Beijing Welcomes You: Unveiling the Capital City of the Future

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 20 November, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 20 November, 2011, 12:00am


Beijing Welcomes You: Unveiling the Capital City of the Future
by Tom Scocca
Riverhead Books

Beijing is a city made up of three parts: 'the moneyed artificial one, the wretched and broken one, the live and bustling one', muses Tom Scocca in Beijing Welcomes You, his debut book. To illustrate these jostling contradictions, Scocca - an American journalist who arrived in Beijing in 2004 and lived there on and off until 2010 - zooms in for a close-up inspection of the build-up to the Beijing Olympics. The result is an informative, if sometimes outdated, read.

The Olympics were China's boldest attempt to date to show its modern face to the world.

Scocca takes to his subject with gusto and most fascinating are his reports of the attempts of an enormous, chaotic city to turn out a cleansed version of itself for world consumption.

By 2008, he writes, there would be plans for an extra 2,000 police on duty, a new US$1 billion airport terminal and three new subway lines; rats, mosquitoes, black beetles and lice would be eradicated around the Olympic sites; 35 per cent of Beijingers would speak English; all rivers within the city would be pollution-free; and Beijing residents would 'quit their ingrained habit of spitting in the streets'.

Scocca is an endearing guide to this flux and change, and reports with wide eyes the demolishment and reconstruction of an entire city. The story starts in 2004 when Scocca follows his Chinese-American wife, Christina, to Beijing. Together they build a life, have a baby and endure the myriad frustrations and fascinations of China.

To the backdrop of this personal story are the totems of the Olympics: from the five mascots to the incessant playing of the anthem Beijing Welcomes You across the city. To make sense of it all, Scocca interviews everyone from the Olympic cheerleaders to the scientists charged with attempting to change the weather. The book builds up to the ultimate climax of the Games themselves.

As a writer with an eye for the obscure and downright bizarre, Scocca is a warm and entertaining host, unafraid to gently jest with both China and himself as the hapless American reporter. We learn, for example, that on one February 11, the city sent out text messages to all mobile phones declaring that 'line-up day' had arrived. The idea was to allow residents to practise forming orderly queues for one day each month, with the 11th chosen because 'two 1s represented the principle that even if only two people were waiting for something, one should line up behind the other'.

Despite such engrossing observations, and a fair amount of wry humour, the book can get bogged down in its own detail. Endless interviews sometimes substitute for real character development and, as China continues to surge forward, readers might well question how relevant today is a book based around an event that happened over three years ago.

As such, China hands may not learn much that's new. But for those with an unexplored interest in the mainland who are looking for a backdrop as to how the city has become what it is today, Beijing Welcomes You is a good place to start.