China Around the Globe

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By Julia Lovell

I’ve spent the past three years researching the importance of the Opium Wars to China; for it is hard to underestimate the passions and sensitivities that the topic can provoke. The wars remain the founding episodes of modern Chinese nationalism, and the start of China’s terrible “Century of Humiliation” at the hands of the West. In 2006, China’s leading liberal weekly, Freezing Point, was shut down, after running an article by an academic called Yuan Weishi that challenged textbook orthodoxy on the Second Opium War. The entire incident unleashed an official and popular outcry. The article, the propaganda bureau pronounced, “viciously attacked the socialist system [and] attempted to vindicate criminal acts by the imperialist powers in invading China. It seriously distorted historical facts; it seriously contradicted news propaganda discipline; it seriously damaged the national feelings of the Chinese people…and created bad social influence.” One nationalist some way outside the government denounced the article as “pure treachery. [Yuan Weishi] was desecrating his own ancestors’ graves…He should have been drowned in rotten eggs and spit.”

In China, then, the opium trade and the wars that Britain fought to defend it in the mid-nineteenth century are a festering national wound. But India, to name but one territory, was also directly and adversely affected by these historical events. It was there that British overseers managed the opium monopolies that generated exports of the drug to China through the nineteenth century. By the 1850s, more than a fifth of the Raj’s income came from opium; this represents the systematic exploitation of India’s natural productivity to enrich the British government and private individuals. And as I examined the deep emotional impact of opium on China, I wanted to know whether other parts of Britain’s narco-empire—all equally entitled to feel fury at Britain’s misdemeanours—shared China’s resentment. This summer, I travelled to Delhi and Mumbai, to talk about the Opium War, and to explore differing attitudes to a shared history.

In the weeks before I arrived in India, memories of the opium trade had been stirred by the publication of River of Smoke, the second volume in Amitav Ghosh’s fictional trilogy set in India and China, against the backdrop of the Opium War. The first two books have richly evoked the atmosphere of the opium trade and its multicultural hodge-podge of English, Scottish, Indian and Chinese participants. But Ghosh seems to have felt that he was writing into a vacuum: modern India’s relationship with opium, he has complained, is enveloped in an “extraordinary silence…In any Western country,” he has observed, “by now you’d have had 200 books about it. There are books about sugarcane, about indigo, about cotton, but [opium] was the most important sector of the economy and the only person writing about it is [historian] Amar Farooqui!” Ghosh has equated a general Indian indifference to the opium trade with a broader lack of concern over the legacies of imperialism. “A consequence of Indians’ lack of interest in history is that the colonial experience begins to look more benign than it was.” My first encounter in Delhi seemed to confirm his diagnosis of Indian amnesia over the opium trade. Just off the plane, I was escorted out of the airport by a young man from the hotel with exquisite English. He asked me what had brought me to India. His forehead wrinkled when I mentioned the Opium War. What is opium? he wanted to know. His excellent Anglophone education had not seen fit to supply him with this piece of vocabulary.

David Sassoon Library in Mumbai

Mumbai boomed on money from the opium trade in the nineteenth century. Landmarks of neo-imperial or Asiatic Gothic architecture—the tall white colonnades of the Asiatic Society (now Mumbai’s Central Municipal Library); the rusty brick arches of the David Sassoon Library—are striking reminders of how profitable this Asian commerce was; several of such buildings were paid for by China-trading philanthropists. But there seemed to be limited awareness of Mumbai’s past connections with the opium trade, as I wandered about these now-decaying structures. A phlegmatic librarian in the Asiatic Society pointed up at an enormous hole in the ceiling: “That nearly killed me when it came down.” The Society’s once pompous interior—imperial pillars with frothy gold tops, statues of nineteenth-century British worthies—has been thoroughly desacralised by the readers snoozing over the tables and the shelves of down-to-earth titles. (The domestic science section seemed particularly well stocked, featuring practical volumes such as Step-by-step Garnishes, Rugs: All You Need to Know, and Ultimate Casserole.) “I know nothing about opium. Or the Opium War,” the librarian told me. “It was all such a long time ago. I like British people. They’re very good in their hearts and in their minds and they have lots of good ideas. They built lots of good buildings and government institutions here.”

