The Head of the Dragon
“Beijing Welcomes You: Unveiling the Capital City of the Future” A book by Tom ScoccaThis review is from a syndication service of The Washington Post.
Beijing in 2008 was nothing short of a madhouse. The Summer Olympics were scheduled to open there on August 8, and the leaders of the Communist Party were determined to show the world the city’s, and the country’s, best face. China had emerged from decades of isolation to become one of the great powers, and it wanted to look and act the part. In a frenzy of construction, Beijing was being transformed.
A freelance journalist and blogger, Tom Scocca went to China with his wife. They took a fourth-floor walk-up in an alley “outside the Second Ring, not in Old Beijing so much as Indeterminate Middle-Aged Beijing,” in a neighborhood with “sort of an embassy row” but also “aging apartment blocks, new shopping centers, construction pits, massage spas, worker barracks, and office towers.”
Beijing Welcomes You: Unveiling the Capital City of the Future
By Tom Scocca
Riverhead Hardcover, 384 pages
It was, in short, almost a miniature of Beijing in 2008, with its three components — “the moneyed artificial one, the wretched and broken one, the live and bustling one” — in uneasy coexistence. Scocca quickly came to love it, but he seems never to have been sentimental about it. His brushes with the Chinese bureaucracy were almost unfailingly unpleasant, he chafed under the obsessive and intrusive security imposed by the police state, and he despised the pollution. The very day the Olympics opened, he and his wife had to take their infant son to the doctor because he had been wheezing and coughing: “He was wheezing because at last, today on the morning of the Olympics, the filth of the city where he was born had gotten into his tender lungs.”
Still, 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. He was especially taken by the pre-Olympic hullabaloo: “Beijing would have a mascot for each color of the Olympic rings. … Their names, taken together in the correct order, made up the phrase Beijing Huanying Ni — Beijing Welcomes You.”
There was no escaping these bizarre totems, and in time there was a song, played incessantly and at top volume, called “Beijing Welcomes You.” As Scocca says: “That pentatonic hook was everywhere: cab radios, DVD shops, wafting over the streets. Beijing Welcomes You! The constancy of it all but guaranteed it would be the ironic backdrop to whatever might go sour in the course of a day. Coughing fit? Traffic jam? Argument with the authorities? BEEI-jinng HUAN-ying NIIII. …”
Jonathan Yardley is the book critic of The Washington Post. He can be reached at [email protected].
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