Surprising Beijing: past present
We visit the Chinese capital to see what has changed in 30 years.
There is perhaps no city that has undergone such whirlwind development as Beijing over the last three decades. Those jetting into the sprawling, contemporary, glass and steel-sheathed Terminal 3 at Beijing Capital Airport today will be hard pressed to visualise the metropolis as it was three decades ago.
“Beijing in 1988 was a city that was on the verge of reinventing itself,” says Lars Ulrik Thom, a Beijing-based Danish expat and entrepreneur whose huge collection of old Chinese photographs has turned him into an expert on the capital’s history, as well as a popular raconteur. “There were hardly any foreign faces – just a few adventurous tourists, diplomatic staff, and businesspeople.
In 1988, Finnair was the first European airline to fly non-stop to the Chinese capital.
“Back then the great building spree that is still going on had not yet started,” he continues. “The Chinese government had recently decided that Beijing should no longer be an industrial city, but a cultural and political centre. This was a huge change from the Mao years. In the streets, new commodities were starting to appear – jeans, leather jackets, Kentucky Fried Chicken, and Coca-Cola were all novelties.”
Making the connection
With one weekly non-stop flight to Beijing starting in 1988, Finnair was the first European airline to fly non-stop to the Chinese capital. That aviation connection has blossomed to the point where Finnair now has 38 weekly flights to its destinations in Greater China: Beijing, Shanghai, Xi’an, Guangzhou, Nanjing, Chongqing, and Hong Kong.
Finnair chief purser Asko Hämäläinen is the only representative of the cabin crew on that inaugural flight to Beijing still working for the airline. Hämäläinen started his career in 1979, which means he will celebrate a remarkable 40 years as a Finnair cabin crew member next year. The much-loved and well-respected veteran led the crew on Finnair’s 30th-anniversary flight to Beijing from Helsinki on May 31, 2018.
Despite the passage of time, Hämäläinen still remembers that initial journey with amazing precision. “We had 26 first class, 24 business class, and 154 economy class passengers on board,” he says.
With Finnair now linking Chinese cities to Europe like never before, Hämäläinen sees the number of connections multiplying further. “Helsinki is a wonderful gateway between Europe, China, and greater Asia,” says the purser.
Back to the future
Those who take a taxi down Beijing’s Chang’an Avenue, a grand, multi-lane boulevard lined with glittering malls and towering high-rises, will find it hard to believe that the Chinese capital was once a city of quiet, leafy neighbourhoods. Yet even 30 years ago many Beijingers lived in simple, single-storey courtyard houses (siheyuan), accessed via an intricate system of narrow alleyways (hutongs).
Siheyuan have once again become the ultimate Beijing real estate status symbol.
Since the 1980s many of Beijing’s hutong neighbourhoods have been demolished to make way for apartment blocks and skyscrapers. Yet in recent years the property cycle has turned full circle and siheyuan have once again become the ultimate Beijing real estate status symbol. The finest examples change hands for millions of dollars.
Many surviving hutongs, such as those in and around the trendy Nanluoguxiang area, have been completely gentrified and are now home to an eclectic collection of Bohemian coffee shops and teahouses, funky boutiques, and a burgeoning number of micro-breweries (Beijingers have recently discovered a taste for craft beer). Some, such as the Curvy Corridor Courtyard, have been exquisitely modernised and serve up some of Beijing’s finest cuisine (think yak carpaccio, pan-fried Zhoushan scallops, and short ribs with tea soup).
Of all of Beijing’s eye-catching new structures, none embodies the evolution of the Chinese capital’s built environment more than the controversial, Paul Andreu-designed masterpiece – the National Grand Theatre.
Beijingers may have been divided over the theatre’s architectural merits after its pre-Olympic unveiling, but The National Grand Theatre’s sinuous lines are made all the more striking by its location next to the Great Hall of the People. Situated on one side of Tiananmen Square, the latter’s austere, Soviet-style angularity is a throwback to the era before China’s great gaige kaifang (“reform and opening up”).
These days there are fewer bicycles and far more cars on the streets of Beijing.
“Forget futuristic architecture, back in 1988 there were hardly any tall buildings,” says 57-year-old Beijing native Chen Yusheng. “There weren’t even any ring roads (of which there are now seven), and the subway only had two lines (it now has 22).
“I remember commuting on a bicycle,” he continues a little wistfully. “Nowadays most of the bikes you see in Beijing belong to bike-share schemes, and a lot have tourists on them. The pace of life was slower, and there was a lot less traffic.”
The drive to be different
On a Sunday afternoon, fashion meets art in Beijing’s ultra-hip 798 (“qi jiu ba”) quarter. Crowds of twentysomethings sporting ripped jeans, mini-skirts, faded hairstyles, and discreet tattoos sip caffè lattes and check out the area’s burgeoning number of Bauhaus-style galleries and shops. In the capital’s hotbed of contemporary art, the clothing on display is as idiosyncratic as the sculptures and installations.
Cities are, of course, defined as much by their people as they are by their infrastructure. Fashion made a cautious return to China in 1978, and by the early 1980s, fashion magazines had resumed publication. Still, many men continued to wear so-called blue Mao jackets and baggy pants, while women had a limited selection of modest blouses and calf-length skirts from which to choose.
“There wasn’t really much individuality at that time,’ says Chen Yusheng. “Besides, nobody had the means to express their individuality through clothing anyway. I remember going to the beach and everyone was wearing exactly the same swimsuit.”
In the 1980s, most Beijingers would dream of owning the so-called “four big things” – a radio, a bicycle, a sewing machine, and a wristwatch – which were only available in specialised shops such as the Friendship Store. Today they dream of everything from Teslas and Scandinavian-styled apartments decked out with smart gadgetry to beach breaks in Hainan and luxury ski trips to Europe.
“Society continues to change as rapidly as the fabric of the city itself,” says Jeremiah Jenne, an American writer, history teacher, and tour guide based in China since 2002.
Text and photos Daniel Allen