Saturday, June 6, 2009

Things that come to mind unbidden

Beijing has changed so much over recent years that my knowledge of the
city isn’t always particularly useful to me; I can’t always count on
things being located where they used to be. But occasionally they
still are, and so my experience of the last week has involved several
bits of disconnected information rising out of the depths of memory to
click into place. I was standing at the bus stop when I remembered I
needed to buy a longer Ethernet cable (since the port and desk are on
opposite sides of my room). Suddenly the memory that the building
behind me was once a computer supply mall popped into place, and I
turned around and walked into it. It still was a computer supply
mall, and it took me 2 minutes to get my cable. The #808 bus sailed
by and I remembered in a flash that this was how you got to Xizhimen
back when Xizhimen (about 6-7km away) was the nearest subway station
to campus.

These are the kinds of random connections that prove useful. But I
was also recently riding a bus in the western Haidian district, near
where I’m staying, and happened to pass by the Sijiqing bridge. The
thing that stirred in memory, this time, was the recollection of a
tour we were given in 1988 of the Sijiqing People’s Commune, a model
center of collective agriculture. During the second half of the
Cultural Revolution, this was the site where foreign visitors were
given tours of the successes of the collective system, but by 1988 it
must have been on its last legs. The communes started to be
dismantled in 1978 with the Four Modernizations campaign, and the
process only accelerated over time. But I do remember the place as a
green expanse of agricultural fields. Today, of course, it is a huge
cluster of high-rise housing and shopping malls, interspersed with
sprawling building-supply markets. Sijiqing is currently on the
leading edge of Beijing’s urban expansion, and these markets no doubt
are supplying the growth. I do wish I’d paid more attention to the
commune when we visited in 1988; in my memory it’s twined together
with a tour of the Beijing Jeep factory, then the first-ever
automotive joint venture in China. Seen in retrospect, the Jeep
factory was the future and the agricultural commune was the past. But
I didn’t know that at the time.

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