Monday, November 05, 2007

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THE EXPAT LIFE
By ALAN PAUL


In Fast-Changing Beijing, Nostalgia
For This Morning's Landmarks

October 26, 2007

The more things change around here, the more they change.

Beijing is developing at a breathtaking pace. This whole sprawling metro area often feels like one giant construction site. Much of this activity is due to a rush to prepare for the Olympics, but it's bigger than that. There is similarly frenzied activity all across the country.

The whole place is evolving right in front of our eyes, at a pace I can't compare to anything I have ever seen. It makes life in the rust belt towns in Pennsylvania and Michigan from which my wife and I hail seem positively glacial.

Maps and guidebooks become obsolete as soon as they are printed, restaurants and landmarks vanish on repeat visits, and highways spring up in cornfields on the fringes of town. I am, of course, not the only one to notice this. Virtually everyone living or passing through China is wowed by the country's racing heartbeat, and one team of economists has set out to quantify the evolution.

Stephen Green, a senior economist at Standard Chartered Bank in Shanghai, continually found himself marveling with visiting friends at the pace of change and struggling to describe what he saw. "I didn't have any way to compare my life in London with my life in Shanghai," says Mr. Green, who set out to devise a formula to do so.

By using gross domestic product as a measure of change, he devised a "China years" table. According to this, one year in America is the equivalent of about three months in China. Mr. Green is quick to note that "GDP can't explain everything," adding that he was just trying to have some fun. Still, while you can quibble with the formula, it's hard to argue with the results. They perfectly mirror my own experience, indicating that my two and half years here equal about a decade in the U.S. You'd have to ask someone from Malawi, the African nation at the bottom of Mr. Green's chart, if a year's progress there could really be witnessed in seven Chinese hours.

When we arrived in Beijing in August 2005, our housing compound seemed to sit on the edge of urban sprawl, with the boonies lapping up against us. The area, on Beijing's northeast side, contained two or three nearby compounds, and several other expat housing clusters a few miles north. In between, a handful of restaurants and businesses catered to expats and wealthy Chinese amid farm fields, small villages, cheap markets and light industry. Flocks of sheep could be seen wandering down the side of the area's road artery, the very busy Jing Shun Lu.

Now, many local businesses have been replaced by higher-end establishments; fields are becoming shops, compounds and highways; and the formerly dusty, dingy road is being lined with trees, bushes and flowers. An ornamental wall obscures some of the remaining small shops, while others are now rubble. The change is so rapid that a section can be transformed from morning to evening.

I drove up the road with our ayi (nannie) Ding the other day and asked her in Chinese why she thought this was all happening. "Yinwei (because) next year Olympics come," she said in our usual Chinglish style.

I called the regional development office and learned Ding was basically right; because the thoroughfare is deemed "an important road between the airport and Olympic functional area," it received 220 million Chinese yuan (about $29.4 million) for its aesthetic improvement.

A month ago someone told me about a major construction project on a back road I regularly traverse. I biked over and saw the old agricultural field filled with earthmovers, cranes, huge drilling apparatus and dozens of men. Pylons were rising up, ready to carry traffic between two busy highways on what will be the 18-km Airport South Expressway.

The project will transform the area, with flyways and a massive concrete structure cutting through the heart of our neighborhood. Already, dust covers everything. The farmers who filled half of the road with feed corn laid out to dry every fall are absent and blocks of nearby small businesses, homes and factories have been reduced to piles of bricks. These are sometimes carted away by mule-drawn carriages, a jarring metaphor for the way in which China holds onto an agrarian past even as it speeds into the future.

All of this leaves me a little sad because I liked the feeling of living on the frontier. But I'm not going to fall into the trap of talking about how things used to be, especially after living here such a short time. Everyone's view of "normal" starts the moment they arrive. The one thing that won't change is the continual change -- or the difficulty in gauging just how local residents feel about it.

I recently spent a day driving around areas directly affected by the new highway, asking people what they thought, with the aid of a translator. A common refrain was, "It doesn't affect me." The person was likely to say they don't live close to the new highway, before pointing to an area at most a quarter mile away. I drove down another back road which will run next to the expressway and saw a frontloader knocking down a house. Buildings on either side were already demolished. Two weeks ago, this was a quiet country lane. I asked a man biking by how he felt about this. "Those guys got a lot of money for their house," he said. "I wish it was mine. Mine is over there and they don't want it."

Inside the neighboring Sunhe Market, many vendors said the highway wouldn't affect them -- though it will run close enough to cast a shadow -- while others said it would bring more cars and therefore more customers. I sensed an odd mix of fatalism and optimism, which both run counter to my own views.

Only one vendor was openly skeptical. "They moved me out of that building because it will be too close to the highway," he said, pointing to an empty shell just two or three yards from his current front door. He relocated to the market in June because the building housing his previous store some 12 miles north of town had been torn down. "I don't want to move again, because it's a pain."

He shouldn't get too settled in his new digs. A new China International Exhibition Center is rising out of a formerly empty lot up the road -- a 660,000 square meter facility that will permanently quash whatever rural feeling this area retains. A giant hotel has already risen across the street and a large mall, the "Europlaza," is ready to open soon.

The rumor mill is churning, with talk of a McDonald's, megaplex movie theater and more. Some people look forward to its opening, but I am not alone in cringing. The new construction is dwarfing the nearby Pinnacle Plaza, something of an expat oasis, featuring a toy store, a diner, Domino's, Starbucks and Baskin-Robbins. Because it was there when most of us arrived, Pinnacle Plaza seems like a natural part of the landscape rather than an alien invader. It really is an ancient edifice, too -- it's been here for seven years.
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This is my 50th Expat Life column. Though I realize that this milestone surely means little to anyone other than me, I wanted to take the opportunity to thank readers for all of their great feedback. Please keep it coming. I will try to do the same. Thanks also to the researchers and news assistants at the WSJ Beijing bureau, who have provided immeasurable assistance for several columns.

Write to Alan Paul at expatlife@dowjones.com