The first morning I awoke in Beijing I decided to hit the ground running by connecting with my fellow American exchange students. They had arrived in Beijing a few days earlier, and many of them had visited before. Needless to say, they knew their way around much better than I did. Because I was still a little shaken and disoriented, I decided it might not be a bad idea to spend some time with them (read: cling like a barnacle.) But I couldn’t help feeling excitement and thirst for adventure. It was a new day, and time to take in the city I had traveled so far to see. So how did I begin my journey to discover Beijing? Why, by going to the mall, of course!
My classmates brought me to Xidan. Not just a mall, but what can only be described as a mall district. Gucci, Armani, Apple, TGI Friday’s: Should you want for any of the same brand names we’ve become so inured to in America, look no further. But walk across the street from the Louis Vuitton store, and you can browse through a plethora of dirt-cheap knock-off brands, plastic trinkets, and fluffy animal slippers. There’s something for everyone!
Okay, our first stop was actually Tiananmen Square. But Xidan was the first place in China that really awed me. Sad as that may sound, I’m not starry-eyed about it. I recognize Xidan for what it is: tackiness in epic proportions. Besides, Tiananmen Square, though impressive in its own way, was more or less what I expected. Neither it nor Xidan create the same kind of awe that The Forbidden City, the Great Wall, or the Summer Palace do. Those places are impressive for their beauty, their historical significance, and the sheer audacity of their design. All of these qualities are heightened by their age. Building something on the scale of the Forbidden City would be a feat today, but in 1420? Even something as modest as a courtyard home in a hutong (the old Ming and Qing dynasty alleyways unique to Beijing) gave me a better sense of the city. These are places with history, with soul.
Xidan, by comparison, is decidedly soulless. I imagine the “awe” I felt is a lot like that of someone seeing seeing Vegas for the first time. All big monuments are impressive at first, even if they’re monuments to bad taste. But then you spend some time there and realize the place, though enormous and shiny, is just as hollow and artificial as amusement park scenery. But still, there are things about Xidan that can’t be ignored. It’s a massive concentration of money, unlike anything I’ve ever seen before (think 5th avenue put into a taffy puller.) It also boasted the largest concentration of people I had seen in one place before I became completely desensitized to this. Then I saw Shanghai, but that’s a whole other post.
We arrived in the afternoon, and the moment I stepped out of the subway station I knew I was seeing something that I had no conceptual tools to understand. Everything is bigger in this part of Beijing. The streets are wider, the buildings set on larger, rambling lots. In a city like New York, even the large streets feel pretty cramped. Building on an island has forced Manhattan to become dense. And no matter where you are, the size of things is not readily apparent because you’re wedged right up against them. You can never get enough distance on the buildings to understand the volume of space they occupy. Beijing has no such problem. It’s still mind-bogglingly populous (a city with twice as many people as NYC,) but still has enough room to allow wide vistas. Being in such a place makes you feel as if you’re standing in a normally-proportioned city, but you yourself have been reduced to 1/3 scale.
From the subway my friends and I went directly to an above-ground walkway which towers over the streets and allows people to enter the malls from about three stories up. As soon as I reached the top of the escalator, I found myself staring Kate Winslet in the face. A giant, 25-foot Kate Winslet face selling perfume. The tops of buildings are littered with these ads (a surprising majority featuring western models and actresses,) from the immediately adjacent mega-malls to those stretching off infinitely into the distance. It looks like Times Square laid on its side. This ostentatious display of capitalism is no doubt sending Chairman Mao spinning in his grave.
