A Canadian in Beijing: The National Bird of China

Is the crane.

Since arriving here, I have been amazed by the constant construction. I know that Beijing is preparing for the Olympics next summer and so is busily creating the Olympic village and other related sites, but it is not just about the Olympics. There is constant change here, and it hit me very quickly that this city could become unrecognizable to a return traveller if too much time sits between visits.

Some of my Beijing friends have told me that this has happened for them and they actually live here full-time. A common scenario is going to a region of town that one hasn’t seen in awhile and seeking a landmark only to find that it has been torn down and replaced with something more modern. I can’t imagine what it would be like to be a cab driver in such a swirl of constant change.

What has amazed me about this constant change is both the speed and the manner in which the construction is conducted. I have seen full buildings go up in what seems like record time. I’m not in the construction business, but these sites are crawling with workers and it reminds of one of those films that show a series of still images on fast-forward; I will walk by a site in the morning on the way downtown and see one view and then walk by in the afternoon to another and in the evening to another. If I sat there and watched it as it was happening, I think it would be like being able to actually see a flower grow.

But the manner is another thing. Unlike back home, many construction sites are quite open and visible to the public. Sometimes small construction is taking place in the middle of the sidewalk without any barricades or any alternative routes for the pedestrians. What’s more, with holes in the cement or bricks and debris lying about, it seems dangerously close to a passerby, inviting some sort of calamity.

I am quite possibly brainwashed by North American standards, in this case. I know that a lot of effort goes towards blocking off construction regions back home so that regular people won’t get hurt. In most cases, it also means that we can’t see what’s going on, either. Maybe that’s why progress doesn’t seem as strikingly fast to me. Quite possible.

When I was in Suzhuo in early May, for example, I was walking along and nearly fell into a hole. It was just there, on the sidewalk, unmarked except by some litter that had found its way into one of the crevices. I missed this hole by about two centimetres. I photographed my luck.

As I walked further that day, I also noticed a gap in the flimsy construction barricade through which people were climbing between a lower road and the upper road. There was a large pipe here to help them climb up, like a built-in ladder.

Here is perfect example of the attitude here about construction: no route is forbidden to a pedestrian if there is no one barking orders nearby and, just because it’s under construction does not mean that it is a dangerous place for one to be! I had to salute the public in this case (hence the photo). There’s a careless and defiant anarchy about it all.

Most construction sites also have temporary residences built next to them. That is because the migrant workers who are brought into the city to help transform the city also need accommodations. I’ve come to be able to recognize the look of barracks from the rest of the structures. Apparently they sleep ten to ten square meters and the beds are all attached to each other. I have also heard that there are big problems with migrant workers being mistreated and overworked or having difficulty being paid by their employers.

After three months here, I can recognize these workers when they’re just walking along the streets after shifts. These men, young and old, have populated this city in huge numbers and represent a low-wage means to quick construction.

But, despite all that, they’re often smiling and laughing, despite the long hours, time away from their families, reports of abuse and obvious backbreaking work.

I always smile back.

They seem to embody so much optimism.

I had noticed all this before taking in an art exhibit at the 798 district that really blew me away. This is an installation by an artist named “Wen Fang” called “The Golden Brick.” She is a Beijing-based artist and photographer and she printed head shots of smiling migrant workers, one portrait to each brick. These smiling bricks lay piled and expertly laid across a large room, on one side built into a wall and then growing messier and messier as the bricks lay spread out over the floor. The walls had some larger portraits on them, as well, as though these were the workers taking in the exhibit… and, of course, all of the portraits were smiling.

This is the artist’s statement:

The explanation of this work really struck me as perfectly in line with my feelings about all of this construction: it was described as being mean to witness the “frenetic urbanization” of China that has “transformed the destiny of the of the majority of Chinese people and destroyed much of both their culture and tradition. As a result, each brick seems to be infused with the blood and sweat of the migrant workers and bears the madness of the bureaucrats as well as the ignorance of the real estate developers.”

What’s more, the work was not interested in depicting this group as the “powerless masses” which is an expression “steeped in superiority.” From a more Buddhist perspective, one of the central messages is this: “It is not a matter of wondering if we are able to take care of those weaker than us, but rather a question of what attitude to adopt when faced with such people.”

Well in a city that is changing so rapidly, at least there are some smiles going around. I commend Wen Fang for this alternative perspective. What her work did was both depict the problems – loss of heritage sites, huge class divisions, workers rights issues – while also depicting the people as people.

Because they are. We all are.

As this city grows in height and width, as the cranes lines the skyline and the amount of glass reflecting the sunset increases minute-by-minute, I know that Beijing is redefining with every second.

Let’s just hope that it can keep up with itself.

Without falling into an unmarked hole called “development.”