China, Part One

Blue. That was my first impression of the landscape as our plane made its approach to the improbably gigantic Bejing Capital International Airport, which shortly before the 2008 Olympics turned a bucolic suburb into one of the busiest places in the world. Blue roofs. You don't see a lot of blue roofs in America, but there, splashed across the countryside, they were — baby, cerulean, baboon-ass, and every other shade you can imagine. They caught the eye from factories and warehouses and shacks and from the clusters of apartment towers, identical and symmetrical and eerily neat, islands in a sea of green. I've seen a half-dozen explanations online — that they categorize industrial buildings, that they hint at a resurgence of faith, that they are remnants of central-planned design, and so forth. I've yet to find anything authoritative; maybe some clever reader knows.

Green — that was the next thing. Flying into Los Angeles I'm used to a concrete-colored Gibsonesque sprawl farther than I can see, but Beijing — for all of its 13 million people — is still surrounded by vast swaths of green, the exurbs dotting it instead of dominating it.

Clean came next. We were last in Beijing in 2007, when we picked up our daughter Elaina. Then the city was struggling to prepare for the 2008 Olympics, and ramshackle scaffolding and heaps of construction equipment were everywhere. It was not memorably clean. But 2016 Beijing — at least the parts we've seen so far — is unsettlingly clean, Disney-clean, clean in a way that invites dark speculation into how such cleanliness is maintained. It's difficult to spot trash. I don't know if this is a result of a vast infrastructure devoted to picking it up, or cultural distaste for dropping it, or both. Even the cars seemed clean and neat. I couldn't put my finger on what seemed off about the roads until I realized how few old or beat-up or filthy cars seemed to be on Beijing's main streets. There were hardly any beaters to be seen.

The buildings that were encrusted with scaffolding in 2007 are now long-built or repaired. Certainly Beijing still has rows of boxy apartment buildings, identically grim, and its fair share of brutalist concrete. But it also has pleasant modern-looking apartment blocks and shining new office buildings with juts and curves and swoops and whimsical skybridges. Ancient and modern and beautiful and ugly rub shoulders. For all the stereotypes about communist architecture I saw very little as dystopian as FBI headquarters or downtown LA's criminal courthouse.

Speaking of communism and dystopian government, it wasn't much in evidence, at least in the parts of Beijing we've seen so far. We saw numerous Russian flags along the highway from the airport, raised to salute a visiting Vladimir Putin, but the Chinese flag wasn't omnipresent. To the contrary, it was rarer by an order of magnitude than the American flag in a typical American city. Nor did I see overt propaganda of the sort that still lingered in 2007 — the closest was a huge sign with the English translation CONGRATULATIONS TO POSTAL SERVICE ON SUCCESSFUL INTRODUCTION OF NEW INVESTORS, which is somewhat less than communist in content. Armed soldiers ("Look, they have machine guns," said my mother-in-law. "Those aren't . . . never mind.") guarded some edifices along the main boulevard, but unobtrusively. People wandered about and started at their phones and ate and drank and lived like they do anywhere else. The most prominent sign that we were someplace politically different was the fact that we had to use a VPN to visit Facebook or Twitter.

And the traffic! In 2007, the fabled Beijing traffic lived up to every stereotype. Cars hurled themselves like berserkers at our tour bus's fenders, and weaved about like a chase in a Michael Bay movie. Now? Well, I would hesitate to drive myself, but it was comparatively placid, not much worse than someplace like Boston. I saw a family serenely bike between the lanes, parents masked and baby sandwiched impassively between them.

In short, what seemed most alien about Beijing was how it failed to live up to expectations or stereotypes. It seemed thoroughly westernized, with only glimpses of its former life — a trio of old men fishing in the river as SUVs whizzed across a bridge over their heads, a glimpse of hutongs, an occasional conical hat. I'm looking forward to seeing more of the city this week, and to visiting other cities over the next two weeks to see how they compare.

Today, Sunday, was our first full day. It was hot, and the air quality was quickly searing my lungs, producing an ache that reminded me of growing up in Los Angeles in the 1970s and early 80s. So we visited the aquarium at the zoo, which was indoors and sufficiently diverting for the kids, and for me.

Let's play "fish or garage metal band?"

Let's play "fish or garage metal band?"

This sign brought to you by the Society for Having Absolutely No Idea How Kids Work

This sign brought to you by the Society for Having Absolutely No Idea How Kids Work

Honestly I can't keep up with all the HBO shows these days

Honestly I can't keep up with all the HBO shows these days

Later I took my son Evan and daughter Elaina to the hotel pool. Nominally Elaina — who has completed four years in a Mandarin immersion program — is our translator. Practically she's mostly waiting, quivering in anticipation, to translate Thrice-Peppered Squid Taint In Mungbean Oil as "sweet and sour chicken." I quickly discovered she did not know the word for "towel" and was disinclined to get there through description. Nor was it a word that the hotel believed pool employees needed to know in English. I was left to wander from pool attendant to pool attendant, patomiming. We do not have whatever it is you wish to rub or wrap yourself with, American, their expressions said in a very courteous and non-judgmental way. I found the towels eventually, and returned to the pool to soak away the travel and the heat, clad in the required black bathing cap, which makes me look like a condemned manatee.

