Eyeing the capital again as memories of Tiananmen fade

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 13 February, 1993, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 13 February, 1993, 12:00am

DENG Xiaoping is appearing daily on the streets of Beijing - just down the road from that other socialist mega-hero, Mao Zedong The paramount leader's portrait has popped up recently at the end of Wangfujing Street, a symbolic spot if ever there was one. That is the road where socialism Chinese-style, with all its consumer society characteristics, can be observed at close quarters.

There are department stores, fashion boutiques, shoe shops and electronic outlets; all the trappings a cadre ever needs to become a fully paid-up member of the yuppie generation can be found along the main drag.

At the southern junction, peeking across to the world's largest branch of McDonald's, is the wee man himself, looking in fine fettle for an 88-year-old Long March veteran.

The poster, which was put up just before winter set in, is further evidence of the deification of Deng; a few hundred metres more and he'll be sharing the Forbidden City entrance-way with the Great Helmsman himself.

But not yet. This year marks the 100th anniversary of Mao Zedong's birth, a fact which would probably be used as a tourism marketing tool in any other country. But not China which only managed to heavily promote the 1992 Visit China Year inside the country.

Everyone living in the Middle Kingdom knew all about the campaign; absolutely nobody outside had an inkling.

For all the haphazard approach to promotion, tourists are likely to return en masse during the latter half of 1993, with memories of the Tiananmen Square student massacre mostly erased from the international traveller's consciousness.

This winter may well be the last time that bargains abound in the capital city. The Beijing low season does have its drawbacks, like a thermometer which dips dangerously close to the zero Celsius mark regularly. But nobody ever went there for a suntan, winter, spring, summer or fall.

The city's prime sights, the Forbidden City, Temple of Heaven and Great Wall can be enjoyed with a bit of elbow-room in the off-season, free from megaphone-wielding, flag-carrying guides herding shuffling Japanese and Korean tourists on stop-look-video tours.

They, like other non-mainlanders, have to pay a higher price for entry to the Forbidden City and other tourist spots, a blatantly racist policy which is extremely irksome.

It's tempting to imagine the spluttering from Chinese leaders if, say, the Empire State Building slapped a surcharge on visiting citizens from the People's Republic.

Niggles aside, China has generally got its hospitality act together nowadays, especially in the major hotels which are nipping at the heels of other renowned Asian hostelries.

Young Beijingers learn fast, their information-intake process helped along by monetary rewards for hard work and initiative. The results can be seen in some showcase properties such as Shangri-La's China World and Palace Hotel, both of which offer genuinefive-star service.

The properties are within striking distance of Tiananmen Square, as are the Holiday Inn Crowne Plaza and Sara Hotel, two other hotels offering special winter rates.

Most properties offer radically reduced rates during winter-time - starting at US$50 and up - often with extras thrown in such as free health club membership, transfer from the airport, breakfast, newspaper and so on.

Hotels are still the main place for after-hours entertainment, but by no means the only options in born-again Beijing.

Seedy hostess-run bars close as quickly as they open; long-staying hoteliers can usually give personally-researched recommendations on bars located on the wrong side of the tracks.

Expatriate favourites are the Mexican Wave and Frank's Place, both small bars which have devoted clans of late-staying drinkers. The Mexican Wave, close to the Jinguao Hotel, is small, noisy and invariably crowded.

It has cheap, locally-brewed draught beer, lively imported music and lousy food (Mexican or otherwise).

Frank's Place is run by an American expatriate, married to a mainland Chinese and is located opposite the Workers' Stadium.

Of the in-hotel hostelries, the spot of the moment is Alfred's, in the Sara Hotel, which offers Tex-Mex cuisine, cooked by a real south-of-the-border chef, and live music at weekends.

To find local rock concerts takes a little more digging, as they are rarely advertised or promoted to outsiders. The diplomatic compound restaurant - open to the public - is a favourite spot for ageing foreign government emissaries and young Chinese to shake a leg to a tune or two.

During the day-time, students seek out visitors from overseas, offering tour services in exchange for practising their English rather than massive profit.

There are charlatans around, but most youngsters will be looking for a decent tip and a chance to chat about the world outside; it is far more insightful than CITS official-line tours.

Either officially, or unofficially Beijing is a bargain destination in the wintertime and, of course, easily accessible from Hongkong.

Yet despite that proximity, it's remarkable how few people, Chinese and expatriates, have actually made the trip north to observe life PRC-style at close quarters.

Indeed there are people who proudly display their ignorance of life in the capital city, their opinions dating from long-ago trips, or second-hand media reports. There is, believe it or not, a travel agent, who actually boasts about never having been there.

The self-same people are, no doubt, the ones who accuse Beijing leaders of neither knowing or understanding how Hongkong works.

A weekend in Beijing will hardly give an insider's view to the workings of the Communist Party - but it gives an idea of how life is progressing in the latter part of the 20th century in the capital of the world's most populous nation.