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


A fascinating, intimate portrait of Beijing through the lens of its oldest neighborhood, facing destruction as the city, and China, relentlessly modernizes.

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. Weaving historical vignettes of Beijing and China over a thousand years Michael Meyer captures the city’s deep past as he illuminates its present, and especially ...

See more details below
Paperback (Reprint)
$13.39 price
(Save 25%)$18.00 List Price

Pick Up In Store

Reserve and pick up in 60 minutes at your local store

Other sellers (Paperback)
  • All (18) from $2.99   
  • New (10) from $9.93   
  • Used (8) from $2.99   
The Last Days of Old Beijing: Life in the Vanishing Backstreets of a City Transformed

Available on NOOK devices and apps  
  • NOOK Devices
  • NOOK HD/HD+ Tablet
  • NOOK
  • NOOK Color
  • NOOK Tablet
  • Tablet/Phone
  • NOOK for Windows 8 Tablet
  • NOOK for iOS
  • NOOK for Android
  • NOOK Kids for iPad
  • PC/Mac
  • NOOK for Windows 8
  • NOOK for PC
  • NOOK for Mac
  • NOOK Study
  • NOOK for Web

Want a NOOK? Explore Now

NOOK Book (eBook)
$10.49 price
(Save 12%)$11.99 List Price
Sending request ...


A fascinating, intimate portrait of Beijing through the lens of its oldest neighborhood, facing destruction as the city, and China, relentlessly modernizes.

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. Weaving historical vignettes of Beijing and China over a thousand years Michael Meyer captures the city’s deep past as he illuminates its present, and especially the destruction of its ancient neighborhoods and the eradication of a way of life that has epitomized China’s capital. With an insider’s insight, The Last Days of Old Beijing is an invaluable witness to history, bringing into shining focus the ebb and flow of life in old Beijing at this pivotal moment.

Read More Show Less

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)

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
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.
Read More Show Less

Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780802717504
  • Publisher: Walker & Company
  • Publication date: 5/26/2009
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 384
  • Sales rank: 695,953
  • Product dimensions: 5.48 (w) x 8.28 (h) x 1.03 (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.

Read More Show Less

Table of Contents


Ch. 1 Through the Front Gate 1

Ch. 2 Becoming Teacher Plumblossom 9

Ch. 3 Mocky & Me 20

Ch. 4 "Say Farewell to Dangerous Housing" 35

Ch. 5 Wintertime 60

Ch. 6 A Brief History of [actual symbol not reproducible] Part One: Traces of Pre-Beijing 76

Ch. 7 The Evening News 82

Ch. 8 High Times in Happiness City 88

Ch. 9 Preserving a Sense of Place 108

Ch. 10 Springtime 131

Ch. 11 A Brief History of [actual symbol not reproducible] Part Two: The Rise and Fall of Imperial Beijing 143

Ch. 12 The Unslumming Slum 158

Ch. 13 Saving the Old Street 174

Ch. 14 A Summer of Recycling 188

Ch. 15 Past Tense vs. Future Tense 203

Ch. 16 A Brief History of [actual symbol not reproducible] Part Three: The Modernization of Republican Beijing 214

Ch. 17 Miss Zhu Remembers the Trees 231

Ch. 18 "If Someone Is Sick and You Do Not Aid Him, It Is Your Fault, Not His" 247

Ch. 19 The Widow's Story 261

Ch. 20 A Brief History of [actual symbol not reproducible] Part Four: The Industrialization of Maoist Beijing 275

Ch. 21 Echo Wall 294

Acknowledgments 311

Appendix Gazetteer 315

Notes 319

Bibliography 331

Read More Show Less

Customer Reviews

Be the first to write a review
( 0 )
Rating Distribution

5 Star


4 Star


3 Star


2 Star


1 Star


Your Rating:

Your Name: Create a Pen Name or

Barnes & Review Rules

Our reader reviews allow you to share your comments on titles you liked, or didn't, with others. By submitting an online review, you are representing to Barnes & that all information contained in your review is original and accurate in all respects, and that the submission of such content by you and the posting of such content by Barnes & does not and will not violate the rights of any third party. Please follow the rules below to help ensure that your review can be posted.

Reviews by Our Customers Under the Age of 13

We highly value and respect everyone's opinion concerning the titles we offer. However, we cannot allow persons under the age of 13 to have accounts at or to post customer reviews. Please see our Terms of Use for more details.

What to exclude from your review:

Please do not write about reviews, commentary, or information posted on the product page. If you see any errors in the information on the product page, please send us an email.

Reviews should not contain any of the following:

  • - HTML tags, profanity, obscenities, vulgarities, or comments that defame anyone
  • - Time-sensitive information such as tour dates, signings, lectures, etc.
  • - Single-word reviews. Other people will read your review to discover why you liked or didn't like the title. Be descriptive.
  • - Comments focusing on the author or that may ruin the ending for others
  • - Phone numbers, addresses, URLs
  • - Pricing and availability information or alternative ordering information
  • - Advertisements or commercial solicitation


  • - By submitting a review, you grant to Barnes & and its sublicensees the royalty-free, perpetual, irrevocable right and license to use the review in accordance with the Barnes & Terms of Use.
  • - Barnes & reserves the right not to post any review -- particularly those that do not follow the terms and conditions of these Rules. Barnes & also reserves the right to remove any review at any time without notice.
  • - See Terms of Use for other conditions and disclaimers.
Search for Products You'd Like to Recommend

Recommend other products that relate to your review. Just search for them below and share!

Create a Pen Name

Your Pen Name is your unique identity on It will appear on the reviews you write and other website activities. Your Pen Name cannot be edited, changed or deleted once submitted.

Your Pen Name can be any combination of alphanumeric characters (plus - and _), and must be at least two characters long.

Continue Anonymously
Sort by: Showing 1 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted July 27, 2008

    This is a wonderful book!

    The Last Days of Old Beijing is like a New Yorker article that goes on forever, and I mean that in a good way. Michael Meyer¿s writing is engaging and personal. He skillfully interweaves characters, various settings, interviews, and lots of thorough research. The book is tailor-made for those readers with an interest in city planning, the social aspects of design, or historic preservation, although anyone who has ever lived in a neighborhood will enjoy it, too. I highly recommend it.

    11 out of 11 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
Sort by: Showing 1 Customer Reviews

If you find inappropriate content, please report it to Barnes & Noble
Why is this product inappropriate?
Comments (optional)