The Last Days of Old Beijing

A colleague at work recommended this book, and it's definitely worth a read. The author, Michael Meyer, spent two years living in a Beijing hutong. The book is a historical record of a rapidly changing Beijing; it's a history of Beijing's changes over the centuries; it's a commentary on living in tightly knit communities; it's a nostalgic look at old ways of living. The sad part of the book is how it depicts the ways in communities are uprooted for the sake of progress; the uplifting part is the way in which the people in those communities survive and endure the changes.

One of the most interesting bits of commentary comes from a Chinese intellectual, Feng Jicai, who wants to preserve the old ways of living: "Average people, unlike intellectuals, have no interest in preserving traditional and immaterial heritage, because they do not understand the values of it." Possibly accurate, highly elitist, and it reflects the fact that poor people don't want to stay poor. The conflict inherent in that statement echoes the author's feelings about China.

This book's topic reminds me of another book I just finished, "Gang Leader for a Day". Both books are written by middle-class Americans who spend time in marginalized communities, and who illustrate how those communities are vibrant and full of life.

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