Tuesday, September 27, 2011
A LAWYER’S TRAVELS (Column)
E-Mail From China Tells of Sights in Crowded Beijing
By TAMILA C. JENSEN
(The writer is a Granada Hills attorney and is a past president of the San Fernando Valley Bar Assn.)
Beijing (North Capital) is a city of 19 million people covering about 31 square miles! Many modern freeways (some built for the 2008 Olympics) and high rise buildings make it look entirely modern. Traffic is fierce during peak times. The morning drive to Stanley Mosk suddenly seems child’s play. Vehicles have the right-of-way and ignore any pedestrians trying to cross. The Beijing we saw in our youth—a sea of bicycles—is gone. The few bikes on the street seem relics of that past.
It is a clean city thanks to the squadrons of workers in orange jump suits. There are many trees, plants, and flowers watered by hand. During the Cultural Revolution, Mao ordered the gardens destroyed, but now the city is beautiful. Hardly a bird is seen and not even pigeons.
The financial district, where our hotel was located, has beautiful buildings, broad streets, and the finest international brands of consumer goods. We were still warned not to drink the tap water and most places there is a pervasive acrid smell background odor. More work to be done.
I asked our guide about city planning, property ownership, and so forth, but did not see any documents, ordinances, etc. and would not have been able to read them if I had. So this is by way of our guide’s explanation. The government owns the land, which is hardly surprising. It rents the land to developers—70 years for apartment buildings and 50 years for commercial. This sounds much like a ground lease. Then the developer, in turn, makes deals with tenants, owners or apartments, etc. It seemed to me that apartment ownership was much like owning a condominium in the U.S. There is a general plan for the city and a planning committee, but they do not function like ours and our guide was not sure how it all worked together. As you know, property values are crazy in Beijing and the government is trying to bring the prices down. We are told that you pay by the square meter.
Most striking about the city to me is the architecture. Nothing staid about it. Phantasmagorical shapes, combinations of styles and functions. The operative word is “big.” By the way, most signs are in Chinese and English. Beijing is circled by no less than five ring roads. Public transportation is crucial or there would be terminal grid lock.
Of course, we climbed the Great Wall and I hope to recover shortly. A visit to Olympic Village was less interesting but obligatory and the architecture seems to me less successful. Tienanmen Square was very impressive. 36,000 people visited the day we were there, and it hardly seemed crowded. There are surveillance cameras everywhere but not a huge police or military presence. The Forbidden City is very impressive and obviously the central administrative edifice of a great empire. It could use much better curation, but that is probably not a priority now.
The Summer Palace was a treat because it is still very much in use as a park and recreation area. People go there to play music together, sing, do art, and just walk. There was even an accordion player and a jazz band. The history of the Summer Palace is long and interesting but a subject for another day. It was built by a Ming emperor for his mother’s 50th birthday. I have pointed that out to my son and will let you know if he gets the hint.
We also spent an afternoon in a Hotong—an old Chinese living and commercial area. The homes are built on a central square and can be 1,000 years old. Many Hotong were destroyed to make way for the new city, but the government is preserving others and they are being rebuilt and maintained. None of the houses have bathrooms. All bathrooms are communal on a block, as are showers. Very romantic, but bereft of modern convenience. Our guide said many millionaires live here without bathrooms. I thought he was joking, but the buildings here are owned outright and pass through generations so they are extremely valuable. But they are so old and built in such a way that adding modern conveniences is not feasible. We talked for awhile with a home owner who told us five generations live in her house.
Copyright 2011, Metropolitan News Company