Over the last decade, on farmlands fringing northeast Beijing in Shunyi, the Communist Party of China built ‘socialism’s new countryside’. When I visited it, I thought it was the Beverly Hills of Beijing.
My taxi hit the airport expressway, on my way to meet one of hardly half-a-dozen Indian families known to live in Shunyi. As we turned into the Beijing Riviera, I forgot I was in China.
Beyond the Riviera gates lie hundreds of villas that rent for about Rs 2 lakh-plus per month. Shunyi, winner of odd State titles like the Capital Civilisation District, showcases China’s version of the American dream.
It is home to rich foreigners and fountains, baseball games and Brooklyn-style bagels, poker parties and dog parks, international schools and Halloween costume stores.
Shunyi’s pet dogs are tall, while city pets suffer 35-cm height regulations.
My taxi glided down Evergreen Avenue, Maple Avenue and Camelia Lane. My host’s villa stood opposite a park, country club, and yes, fountains.
“We call this the middle of nowhere,’’ smiled Renu Pavate, who moved here from Washington DC last year, as her husband shifted jobs to Beijing.
We strolled past tree-lined avenues and cycling expat children with Chinese babysitters. “Halloween is like Shunyi’s biggest festival,’’ Pavate remarked. “And families choose a villa based on the location of their childrens’ international school.’’
She drove me past China’s largest exhibition centers that opened in Shunyi this year, and hosted a textile and auto show.
The giant venues spurred the Indian restaurant chain Taj Pavilion to open a Shunyi branch this summer, anticipating hordes of Indian traders —who haven’t showed up again.
As we passed villa neighbourhoods titled EuroVillage, Capital Paradise, and villas with Chinese roofs and courtyards, it was hard to believe that China once controlled housing and rented tiny rooms to citizens through work units.
By 2006, the average home area per urban Chinese dweller was 27 sq m, up from 6.7 sq m in 1978.
Shunyi also happens to be the National Demonstration District of Food Safety. But in these times of contaminated milk, we searched hard for a decent cup of coffee.
Finally, Pavate took me to Mrs Shanen’s Bagels. The Chinese-American Shanen grew up in Brooklyn and sells Beijing’s best bagels (a boiled doughnut look-alike), cream cheese, peanut butter and other rarities in China.
Over home-roasted coffee, Pavate said she missed the city life. But I would miss this ‘countryside’.