Making And Remaking History In Olympics-Addled BeijingS

Adapted from Tom Scocca's Beijing Welcomes You: Unveiling the Capital City of the Future, available at your favorite bookseller.

Getting to know Beijing was like doing archaeology with someone shoveling new dirt and rubbish down into the pit on top of you. Old Beijing itself was a phantasm—a name for certain elements in an ever-churning city: hutongs, poverty, eunuchs, public lavatories, cabbage piles, bicycles. Constituent parts of something inherently unstable. Two hundred years ago, a courtyard house was an aristocrat's mansion; now, it was cluttered with the possessions of fifteen families at once. Real, bustling life. Or you could see another house on another lane, restored, its gate repainted, a garage door set in the wall for the new owner's Audi. The huddled former inhabitants moved on. Or you could go to the Wangfujing shopping street downtown and see a replica of Old Beijing, with mannequin inhabitants and real goods for sale, in the basement of a shopping mall.

The New Beijing was no less a moving target. The first landmark I learned on the way to our apartment was the Pizza Hut. An ordinary Pizza Hut sign hung from the façade, supplemented by Chinese characters and red lanterns. It was unexpected but somehow also seemed foreordained: a perfect emblem of West Meets East, another chapter in the story of how contemporary global-capitalist American culture was spreading through the old Communist Orient.

Then they gutted and renovated the whole Pizza Hut again, in the name of progress. A block away, a man was still stooping in the dirt by the alley side, carving fake-antique furniture by hand. But the Pizza Hut had already gotten stale.

A few months after the Pizza Hut reopened, I walked to a local supermarket I had come to depend on—a branch of a Japanese grocery- and-department-store company, clean and modern, in the basement of a four-year-old tower. The familiar entranceway was dark, with an acrid smell of demolition floating out of it. Inside, cutting torches flared in the dimness; men toted out sacks of rubble by hand, stacking them like sandbags. The store was gone. My little bit of practical knowledge was already useless. I had barely gotten started, and I would have to start over. A rebuilt, improved mall would take the store's place within nine months.

That same night, we took a cab to the Third Ring, to the Beijing Ikea, another relatively recent addition to the modernized city. The lettering from the façade had been pulled down and laid out on the sidewalk, and a yellow-shirted crew was dismantling the interior. Two days later, a new Ikea would open out on the Fourth Ring, in a development zone so new the highway ramps didn't all connect with anything yet. It was four times bigger than the old one—the second-largest Ikea in the world, behind only Stockholm's.

* * *

8/8/08

The day Beijing had waited for dawned white and dusty, with a feeble sun. This was it. First, we had to take our son Mack to the doctor. He had woken up with a cough and fever. My own sinuses were clogged, and my eyes burned when I went out into the dirty air. Everything was breaking down. Out in the alley someone had thrown tea dregs on the pavement. The morning was lifeless. We got a cab. A low-speed accident was stopping traffic, and a traffic cop stood by, ignoring it. The clip-on fastener for our cabbie's necktie was hanging down under the back of his collar, and he had his uniform trousers pushed up above his knees.

Making And Remaking History In Olympics-Addled Beijing

By now, we figured we knew what to expect from the doctors. We had been through this-like many preemies, Mack tended to get an inflamed respiratory tract when he got a cold. Bronchiolitis. They would give him some spray medication for the wheezing, and we'd wait it out. Premature babies get colds.

How many times had Mack had the wheezing? the doctor asked. Oh, three, four, who knows-happens a lot, right?

When it happens this much, the doctor said, we call the baby an asthma suspect. We're going to start treating him for asthma.

Our son had asthma. There was no use pretending it was the squeaky-clean, sensitive, upper-middle-class kind of asthma. He had the asthma that ghetto children come down with, because they live in the dirt. He was wheezing because at last, today, on the morning of the Olympics, the filth of the city where he was born had gotten into his tender lungs. He was sick because we had let him live in Beijing.

When I went out to buy meat, at the French-style butcher's, the pollution and glare were like being kicked in the bridge of the nose. Everywhere, the city had the unhappy, busy, strained feeling of wedding preparations. Many sausages were being wrapped up, in advance of somebody's party or cookout. I bought a chicken to cut up for soup, for the illness. The cabbie was pleased to see that the road to the alley had become a two-way street. He tried out his English on "Turn left" and "Stop here."