I wondered if the psychology behind this forgetfulness was a little more complex than Ghosh allowed for. While in India, I tried to explain the resentment that memory of the Opium War and the “century of humiliation” can provoke in China, and asked if there was similar anger directed at India’s own experiences under British rule. The response that I often received borrowed from the language of psychoanalysis: “India’s over it,” one woman—born two years after Independence—pronounced. India has enough to worry about in the present day, others told me, with corruption scandals and relations with Pakistan. “I used to think that India had a cult of victimhood, but it seems it’s nothing compared to China,” remarked one novelist. “In India, we’ve generally been aware that we’ve been responsible for our own problems. Caste, social problems, the tension between Muslims and Hindus—they’ve always been there; some people might say they were exacerbated by colonialism, but they were always there.” Amongst those who have benefited most from India’s cosmopolitan education system, there was a relaxed openness towards Britain and its colonial legacies. “Diversity is our strength,” one NGO worker told me. “We have good relations with the British now; much better than with Pakistan. And Britain gave us so many things—rule by law, for one.” He told me about a hit stand-up show by the comedian Vir Das he’d seen in Mumbai the previous winter, called The History of India, which had made fun of “some of India’s most sacred cows”—even Gandhi. “Vir presents the funny elements that have been a part of our heritage and how much there was to laugh at in our struggles, how much humor there is in heritage,” its producer has commented. The idea of a Chinese comedian taking a similarly irreverent look at the Century of Humiliation is unthinkable (though India arguably diverts public sensitivities onto discussion of religious issues).

Indian memories of the opium trade were also, I detected, tinged with a degree of guilt. It’s well established that although private British traders got rich on selling opium to China, so did some Indian merchants—and especially Mumbai Parsis. They provided credit for British businessmen; they built ships for the trade; and sometimes they sailed them themselves. A Parsi opium trader in one of Ghosh’s novels expresses their actions pragmatically:

Today the biggest profits don’t come from selling useful things: quite the opposite. The profits come from selling things that are not of any real use…Opium is just like that. It is completely useless unless you’re sick, but still people want it. And it is such a thing that once people start using it they can’t stop; the market just gets larger and larger. That is why the British are trying to take over the trade and keep it to themselves. Fortunately in the Bombay Presidency they have not succeeded in turning it into a monopoly, so what is the harm in making some money from it?

If you look closely enough at the windows of the Bai Avabai Framji Petit Parsi Girls High School in Mumbai, you’ll find an image of an Indian opium clipper inlaid in stained glass. HMS Cornwallis, the ship on which the Treaty of Nanjing was signed, was built in a Parsi yard. An elderly Parsi man approached me after one of my talks: did I think it would be a good idea if leading members of the Parsi community organised themselves into an official delegation to apologise for India’s role in the opium trade? Would that make things better, would it clear things up between China and India?

His comments further reminded me of the unease and suspicion that currently cloud India’s relations with China. Although China often portrays itself as a victim of external aggression (a self-perception reinforced by emphatic commemorations of the Opium War and the Century of Humiliation), several of the Indian journalists I encountered took a very different view. They saw China not as an injured innocent, but as a threatening new imperial power, and were keen to discuss China’s ambitions in the region, alleging in detail that China was plotting to create a trade route to the sea, from its western borders down through eastern India. Memories of China’s war with India in the 1960s were still fresh; and there was considerable anger at China’s financial support of Pakistan.

But nonchalance rather than anger or bad conscience still seemed to dominate Indian attitudes to opium. As I travelled back to my hotel room on my last night in Mumbai, an advert in the lift for something called The Opium Den caught my eye, and the pitch went like this:

First came the flower delivery man.
Then the baby delivery woman.
Then the pizza delivery man.
It’s time to get addicted to each other again, before someone else comes knocking.
Opium Den. VERY ADDICTIVE. An intoxicating fusion of atmosphere, spirits and music that reminds you how it feels to be in love again. Rest assured you’ll be back for more of the same.

The concept was illustrated by a photograph of a glamorous Caucasian couple, grinning exuberantly at each other and generally living the Opium Den dream. I’m probably exaggerating only a little (if at all) when I say that if you set up such an establishment (trading on the word opium for yuppie chic effect) in mainland China, you would get death threats. I exclaimed with surprise. When my fellow passenger asked me what was wrong, I explained my sense of culture shock. He obviously felt that I’d spent too long in China: “Chill out,” he said. “It’s just a bar.”

