[This post was initially published on June 16, 2006 from Beijing, at a now defunct forum. I thought it worthy of recycling in light of Travis' recent post, and the potential for a painfully punny title. The photographs are some of the innumerable, jaw-dropping landscapes Travis and I witnessed in Beijing, last summer.]
chai: v. (1) tear open; take apart. (2) pull down; dismantle.
Over the past few weeks, some classmates and I have enjoyed lunch in the same Beijing alley almost everyday. It has been a true respite from the grimy existence found elsewhere in Beijing. This Haidian District alley is veiled in the shade of tall leafy trees. We were always the only foreigners in view, happy to pay the 4 RMB (U$ 0.50) for a bowl of spicy noodles. The 16 year-old server dropped out of school to work here for her aunt and uncle. She sends money back to her family in the countryside each chance she gets.
China is home to about 70% of current construction sites in the world. Life in Beijing (and elsewhere in China) occurs against the incessant backdrop of this construction. Dust allies with less benign particulates to blacken the inside of one's sinuses. From sunrise through sunset, the lullabies of cranes and sledgehammers wax and wane. In this ancient and crowded city, such a scale of development can only occur to the detriment of pre-existing structures and the individuals and communities that call them home.
The Communist Party's rash employment of eminent domain, and its effect in disincentivizing productive use of land have long been a blemish on both the economy and human rights in the People's Republic of China. (See The Economist's survey of China from March 23, 2006.) This post only endeavors to encapsulate the injustice such a practice embodies.
Yesterday, [June 15, 2006,] we emerged from classes seeking the solace of a nice cool plate of la mian (spicy wheat noodles.) We turned the corner into "the alley" only to find our daily lunch destination in tatters. Cooking equipment, plates, and half-cooked food covered the patio. Exhibiting a Chinese cultural obligation not to share your misfortunes with others, one of the owners and her neice/waitress stood amongst the mayhem with forced smiles. (The photos below are of "the alley" yesterday.)
The proprietors received 48 hours notice that their livelihood would be taken out from under them. Not believing the Party would mobilize at such short notice, they were serving lunch when the demolition crew arrived. The crew gave them 30 minutes to remove everything of value from the restaurant. The proprietors told us that they are being given no compensation or relocation assistance. Professor Alfred Palaez, a Chinese law expert at Duquesne University School of Law, guesses that their next destination will be the suburbs of Beijing. The economic opportunities available there are certain to fall short of their formerly popular hang-out in the Haidian District.
Every restaurant on the same block of "the alley" was in a similarly subjected to chai, (defined atop this post.) This is not at all uncommon in Beijing, ahead of 2008. Some of us just discovered another strip of restaurants in Haidian District, off of Xueyuan Lu, where locals congregated in the hundreds to watch the World Cup on about a dozen 19-inch televisions. The character, chai, painted in red upon the stubborn wall atop this post. Chai also adorns the still-intact walls of those restaurants entertaining the local football/soccer fans, just down the street. This strip, too, is set for demolition by the end of June. Again, the locals assert that no compensation or relocation assistance is being extended by the Party.