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Meyer's book takes readers to China's capital city

Photo by Vicki Harris

Photo by Vicki Harris

Michael Meyer's 2008 "The Last Days of Old Beijing" is a story of the capital city of China. Its author arrived in China in 1995, one of 15 Peace Corps volunteers sent to the Sichuan province in southwestern China.

The book covers Meyer's time in China, but primarily the days he spent teaching English in Beijing, after his stint with the Peace Corps was completed. The primary theme is the change surrounding the Forbidden City, as reflected by the subtitle of the book, "Life in the Vanishing Backstreets of a City Transformed."

The Forbidden City is where the imperial family lived from the Ming Dynasty (1400s) to the end of the Qing Dynasty around the 1940s, and is now a public museum. Last October, when I visited Beijing on a tour organized by the Albany Area Chamber of Commerce, a guide told us that The Forbidden city had 9,999 rooms and, because no living person was perfect, The Forbidden City could not have a "perfect" 10,000 rooms.

According to Meyer, the original capital's palace "had 999.5 rooms a number just below the one thousand rooms of heaven, which no man-made building could exceed." The citizens who served the needs of the imperial family and government lived in the area just outside the gates of the Forbidden City in Old Beijing, and it is this area that concerns the subject of this book. The transformation is ongoing.

Lanes in Old Beijing were not wide, some as narrow as 15 inches, and the neighborhoods were densely populated. Most of those homes were very old, in need of repairs and did not have modern plumbing. The neighborhoods were firetraps. Fire trucks could not navigate the lanes and alleyways. Meyer relates that it was common to find three generations sharing one room in a former bureaucrat's home.

The government's plan was to raze the neighborhoods and relocate the residents to high-rise apartment buildings further from The Forbidden City on the outskirts of Beijing proper. Regulations prevent structures from exceeding three stories in Old Beijing. The neighborhoods had homes that were condemned by the local governments and sold in lots to developers.

Some of the local neighborhoods, called hutongs, have been designated as protected areas in an attempt to preserve Chinese cultural history. Our tour group had a rickshaw bicycle tour of a couple hutongs and had lunch with a hutong family.

Meyer's exploration of the changes he was witnessing in the hutongs is factual yet emotional. Change can be slow, evolutional or rapid, revolutional. Who can blame his hint of emotionalism; after all, Meyers' was witnessing a social revolution that does not necessarily make things better for the people. Neighbors and neighborhoods were displaced in a matter of days or weeks. Many people would never see one another again. Though in defense of any emotionalism Meyers' stated, "The most strident hutong defenders I had met were historians and tourists. Neither lived in the lanes themselves, and both were drawn to the tangible architecture and its details, including beautiful old wrought-iron-work."

He acknowledges that change has been ongoing and describes the other eras of the "modernizing" of Beijing. For one example, under Japanese occupation in the 1940s "its "New Beiping" plan was to open the heart of the Old City to vehicle traffic." And . . ."to avoid Japanese and Chinese living in mixed housing we will build a Japanese new city district".

The book is interesting, especially for those who plan to go to Beijing or those who are revisiting such an experience. It contains anecdotes of people that Meyer lived amidst, a few maps, black and white photos, an eight-page bibliography, and it is an easy read. If you are going to visit Beijing, this book is required reading.

David Fry is the electronic resource librarian at Darton College in Albany.