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This Side of Beijing

From the highly polluted air, stinky mung-bean milk to men who air their naked bellies like prized treasure on warm summer days, Beijing isn’t really the la-di-da destination darling like her other more flamboyant siblings. But as the red flag, charged with five golden stars, rises from Tiananmen Square at the crack of dawn, Beijing rises along. This is a city who has a wealth of history in her pouch, a commanding present and a limitless future willed by her unyielding dwellers. From exotic food to the Great Wall, the community spirit to the major tech players who have shored up the country’s economy and shaken the world today, AL taps on them all. Come get to know Beijing from the eyes of a five-day tourist. You will thank me for this.

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When I was 12, my family and I had “gone back” to China once to visit the village of my late grandfather.

There were very few things that I remember about that trip. Being excited over pork burgers in McDonalds is one (McD in Malaysia is halal) and feeling amazed by the village houses that looked exactly like my elementary school drawing – a block under a roof with two windows and a door – is another.

This year, in September, my family and I “went back” to China again. But this time, we travelled to the Big Smoke, the capital – The Jing.

As a Malaysian of Chinese descent, (and one who has for years overdosed on Mando-pop, Chinese reality shows and TV series) I thought going to Beijing would be a cinch. You know, with only a confused accent but otherwise, our passports are of the same shade of red and the line between a real, real Chinese and I would be fine, if not imaginary.

It’s not.

Both geographically and culturally speaking, we are a backlog of war stories and a vast South China Sea apart.

Stepping out of a delayed flight that early morning, the famed PM2.5 pollution was the first breath of exotica. In a country where more than 70% of the airspace is reserved for military use and priority in the remaining 30% is given to government officials and business tycoons, punctuality for commercial airlines in China is almost a mythical a thing as a Chinese dragon.

But people continue to fly, and fly more. With demand growing sharply over the years, it certainly feels about time the country extends its aggressive conservation efforts beyond a few pandas to some reliability in the sky.

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It was 5 o’clock in the morning.

By the time I made it to the hotel, my body had raced past exhaustion and I was too tired to sleep. I dropped my bags, skipped the boring buffet breakfast and went for a walk around the nearby neighbourhood.

The sky was foggy and it was a muggy day. Beijing was already up and running.

Tucked away from the main roads and huddled up between modern buildings were narrow streets where the locals squat and bond over their breakfast. It was a sight to watch, and squatting is a skill and shtick exclusive to the Asian.

Not far down the street was a food stall with moderately long queue. I joined in naturally and bought myself one of each items on the tray. For less than £1, I was able to get myself a few buns and fritters. The middle-aged woman stuffed all of them into two transparent plastic bags and took my coins with her greasy hand.

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Around the corner, there was a shop seething with people, mostly older ones having their bowls of dou zhi to start the day.

Fermented mung bean milk, that’s what it is. A classic Beijing morning drink, it was exceedingly sour with notes of stinky rotten eggs and packed with punches of indescribable strong odour. And this is me being polite.

It was the kind of food that gets audience excited and participants cringe in Fear Factor. It took courage to get past one spoonful.

On the counter, there were also a variety of pancakes and other cakes made from pea or rice flour. All specialities of the Jing.

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The community spirit in Beijing, on the other hand, was surprisingly pleasant. It was nothing like one would expect from a big city.

Vendors towed their carts to the side of the road and locals quickly gathered around. Money and fruits exchanged hands, along with crackles of laughter and swells of gossips.

On the pedestrian path, some marched mechanically to work, some walked their dogs. Dogs that were so well-groomed they would put the Parisian to shame.

Next to all of these was a flitting stream of motorbikes, trishaws and bicycles. While they move like an unstoppable force, the adjacent six-lane motorway was an almost stagnant fleet of cars. Moving so slowly, it could bore anyone to tears.

Like its B-counterparts, Bucharest and Bangkok, traffic jam in Beijing is not one to be underestimated.

The next couple of days in this city was a flurry of gold-star tourist activities. From the Great Wall to Summer Palace, Forbidden City to Tiananmen Square, I saw them all.

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The maintenance in these sights were top-notch and provided incredible ease to the flux of visitors from both home and abroad. Ticketing counters were efficient and audio guides were practically hands-free. Those little pieces of technology were able to locate users and information was given automatically as I moved from one spot to another. No pressing and fumbling required, at all.

Worried about ceaseless queues outside the loos? I was able to zip in and out as my bladder called because there were so many of them scattered around these tourist attractions.

