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Unveiling the Capital City of the Future

by Tom Scocca

Pub Date: Aug. 4th, 2011
ISBN: 978-1-59448-784-2
Publisher: Riverhead

A curiously backward-moving but fun book chronicling the buildup to the Beijing Olympics.

A columnist at the time for the New York Observer, Slate blogger Scocca and his Chinese American wife moved to Beijing in 2004 (she worked in nonprofit, he commuted back and forth from New York). For the next four years, by the magic date of 8/8/08, they witnessed the extraordinary transformation of the city into a marvel for the world. A once closed-off, cluttered capital city plagued by the rambling hutongs (the old city’s lanes and alleys…right-angled jogs and branchings, blind turns and dead ends, parallel lines suddenly swinging perpendicularly away from each other”), traffic jams and smog, Beijing was gradually rearranged, gutted and renovated by enormous, all-devouring construction projects. The single-character chai (“tear down”) was painted everywhere. The Stalinist architecture and goofy traditionalist designs were scuttled in favor of the innovative and sculptural: “hatboxes, flashlights, sardine cans standing on end, a giant topiary garden in steel and glass.” China would spend $40 billion to prepare for the Games, aiming for a top gold-medal count (only 20 years before, China had won its first gold medal in Los Angeles), hiding its hordes of rustic migrant workers and selecting the Olympic motto “One world, one dream” (Scocca’s alternate translation: “Same world, same dream”). Life in Beijing for the foreigners was not always easy or comfortable (such as the manifestation of the security state via Internet censorship), but endlessly fascinating and unintentionally hilarious: the lively, ever-changing taxi fleet, the everyday objects that fell apart effortlessly, the contradictions in the Chinese character, the government’s efforts to improve their citizens’ manners by prohibiting public spitting and rehearsing orderly lining-up prescribed “line-up day.” The last part of Scocca’s amusing account marks the suspenseful countdown to the big day, a triumph for China, followed by an extensive assessment that China had indeed “joined the world.”

A witty, light-handed chronicle, though after three years, the Beijing Olympics has already lost its luster.