The Last Days of Old Beijing by Michael Meyer

The Last Days of Old Beijing: City Transformed

  • Book:  “The Last Days of Old Beijing: Life in the Vanishing Backstreets of a City Transformed”
  • Author:  Michael Meyer
  • Publisher:  Walker & Company, 2009

The author of this book, Michael Meyer, came to China as a Peace Corps volunteer in 1995 – to teach English to some of the country’s less privileged kids.  He lived there for a couple of years, went back to the United States to finish his degree – only to come back once again later, to stay in China for longer.  “The Last Days of Beijing” is his second nonfiction novel.

The premise of this book is to follow the life in one of Beijing’s hutong districts, before the huge changes of the 2008 Olympics have completely remodeled and reshaped the city.  And in order to extract the maximum, genuine feedback (as well as to save some money) – the author has decided to live in one of those hutongs.  (Hutong generally stands for a uniquely designed, old, historic neighborhood, located in the heart of a big city, like Beijing or Shanghai.  However, due to some unfortunate reasons, such as its old age, lack of funds of its residents, and the general neglect of a local government – most hutongs have been completely razed, and those lucky few that still remain – are crumbling, and are in a dire need of a repair).

Besides supplying its readers with a profound insight into one of Beijing’s most historic and renowned districts, the book also dives into the brief history of the city.  In addition, the book is filled with personal interactions, private observations, adventures and life episodes of its author, that will enrich and supplement anyone’s experience and knowledge of Beijing.

“The neighborhood eyed another measure of time, the countdown clock to the games.  My landlord dismissed the piles of dirt and brick rubble from the widening of nearby Coal Street.  “They will not demolish this lane, or this house,” he said.  “They cannot.  It’s protected.”  He repeated the word to make sure I understood.  “Protected.”

I asked by whom.

“By them.  By whoever protected things.”  He arched his furry eyebrows, tapped my shoulder, and announced, “Hey, it’s a good day for bathing, woodcutting, and hunting!  Avoid weddings and funerals.  Look!  Look, the calendar says so, right here.” 

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