Biking through Change

Beijing, China
Elizabeth W. Pike

BEIJING, China—The first street I lived on in Beijing was a dusty back-alley called Xinming Hutong.  During my time in the city as an exchange student, I learned that hutong meant alley in Mandarin and that these alleys were traditionally lined with courtyard houses dating back to the Ming Dynasty. However, by the time I had arrived in Beijing in 2009, my Xinming “hutong” was lined with rows of identical apartments.  The word “hutong” on the street signpost had already begun to fade into a memory enveloped in the city’s ubiquitous construction dust.  Thus Xinming Hutong taught me my first lesson about Beijing: change is an inherent, almost palpable element of life here.

Nonetheless, when I returned this summer I was still surprised to see how much had changed in the two years that had elapsed since I called Beijing home. Biking through streets that I had traversed hundreds of times in my past life here, I encountered buildings and faces that seemed at once vaguely familiar and deeply altered.  In some cases my old hangouts had disappeared altogether—a sprawling cinema complex has replaced the hole-in-the-wall Korean waffle shack where I used to huddle with a cup of warm milk tea in the winter. In other cases, my old favorite neighborhoods had simply adopted new faces—an historic hutong where I used to bike past octogenarians huddled around a mahjong table at all hours now draws flocks of Beijing’s hipsters.

Yet overlooking Beijing from the city’s single hill in the central Jingshan Park, a clear axis still cuts through the golden rooftops of the Forbidden City, convincing any onlooker that the city has remained unchanged since the dynastic days. Only further out in the haze beyond the tiled roofs does the meticulous grid once again collapse into the sea of change. There you can almost see the waves of migrant workers arriving to build the next skyscrapers and feel neighborhoods crumbling under the omnipresent pressure of modernization.

With change and continuity coexisting and overlapping in this way, Beijing has always seemed a paradox to me and perhaps even a microcosm of China itself Revolution, stability, globalization, westernization, words that are thrown around in our Chinese language textbooks, are tangible here, burgeoning, clashing, and glaring in their presence and sometimes in their marked absence. I guess it is this perplexing collection of contradictions that draws millions of people here every year and that continues to bring me back.

As I prepare to return home again this weekend, I know I will find myself biking through the streets one last time, memorizing the face the city wears at this moment. But I know this time not to get too attached to that face.  Instead, I will try to remember how alive one feels, biking to beat of the Beijing’s pulse, alongside thousands of others similarly navigating the city of change.