And, I discovered when I went to have a look, it was indeed just that—filled on a Saturday evening with glamorous young Mumbai things enjoying a drink or a meal in comfortable, tastefully lit surroundings. The books decoratively arranged on the walls (only for atmosphere; no one was reading them) were high-brow: works of Great European Literature (Crime and Punishment; Mill on the Floss) rather than books more usually associated with opium dens – the Collected Sax Rohmer perhaps (Dope, The Yellow Claw, The Insidious Dr Fu-Manchu, and so on). When I perused the menu, I found the juice section—cucumber, tomato, carrot and celery—also disconcertingly virtuous; I plumped for an innocuous plate of gloupy chicken noodles. While I was waiting for the bill, I idly fell into dispute with my waiter, after I made a remark about the beautifully carved antique ivory opium pipes displayed in a cabinet on the wall. “Oh no, they’re not pipes,” he told me. “They’re flutes.” Opium flutes? “No, no, just regular flutes.” They were definitely opium pipes, but I still needed to pack for my plane back to London later that night, so I let it go.

Julia Lovell is a lecturer in modern Chinese history and literature at the University of London and author of The Opium War: Drugs, Dreams, and the Making of China (Picador, September 2011).

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By Christopher C. Heselton

Amid all the fanfare and fear-mongering over President Hu Jintao’s visit to the United States last week, the Chinese government has also launched an advertising campaign to enhance its national image in America. The campaign includes a 60-second ad showing on a mega screen at Time Square, New York, a 30-second segment at Gallery Place, Washington DC (DC’s “Chinatown,” though it’s a rather small one), and a series of 15-second advertisements airing on several news networks over a multi-week period. A host of Chinese celebrities, models, entrepreneurs, astronauts, and other household names appear in these advertisements, standing and smiling at the camera with their names and significance to China written on the screen in English. For a look, here are both of the segments that began running on BON last week, which also appeared on several major US networks:

At first glance, this attempt at promoting a favorable view of China to the American public seems like an utter failure. Many in the blogosphere and media have claimed the ad to be a major flop because it is too distant from its American viewers (see, for example, “China’s Latest PR Fail?,” “Pro-China Ad Makes Broadway Debut,” “Wary Powers Set to Square Off,” and this excellent discussion at Kaiser Kuo’s Sinica Podcast [9 minutes in]). The advertisement has little action or movement, no dialogue, awkward phrasing, and the celebrities and renowned figures in it might be familiar names in China but are virtually unknown to most Americans. When asked by a CCTV news crew if she recognized any of the figures in the advertisement, one New Yorker at Times Square replied, “I know Yao Ming and some of the models, but not a lot” (though the last four words were not translated on CCTV). While from a Chinese standpoint, the message of the ad may seem to be that these great people are Chinese too, for many Americans the message is not as clear since most of these names are unknown and not very memorable. Speaking to the Wall Street Journal, David Wolf, Chief Executive of Wolf Group Asia, said that the advertisement even gives a negative impression to many Americans, by invoking China’s “material strengths, which worry America.” The advertisement is a confusing and unusually baffling piece, and, in this sense, it does seem to be unsuccessful in giving Americans a truly new sense of what China is and assuaging American concerns over a rising China.

I think, however, that viewing these advertisements purely as a public relations campaign aimed at the American public is missing a large piece of the picture; we also need to consider the Chinese popular and political audience. In this respect, the advertisement has two possible intents, in my opinion. The first possibility is that the advertisement is intended to serve as a mark of national pride for a Chinese domestic audience. This is one of the most ambitious and highly publicized attempts to enhance the image of China in American minds since the 2008 Olympics. Unlike the Olympics, when the PR push was in Beijing, this time the message is airing in the very heart of the United States. This is something that the Chinese media has seemed to emphasize as a point of pride and demonstration of China’s progress. Thirty-odd years ago it would have been almost inconceivable that the Chinese government would have the desire and ability to take out an advertisement in Times Square. The message seems to say to Chinese audiences, “Look how far we’ve come! Our faces and our celebrities are in the cultural center of the US.” Of course, it’s not as nearly as exciting as China’s aerospace missions, but still acts as a badge of progress to display to the Chinese public (in some ways, it could also be seen to have similar purposes towards an American audience, though the message likely isn’t as clearly received). The commercial’s desire to reach Chinese audiences is made clearer with its use of well-known celebrities instead of nobodies. The designers of the ad claimed that their aim was to literally put a human face on China. If that were so, they could have shown a variety of everyday Chinese people—but instead they chose to feature a large group of Chinese notables that are virtually unrecognizable to most Americans, though highly recognizable to most Chinese. This suggests to me that the ad was meant to reach Chinese viewers, and not just Americans.

