olympics. To show us what this threatened neighborhood is like, Meyer takes us into his life, masterfully describing the seasons, his home and courtyard, and his students and their parents. We meet his landlady, for instance, who runs her house with an iron grip while bringing him nourishing soup. He also adds a wonderful sprinkling of humor, pointing out the sign that greets him on the way to a latrine: "No Spitting No Smoking No Coarse Language No Missing the Hole." Ultimately, the neighborhood wasn't destroyed. Now tourists are brought there to see the real Beijing, and, reports Meyer, they rank the visit as a highlight over the Forbidden City and the Great Wall. All library collections that aim for a complete overview of China must add this unusual title.-Susan G. Baird, Chicago


—Susan G. Baird
Kirkus Reviews
An American lives side by side with the fear-stricken denizens of an ancient neighborhood that will not survive China's Olympic Games. The Old and Dilapidated Housing Renewal program, reports first-time author Meyer, has evicted 1.25 million residents from their homes in Beijing. This massive official initiative to "clean up" the city for the upcoming summer Olympics focuses on demolition and removal in Beijing's traditional hutong (lane) areas, neighborhoods of narrow paths that crisscross the heart of the city. The author, who first went to China as a Peace Corps volunteer in 1995, moved to a walled courtyard home in a hutong in 2005, when the pace of demolitions was accelerating. He makes palpable the impact of this initiative on Chinese families and the many older people who have never known another kind of home. Compensatory payment is offered when "the Hand" (Meyer's epithet for anonymous, creeping bureaucracy) stencils the Chinese character meaning "raze" on their walls, the author explains. But even those who go quietly and promptly, therefore locking in the highest settlement, find that it rarely covers their expenses in a sterile concrete high-rise that could be a two-hour commute away. And such is the pull of the hutong on its older inhabitants that many hold out and get nothing; some who are forced out simply disappear. Most Beijing residents neither abhor progress nor revile the government, Meyer stresses; it's just the total lack of transparency that depresses everybody. Few Americans would care for the hutong's basic amenities-public latrines, bathhouses, coal- or charcoal-burning heaters-and "dilapidated" is often an accurate description. But these venerable lanes shelterneighbors who truly know, trust and depend on each other, avers the author, who paints a picture of deep personal loss as the old alleys vanish. Revealing portrait of urban change, and the consequences of China's unquenchable thirst for modernization.
From the Publisher

“Meyer's powerful book is to Beijing what Jane Jacobs's The Death and Life of Great American Cities was to New York City.” —Publishers Weekly, Starred Review

“An emissary from a nation that routinely junks its own past and starts anew, Meyer finds himself a champion of an unpopular cause.” —Holly Brubach, T: The New York Times Style Magazine

“His book reads like a love letter to the hutongs and to Old Beijing itself, a snapshot snatched before the scene disappears forever.” —Rob Gifford, Slate Magazine

“A charming memoir and a compelling work of narrative nonfiction about the city itself.” —Ian Johnson, Wall Street Journal

“The book...is a delightfully observed view of a vast part of Chinese society that barely was glimpsed during the recent Olympics, yet is fading away.” —Kim Ode, Minneapolis Star Tribune

“Heartfelt, understated, readable prose.” —Utah Daily Herald

“But his history of land development in Beijing, from the time of the Italian Jesuit Matteo Ricci to Mao to the present, and of attempts in Hanoi, Havana and other Communist cities to preserve their own sense of place, are just as compelling (and sad) to read.” —Richard B. Woodward, New York Times Travel Section.

“[A] substantive, smart book...Meyer knows the ins and outs of hutong history because he's one of the few Westerners to have ever lived in one.” —Maureen Corrigan, Fresh Air

“In The Last Days of Old Beijing: Life in the Vanishing Backstreets of a City Transformed, longtime resident Michael Meyer eloquently portrays the madness of the city during this period.” —Karl Taro Greenfeld, Los Angeles Times

“Michael Meyer tells the story of Beijing's destruction from the perspective of one tiny hutong (narrow lane) neighbourhood to the south of Tiananmen Square where he taught in a school. A spiritedness shines through among his earthy neighbours, even in the face of what Mr. Meyer calls "the Hand", which, visiting always at night, paints the Chinese character for "destroy" on houses that are to be razed.” —The Economist

“All in all, his record of the dying ways of a city is an impressive feat.” —Kate Sekules, New York Times Book Review

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780802716521
Publisher:
Walker & Company
Publication date:
06/24/2008
Edition description:
First Edition
Pages:
1
Product dimensions:
9.20(w) x 6.32(h) x 1.19(d)

Meet the Author

Michael Meyer first went to China in 1995 with the Peace Corps. A longtime teacher and a Lowell Thomas Award winner for travel writing, Meyer has published stories in Time, Smithsonian, the New York Times Book Review, the Financial Times, Reader's Digest, the Los Angeles Times, and the Chicago Tribune. In China, he has represented the National Geographic Society's Center for Sustainable Destinations, training China's UNESCO World Heritage Site managers in preservation practices. The Last Days of Old Beijing is his first book.

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