More than a decade after hosting the Olympics, China's showcase city remains at a crossroads, says Chris Leadbeater
Just inside the lobby of the Peninsula Beijing, an older gentlemen in a flat cap is drinking green tea. His knees are squashed to the table, the bowl held to his face by a meaty hand. His eyes are closed in appreciation — and, for a moment, I am sure I hear a slurping noise.
I do not, of course. Such behaviour has no place in the reception of this five-star haven, with its chic guests and branches of Versace and Chanel. And the thirsty septuagenarian is, crucially, not real. He is a bubble of bronze, created by Chinese artist Zhang Du — one of two such sculptures there. But he looks, to my jet-lagged eye, like a symbol of today's Beijing. Traditional yet modern, caught between two worlds.
The hotel might be deemed the same thing. It is a grand retreat that has held its position on the arterial Jinyu Hutong since 1989 — an eternity in a city that has been torn down and rebuilt with an iconoclastic fervour in the past three decades. Yet the Peninsula has survived — partly via a just-completed makeover that has transformed it from swarthy government-run block into something svelte, 525 small units becoming a luxurious 230 rooms and suites. If you are stressed, there is a spa supplying hot-stone massages. If you are hungry, its Gallic restaurant Jing will offer you fine morsels crafted by French chef Julien Cadiou.
On the street in front, I spy another emblem of China's tug-of-war between epochs — although the view is scarcely exclusive to the Peninsula. Beijing's CCTV (China Central Television) Headquarters rears to the east — a 235m behemoth of glass and steel. It is a flight of fancy — twin 44-storey towers that seem frozen midway through a structural collapse, each propping up the other like two swaying drunks. It is futuristic and flash, finished in 2008 by the Dutch architectural firm OMA. And it is not to everybody's taste.
When the administration of President Xi Jinping issued a statement in 2016, prohibiting "bizarre architecture" and decrying the "oversized, xenocentric" structures built in the country this millennium, it did not identify specifics. But the main target was no mystery.
Beijing is at a crossroads. It is five years since Xi — who espouses an autocratic style of government, and a rigid vision for the Far East's superpower based on "traditional Chinese values" — took his position at the head of the political table. It is six months since the constitution was amended to abolish presidential term limits. It is also now more than 10 years since the Beijing Olympics, the sporting party that sparked a construction boom in the city, a huge expansion of its subway and road system, a fast modernisation of the urban landscape (not all of it sensitive) — and an apparent drawing of a closed-shop nation into the global bosom. The Games helped give birth to a youthful vibrancy; the president peers back into a stricter yesterday. And Beijing is the scene of the chess match.
It is not difficult to detect the hand of authority in this nest of 22 million souls. It has been here, centrally, for 600 years. The Forbidden City still dominates the metropolis, even though the unsmiling emperors who controlled everything from within its staunch red walls — the Ming Dynasty between 1420 and 1644; the Qing Dynasty, which toppled said imperial titans, before itself being displaced in 1912 — have been gone for a century. Its courtyards still exude the aura of hard rule. A throne remains, elevated and pivotal, in the Hall of Supreme Harmony — the chamber that hailed coronations and high ceremonies of state. The Hall of Central Harmony, where these kingpins extended greetings to foreign dignitaries, maintains an identical layout. It is as if the Yongle Emperor — who built the complex as a framework for his own majesty — has gone out for green tea.
The past tightens its grip as I wander through the southern gateway into Tiananmen Square. Here is a plaza that feels unfathomable, not just in its vast size, but in the way it is regarded by Chinese visitors. It is not so much that the massacre of June 1989 is not acknowledged — it is that it does not even approach the conversation. There are parents with babies, children on bikes, grandparents inching forwards more slowly. There are food trucks and soft-drink hawkers. There are professional photographers who stalk flagstones that ran with blood, offering to snap group souvenirs. Teenagers preen for selfies in front of Mao Tse-tung, who haunts the plaza — figuratively in the colossal portrait above the entrance to the Forbidden City, literally at the other end of the square, his mausoleum towering with as much pomp as any structure in the palace.
