Wednesday, October 24, 2007

On Beijing, Part 2

All opinions and personal observations about Beijing aside, there's one thing about the city that is obvious and undeniable from the moment you enter the city: the 2008 Olympics cast an enormous shadow over the whole city.

In front of the National Museum of China, on the east side of Tiananmen Square, is a digital clock counting down to the start of the Games. Since the museum was recently closed for renovation and expansion, essentially the entire of function of one of the most grandiose structures in the whole country is to frame a clock that counts down to the Olympics. It's an apt metaphor for the city itself.

In Tiananmen Square, hedges that are trimmed to resemble local landmarks (the Great Wall of China, the Temple of Heaven, etc.) are now adorned with grass men participating in the various Olympic sports (visible in this photo: wrestling, shooting, cycling, and ping pong). Throughout the city's monuments, volunteers roam about, engaging Western tourists in conversation and pointing them toward interesting sights. These "good samaritans" have actually been bused into Beijing from outlying areas like Xian in order to practice their English for a few weeks, and will be returning next year to serve as local guides during the Games. On television, a game show featuring a panel of Chinese and British judges challenges contestants to demonstrate their mastery of the English language through a series of speeches and word games, in exchange for an opportunity to attend the Olympics.

But just as significant as what's visible in Beijing is what isn't visible. Incredibly, the streets are totally devoid of beggars, homeless, and shady individuals offering "lady-massages." Beijing is a city of tremendous size and uneven wealth distribution, and for the whole place to have little or no visible homelessness or panhandling is both striking and scary, particularly when you consider what measures the Chinese government may have taken to clear the streets as they have. Shanghai, which is more economically prosperous, certainly hasn't managed it. I don't want to know how the police handled that assignment.

For all the build-up to the Olympics, though, there are still some obvious gaps in Beijing's progress. For one, Western tourism remains surprisingly low. Although Western tourists are visible in the more conspicuous tourist areas, they are (1) predominantly older individuals, and (2) vastly outnumbered by Chinese tourists from other parts of the country. I suppose that, in a country of 1.3 billion people, high levels of domestic tourism should come as no surprise (though given their predilection for traveling in massive tour groups and shoulder-checking, it's pretty annoying). Still, unless everyone's holding off on visiting China until the Games are on, I would have expected the Chinese publicity machine to have generated more Western tourism in the interim.

Not that the city is 100% ready for the tourists either. As we discovered our first night in town, accommodation quality is uneven. We were convinced by an information desk at the airport to stay at the so-called "Bei Hai Three-Star Hotel," where the three stars are apparently not really a certification, but just part of the name. Promises of 24-hour hot water proved hollow (maybe they meant "no hot water, 24-hours a day?"), English-speaking staff were nowhere to be found, the peeling paint and stained walls rather detracted from the decor (points for crown moulding, at least), and I'm not going to speculate about the species of the huge bug on the nightstand when we came in. Lights in the room were controlled by a solid end-table with built-in knobs, sort of like a vintage-looking radio or jukebox. The knob controlling the main light had a short in it, so a few quick turns could create a flickering effect straight out of a cheesy horror movie. I was handling it all fine, until I looked over at the television and saw that the brand was Panda. "Ohh, Panda TV," I groaned, and for the rest of the trip, anytime one of us felt sad, exhausted, or filled with dread, a groan of "Ohh, Panda TV" became the standard way to say it all.

In addition, many of the amusing English signs in the city, which range from comically Engrishy to borderline incomprehensible, are actually part of government-administered monuments. You would think the Chinese government could be bothered to hire a competent translator.

As for the Olympics...mascots just get weirder every year. Those little rockstars above are the Friendlies, and they are a phenomenon. If you take the repeated syllable from each of their names in order, you get "Beijing huanying ni," which means "Beijing welcomes you" (clever). The fivesome represents all kinds of things at once. Olympic rings? Check! Captain Planet-style elements? Sure! Local wildlife? Throw that in too! Particular sports? Why not!

Official stores in Tiananmen Square and throughout Beijing promise officially-licensed Beijing 2008 merchandise. Do you think they recognize the irony of their proud claims of official licensing? Even though the Friendlies sort of creep me out, I was tempted to buy some counterfeit merchandise in the shady markets, just for the comedy of doing so. Ultimately, I decided it wasn't really worth the $2. And guess which one of the Friendlies I loathe most? That's right: Jingjing the Panda. Or as I came to hiss through my teeth, Jingjing Motherfucker.

The Friendlies, of course, are plastered over all manner of merchandise, but I think the most interesting is the Friendlies cartoon series that's been airing on TV. Unfortunately, I never got to watch, but (no joke here) I have it on good authority that Jingjing is apparently the worthless idiot of the group. One cartoon features the Friendlies confronted with learning a simple task: leapfrogging over one another, one at a time, until they end up in a lake. All of the Friendlies are on it, except for Jingjing, who (like all pandas) is a failure at life. He's tripping over himself, he's trying to go under the others instead of jumping over, he's injuring himself. The other Friendlies, paragons of patience, finally help him figure it out. Cartoon over. For the closing credits, all of the Friendlies stand within their respective colored Olympic rings and pose. Jingjing, again, can't get it right and stands in a neighboring ring until he's pushed back into place.

Apparently, the makers of the Friendlies cartoon have figured out that pandas are evolutionary failures with no intelligence or instinct for self-preservation and have only been saved from extinction by the inexhaustible (and inexplicable) patience of far superior creatures. But that is a different rant altogether.

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