I started living sporadically in the vicinity of Beijing’s Shichahai (什刹海）district in 2001 and consider the neighborhood the closest thing I’ve got to “home” in China. And since no one was hurt in this fire, I can say that perhaps Beijing’s quality of life would improve if fewer of these sordid places existed; then some of the old folks could move back in. And yes, I am aware of the irony of a part-time foreigner making such pronouncements about historical preservation in a land with no use for them and will hereafter confine my comments to development of light rail in Seattle and the reshaping of Highway 95 in the St. Croix River Valley. Or not.
As much as I appreciate Shichahai’s little Starbucks cafe with its glossy real estate magazines and the ability to spend 40 RMB (about $6 USD) on a cup of tea and some Wifi all around the lake, and as much as I enjoy seeing loads of my fellow laowai wandering around cradling beer bottles there as if they were newborn children, and as much as I like being able to take a break from translating at the local McDonalds with its amazing flush toilet to crash a nearby club to dance for half an hour to gigantic beats and then skip away, I would ten times more prefer to wake up in the morning to a clean street, a clean lake, a sky and a sun to read some 建国以来毛泽东文稿, play some cello, and talk with the old-timers out to do their morning qigong.
Guo Moruo used to live in this neighborhood — and there is no substitute for hearing his old neighbors discuss Guo’s “opportunism” during the Cultural Revolution while reserving their respect for Chairman Mao. Unfortunately, today Guo’s neighbors now largely reside in the suburbs, and Shichahai’s history is bequeathed to undergraduate students majoring in tourism development in Wuhan. The tide of consumption continues apace, and, as China belongs to (some) Chinese, Shichahai spins onward on a pace of change begun when the Mongols first dug out the lakes and chucked all the dinosaur bones in Jingshan Park. Just be glad the whole lake isn’t full of Coca-Cola or speedboats, and that little ladies a bit over a meter tall can run card games there, and that the swimming continues, and that the paddleboats haven’t been changed awfully much since the 1980s or equipped with god-forsaken GPS.
OK, dude, enough with the spite: see you there at 4 a.m. for the World Cup semifinals? Perhaps Germany’s “midfield maestro” Sebastian Schweinsteiger will again dazzle like an immortal, lighting hair, beer, and house aflame as if his performance alone could make an Icarus out of planet earth.