At the famous Nan Luo Gu Xiang, a street flanked by shops in remodelled Chinese traditional buildings, there were abundant of interesting shops selling even more interesting street food, clothing and knick-knacks.

People from all walks of life flooded the street and most of them were youngsters with a degree in Selfieology, if not black belt in handling selfie-sticks.

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I walked further and what appeared was ramshackle houses with wooden doors, called the Si He Yuan – the emblematic Chinese courtyard houses.

In the old days, Si He Yuan was chiefly a square enclosure which separated family space clearly from the public/guests. From the main gate to the main hall, everything was well partitioned. There were servant rooms, rooms for owner, rooms for the sons and the daughters were “kept” at the last and far back. Women were neither to be seen, nor heard back then.

Today, with the price of every square foot of land rocketing in value, these houses have been downsized and restructured to fit modern purposes.

Though some looked old and dilapidated, they remained spectacular in every way.

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Flip over to Chaoyang District and the shiny, glass-encased offices would make you see Beijing in a different light.

Tall and high, they stood silhouetted in sunshine, dovetailing the country’s bludgeoning ambition with the world’s economy.

Just a few years after China’s 2002 Reform, multinational companies along with almost two hundred enterprises from the Fortune 500 have started operations in Chaoyang.

The surge of foreign investments, concentration of R&Ds and unprecedented technological innovations have made Beijing a magnet for highly qualified personnel around the world – all of whom have Fluent Mandarin etched into their already star-studded CVs.

And it did feel like everything was blown out of proportion at that side of the city. Perhaps it is a sign of the Jing keeping up with its superpower status and new wealth, everything seemed huge – the buildings, the roads and even the tables.

In fancy restaurants, the tables were so unnecessarily huge that lazy susans became somehow redundant. It felt like there was a moat dug between one and the dishes. It was almost impossible to reach for anything without standing up. 

But I guess that justified people speaking loudly over white table cloth and wine glasses.

So, the next time you find a fine Chinese restaurant that is rowdy to a deafening level – don’t blame the people, blame the big table.

One evening, over crispy Peking duck and steamed fish with ginger, my family and I talked about the marvelling technology in China.

Though – thanks to the Great Firewall – Google, Facebook, Twitter along with 80% of the World Wide Web is out of bound to the country’s citizen, China has developed its very own tech universe like one has never seen before.

Baidu, the most used Chinese search engine, has 100 million daily users. The people’s reliance on its service has squeezed Google out of China voluntarily and render Youtube a site almost unheard of in the country.

The high-profile Alibaba, who has made the largest IPO on NYSE two years ago, is an e-commerce company that builds up an entire shopping empire virtually and responsible for the new breed of of clicking shopaholics that has now transformed the landscape of retailing in the Far East.

Today, luxury brands like Maserati and Burberry have official storefronts on Alibaba’s T-mall. And new festival like Single’s Day on November 11th, 11/11 – chosen to resemble individual being #foreveralone – is the largest online shopping days in the world (hits almost 18 billion USD this year).

Tencent, on the other hand, owns WeChat, the walkie-talkie like messaging app that has 750 million monthly users. From paying bills to transferring money to a friend, booking karaoke rooms to ordering water delivery, WeChat has made itself indispensable to the Mainlanders.

These are the Big Three that shore up the tech world in China today.

True that the market is near monopolistic, but it has served well thus far if not better in warding off foreign players who are hungry to horn in the ring.

So, it is no surprise that after 1.5 years and a few billion dollars spent on ludicrous face-saving customer discounts and driver subsidies, Didi Chuxing – partly owned by Tencent and Alibaba – win the battle against Uber the King of Ride-Hailing from America.

Maybe, in retrospect, the Firewall isn’t only about censoring pornography and state secrets after all…

Nonetheless, amidst all the fascinating things that are happening in China, what appealed to me most is the people.

While the antics of Chinese tourists have in the past, and continue to, attract ill comments from people around the world, I find their way of communicating remarkably refreshing and easy.

There is no much pleases and thank yous, if not at all. They don’t care. They aren’t cautious about picking their words because they only know so few. This kind of interaction is faultlessly straightforward, it’s no wonder that some call them rude. But few realise that the key to communicate effectively with them is to talk to them the way to they talk to you. No sugar-coating, no holding back your emotions, honest, loud.

And real.

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Sure, stumbling into toilets with no doors (or people not locking their doors), men airing naked bellies in hot summer days and women spitting everywhere require some getting used to…

But I say spit on, Beijing. Don’t ever stop what makes you uniquely you.

With love x

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