I find I'm shocked — or shocked that I am shocked — by this glossing-over of tyranny. Not least because, just half a mile east, modern Beijing swirls and shines, in shuddering contrast to the unconscious deference in the square. Wangfujing resembles those commercial drags that exist in every city in the west. They are all here, the big brands, with their golden arches, fried poultry, milky coffee — frequented by hordes of committed consumers. But look carefully, and the fight between then and now simmers — on side-alley Datianshujing, where an older clientele spurns the fast-food outlets for snacks like grilled scorpions on sticks, and sea urchins, popped open like roast chestnuts. The clash of decades continues in the four-floor Wangfujing Bookstore, where shelves are stuffed with tomes by, or on, Western luminaries as varied as Ronald Reagan, Michelle Obama, and Kate Middleton. But the tables next to the door are stacked with the latest volume of Xi's political musings.
What the president would make of the 20-somethings streaming past and down the escalator into the eateries in the basement might require another long speech. But the young, aspirational Beijing does not hide from your gaze. It is 2pm on Sunday and the burgeoning Chinese middle class is queuing, 3.2km north of Wangfujing, to enter the National Art Museum of China. Within, all indulge in the very bourgeoisie pursuit of admiring brushstrokes and sculptures — among them, works that try to capture 21st century China in relation to its roots. Wang Yexiang's tableau of construction workers at rest seems to salute the Communist toilers of yesteryear, but the modernity of the machinery they are using, and the gleam of the building in progress, betrays the image's 2017 birth date. Adjacent, two paintings by Gao Hongxiao play a similar card. On the left, a grandfatherly figure, leaning on a stick, cherry blossom behind him; on the right, a man who could be his grandson, a smartphone pressed to his ear as he peers at the viewer.
The patrons who fill the galleries are a recognisable art-museum every-crowd — culture vultures, some irritatedly jostling for a better angle, some lost in personal reveries; new mothers with restless babies; couples, shoulder to shoulder as if no one else exists. They are all there, too, a further mile north on, a pedestrianised strip where the contemporary, boutique form of retail therapy holds sway — Make Happy, with its notebooks and pretty stationery; and 16mm, where lattes are poured amid antique film projectors.
Not everyone is comfortable in this blur of humanity. Gao Xiaowu is another artist whose skill is displayed at the Peninsula — and the hotel will arrange visits to his studio for those who want to witness his brilliance in person. It takes an hour's drive for me to find him on the northeast fringe of the conurbation, where fields and furrows fight a rearguard action against the metropolitan mission creep. Here, in a former furniture factory, are sculptures casting suspicious glances at urban life in the new age. City Dreams is a rotund female in the act of falling, arms and legs out-stretched; Our Generation — I Love You shows two bronze figures embracing — romantic at first glimpse, until I notice that the man's hands almost swallow the woman's head, his digits splayed. "People rely more and more on their fingers, their phones. It can shut out everything else," Gao says of the latter piece — before explaining that the former is a representation of the Chinese capital's effect on newcomers. "When people come to Beijing," he says, "they have desire. But they can get fat on this. They only have little wings. It is very hard to fly, to make your dream come true."
Raised in the rural setting of southeasterly Fujian province, he moved to Beijing for his career, and worries about his three children, all of whom are under 10 ("they are city kids. They struggle with the countryside"). But his uncertain tone bears no relation to the bright-eyed exuberance of Evon Chua when I meet her one evening at Yonghegong Lama Temple subway station, at the top of the Beixinqiao district. Fluent in English, she is one of the main guides for Lost Plate Food Tours, a recent start-up (founded in Xi'an in 2014, operating in Beijing since 2016) which attempts to give visitors a local perspective on the capital's culinary scene. "We introduce tourists to restaurants they might not ordinarily try," she says. "Places they might walk past, maybe look into but not feel sure about. We take you inside and show you the best things to eat."
We roll from "secret" gem to foodie outpost in the back of a tuk-tuk. There is Xiong Wei Shi Zu, a neighbourhood cafe that serves re gan mian — hot dried noodles in a spicy sauce, fragrant with coriander. There is Yi Dian Xin Jin Wei, a Mongolian barbecue restaurant, where smoke billows from the ribbons of beef we cook over the gas griddle placed on our table. There is Bao Rui Men Ding Rou Bing Dian — a Chinese-Muslim restaurant where I sample men ding rou bing, a "doornail meat bun" of minced beef in fried pastry. And there is Peiping Machine, a craft brewery as trendy as any in Brooklyn or Hoxton, where I pick a Nitro Factory Dark Lager.
"Do you feel like you've seen a new side to Beijing tonight?" Evon asks, as I emerge from my third gulp. I do. But where it sits, and whether it will last in a city stuck between the past and the present, and unconvinced as to which is its future, is impossible to gauge.
- The Daily Telegraph