Dirty Old Town, by Tom Collier

I should probably start this piece by admitting I’m a big fan of the Pogues and that one of their most famous songs is also one of my favorites: Dirty Old Town. It was written about a Northern English city called Salford, not far from where I was born and a place where I lived and worked for a few years earlier in my life. It paints a grim picture of Salford. A place of industry, canals, factories and docks and while this isn’t true of the greater part of modern Salford, where the factories are now apartment buildings and the canals pleasant walkways, it is an accurate portrayal of industrial era and post war Salford, filled with dirt, soot and smog. It is only when you take a longer look at the lyrics of the song and listen to the way it is performed that you realise that the song is actually a love letter to the city, with the writer (Ewan MacColl) conjuring powerful images and memories of his hometown, which would also go on to be the hometown of the Pogues.

It’s with this song in mind that I write about Beijing.

One of the few things I had heard about Beijing prior to my journey here was, of course, the problem with pollution that the city faces. There is no skirting around the issue, it is a serious problem that Beijing faces and it is a pain for most locals and foreigners alike. A common misconception that many of my friends back home had is that the government or the people of China are somehow in denial of this fact. They aren’t and progress is being made, albeit slowly. This winter, whilst still quite bad by most westerners standards, was one of the best in recent memory. This can be partly put down to the shot in the arm the clean air movement was given in the wake of the APEC summit last year and the social media eruption surrounding what were coined ‘APEC Blue’ skies. If there is one thing which can be said for the Chinese Communist Party, it’s that they know how to get things done when they set their mind to it and their drive to improve not only air quality, but to reduce China’s reliance on fossil fuels is picking up real momentum.

As a side bar to this, when Beijing was chosen to host the  2008 Olympics, there were many requirements placed upon Beijing that demanded the city improve its air quality prior to the games taking place. I did not see pre-2008 Beijing but the government allegedly met many of these criteria, which have almost certainly been relaxed since, due to the astronomical expansion of the city in the wake of the games. However, Beijing is currently doing it’s utmost to impress the International Olympic Committee to grant them the rights to host another games, this time the Winter Olympics, due to take place in 2022. As part of this campaign, for which Beijing is amongst the favorites, there have been further pledges to tackle the problem by the time of these games. I know you may say that this is still seven years in the future, but my money is on the notion that the worst days of Beijing’s smoggy skies are in the rear view mirror. Which is partly a shame- there is, after all, no better sight than an old Beijinger strolling carelessly down the street whilst chain-smoking on a day when the smog is off the charts.

If you want to check out any more on the reductions Beijing has put in place this article has some pretty good figures:

Anyway, that’s the hate part of this story out of the way, time to crack on with the love. Beijing has come in for some flak for its treatment of historic alleyways (hutongs) and buildings, with their demolition to make way for modern buildings and transport links. It says a lot for the vast, cultural sandbox that is Beijing that you struggle to notice. I have never been to a city which has such a wealth of historic buildings, museums, temples, hutongs and even shops, not just located within the city but so centrally located too. You are overwhelmed with things to do on your days off and there are always surprises (not always pleasant ones) around every corner. Not only does Beijing tolerate these historic buildings it also embraces them, with the highlight of my life in Beijing being the hutongs, many of which are modernised and turned into restaurants, cafes, coffee shops and most importantly, bars!

Of course, the old buildings leave much to be desired in the way of plumbing, which leads you to resort to the dreaded hutong toilets many times on nights out, where it isn’t unusual for you to bump into a local resident in his boxer shorts using the throne one last time before bed time. Unless you are in the girl’s toilets in which case- be concerned. There is, even after all my time here, still a great deal of joy to be found in drinking in a tiny bar sandwiched down a dark alley, to where you have been guided only by word of mouth. Thanks to the ever changing landscape of Beijing there are constantly new bars opening and old bars closing, keeping the scene relatively fresh too.

A final point, that I noticed when my friends were visiting is how desensitised to this wonderful city you become. You forget it is normal to walk out in front of traffic, to scream at your waiter for service, to see all manner of weird translations and mascots all over the city -‘What’s that?’ ‘Oh, just a fake hello kitty riding a unicorn against an assembled army of cockroaches. You mean to say this corporate logo didn’t make it back to the UK? Oh, OK’  There is never a dull moment if you go out with your eyes open. On that note, I’m sorry to say it, Salford but Beijing is my new favorite Dirty Old  Town!

If this, quite frankly astonishingly well written and choreographed piece hasn’t persuaded you to put your worries to bed and take an, admittedly big, leap of faith and come experience Beijing for yourself, then I will leave you with a famous quote from a truly inspirational world leader- ‘Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.’ – Mr. F. Bueller Esq.

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