It may have been worth a trip here to see Dorothy’s and Clara’s beaming faces after we watched the acrobatics theatre troupe perform at the Beijing Chaoyang Theatre, which made Cirque du Soliel seem like a Richard Simmons exercise video.
We wound up with the acrobats Wednesday after a basic tour of Tiananmen Square, the Forbidden City, and a pedaled tour of the older neighborhood nearby. Touristy stuff. Riding in these pedaled carts, especially touring alongside the tree shaded waterway bordering Beihai Park, was just right for the girls. But this older familiar-styled Chinese neighborhood is now an historic district and this most definitely is not the same China of three years ago or certainly any of our other trips to China before that.
Coming from our home in a city that is struggling to rebuild at a very slow pace in the midst of the wealthiest country on earth, the new construction that is taking place here is startling, as is the obviously gigantic amount of private capital that must be driving this. Only a part of this investment has to do with hosting the upcoming Olympics, set to begin in August. The world is changing here.
A new Chinese feature film called CJ7, directed by the cross-cultural Stephen Chow, does a wonderful job of capturing in a freeze frame new urban Beijing in 2008, much in the way that Stephen Spielberg seemed with ET to capture suburban culture of southern California USA in 1982. Chow’s film was actually shot in Ningbo in Zhejiang Province, but its look is similar to Beijing, as are its relationships between those who are part of China’s new economy and those who are building the new China by hand, on wages only slightly better than those in the countryside where most of these urban laborers came from. In downtown Beijing it’s hard to remember that nearly 80% of China’s population is still rural, and still very poor. In many ways CJ7 is a better written film than ET; edgier and more socially irreverent. Like China itself it is heavy on symbolism, but it's also both very funny and very moving. In it a poor laborer works on a dangerous high-rise construction site to send his young son to a private school and hopefully on to live “a useful life,” which is a complicated Chinese concept that may not translate well but involves patience, work, and sacrifice. The boy is picked on at school but one day discovers a super cute alien who looks like a small toy animal within a strange object his father brings home from a refuse pile. The boy names it CJ7 in competition with a very expensive popular toy he sees in a store and that his school mates can easily afford. CJ7 turns out to have magical powers that through triumph then tragedy then triumph again result in a simple, powerful lesson on the value of useful living. If nothing else, today’s new urban China can also be stunning in its hopeful utility. A physical reflection of this is an architectural marvel taking shape downtown that will be the new headquarters of China Central Television. The huge building takes the form of a twisted magnet with two tall inwardly leaning towers that connect like upside down Ls at the top. It’s all about balance.