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The rebirth of Beijing.

Byline: Stephen Morison Jr.

Today, I rode my bicycle home from the Old Summer Palace, a park in northeastern Beijing.

At the beginning of my ride, I pedaled past smokestacks billowing white columns into the haze. Soon, the neatly paved secondary road turned to dirt. I passed by laborers laying a massive drainage pipe, then nodded hello to workers tamping down a layer of macadam with a plumb line and shovels. I continued, reaching a crew building a new bridge from steel beams, rebar and concrete.

Eventually, I stopped on a pedestrian overpass that afforded me the best views of my destination: the famous "Bird's Nest," the woven-steel-beam, Swiss-designed National Stadium where the 2008 Summer Olympics opening ceremonies will occur this August. High up on the curved heights, tiny men in hard hats were securing sections of the roof.

The Beijing authorities in charge of planning and constructing the Olympic facilities release optimistic reports at regular intervals, but in the absence of an independent media in China, it's anybody's guess whether the city will be ready when the athletes and fans begin to arrive.

The old China-hands I know - men and women who speak Mandarin and have lived in the capital since the 1990s - are reassuring. They've seen Beijing change from a city of one-story medieval courtyard homes and streets dominated by bicycles to a modern megalopolis filled with skyscrapers, subways, highways and traffic jams.

"But what about the smog?" I say, and my co-worker, Tim, who has been here for five years, smiles like the wise old Taoist monk from "Dream of the Red Chamber," the Chinese classical novel that's been turned into a television serial.

The smog over Asia isn't limited to Beijing. News agencies report that toxic air plagues huge swaths of sky from Delhi to Singapore, but it's particularly bad over eastern China. Before last August, the authorities permitted a daily air quality index to be published online. In recent months, the dispiriting reports - there were days when the smog was so bad it was difficult to see buildings a hundred meters away - are no longer being published; the site is no longer accessible.

An acquaintance who plays squash at my health club and works for the International Olympic Committee told me that, as a result of the poor air quality, none of his colleagues expect any Olympic records to be set in the distance events at the upcoming games.

"The government will fix it," Tim says.

"How?"

"They'll figure out a way. The last time the Olympic Committee came to check the air quality out, they made everybody stop driving."

Indeed, three weeks after I arrived in August, the Communist authorities ordered half the private vehicles to stay home for four days. There were no visible improvements.

One of my former students in Connecticut, a young woman on the junior Olympic crew team, came last summer to row in an international competition in the new rowing facility a short distance outside the city. She told me it was rumored that the Chinese government would "seed" the clouds before the games. After it rains in Beijing, the smog clears, but only for a couple of days.

In a way, the obstacles - the constant construction, the smog, the traffic - make Beijing a fun place to live. If you're thinking of visiting, either to see the games or just to check out the country whose rapid economic growth has caused it to dominate the nightly news in the States, there may not be a better time. Even Tim is nervous about what will happen after the Olympics have ended. If you want to see an old China-hand shudder, ask them what will happen when there are no longer foreign agencies checking to see if the air has gotten cleaner.

Beijing may get dirtier after the games, but its massive transformation will doubtlessly continue. Foreign news reports have speculated that as much as 80 percent of the new Olympic buildings are being funded by foreign investors hoping to gain a foothold in China's domestic marketplace. The face of Nike and McDonald's spokesperson Yao Ming, the Chinese basketball star, is ubiquitous on billboards all over the city. And with every major Western hotel chain - from Hyatt to Westin to Crowne Plaza to Marriott - building in the city, there is no shortage of space for prospecting businesspersons.

I've come to teach English and write about the city, and it's both thrilling and disconcerting to live in a place where skirting a construction site is as common as crossing the street. One report, assembled by Wall Street Journal Pulitzer Prize winner Ian Johnson, suggests that much of the current growth has been funded by razing the once-beautiful, 300-year-old homes at the city's center, replacing them with cheap high-rises and renting out the new spaces to Hong Kong banks, Taiwanese investors and European corporations.

Still, it would be impossible for Beijing to simply cease being Chinese, to shirk its 5,000 years of history and somehow assimilate with the Western slant of multinational culture.

At night, the narrow street where I live in the Chaoyang district, a neighborhood that's home to many foreigners, begins to resemble a scene from Ridley Scott's "Blade Runner," the old sci-fi movie dystopia that predicted a future with an Asian flavor.

The Sichuan restaurant across the street from our apartment building has a 2-story tall, red neon sign and bulbous red lanterns, and the businesses to either side, a hair salon and a cafe, have illuminated placards that are nearly as large. Steam rises from the several dumpling shops; the flower store offers a colorful facade, and carts selling meat kebabs and other skewered savories park on the sidewalks by the intersection. Nightlife flourishes in the hutongs or small alleys that run south from my street to the recently refurbished Workers' Stadium where the Olympic soccer competitions will take place.

A couple of weeks ago, workers came to tear up my road and replace the sidewalk. The city authorities appear intent on repaving every road in Beijing. They work all night.

I pull back my curtain and look down through the glow of neon and fetid steam, down through the hazy night air to where the future is being laid.

Stephen Morison Jr. teaches English at the Pomfret School in Pomfret, Conn. He is currently involved in School Year Abroad.

ART: PHOTOS

CUTLINE: (1) A mix of new and old can be found as Beijing prepares for the summer Olympic Games. (2) This page, visitors climb steps on the Great Wall in China, built more than 2,000 years ago. (3) Opposite page, top photo, the main Olympic stadium, nicknamed the Bird's Nest. (4) Lower left, the courtyard of a traditional-style Beijing guesthouse. (5) Author Stephen Morison Jr. poses at a temple gate. Below, a path through a bamboo forest. (6) Right, the author's wife and daughter pose in the

Forbidden City. (7) Below, spectators walk into the National Aquatics Center, known as the Water Cube, which will host the Olympic swimming and diving competitions. (8) Top photo, workers install a Beijing 2008 Olympic Games sculpture formed from 20,000 pieces of Chinese dishes and cups. (9) Above, the Great Wall.
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Publication:Telegram & Gazette (Worcester, MA)
Geographic Code:9CHIN
Date:Apr 23, 2008
Words:1203
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