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The Last Days of Old Beijing: Life in the Vanishing Backstreets of a City Transformed Paperback – May 26, 2009


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Product Details

  • Paperback: 384 pages
  • Publisher: Walker & Company; Reprint edition (May 26, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0802717500
  • ISBN-13: 978-0802717504
  • Product Dimensions: 6.2 x 1.1 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 11.2 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (43 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #697,712 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. Just in time for the Summer Olympics in Beijing, the Old City's narrow lanes and shops are being bulldozed and their residents displaced to make way for Wal-Marts, shopping centers and high-rise apartments. Part memoir, part history, part travelogue and part call to action, journalist Meyer's elegant first book yearns for old Beijing and mourns the loss of an older way of life. Having lived for two years in one of Beijing's oldest hutongs—mazes of lanes and courtyards bordered by single-story houses—Meyer chronicles the threat urban planning poses not only to the ancient history buried within these neighborhoods but also to the people of the hutong. The hutong, he says, builds community in a way that glistening glass and steel buildings cannot. His 81-year-old neighbor, whom he calls the Widow, had always been safe because neighbors watched out for her, as she watched out for others: the book opens with a delightful scene in which the Widow, a salty character who calls Meyer Little Plumblossom, brings him unsolicited dumplings for his breakfast. The ironies of the reconstruction of Beijing are clear in the building of Safe and Sound Boulevard, which, Meyer tells us, is neither safe nor sound.Meyer's powerful book is to Beijing what Jane Jacobs's The Death and Life of Great American Cities was to New York City. 25 b&w photos. (June)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Booklist

One of the wonders and terrors of freewheeling capitalism is its dynamism. Old ideas, technologies, and physical structures are swept aside without sentimentality or regard for the human costs. This is especially evident in the rapidly emerging economies of India and China, where the old struggles to coexist with the new. Meyer first went to China as a Peace Corps volunteer in 1995, and he continues to reside in one of the few remaining old neighborhoods in Beijing, one that is clearly doomed, as high-rises, shopping malls, and widened avenues move ever closer. Meyer describes his adopted home ground with a mixture of affection and hard realism. Living conditions are harsh, homes are crowded, the wood in many structures is rotting, and outhouses rather than indoor plumbing are the norm. Yet residents, including Meyer, have a strong and stubborn attachment to their community; he provides touching examples of how many strive to stay put. A wistful, charming paean to a community and way of life that is soon to be swept away in the name of progress. --Jay Freeman --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Customer Reviews

He skillfully interweaves characters, various settings, interviews, and lots of thorough research.
Teresa Book Webster
Meyer offers hundreds of intimate windows into contemporary Chinese culture, its dreamy idealism, extreme modernism, and comic book nationalism.
swskafte
At home in the hutong, Meyer is able to chronicle its extinction like a preservational linguist might do with a dying tongue.
A. L. Pasternack

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

30 of 30 people found the following review helpful By M. A Netzley on July 28, 2008
Format: Hardcover
About halfway through The Last Days of Old Beijing a question entered my mind. How long can Michael Meyer sustain a book which keeps repeating that Beijing's hutong are being torn down? The answer, to be frank, is 309 pages. I never tired of this one idea even though I expected my typical impatience to kick-in. This was a damn fine read.

So many ideas are floating through my head as I try to capture my reaction. Michael Meyer is a bit of a true believer. In some senses, this characterization portrays him as a romantic who has fallen in love with the hutong and its intangible cultural patterns and meanings. Yet, it also means he goes further than the rest of us, and that is something to be respected. How many times have I, or perhaps you, been to a museum or read the literature and dreamed of what it must have been like to experience life in another time or place? What empowers this book is that its author has done exactly what we only dream of. He moved to China, lived in a hutong, and made this experience all his own. The distance that allows us to safely consume the experiences of others is a divide that Mr Meyer has stepped over.

Consequently, this book is a portrait of what is to me another time and place, though it is present tense for our author. The portrait is a romantic one, his love of this place in every way seems genuine, and the sense of loss is compelling. Early in the book Mr. Meyer is cautioned by the police that living in a hutong is not safe, he stays and we are gradually introduced to a cast of characters such as the Widow, Recycler Wang, Miss Zhu, Soldier Liu, and Zhang Jinqi.
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19 of 19 people found the following review helpful By Loyd E. Eskildson HALL OF FAME on July 18, 2008
Format: Hardcover
"The Last Days of Old Beijing" is written by an American volunteer English teacher in an "old Town" Beijing elementary school. The area surrounding his rental room is being squeezed by encroaching redevelopment motivated both by profit and patriotism (putting on a good face for the Olympics). Public latrines take the place of indoor plumbing, central heating/cooling is non-existent, and the use of most appliances risks blowing a fuse and impacting many others. Many live in less than 100 square feet/person - less than the city minimum of 161 square feet.

Meyer speaks Chinese, and living among those directly affected is in an excellent position to relay their thought. His accounting is augmented by an interest in history, which he exercises through frequent library visits to learn the background of the individual streets and buildings in his area.

Not surprisingly, rebuilding is met with mixed reactions. The young generally are quite receptive - appreciating their indoor plumbing and central heat/AC (though often shoddy construction), while their elders, having spent decades in the same housing close to downtown, are not. The monies involved are substantial - for example, Mr. Zhang pays $2.26/month for rent (originally provided by his work unit), and is offered $32,000 to move - quite a lot, but not enough to buy a house downtown. Residents feel abused - graft reduces the amounts they are offered, and arbitration panels rarely rule in their favor. Those refusing to the end are liable to be physically removed by force, though changes in the law towards the end of the book provide hope for future holdouts.

Accounts of the schoolchildren taught by Mr. Meyer were the most interesting part of the book.
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16 of 16 people found the following review helpful By Newton Munnow on July 30, 2008
Format: Hardcover
Reading my way through translated Chinese literature, I've found that there's so much assumed knowledge that words flip by without leaving their mark. Meyer is the remedy to the problem. He's not a giddy traveler, pausing for a week or two, observing and moving on again. He stayed put, settled down, got a job, all in the backstreets of Old Beijing. He is soon accepted as a part of the community, not so much as a foreigner, but as a teacher. It's a patient, somewhat wistful book. Meyer isn't a romantic, he understands that for many, a working toilet and electricity will be welcome as they leave the old, winding streets behind. But he also conveys what will soon be lost, and more importantly, gives us a background to the vast rebuilding project that has uprooted more than a million Beijing citizens, producing the stories of his neighbors to give us a focused view. In the context of China in the 20th Century, the Olympic push seems more of a strange continuum from the Japanese Invasion, through the Great Leap Forward and into the 21st Century. Meyer writes well, but this is a rather beautiful dirge and like all dirges, you'll find that it relies on playing the same notes again and again. Still, a beautiful and timely book, at least for the summer of 2008 and a glimpse beyond the pomp of the Olympic welcome.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful By Thom Mitchell VINE VOICE on March 21, 2009
Format: Hardcover
Mr. Meyer's interesting and engaging book transports the reader into a time and place that few of us will ever get to experience, even if we visit Beijing and walk through the hutongs ourselves. Mr. Meyer captures the frantic pace of destruction and redevelopment and the variety of attitudes towards this changing landscape, and the costs associated with these changes - both physical and emotional.

If you are planning on spending any time in China or Beijing this book is a required read because it effectively captures the spirit of China today. There are any number of great books on China but most of them capture a different time in China's life and so are less effective in helping a prospective visitor or future resident of China prepare for their time there.
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