Lijia Zhang: On Ai Weiwei’s Beijing
Last month, artist Ai Weiwei wrote an essay in Newsweek condemning his hometown of Beijing as a, “a nightmare. A constant nightmare.” On China Beat, writer Lijia Zhang responds with a defense of the capital:
I love Beijing. I fell in love with the capital back in 1993 when I first came to live here. I found the city far more exciting and vibrant than my hometown of Nanjing. There’s so much to offer, so many things going on and you always meet interesting people doing interesting things. Ai Weiwei himself is just a fine example.
I am surprised that Ai claims that there’s no favorite place for him in the city. Not even his cool spacey house in the art district of Caochangdi? Usually people carve out their favorite corners even in the bleakest place on earth: you have to make the most out of where you live.
My favorite place is my neighborhood Jiuxianqiaocun – Wine God Bridge Village. Despite its name, it is not a particularly poetic place: it’s rather messy; the narrow streets are littered with rubbish; the low-rise red-brick houses are mostly simply constructed and the public toilets on street corners are smelly. A typical migrant workers’ area. Yet, for me, it is authentic, real and lively. I am renting a house here. There are a lot of activities on the street: people cook, wash their babies and socialize outside (well, their homes are too small). They share food when they cook something good and keep an eye on the neighbour’s children. You have to help each other out when life is harsh. Every day I chat and crack jokes with my neighbours, who always lend me a hand when I drag my heavy electric scooter in and out of my house. Joaquin, a friend stayed with me recently, grew up in Latin America. He described the neighborhood like ‘a slum in Venezuela without the violence or danger’.
For most of the residents, their lives are much better than previous generations. And despite of the fact that the migrant workers are not treated equally as urban dwellers, they can make more money in the city than tilling the land at home. And more importantly, they feel hopeful about the future.