The Last Days of Old Beijing: Life in the Vanishing Backstreets of a City Transformed

Michael Meyer, Author . Walker $25.99 (355p) ISBN 978-0-8027-1652-1

Just in time for the Summer Olympics in Beijing, the Old City's narrow lanes and shops are being bulldozed and their residents displaced to make way for Wal-Marts, shopping centers and high-rise apartments. Part memoir, part history, part travelogue and part call to action, journalist Meyer's elegant first book yearns for old Beijing and mourns the loss of an older way of life. Having lived for two years in one of Beijing's oldest hutongs —mazes of lanes and courtyards bordered by single-story houses—Meyer chronicles the threat urban planning poses not only to the ancient history buried within these neighborhoods but also to the people of the hutong . The hutong , he says, builds community in a way that glistening glass and steel buildings cannot. His 81-year-old neighbor, whom he calls the “Widow,” had always been safe because neighbors watched out for her, as she watched out for others: the book opens with a delightful scene in which the Widow, a salty character who calls Meyer “Little Plumblossom,” brings him unsolicited dumplings for his breakfast. The ironies of the reconstruction of Beijing are clear in the building of Safe and Sound Boulevard, which, Meyer tells us, is “neither safe nor sound.”Meyer's powerful book is to Beijing what Jane Jacobs's The Death and Life of Great American Cities was to New York City. 25 b&w photos. (June)

Reviewed on: 04/07/2008
Release date: 06/01/2008
Genre: Pick of the Week
Paperback - 371 pages - 978-0-8027-1750-4
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