I have written quite a bit about my initial impressions of Beijing over at my personal blog. I think it’s time to write a bit more formally about that.
I keep getting the impression that Beijing is somewhat like the Chicago of the 1970′s, except that instead of being a city on the decline (perhaps even hitting rock bottom before the vast period of urban renewal that continues today), Beijing is a city on the rise. Physically, they compare well. Both have a strong grid pattern and a CBD. Chicago’s lake shore gives it a hard edge, whereas Beijing grows in all directions. Still, I think the comparison is valid.
Near where I am staying is an international district known as 五道口. I have been told that it was a strongly Korean neighborhood in the 1950s, and continues to be an international neighborhood, being at the crossroads of three large universities and being a hub of foreign student life. Korean, Japanese, and Anglo travelers mix each night in a a dozen clubs and thirty or fourty restaurants. Many are internationally themed (a French bakery, American coffee shop, and English pub), but there is a strong Korean presence in the restaurants.
At night large numbers of street vendors open up shop, selling puppies, books, clothes, jewelry, and knickknacks of all sorts. Food carts are present as well. The market combined with the night life make it seem some sort of bastard child of Maxwell and Rush Streets of the 70s. (Or perhaps North Clark of today?)
There is an edge to it all. My first night here I came across a Korean guy bleeding from a split lip, his head being cradled on a friend’s lap. 5 policemen stood by, not doing much. I’m not sure if he walked into a street sign or was in a fight, but no one seemed too concerned. Perhaps the traffic makes people immune to sights of random injury, but it seems more like people are simply used to spectacle: of drunken students, loutish expats, aggressive vendors.
I wish I knew the geography literature a bit better so that I could say whether or not geographers are talking about this sort of scene more. Has it been done already? It’s definitely a qualitative project in the making.
In addition to Chicago, I also can’t get the image of Blade Runner and William Gibson out of my head. Now I understand a lot more about what is going on in cyberpunk novels. I wonder if those novels would appear in GeoBase? That’s definitely on the to do list.