The Hassan's

Uncle Ho and
Chairman Mao

World Tour '98


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Back in Beijing

It was 1988 when we lasted visited Beijing. It was hard to see returning after all the events of June, 1989. China is going forward and the Chinese always see everything in the context of a hundred or thousand years so 1989 hardly means anything to them.

1988 Beijing was a city of bicycles and state planning. Today Beijing is the city of the automobile and capitalism run amuck. It was significant that on the day we arrived the Beijing government banned bicycles from some of the busiest streets in the city for the first time in history. There doesn't appear to be any demonstrations in the streets so this might be the beginning of the end.

The quaint streets with state owned shops have been replaced by Armani and a McDonald's on every corner. The architecture here is still the Stalinist block building but every one of these buildings has a little temple-like "hat" on it which is suppose to give it character; it works until you notice the striking similarity in them. There are still the hutongs (small alley-like streets) but they have become a tourist attraction instead of the neighborhoods they always were.

When you see an elderly Chinese still dressed in the Mao-esque gray or blue outfit you have to wonder what could possibly be going through their minds. They survived WW II, the Communist Revolution, the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution and now are watching China reshaping itself in the image of the West. Quite possibly they are at peace with the fact that the country is free of strife and turmoil.

There are a lot more tourists here than in the other parts of China we passed through. We did manage to find a hotel where we are the only Western tourists. The other morning we decided to have a buffet breakfast at the nearby 5* Palace Hotel - how much could it cost? Well in the new China it will set you back $50 for breakfast. We could've eaten for five days on that in the provinces. You've got to be very careful where you sit down to eat in this town.

Destination Hard Rock Cafe - the trek needs to be made by taxi. Going across the city will only run you $3 so it is the way to get around. The HRC location once used to be right in the middle of the area where Westerner tourists would stay. Sitting at the base of the Great Wall Sheraton, the first true Western luxury hotel to be built here. The tourist axis has moved much closer to Tiananmen Square now so the trek to the HRC is an inconvenience for most.

When we walked into the HRC we headed for the merchandise counter. It looked very sparse-much like the state run stores of 1988 that we remembered. Where are the pins? There aren't any pins except for the new yellow minibus pin. No Panda Bear Pins, no guitars, not even any logos. The whole HRC has been done up for Halloween but we are told that there will be no Halloween Pins this year. Never quite sure if something has been lost in the translation but everyone we spoke with had the same story so we resigned ourselves to that harsh reality. But wait here in this case "we do have this one". It is a July 4th 1988 pin. That is good - I'll take a whole bunch of those! "No we have this ONE". Yes they had one 4th of July pin. We did pack up a bunch of shot glasses and few other items that people requested.

The restaurant had probably the biggest open space that we have seen in any HRC. Late in the afternoon it was practically deserted. We pulled out a small number of trade pins we had brought, but we had already noticed that none of the staff wore any pins. The fact that pins here run to $7.50 that was not surprising. They did enjoy looking at the pins, getting the most excitement over examining the backs to discover that the pins were "Made In China". All the staff had to come by to confirm that indeed all the pins were "Made in China". They seemed genuinely proud and excited by that fact. They were a real nice bunch, though their English was very limited. We passed out some pins before we left - not our most successful HRC visit but definitely one to remember.

It was hard to visit Tiananmen Square after following the events of June '89 so closely. We arrived late in the afternoon just before sunset. This is a special time for the Chinese tourists as it is at sunset that a military honor guard lowers the flag in the square. It is like the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace. Thousands of Chinese crowd into the area near Chairman Mao's portrait. This is where it got a little strange. The military guards let the people move to an area quite near the main gate, but then about ten minutes before the ceremony commenced they start shoving the crowd back about a hundred feet from where they let them congregate. You were trapped in a crush of bodies being not too nicely driven back by shouting soldiers. The experience was none too pleasant particularly given our perception of the People's Liberation Army (PLA) generated by the events that took place here nearly ten years ago. There was no reason that this line was not established "before" they felt it necessary to drive back the crowd. The soldiers had stood impassively staring at the crowd and had never uttered a word to let them know what was going to happen. Maybe this happens every day - we will not be going back this evening to find out though.

Tonight we are going to Frank's Place, a restaurant set up by a Pittsburgher and his Chinese wife about six or seven years ago. He brought the cheeseburger to Beijing long before McDonald's, but at least his intent was only to sell it to the Western community here. Lois is happy that the shopping here is very good (except for HRC pins) as she didn't have much chance to fill the suitcases before now. We head back home on Saturday - happy to have seen all that we have and pleased that we experienced no major problems. Lois is trying to figure out where we can go next year - she desires a place without millions of people staring at you, where no one might shoot you and where McDonald's is not yet serving the BIG MAC. Open to any suggestions. Hope to see all we know soon - and to meet all of those we've not yet met in the near future.

R&RF-LOIS & JOHN

Copyright 1999 Lois and John Hassan

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