A second possible intention of this marketing campaign—though I admit this is more speculative—is to gain the attention of both domestic and international political leaders. Although one of the top planners of this endeavor, Shen Zanchen, maintains that the timing of these ads with President Hu’s arrival was “purely a historic coincidence,” it is difficult to shake the notion that there is more than a passing connection. In my previous work experience with several Chinese Information Offices that are responsible for city marketing, the synchronization of political events and marketing campaigns often ran like clockwork. I recall one time in 2009 (I promise this is my only anecdote) while at a conference on Chinese city image branding, I asked the head of an Information Office for a major Chinese city how she chose the timing slots for the city’s advertisements, as I noticed they never seemed to appear during popular television dramas. She remarked, “We always put it on during the evening News Broadcast (新闻联播), because that is when the leaders are most likely to watch television.” The goal, at least for this particular propaganda chief, was to catch the attention of the political leadership—possibly for her own promotion, but also to gain prestige for her city and the mayor of that city (her boss) among other CCP leaders. And this increased stature does lead to concrete results, as political leaders often help broker investment deals. In fact, the success of city branding campaigns in China, and even Chinese endeavors in international marketing, is not just measured in terms of viewership and ads, but also in which political leaders participated in, attended, or viewed their efforts. This way of weighing the effects of regional marketing shapes how many people in China understand public relations campaigns.

In this case, these new ads seem to be directed at gaining the attention of Hu Jintao, Barack Obama, and other Washington political leaders. Two aspects of the PR campaign make this point very plausible to me. First, in the segment on “Enchanting Chinese Art” we see Song Zuying (宋祖英), the diva of propaganda, who is very popular among CCP leaders but largely ignored in mainstream music. This possibly shows an attempt to play on the favorites of many older Chinese officials. The PRC leadership might not be as intrigued, and might even be uncomfortable, if pop-icons like Jane Zhang (张靓颖), Kym (金莎), or Jason Zhang (张杰) were on screen, though they are more popular with a younger audience. Second, the display of the ad at Gallery Place in Washington DC is a somewhat unusual choice for a commercial promoting China’s national image. Gallery Place is not a particularly high-traffic portion of DC, if one’s goal is to capture a large audience, but the location happens to be very close to the White House and Capitol Hill, and is smack-dab in the middle of DC’s Chinatown, which is a popular eating spot for Washington politicians, bureaucrats, and aides. So, it seems to me that another possible intention of these ads is to gain the attention of political leaders directly. It is speaking to them—not just to a generalized American public. Regardless of whether or not this is merely my overactive imagination at work, I think that when looking at these advertisements we should also consider the political dimensions and political understanding of what public relations means.

I would, however, like to end on a positive note about this advertisement campaign, because these ads are unique. In the past, advertisements portraying China seemed to come in only a few forms: tourism promotions that displayed Chinese monuments and traditions, investment promotions that emphasized favorable business conditions, or international event promotions in which improving the national image was not the overt goal of the message. This recent set of advertisements seems to be the first attempt to explicitly market China to the US, showing a greater understanding of the importance of manipulating a national image to gain favorable international support. Moreover, it moves beyond hackneyed images of the Great Wall, quaint ethnic customs, or cuddly panda bears, but instead pushes a more modern depiction of the country and its people that places China in a light that Americans could find very familiar, despite the unfamiliar faces. For Americans whose understanding of China is limited to what they’ve seen in Kung-Fu films or media images of impoverished Chinese slums, these commercials offer something new.

Christopher C. Heselton is a graduate student in Chinese history at the University of California, Irvine. He has previously written for China Beat on “Rock is Not Revolution.”