It was time to go see the opening ceremony. China's big moment was at hand. I arranged to meet friends at Ditan Park, the Altar of Earth, to watch the show in public. A magpie squawked as I headed down the alley. Food sizzled in one of the shacks, behind a curtain of plastic strips. A man with a terrible dye job, a classic Beijing dye job, came the other way.

Those were the last signs of everyday life. On Outer Dongzhimen Avenue, half the lanes were closed off. Policemen and the People's Armed Police were standing guard all along the street. The paramilitary police were wearing uniform jackets, despite the heat. The street was nearly empty except for them and a few taxis. The Second Ring Road was squeezed down to one lane. The city had been scoured clean of anything that could conceivably disrupt or even distract from the day's singular purpose, as if all Beijing were a vast dust-free microprocessor plant—or as if it were under quarantine. Or—and despite my efforts not to see contemporary China through Western conventions and stereotypes—as if this stifled atmosphere, with police on post everywhere, was what Beijing had been like in 1989, under martial law.

The video screens were on a plaza inside the north gate of the park, with security screening at the entrance. Ninety minutes before the ceremony, the space was already loosely filled with people, sitting on the pavement on newspapers and blankets (mostly newspapers). We took up a spot at the back, between side-by-side entrance and exit gates. The big screens showed people filing into the Bird's Nest. Up ahead in the park, a surveillance camera jerked to life and spun on its pole, scanning the scene.

Cheers went up in the middle of the crowd, around a foreign man who was wearing red tights and a red-and-white radially painted hat. I watched the flow of people through the entrance gate. Forty people in one minute. No sooner had I counted than the police and security guards began allowing the new arrivals to overflow the paved plaza and sit on the grassy parts of the park. This far away from the real Olympic action, security was stretched thin, and the hired guards far outnumbered the real law-enforcement officers. But there was still the camera, pivoting this way and that with lurching, robotic purpose.

Someone made a scouting trip to the refreshment stands. There was Budweiser in cans and a single-microwave popcorn operation. I took a stroll through the crowd and ran into a camera crew. Where was I from? What did I think of being with so many Chinese people to celebrate? Did I have anything to say to my country's athletes or to China? Not really, I said.

Around half past seven, one of the screens went dead, then came back. The security forces decided that the center of the plaza was too full and formed a line to block it off, sending the new arrivals cutting sideways across the grass and the flower beds, right through our camping spot. A city policeman chewed out a scrawny security guard on the line, for some infraction or other. "Do you want to be laid off ?" he yelled. The begonias were being trampled.

At 7:52, an establishing shot of the Bird's Nest appeared, and a roar went up. The Olympics were nigh. The cameras found President Hu Jintao, and the park filled with applause. We could see the haze in the lights of the stadium. The crowd in the park was in the thousands; a man in front of us had climbed up a tree for a better view. Another roar greeted the Water Cube, colors shifting across its face.

The particulars of Zhang Yimou's ceremony had been fiercely guarded. After a Korean TV crew had posted video of a rehearsal on the Web, all press had been barred from the final dress rehearsal. Now it was beginning: a mass of drummers, their drums strobing on and off with the strokes, each person acting as an anonymous pixel in a mass display. The symbolism would not be missed by the global audience. The drummers formed numbers—and Chinese characters—for the final countdown: four, three, two, one . . . Olympics! It was 8:00 sharp, after all, not 8:08. One piece of misinformation resolved.

Now it was time for the ceremony to embrace the whole city. The view cut to Tian'anmen Square, where an opening volley of fireworks went off. Then came an aerial tracking shot of more fireworks, each burst shaped like a footprint, marching up the central axis toward us. And then—boom!—our share of the pyrotechnics was bursting off to the west, over the treeline, behind the screens broadcasting their perfect god's-eye view of the glowing trail advancing on the Olympic Green. "Unreal-looking," I scribbled, "—but there are the fireworks." I had seen it with my own eyes. The Bird's Nest went up in a wreath of blinding light. "CGI feel," the notebook said. Next note: "singing child."

