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Beijing Welcomes You: Unveiling the Capital City of the Future Hardcover – August 4, 2011
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Amazon Best Books of the Month, August 2011: Beijing Welcomes You is a portrait of the future. The city of Beijing embodies China's rise as a political and cultural superpower, and during his stay from 2004 to 2010, Tom Scocca attempts to make sense of Beijing as it modernizes at a dizzying pace. He converses with architects, athletes, and artists, but Scocca is at his best when he's discussing the 2008 Olympics--China's boldest push yet for national identity and international recognition. Scocca isn't interested in generalizations, and, in fact, takes great pleasure dismantling them (on the stereotype that China is tradition-bound: "A thirty-year-old Chinese citizen has seen more disruption and change than a sixty-two-year-old American has; a sixty-year-old Chinese citizen has seen more than a two-hundred-year-old American would have"), while his personal experiences give a human touch to his often unflattering sociological analyses. But Scocca knows when to defer to the real star of the book, Beijing itself. It's a constantly changing, overwhelming city that may be the strongest signal of things to come, not just in China but all over the world. --Kevin Nguyen
"A brilliant cultural study written in a surprisingly poetic style, this is highly recommended to all interested readers." - Library Journal
"Equal-opportunity irreverence"... "A spirited portrayal of an old metropolis being turned inside out"... "Brought both Twain and Dave Barry to mind." - Time.com
"A very good book"... "[Scocca] has a keen eye for the oddities with which Beijing is abundantly endowed." - The Washington Post
"Excels at straddling the line between the personal and sociopolitical." - Publishers Weekly
"Tracking his experience on the dual planes of resident and journalist, Scocca explodes the dichotomous East-vs.-West narrative that's endemic to reports from China." - The Onion A.V. Club
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I bought "Beijing Welcomes You" before traveling to Beijing for work in late 2011, and read it on the plane over to Beijing and on my Kindle while traveling on the Beijing subway. I found it both echoed and expanded my own sense of what Beijing was. If you're not familiar with Beijing and/or are uninterested in Chinese culture, you'd probably enjoy it less than I did, although it was still an interesting read, and Scocca's prose is eminently readable without feeling dumbed-down.
But the book is not a guidebook, and in fact can probably be best appreciated by readers who themselves have had to breathe Beijing's thickly polluted air and crawl through its traffic. But what the book does provide--something that's very rare in travel writing--is a cross-section across time. Except for other expats who, like Scocca, had personal experience of the pre-Olympic years in the city, very few American readers could come to the book with such an extensive knowledge of the long-term struggle of the city to improve its air quality, or, say, the work of the Weather Modification Office, which was responsible for keeping rain away from the Bird's Nest on the nights of the Opening and Closing Ceremonies.
As a resident of Atlanta, who lived through our own pre-Olympic and Olympic periods, I can testify that much of the confusion and civic puffery that Scotta describes are probably endemic in any Olympic enterprise. It's an inherently big, messy, competitive, controversial, and intense process. The Beijing Olympics simply overlaid this already difficult foundation with the huge ambitions of the world's most populous country to announce its arrival as a 21st-century power-to-be-reckoned-with.
But in telling Beijing's story (and China's story), Scotta provides a lot of insight into contemporary Chinese urban life and the not-always-smooth raceway that China has built to achieve centuries of change in decades.
This would not be the book for you to read before your first trip to China, but it would be a book for you to read after you got home, to help you understand what you saw.
And somebody should be translating it into Portuguese, for a Brazilian edition, to prepare those folks for what lies ahead.
What it is, is an entertaining and measured take on a certain place at a certain time. Scocca takes on Beijing from the point of view of someone who lives there - harried, exasperated, occasionally deeply fond, but someone trying to get places and do things rather than just looking around. His take on the city and the people around him is a kind of scrupulously rigorous subjectivity that I associate with the best kind of journalism. When he tackles the knotty subject of the crackdown in Lhasa that preceded the Olympics he's careful to document just how divergent the Chinese and Western points of view were; when he writes about the unpremeditated outpouring of grief that followed the terrible earthquake in Sichuan shortly afterwards, his portrayal is sympathetic and moving. When he talks to the various press secretaries, coaches, artists, dance team coaches, athletes, weather engineers, and other members of China's official apparatus during the run up to the Olympics, he comes across as skeptical but friendly - willing to put across the official line while pointing out the inevitable confrontations with reality that result. Also, Scocca is (at least in part) a sportswriter, and the writing about the actual sports events leading up to and comprising the Olympics is always entertaining.
Scocca's not interested in totalizing narratives; he's not prognosticating the future of US-China relations based on his experiences there; when he says "the thing about Chinese people is," he says it to undercut the idea that there's a unified, coherent thing about Chinese people. This is journalism built on the patient accumulation of lots of details, none of them particularly telling or significant in isolation, but that add up to an interesting, incomplete account. There are a multitude of brief biographical sketches scattered through the book, and when he includes somebody else's story, more often than not it's left to speak for itself. If you come to this looking for something to explain China to you, you're going to be disappointed. If you want an entertaining overview of the trials Beijing put itself (and its sometimes only grudgingly willing inhabitants) through to prepare for the Olympics, and a sense of what the Olympics meant to China, this is a fun, insightful read.
Most recent customer reviews
If you want to hear a long list of complaints about life in Beijing, this is your book.Read more