More to come.

Last 5 posts by Ken White


  1. Miles Archer says

    I've been to Shanghai several times over the last couple of years – only been to Beijing once. From talking with my former colleagues in Shanghai, it's really expensive to have a car. It's so much for taxes/permits that you might as well have a nice car. The price of the car itself is about half of the cost of buying one. There's no incentive to pay that cost on a beater.

    The freeways are regulated – you need to have a permit to drive on them. I think some permits are for every other day – there are ALPRs everywhere on the freeways to make sure people don't cheat. I know that if you don't have a residency permit for Shanghai, you can't use the freeways.

    The subway in Shanghai at rush hour was interesting. Extremely busy – to the point the train doesn't stop at all the stops because there's no room to let people on or off. I also noticed that everyone on the subway was well under 40. I was the oldest person by far. In the office there were only three people who were about my age. The big boss, who went to UCSD for undergrad in the 80s, a Taiwanese guy, and guy who lived in Vancouver for many years.

  2. Ryan says


  3. Southern Radical says

    Towel is

    毛巾 máojīn

    said something like "mow" (like in "sow") and "jin" like in "martini".

    Good luck with the tones.

  4. Mikee says

    Baboon-ass blue, Gibsonesque sprawl, and further proof that Homer Simpson's observations on China are becoming more and more true each day. "You guys are commies? Then why am I seeing rudimentary free markets?"

    This is one of my favorite Popehat posts of all time.

  5. Michael Cox says

    Nice! I travel to Xi'An (traditional Capitol of China, sort of in the middle geographically, where the Terracotta Warriors were found) several times a year. When I first started going there, five ir six years ago, the traffic was one giant ongoing game of chicken. It once took me three hours to make a forty minute trip because a bus was going the wrong way on the freeway. I took the subway once. There used to be unmarked holes in the sidewalks and streets. Deep holes. Crossing one was like watching wildebeest cross a river. Pedestrians built up until they crossed en masse, by sheer weight of numbers.

    Over the years, it's gotten a lot better. The traffic lights have big countdown displays, which seems to have persuaded more people to observe them. Things are generally cleaner, and more orderly. Every year I see improvement. The people are unfailingly polite in one-on-one dealings. Very few people stop and point at me in the street anymore. Okay, the kids do, but it's kinda fun. :)

    There is still very little observance of queuing up properly, people cut in line if they feel like it. I'm often frisked at the airport by an eighteen year old woman that likes giving wedgies. Nose picking is common. Live poultry apparently can be attached to scooters by the expedient of tying their feet together in bunches. Like saddlebags with feathers. And everything you've heard about the air quality is a lie. It's much worse. And there's no dark beer. Really. Argh.

    But like I said, it gets better every year, and you can see everyone trying, working, pushing, so hard, everyday. A couple of years ago China was adding the equivalent square footage of Rome every three weeks! It's been something of a privilege to see the transformation.

    Hope you have a great trip, Ken!

  6. says

    One of the things I liked most about Beijing is seeing the row of taxis along a side street at 6AM, the drivers busy cleaning and buffing and polishing. Show me *one* US city where they do that!

    What I didn't like was Mao caps in fashion amongst the young women. Have they no idea? … and for that matter, Mao's picture remaining at Tianenmen Square. What I observed in Germany was that, only after those directly involved have died off, were they willing to openly come to grips with their history. Maybe China needs another 20-30 years before they are prepared to do the same. Give them time.

    When I told a libertarian friend that I really liked China (and I do), he went off into a hissy-fit about totalitarian governments. "If I had to approve a country's government," said I, "the list of countries I like would be vanishingly small!"

  7. Felix says

    My trips to Japan provide a similar jolt at the blue tile roofs. It's something incredibly easy to forget after being away for just a few days, and the sudden re-appearance is startling mostly for being startled.

    Same thing happens when seeing contemporary Japanese movies.

  8. Durandal says

    "Disneyland with the Death Penalty: 25 Years Later" would have been a better title.

  9. BrianW says

    I first went to Beijing in the summer of 2007, and have been back a half-dozen times since. I always cringe when people in the US refer to them as Red Commies. They may be a Communist government in name, but it is far different from the Soviet model.

    Every time I am there, everyone is trying to sell me something for the highest price they can get, buy something from me for the lowest price, or competing with many others to do either. Sounds a lot like capitalism with Chinese characteristics to me.

  10. arity says

    said something like "mow" (like in "sow") and "jin" like in "martini".

    Sow as in pig, or sow as in plant seeds?

  11. Glen Foster says

    I've never been to China. However, we had a Chinese Immersion teacher at my wife's school a few year back. He felt isolated so we took him out to different areas for him to explore and had some really good visits with him. Truth be told? Many of the things he dealt with in form of regulations and taxes were the same as we had. The main differences where the prices. He told us how much a phone, a car and his house cost and it blew our minds.