Bamboozlement, all. The news would report, over the next few days, that what looked like CGI had in fact been CGI, a faked-up set of fireworks prepared for fear that the real ones wouldn't translate on TV. The singing girl was not singing, or, rather, the girl who was doing the singing was not onstage, a Politburo member having deemed her insufficiently pretty and too crooked-toothed to be the public face of China.

At the time, all there was to do was take the ceremony as presented: the flawless-faced little Han Chinese girl sang, and a squadron of children in minority costumes dutifully carried the national flag toward her. Then a goose-stepping squadron of adult soldiers intercepted the minority children (who were not, it later emerged, real minority children) and took the flag away from them.

The spectacle unfolded glacially, through lush and improbable and slow-moving tableaux. Zhang was indulging his maximalist tastes. It occurred to me that perhaps the loss of Steven Spielberg was more than a symbolic setback—the awe was untempered by entertainment values. The Chinese clichés of Chinese culture rolled forth: scroll calligraphy, ancient musical instruments, movable type—the field of performers, caged in boxes, acting out the role of movable type!—the Great Wall, peach blossoms, the Silk Road. In front of us, someone was on a cell phone, in irritation, trying to track down someone else: "Tiantan haishi Ditan?"—Temple of Heaven or Temple of Earth?

At 8:35, the broadcast froze, then cut away to a tape of the torch-lighting ceremony in Greece. Had the Free Tibet forces stormed the field? Had the vise grip of vigilance and preparedness somehow slipped? And then the picture came back, live, as before—the unsurprising, staged as the unimaginable. Lang Lang played the piano. A globe filled the center of the stage, changing colors, ending up on red. The 2,008 smiling-face fireworks that organizers had promised went off. Ethnic minorities danced, as ethnic minorities must.

Then it was time for the parade of nations. Israel got a big cheer from the crowd in the park. When Taiwan appeared—"Chinese Taipei"—the man next to me began hollering and banging water bottles together. Pakistan got a cheer, too. So did Spain, with the old fascist, the former IOC president Juan Antonio Samaranch. And Iraq, and Great Britain. As the evening had worn on, the crowd had been getting more and more white. Reporters kept washing up in our little backwater by the exits, accompanied by their fixers, looking for the reaction of the Chinese people. The expats cheered for America and Australia. Everyone cheered for Roger Federer.

Who was going to light the torch? The sturdiest rumor seemed to hold that it would be Li Ning, the gymnast turned sportswear maker. The torch-lighting was still a long way off.

I had worked my way to the front by the time the Chinese delegation came in. The cheers rose, and so did the hands, fists and cameras thrusting up. People were jumping up and down. "Zhongguo!" "Jia you!" Go, China! "Zhongguo!" "Jia you!" The cheering surged again for Hu.

No production values could squeeze out the bureaucratic necessities, though. It was speech time: These would be the Green Olympics, the People's Olympics . . . I would never get a cab if everyone left at once. As the speechifying went on, I retreated. IOC president Jacques Rogge urged the assembled athletes to "reject doping and cheating." Then, by bureaucratic standards, the moment of moments—the Olympics, Hu declared, "kai le!" Have opened! Officially!

It still wasn't over. The Olympic flag entered the stadium, taking its time. By now I had slipped out the exit, onto the pathway out of the park, to watch through the trees. The Olympic anthem played, slowly. Enough. If I moved fast, I might see the torch get lit at home.

Outside the north gate, in the wan blue light, there had been a bicycle accident. The bicycle lay in the street, with a bag of groceries tumbled across the pavement away from it. A woman was limping around, and two men were studying the scene. The bicycle lock lay in a puddle of soda. Old people sat in an alley mouth, not watching.

There were empty cabs still. All the way home, the police were still standing at their posts. Along the alley, people huddled around TVs, indoors and out. Out the window of the cab, I saw a televised figure—Li Ning—running in midair, on wires, with the long-traveled torch. Then the white flare of the flame. Outside, in the night courtyard, the fireworks rumbled through the city air.

Making And Remaking History In Olympics-Addled Beijing

Reprinted from Beijing Welcomes You by Tom Scocca with permission of Riverhead Books, a member of The Penguin Group (USA) Inc. Copyright (c) 2011 by Tom Scocca.