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

by Michael Meyer

View All Available Formats & Editions

The most original China book of 2008 is the most appealing China book in paperback in 2009--a fascinating, intimate portrait of Beijing through the lens of its ancient neighborhoodw, facing destruction as the city, and China, is relentlessly modernized.See more details below


The most original China book of 2008 is the most appealing China book in paperback in 2009--a fascinating, intimate portrait of Beijing through the lens of its ancient neighborhoodw, facing destruction as the city, and China, is relentlessly modernized.

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.
T: The New York Times Style Magazine Holly Brubach
An emissary from a nation that routinely junks its own past and starts anew, Meyer finds himself a champion of an unpopular cause.
Slate Magazine Rob Gifford
His book reads like a love letter to the hutongs and to Old Beijing itself, a snapshot snatched before the scene disappears forever.
Wall Street Journal Ian Johnson
A charming memoir and a compelling work of narrative nonfiction about the city itself.
Minneapolis Star Tribune Kim Ode
The a delightfully observed view of a vast part of Chinese society that barely was glimpsed during the recent Olympics, yet is fading away.
Utah Daily Herald
Heartfelt, understated, readable prose.
New York Times Travel Section. Richard B. Woodward
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.
Fresh Air Maureen Corrigan
[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.
Los Angeles Times Karl Taro Greenfeld
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.
The Economist
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.
New York Times Book Review Kate Sekules
All in all, his record of the dying ways of a city is an impressive feat.

Read More

Product Details

Bloomsbury USA
Publication date:
Sold by:
Barnes & Noble
Sales rank:
File size:
6 MB

Customer Reviews

Average Review:

Write a Review

and post it to your social network


Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See all customer reviews >