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So near yet so feared: five-star struck

Cecilie Gamst Berg

 

When I first arrived in Beijing, a lifetime ago, I thought the Jianguo (Build the Country) Hotel was the height of luxury. With its gleaming brass fittings and richly coloured carpets so deep you could smother a badger in them, it smelled wealthy and the people in it seemed to be the only ones in town wearing suits.

I used to cycle across town on my Flying Pigeon from the modest hovel I was sharing with four backpackers (I saw myself not as one of them, but as a resident aristocrat who had fallen on hard times) to soak up the atmosphere at the Jianguo while treating myself to a club sandwich and a cup of coffee, which was all the luxury I could afford. (This was in the days before I discovered Sichuan food.)

Just before Christmas last year, I got off the train in freezing Guangzhou East Railway Station and instead of staying near the Pearl River as I normally do, I thought I would celebrate my 25th year in China symbolically by staying in the local Jianguo.

Instead of the luxury I remember, however, I found myself in a room that was, though perfectly adequate, beginning to look a little frayed, and staring directly into a massive residential block a few centimetres away.

Was the Jianguo in Beijing 25 years ago a similarly three- or four-star hotel masquerading as a five-star one? Had I simply been too star-struck to notice? Or have the hotels' standards actually plummeted? In most other instances, China hasn't so much grown as leapt up.

When I arrived in 1988, for example, nobody had a telephone. You had to go to someone's house to get hold of them, your every move followed, noted down and reported on by nosy neighbourhood watch-hags. The people you called on would then be at risk of a visit from the Public Security Bureau, demanding to know everything you had said and done.

But instead of households getting landlines installed, then rising up the ranks via log-sized murder-weapon mobiles to today's smartphones, mainlanders have gone straight from no phone to owning the kind of gizmos that will turn your lights on and off for you, drop your children - sorry, child - off at school, and so on. (The ability to make phone calls on them is sort of by the by.) There has simply been no in-between stage as in other countries.

I tend therefore to cut China a bit of slack when, for example, its doctors leave the odd scalpel in their patients' tummies, or when the new Jianguo Hotels aren't quite as beautiful as the old.

 

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