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From the dragon's lair

Tradition and modernity collide in today's Beijing, Sutirtho Patranobis writes.

books Updated: Oct 29, 2011 00:36 IST
Sutirtho Patranobis
Sutirtho Patranobis
Hindustan Times

Beijing Welcomes You: Unveiling the Capital City of the Future
Tom Scocca
Penguin India
699, PP 367

You know that a book about a place or a country really works when it's a delightful read for someone who has never visited the place. Tom Scocca's Beijing Welcomes You: Unveiling the Capital City of the Future falls into that category.

The 367-page book unveils Beijing by looking through its notorious smog and from beneath the rubble left behind by frenzied development. It charts Scocca's tryst with China's capital city, now home to some 20 million people, between 2004 and 2008: the years leading up to the 2008 Beijing Olympics when the city held that magnificent coming-out party for the world.

Seen through Scocca's keen eyes, the book is essentially about how determined authorities have pulled down an old city to build a new one on top of it. The writer spices up his narrative wit h many quirky experiences he had while walking through Beijing, talking to its people and munching on fried scorpions and pancakes stuffed with donkey meat.

Particularly fascinating is the chapter describing attempts by the authorities to modify the city's weather using anti-aircraft guns and rocket launchers while preparing for the Olympics. 'Ren ding sheng tian,' (man must defeat the heavens), Scocca quotes the old Mao aphorism. "Weather modification, as science, had a vexed and winding history, but China's position was straightforward: it was the world's

number one nation in the field … And the Beijing Office of Technology had reported that it was at work on a special chemical 'shell' that would guarantee clear skies over the Bird's Nest (the main Olympic venue) for the Olympic ceremonies."

Scocca's writing shines through the occasionally tedious descriptive passages. The book is at its best when the author recounts his own experiences - his interactions with stern officers at the Public Security Bureau, for instance. Or the premature birth of his son. Or when he is sharing hardcore details on the build-up to the Olympics: "The Beijing Tourism Administration announced that the city of Beijing now had 815 star-rated hotels, 5,982 lodging places overall, 336,000 guest rooms, and 660,000 beds … Two hundred thousand staffers would receive in training in foreign languages and etiquette. The colour of towels, and the softness of those towels, would be standardised citywide."

Scocca touches on the sensitive subject of censorship - specifically internet censorship - quoting International Olympic Committee president Jacques Rogge: "We acknowledge that the situation is not perfect."

The book is peppered with minute observations and transfers the author's genuine amazement at Beijing's transformation on to the pages. Scocca doesn't seem entirely happy with many of the changes he witnessed - traditionally-designed homes demolished to make way for modern apartment blocks being one significant example. But he also realises that the city's transformation is inevitable.

In the end, Scocca gives us three options for Beijing to choose from: the moneyed and artificial; the wretched and broken; and the living and bustling. Especially for those planning to go to Beijing, this book is worth every yuan.

First Published: Oct 29, 2011 00:34 IST