By Jeffrey Wasserstrom

What can we learn, about either the People’s Republic of China or India and about what makes the two countries similar to and different from one another, by placing recent mega-events in these two young nation-states side by side? As a China specialist who watched the Beijing Olympics from afar with great interest in 2008, spent a month in Shanghai last summer while it played host to the 2010 World Expo, and is now nearing the end of his first stay in India, which took place in an autumn week that began right after the Commonwealth Games had concluded, I’ve been ruminating on this question a lot lately. Here are several things that strike me as worth considering, after a week in Delhi that has included participation in an academic workshop and public events devoted to themes of urban change.* In some cases, my comments bring up issues that have received a lot of attention in mainstream media coverage of the mega-events; in other instances, I push in directions that the press has not tended to go. In all cases, I am drawing upon not just my own reflections, but also on private and public conversations I have had during my brief time in Delhi, especially discussion at a stimulating October 19 Delhi Urban Platform event, which was held at the Center for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) and gave me the opportunity to share a stage with Ravi Sundarum (an urban theorist and media studies scholars who is one of the initiators of the inspiring SARAI network) and former CSDS director Ashis Nandy (the globally famous and provocative political thinker).

1. Politics and the Public Sphere. A common theme in commentaries about mega-events, as well as other topics, is that discussions of Chinese and Indian politics should begin with drawing contrasts between China’s hyper-efficient authoritarian model and India’s unruly democratic one. There are certainly important differences to note in this regard. And there is no question that focusing on mega-events can draw our attention to those disparities, as well as to similarities beneath the surface of this general divide: e.g., in each setting, grand spectacles and other urban transformations are often accompanied by corrupt deals between officials and developers that disadvantage the ordinary people who get displaced to make way for new stadiums or shopping malls. At least equally interesting, though, is the way that a focus on mega-events suggests the need to break free of the tendency to take a democracy=elections approach to politics (something particularly strong perhaps in the U.S.), and think instead of a democracy=free-flowing public debate approach.

Here, again, corruption provides a way in. The question of who exactly will profit most from how new luxury dwellings in the Commonwealth Village are parceled out has been the subject of a lively discussion in the Indian press throughout my time in Delhi (and is also discussed in this piece by political scientist Mita Sengupta). But though there are definitely comparable issues to debate where the Shanghai Expo is concerned, there was not a similar sort of airing of concerns in the Chinese press last summer nor can we expect one after the event ends October 31. Similarly, satirical commentary about the Games has been taking place in the open in Delhi (including via a lively public display of politically pointed postcards and CWG-mocking buttons at SARAI), whereas in China, it has been confined to Chinese-language Internet sites and the writings of foreigners (the wittiest Expo criticism in English coming via Access Asia weekly updates, which among other things feature a countdown clock ticking off the time until a giant sigh of relief can be breathed about the event finally being over).

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1. A trackback on Peter Hessler’s recent China Beat photo essay, “Behind the Wheel, About to Snap” led us to this Spanish-language review of his latest book, Country Driving. If you don’t read Spanish, there’s a button on the page that takes you to a Google translation of the review; while the translation hits a few potholes along the way, it’s a generally good rendition of a perceptive and well-written overview of Hessler’s book.

The site at which the review appears, ZaiChina, is new to the China blog scene; only a few weeks old, it aims to provide readers in Spain and Latin America with a window into what’s going on in China today, and translates articles from the Chinese press into Spanish. Among the first few stories posted at ZaiChina are the following titles: “Todos Contra el Hukou” (“All Against the Hukou”), “Educación o fútbol, ¿qué mejorará antes?” (“Education or Soccer, What Will Improve First?”), and “El mendigo más guapo de China” (“The Most Handsome Beggar in China”).

2. We also stumbled across this partial translation of a post originally written in Chinese that discusses some of the many China-oriented books on the market today. The author flags Peter Hessler’s work, as well as Lisa See’s nonfiction-influenced fiction (her most recent book is Shanghai Girls), and Jeff Wasserstrom’s writing, including his forthcoming China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know.

3. Francophone China Beat readers can now enjoy a translation of Ken Pomeranz’s The Great Divergence: China, Europe, and the Making of the Modern World Economy. Une Grande Divergence was released by publisher Albin Michel this week, and can be purchased at sites such as

4. Late last year, web magazine The Quarterly Conversation ran a feature titled “Translate This Book!,” in which writers (and others in the publishing industry) were asked to name the book that they’d most like to see translated into English. Andrea Lingenfelter, who has translated titles such as Farewell My Concubine and Candy, suggested that Yang Dongping’s work, Chengshi jifeng (城市季风 City Monsoon), should be made available to non-Chinese readers:

I’d like to recommend Chengshi jifeng by Yang Dongping, which might be translated as “Urban Currents: Shanghai and Beijing in History and Popular Culture.” I’ve gotten a bit carried away with the title. The literal title, “City Monsoons” doesn’t quite get at the heart of the matter. Some people refer to this book in English as “A Tale of Two Cities,” which is witty but perhaps a bit misleading. Urban Currents/Chengshi jifeng is not a riff on Dickens, nor is it about torrential rains. Rather, it is a lively and extensively researched, scholarly and yet personal account of the long-standing and ongoing rivalry between Shanghai and Beijing, two cities whose cultural differences and relative merits have been hotly debated ever since Shanghai became a treaty port in the 19th century. In Chengshi jifeng, Yang Dongping explores what lies behind this intense urban competition. He delves into the history, society, economy, and culture of China’s two leading cities, while also discussing their roles in the popular imagination. Beijing and Shanghai have staked out or been assigned opposite positions in the popular mind, jingpai and haipai. Some may take these categories with a grain of salt, and others maintain that the differences are superficial; but Yang examines and interrogates a long list of polarities associated with these two cities: North vs South; yang vs yin (and the corollary opposition of macho vs feminine); hierarchical vs democratic; xenophobic vs cosmopolitan; distrustful of the West vs adoring of the West; conservative vs open-minded; socially stratified and rigid vs socially mobile; traditional spiritual values vs modern materialistic values; Chinese vs foreign. The list goes on. With a deep personal connection to and affection for both cities, the author, an academic, contrasts jingpai and haipai without taking sides. For readers of English, the book introduces deep-seated cultural patterns, trends and concepts that are part of the fabric of Chinese society, in addition to offering a wealth of historical information and interesting tidbits (e.g., what is now Shanghai was underwater until the 12th century; you could tell someone’s rank in the capital of Beijing by the height of the threshold of the front gate of their house). This book is well-known among North American scholars of Chinese studies (especially urban studies), and if it were available in English it would be widely taught in universities. Chengshi jifeng would also give people who do business in China more solid cultural footing. Non-Chinese may be tempted to see China as monolithic and homogeneous, but regional differences like those described in Yang’s book are the rule, not the exception, and they reflect the diversity and complexity of Chinese society and culture.

5. In early February, we ran an exchange between Alec Ash and Daniel A. Bell about the movie Confucius; check out a Chinese translation of the post here.

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By Pallavi Aiyar

The plane burps to a halt and almost immediately everyone is on their feet, jostling to open the over-head lockers, reaching high for their strolleys. My head feels stuffed with lead and I marvel at the nimble alacrity of my fellow travellers, at 3:00 in the morning. Slowly we shuffle off the Air China flight and make it into the inadequately-air conditioned environs of Indira Gandhi International Airport.

As we walk towards immigration, I glimpse the sleepy desperation on the faces of those waiting in the departure hall. Large parts of the airport are cordoned off with cheap cardboard contraptions decorated with blithe apologies for “inconvenience” while a “world class” airport is being constructed.

Just above the escalator leading down to passport control a lone, worn out sign creaks back and forth, seemingly propelled by an invisible ill wind. “Welcome to India,” it says before ominously continuing, “You will never forget it.”

I cast my mind back to where I had begun this journey—Beijing airport’s impossibly modern, impossibly large, impossibly shiny new terminal 3. For the millionth time I wonder at the infrastructural chasm between Beijing, the city that is my temporal domicile and Delhi, the womb to which I always return.

A sneaking shame at the visibility of Indian poverty and the puniness of its constructions follows me all the way home, wafting in the warm breeze alongside the car. Home is in Nizamuddin East at the border of central and south Delhi. The bulbous outline of Humayun’s tomb cuts a graceful figure in the inky sky. At its foot lie the bundled, huddled, anonymous bodies of the dregs of the world’s humanity: refugees, drug-addicts, madmen.

Once home, my seventeen-year-old dog, a marvel of canine geriatrics, is roused enough by my arrival to attempt a welcoming leap at my neck, but her gently arthritic hind-legs are not quite up to it. There is laughter and chatter and exchanging of presents until sleep can no longer be held at bay and the house retires for the few hours it can.

I am woken up the next morning by the braying of the neighbourhood sabziwallah. “Aloohaibainganhaigobhihaishalgamhai,” he shrieks at the top of his hoarse lungs. The sounds of various cars revving up to take our various neighbours to work leak through the walls. Bougainvilleas send swirls of colour across the garden. The geriatric dog is being scolded for having made a mess in the drawing room again.  She wags her tail lazily in response.