Walking along Xidan’s main thoroughfare, the malls are so immense that you can walk for ten minutes and still be passing entrances to the same building. But before you know it, that building has blended into another adjacent monstrosity. Though built at different heights and using different materials, the buildings are all mashed together, creating a ham-fisted sort of unity. The malls on what I came to recognize as the expensive side of the street (the side with the Apple store) are actually quite glitzy and well-designed. I got a kick out of the escalator that goes up 6 stories in a single run inside Xidan’s aptly named “Joy City.” It’s a vertically-oriented mall with a staggering array of clothing stores (North Face, Nike,) high-end accessories, electronics, even wine. Towards the top there are whole floors filled with different chain restaurants. They’re not as big as your brick-and-mortar Chili’s, but the Chili’s that have been scaled down for airport terminals. There’s also a movie theater at the very top, as well as apartments because, well, who wouldn’t want to live there?
Walk across the street from the glamorous Joy City, and you receive a lesson in contrasts. Most buildings do not have uniformly spaced or sized entrances. Instead, there will be an open door through which you can only see a stairwell (with no hand rails) leading precipitously down into the dark bowels of the building. But the door immediately next to it will open into another set of stairs going up, or into a bathroom, or a courtyard. These places do not seem to have been constructed with any logic. They have the mad non-organization of Hogwarts, or the amorphous buildings you encounter in dreams.
Step inside, and it feels as if you have entered a gargantuan human beehive. The first of such places my friends and I visited was nominally a mall, but it was more like a collection of indoor street-hawkers. Navigating the tangle of escalators, I dizzily browsed through floor after floor of surly shopkeepers and aisles upon aisles of crap: Purple velvet jackets, fake sunglasses, cell phone cases, plastic cats that wave their arms, honey-roasted fish on a stick. I soon tired of these surroundings, and pressed my friends to find a restaurant. Surely there was an authentic Chinese meal to be had around here?
If there was, no one with me knew how to find it. We first wound up at McDonald’s, but the deep shame of that led us to find greener pastures. So we started by going down one of the mall’s extremely narrow stairwells, finding at the bottom a dire looking Chinese fast food joint. We noticed a small doorway across the dining room, and decided to investigate. Naturally, it opened onto a set of ascending stairs. “Hmm,” I thought as we reached the top, “that flight of stairs wasn’t nearly as long as the one that took us down here.” Then I realized my head was almost touching the ceiling. We had found another restaurant, but it would seem that this one existed on some make-believe floor between floors. You may wonder how this is even possible. For that I refer you to “Being John Malkovich.”
By the time we sat down for dinner, I was utterly worn down by the sensory overload of bright lights, music, and the never-ending throngs of people pushing past me. The effect of all of this is to make you feel very small. But what was the real takeaway message of my first day? All I could figure was that everyone in Beijing was at the mall. In retrospect, while this may be true, I realize I can’t really blame them for it. It’s hard to go anywhere in this city without having to at least pass through a mall. My favorite examples are the subway stops whose exits open straight into department stores instead of the street, though it leaves me wondering which came first. Is it a mall conveniently built on top of the subway? Or is it a subway built for convenient access to the mall?
My university back home offers a course called “The American Dream Reconsidered.” The course, as the name implies, offers a bleak outlook of the current state of American culture. It laments the loss of of our sense of common purpose and the rise of consumerism. As America has made its riches, the class told us, it has lost its soul. But in this regard, America can’t hold a candle to China. Xidan may have made a big first impression, but it’s hardly unique here. A drop in the bucket. Spend time in Beijing and you will undoubtedly come across many Xidans by a different name, each one more cheerfully commercial than the last.
It’s left me wondering if this is what the rest of the world is coming to. Maybe all cities are on their way to becoming giant shopping malls, and China has merely embraced it more quickly and thoroughly than anywhere else where dissenting voices might question it. Maybe my class was right, but least people in America still care enough to complain. Here though, the default line is to marvel at how much things are improving. Yes, wealth is preferable to poverty, and yes, many Chinese are better off now than they would have been a few decades ago. But when all semblance of culture has been bulldozed to make way for shopping which is the same everywhere, devoid of local flavor or soul, is that progress? When we’re all trying to one-up each other by having the newest Mercedes, the most accessories, the priciest Louis Vuitton bag, maybe it’s a good time to stop and ask, is this really what we want? For my part, I’ll take the hutong.