    It was a very educational and we ended up with a good friend.

  12. vapidincarnate says


    > "Disneyland with the Death Penalty: 25 Years Later" would have been a better title.

    … because California and Florida _don't_ have the death penalty?

    (I know, it's William Gibson's fault, not yours)

    (And yes, I also know that death penalty for drug possession != death penalty for murder)

  13. Noncenx says

    Never been to Mainland China, but the blue roofs are in Japan too. I was told at the time it represents water and is supposed to protect the house from fire

  14. Mike Schilling says

    blue roofs […] represents water and is supposed to protect the house from fire

    Thats's a quaint superstition, kind of like owning a gun to protect yourself from tyranny.

  15. David says

    I was on the mainland several times in the early years of the opening (81-84). In those days you were invited by a host, in my case the hospital whose X-ray machine I would be installing. The hotel was chosen for you and was of the cold Russian type. On the streets you were constantly approached by young people wanting to talk English with a native speaker. Turns out that the fresh morning orange juice in the hotel restaurant was a can opened at table side! Oxen pulled carts, bicycles dominated the roads with constant bell ringing. Very chaotic. Lunch gave my hosts the opportunity to all get a meal on the house and so we always had a table of eight where each chose a dish, all of which were put in the middle of the table and everyone was free to eat from. There was always a whole fish in a broth as the 9th dish. Chicken included the head and had been cut thru the breast and splayed out on it's front, then chopped into about one inch chunks, bones and all. Talking with one's mouth full seemed preferable and spitting out bones next to your plate the proper thing to do.
    Those were the days……..

  16. Mikee says

    RE: Mike Schilling

    "Thats's a quaint superstition, kind of like owning a gun to protect yourself from tyranny."

    I'm all for common sense gun control laws, but I think you're taking the 2nd Amendment for granted.

    With a few exceptions, the higher on this list:

    The more freedoms they have on this list:

    When we take into consideration that those exceptions higher on the list (Saudi Arabia, Oman, Iraq) have really never been bastions of freedom and liberty the correlation between the two grows stronger. The fewer number of exceptions that are free but low on the list of guns per person have either gained their liberties from despotic Empires recently (Japan, Singapore) , or led the world in ensuring their citizens would be free (the UK.)

    And nations that have forced their citizens to disarm have seen a steady encroachment towards being less free. Australia and the UK are great examples, both nations ruled by Thought Police that outlaw guns as well as words and artistic expression because it might hurt someone's feelbads.

    Liberty needs to be defended, because tyrants will have the most powerful weapons at their disposal (and firearm technology is not going anywhere) that means defending against tyranny also requires the most powerful weapons, which produces a slight cause and effect relationship between the availability of weapons and the number of freedoms.

    Without guns, the Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution would have ended up as toilet paper for a British king. With guns, the colonists were able to ensure they would have the same rights that regular British citizens were already enjoying.

    For the record, I own zero guns and have no real desire to own one, but I am a firm believer in the Constitution. Currently the SCOTUS has said that common sense gun control laws can't prevent a law-abiding citizen from owning a handgun, rifle, or shotgun. And if it comes down to a truly tyrannical American government attacking American citizens, a handgun, rifle, or shotgun is better than a knife, a stick, or a rock.

    "Democracy is two wolves and a lamb voting on what to have for lunch, Liberty is a well armed lamb contesting the vote."

  17. mcinsand says

    In the early 2000s, I went to Shanghai for about a week and a half. The food was fantastic, and my stomach had a bit of trouble adjusting on my return to the US. My oldest son was 7-ish, and I remember him asking me if I could bring some of 'the good fireworks' back. I brought a Chinese chess set, instead. He had already learned the rules of regular chess, and it only took a day or so for him to get the hang of the Chinese version. Now, he's in Hong Kong for the summer taking classes.

  18. Bill Poser says

    Doesnt the fact that your daughter doesnt know how to say "towel" raise questions about the PE program at her school?It doesnt sound like they shower at school.

  19. Mike Koen says

    Likely that you were there during some type of official international gathering. They do a MASSIVE cleanup for the foreign visitors. But Beijing, it's quite "modern". Did you get out into the countryside at all though? The prosperity and modernity falls off very quite rapidly as you head off the beaten track.

  20. Barry says

    Dave Hood says
    "What I didn't like was Mao caps in fashion amongst the young women. Have they no idea? … and for that matter, Mao's picture remaining at Tianenmen Square. What I observed in Germany was that, only after those directly involved have died off, were they willing to openly come to grips with their history. Maybe China needs another 20-30 years before they are prepared to do the same. Give them time."

    My guess (speaking with the authority of absolute ignorance) is that Mao will basically be a Great Emporer[1] who unified the coungry and expelled the foreigners, allowing China to invite them back in under it's own terms. As with all such people, best not to dwell on the unfortunate mistakes which might or might not have been made by subordinates.

    [1] Where 'Great' definitely has nothing to do with 'Good'.