BEIJING--Last week, reporter Patty Wen and I spent some time in this part of Beijing south of Tiananmen Square called the Xuanwu district (the story appeared in today's Globe). The Chinese government doesn't want foreigners like Patty and I (or most of you) to actually see large parts of the Xuanwu district. So they've done about the most low-tech, unimaginative thing you can do to hide something: they built a big honking wall right down the sidewalk, inches from the openings of shops (above photo) so all you see from the street is this:
Preeeeeetty clever, huh? You know that if you hide something, it only gets journalists' juices flowing. So below, dear reader, we proudly present some images from behind the wall.
As you can see, it's not even that bad--it's not like the Chinese government was obscuring horrible open poverty and disease, or roiling political dissent, or anything. It's just a rather humble "hutong" neighborhood, made up of tightly packed dwellings clustered around narrow alleys.
Sure, it's a little informal (I saw one elder gentleman shuffling around the neighborhood in baggy boxers and slip-on sandals), and some of the storefronts could use a makeover. But it's kind of great too--everyone knows each other, things are close together, and the place at midday is full of cooking smells (mingling with the scents of rubbish and dog poo, of course).
It's being hidden because it's the opposite of everything that is sparkling, brand new, and ultra-modern (and kinda boring) about Beijing, the Beijing the government wants you to see during the Olympics. In fact, everything in these photos is slated for eventual demolition (and you can see some structures have already been knocked down) so they can throw up some more squeaky clean high rises.
And, who's to say the urban renewal's all bad? Modern flush toilets and more personal space are quite nice, after all. But for the meantime, enjoy this glimpse into a rich, fast-vanishing part of Beijing.