Friends with Cars

On Saturday morning I finished up a three-day training course that I had been teaching in Beijing, and needed to move out of my hotel go to a friend’s house. I normally would have just taken a taxi, but since I had a couple of suitcases, I knew I would need a bit of extra help getting from the car to my friend’s apartment.

I called a friend of mine who lives near the hotel and asked if he would be willing to help.  He was of course thrilled that I called, and said he’d be at the hotel by 3pm.

As we were driving to my friend’s place, I thanked him again for giving me a ride.

“Stop thanking me,” he said. “What’s the use in having friends with cars if you don’t ask them to drive you places?”

I guess I hadn’t thought of it that way!

Wangfujing, Then and Now

This morning I made a trek down to Wangfujing, Beijing’s main shopping street. I don’t go down there too often, but today one of the things I wanted to do was take a picture for a “then and now” set.

This first photo was taken on the corner of Wangfujing and Changan Avenue, looking towards the northeast. At that time, Wangfujing was still a narrow 2 lane road lined with shade trees and 2-story buildings. The MacDonald’s in the photo was Beijing’s first, which at the time claimed to be the largest in the world. I was living in Changchun at the time, and would (with my fellow language school classmates) make regular shopping trips to Beijing. The overnight train arrived into Beijing around ten in the morning, and we would make a bee-line to this MacDonald’s. It was almost too good to be true.

We sensed China was on the cusp of some radical changes (what better proof than this, right?), but never imagined the scope or rate at which they were going to come.

Wangfujing, 1994

This photo is taken at exactly the same spot, almost twenty years later. The MacDonald’s got moved up the street.


An Outrageous Mountain Villa

14beijing_span-articleLarge-v2It’s been a slow news week in Beijing, as evidenced by the fact that all of yesterday’s papers carried front page stories about “Beijing’s Most Outrageous Illegal Structure,” a rooftop apartment that has been transformed into a “mountain villa,” complete with rocks (styrofoam perhaps), trees, a karaoke club. Some reports even mentioned a swimming pool, but that may just be a wild rumor.

Mind you, the fact that an illegal structure can be designated as the “most outrageous” is a tip-off that  illegal structures must be common, which is of course, the case. Putting up illegal structures, be they extra floors on a building, turning balconies into rooms, or simply building a structure on an open piece of land is a national sport in China.

What makes a structure ‘illegal’ is that permission to build them was never obtained from the local authorities. It’s easier to put them up, then take then local inspectors out for a banquet or deliver a fat ‘hong bao’ (an envelope of cash) at Spring Festival.

Here’s what the The New York Times has to say about it:

In a city brimming with look-at-me architecture, the sprawling addition that Zhang Biqing, a health care magnate, built atop his 26th-floor apartment is a showstopper.

Constructed with ersatz boulders, crisscrossed by trellises and walkways and dotted with the occasional shrub, the two-story aerie resembles the idealized mountains depicted in classical Chinese paintings — except the requisite lonely monk of yore has been replaced by a flashy karaoke parlor.

I first spotted news of this particular monstrosity on the internet on Monday. By Tuesday morning, however, the story had gone viral, being picked up by news sites all across the globe. On Tuesday afternoon, I stopped at a street side newspaper kiosk to purchase a phone card and saw that it was on the front page of ALL major Beijing newspapers.

I picked up one of the papers to get a better look at the photo and read a bit more, and suddenly realized that I recognized the building — it is 2 blocks from where I am staying this month, and 3 blocks from where I lived for the past 8 years. How I’d never spotted it before is still beyond comprehension.

When I realized that the place was close by (and visible from my colleague’s hotel room on the 15th floor), I decided that it was time to go see it for myself. I grabbed my camera, rounded up a couple of friends and headed off to see this thing with my own eyes.

Sure enough, there it was.





I stood for 30 minutes at this bus stop on Sunday, never knowing that Beijing's most outrageous illegal construction was just over my shoulder!

I stood for 30 minutes at this bus stop on Sunday, never knowing that Beijing’s most outrageous illegal construction was just over my shoulder!

There was a young man standing on the overpass at Zizhuqiao taking pictures as well, so we struck up a conversation with him. It was nice to know that he thought it was nuts too. For the next couple of hours he joined us as we traipsed up and down Xizhimen Wai DaJie, near the Purple Bamboo Park, trying to get the best angles for shooting pictures.

There were lots of others along the road staring up at the building as well. “What do you think of that?” I asked a toothless man leaning against his bicycle. “Bu hao, bu hao,” he replied. Not good, not good.

We talked to another man who lives in the next door building who thought it was good for the environment. “It’s good to be green,” he said.

Initial reports said the owner (Mr. Zhang) was a professor (obviously NOT of civil engineering). Later reports have identified him as a Traditional Chinese Medicine Mogul (read: quack!)

Apparently he has spent the last six years building it, and for some reason no government department in the city has been able to stop him (they were probably too busy attending karaoke parties in the villa). That, of course, has changed with the explosion of the story, and local officials are scrambling to appear tough and concerned. They have ordered the owner to dismantle it within 15 days or they will do it for him. They’ve also announced an investigation into his company (message: embarrass the city and you will pay a price).

As for Mr. Zhang, now that he has become an objective of global ridicule, he’s taken on a more conciliatory tone: 

 Mr. Zhang asserted that the structure was safe in a brief interview on Tuesday evening, but conceded that it might have been a folly after all.

“Now I realize it was a huge mistake,” he said, adding that he would dismantle the addition within a week.

And I’ll be watching from my colleague’s hotel room.


Chinese Bumper Stickers [5]

I’m back in Beijing for a few weeks, so it’s time for another installment of Chinese bumper stickers (or car stickers, as they are called here):


This is playing off the  “love and cherish….” signs that are everywhere in China. “Love and Cherish the People.” “Love and Cherish the Grass.” “Love and Cherish the Subway.” I think you get the drift.

I'm good at braking suddenly.I’M GOOD AT BRAKING


Most cars in China have manual transmission. Killing the engine is a common occurrence, especially among new drivers who get nervous when drivers behind them get impatient.

Previous bumper sticker installments:

Chinese Bumper Stickers

Chinese Bumper Stickers [2]

Chinese Bumper Stickers [3]

Chinese Bumper Stickers [4]