“Allons enfants de la patrie…” The woman squatting in the door-less toilet booth opposite gropes for her mobile phone. “Wei?,” she shouts and starts chatting away while trying to fix her clothes. Most of Beijing’s old lanes, the Hutong, boast a public toilet every 30 meters. Some still preserve the traditional communicative layout (pit toilets, no cabins). But the majority has been renovated in an effort to be ready for the visitors expected for the Olympic Games. By 2008, Beijing wants to be a modern city. For many local residents, it’s a major improvement: they have no toilet in their homes.
Visiting Beijing on a public bus
The public transport system is also being revamped for the Olympics. The city buses sport electronic displays that indicate the next stop or the weather forecast (so far only in Chinese). On the World Cup’s opening day, small video screens in the buses loop-played the highlights of the Germany-Costa Rica match. A third subway line is planned. All the stations have already electronic ticket gates installed. As yet, the IC cards to be used with them have not arrived. Bored public servants instead take our paper tickets and throw them in a bin.
Despite these modernizations, public transport in Beijing can be agonizingly slow. It took us at least ten goals against Costa Rica to realise we should take the subway whenever possible.
Dashanzi – the modern part of Beijing
The contrasts between the poorer areas and the glitzy new shopping districts became even more striking when we went to Dashanzi Art District, a centre for contemporary art on the outskirts of Beijing. In a block of old factory buildings, and between working factories, about 200 art galleries have opened. We had expected alternative artists’ spaces in run-down buildings – but what we found was new interior design in well-restored lofts. Scattered between them are trendy, hyper-chic cafés with high-end European prices but no customers.
Of course there’s art, too, and some of it is very good. It deals with topics like consumerism in China and abroad, war and terrorism in a critical, yet funny way. But the lack of critical art concerning present-day China was also obvious. Dashanzi was interesting, but it felt somehow isolated.
Beijing is definitely experiencing massive transformations. It was great to visit, but we wouldn’t want to live there. Although we liked the smell of future in the city, the rushed modernizations often left a feeling of incongruence and lifelessness.