I get ready for the day; down a cup of cold coffee whipped up in an old Nestle shaker, a product that had once been an object of great desire and novelty. I step outside and bump into various “aunties” and “uncles” who predictably cluck at how grown up I look.  One particularly rotund aunty from the house opposite asks how I like China. “Do they all eat dog?” she queries her eyes wide-open with fascinated horror.

The lane has changed since I first lived there in the mid-eighties. The Nizamuddin railway station next door has steadily grown in size; some of the bungalows have been knocked down and converted into 4-storey high builder’s flats; a gate and security guard have made an appearance at the entrance; the number and price-tags of the cars belonging to the families have spiked.

But when compared to the vertiginous pace of change in Beijing, a city that in the six years I have lived there has literally been razed to the ground and built anew, there is a sense of stasis and continuity amongst the froth of transformation in Nizamuddin. I find this soothing.

Beijing’s remorseless embrace of modernity has erased memory. Just before my trip back to Delhi I visited Sanlitun, a neighbourhood that was a favourite haunt back in 2002 when I first moved to the Chinese capital. At the time it was a block of 1960s-era socialist style housing, interspersed with little communal green areas where locals gathered to play mah-jong or practice tai chi. A British expat had started a bookshop and lending library in one of the dwellings. The red brick of the houses was faded and some of the windows cracked but on a summer’s day the weeping of willows in the interspersing courtyards cooled even the most heated of nerves.

Six years later the entire neighbourhood had been supplanted by a glass and chrome creature called The Village. This new mall had just appeared, as if from nowhere; a context-less, place-less, platonic ideal of a mall. It boasted the largest Adidas store in the world, bang opposite yet another Starbucks coffee house. This tree-less, mahjong-less, temple to consumerism was part of the New Beijing that the Olympics had been used as a rallying cry to create. What was frightening was the ability to walk through this space and not find a single link to the thriving community of people and places that had occupied the same geography for decades, only a year or so ago. A slate had been wiped clean.

In contrast, the changes I note around Nizamuddin as I take a quick walk around are Lilliputian. Humayun’s tomb had undergone a facelift a couple of years ago and gleamed in freshly scrubbed splendour. Khan-i-Khanan’s tomb is likewise spruced up and a moustachioed guard at the entrance demands a Rs 10 fee for me to enter. I try arguing with him and explain that I have walked my dog in the overgrown lawns of the tomb for some two decades without ever having paid a paisa for it—but to no avail.

I give up and walk away shaking my head and then suddenly I am overwhelmed with the wondrousness of having grown up in this hybrid neighbourhood and the sense of multiple identities it has engendered in me.

Something that would have been impossible in China.

Chinese culture is one that values homogeneity and proselytises uniformity, a tendency that finds expression in its architecture. In imperial times the hutong alleyways of Beijing were all lined in the same grey brick, and topped off with the same pagoda-style sloping roofs. In more recent years the concrete block-shaped housing apartments of the socialist-era continued the trend of featureless sameness and even the hyper modernity of Olympics—China tends to a glass and chrome monotony.

How different this is from Delhi’s infinite heterogeneity. Only in Delhi could my personal geography embrace at once, the ghosts of Ghalib and Lutyons; of Lodhis and Sufis; of BBC foreign correspondents and imperious Mughals. Nizamuddin, I realise is more than a place to me; it’s a concept and a refuge. It reinforces a belief in making “the other,” your own.

It is here that I feel most myself: a Delhite, an English speaker, half a Tamilian, a Hindu culturally, an atheist by choice, a Muslim by heritage. And it is here that the identity that threads these multiplicities together—at once the most powerful and most amorphous—that of being an Indian, feels most alive and in need of expression.

I return home, hot and sweaty and elated, to find the house plunged in darkness and lots of animated talk about load shedding and invertors. My elation subsides a bit and through an open window a gust of China-envy blows in once again.  But then I take a long sip of a proffered nimbu-pani and simply allow the gust to blow over and away.

Pallavi Aiyar is an award-winning Indian journalist and author of Smoke and Mirrors: An Experience of China. After a six-year-long stint in Beijing she now lives in Brussels where she reports on Europe for the Business Standard. She is currently working on her first novel.


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