TRAVEL; New walls of China

While Westerners are drawn to Peking by such ancient splendours as the Forbidden City, the Chinese authorities are tearing down old districts and furiously rebuilding the place as a Hong Kong clone
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THE DOOR of my room on the 19th floor of the Shrangri La hotel in Peking was ajar. Through the gap I saw a man in a uniform, I think he must have been police, and a colleague in civilian clothes, talking quietly and looking down at the opened drawer of the dressing table. One of them was poking delicately at its contents with his index finger, as if afraid of catching some incurable disease from a foreign devil like me. The other was taking notes. My immediate reaction was to check that I had my passport with its Hong Kong-issued visa, as if this small red book might stop them carting me off to some unknown prison miles outside the capital, like Harry Wu, the Chinese American human rights activist, who was only released after the direct intervention of Bill Clinton. I had been in the city for just a few hours.

I tried to adopt a nonchalant attitude as I pushed the door open. They were startled by my arrival.

"What's the problem?" I asked in English, not even knowing if I would be understood.

The man in civilian clothes, prob-ably a duty manager, looked at me without a smile.

"Is this your room?" I told him it was and showed him my key.

"I would like you to confirm that there is 1,000 yuan in the drawer, and three credit cards." I replied that there was indeed that amount of money and the credit cards. "I left them there as a precaution, in case my wallet was... [I was about to say stolen but thought it better to be diplomatic] ... lost."

"The chambermaid found these items here," said the manager person, ignoring me, "and she reported it. You should leave valuables in our safe at the front desk."

"But I thought such items would be safe in my room here in the People's Republic of China."

"They used to be, but times have changed a lot."

I thought I detected a note of regret in his voice, as he and his uniformed colleague turned on their heels, left the room, and closed the door behind them.

Reading Jung Chan's Wild Swans on the nine-hour flight from Europe, and especially her description of her pilgrimage to Peking 29 years earlier as a young Red Guard to catch a glimpse of the Great Helmsman, had led me to imagine a totally different city. For Jung Chan it was a sprawling dusty place, with everyone dressed in the same drab uniform, where you were assigned a bed in a university dormitory, washed in cold water, had little to eat, and where Chairman Mao, among his other reforms, wanted all grass to be pulled up because it bred mosquitoes.

And yet what I discovered as I drove in along a new airport highway was a 20th-century city, building furiously for the 21st. On every side there were huge new buildings that would not have been out of place in Hong Kong. Trees were planted along the pavements and down the central reservations of the main roads. As the manager person said: "There have been a lot of changes."

I had gone to Peking as a guest of the China Heritage Fund, a non-profit organisation registered in Hong Kong with the full support of senior Chinese leaders in Peking. Its self-appointed mission is to preserve and restore cultural relics, sites and buildings throughout China. The CHF is hoping to raise $5 million in the next 12 months to restore two sites in the Forbidden City: the Pavilion of the Rain of Flowers, and the Garden of the Palace of the Establishment of Fortune.

"Come and see what we hope to save," they said. So I did. The high point of the whole trip was the visit to the Forbidden City, or "The Great Within" as it's also called. But unlike the 10,000 tourists a day - mainly from China, but growing numbers of Westerners - I was allowed into those parts of this walled Imperial City where few except the emperors and their eunuchs have ventured. The place, which has 9,000 rooms in some 900 buildings, was begun in 1406, and such is the Chinese love of statistics that I can tell you it took 100,000 labourers 14 years to complete the basic layout. It's been added to down the centuries, but the original vision of Emperor Yong Le remains intact.

It's easy to see, as you wander the grounds and peep through huge doors or through windows, why the imperial dynasties produced at times such odd rulers; one, for example, was obsessed with carpentry, and is said to have been happiest after an earthquake had destroyed some of the buildings because it gave him a chance to renovate. But down the years the people with the real power were the eunuchs, whose exploits you can read about at length since almost every hotel bookshop I visited sells tales of their doings in all the major languages. The courtesans, too, had power over the more sensual emperors, and there were some of those, too. Every night, it seems, there was the unfailing ritual during supper when the chief eunuch would bring his emperor a box with carved sticks lying side by side. The emperor would choose two, and the women thus nominated were then prepared and brought to his quarters to wait and see who would finally share his bed.

I was taken where few have ventured, actually into the emperor's private quarters, smelling of sandalwood, with curtains and cushioned seats in the imperial yellow silk. But what is most curious is the imperial passion for clocks. There's a huge collection. Its origins may lie in one of the emperor's roles: it was his task to say when it was time to plant or harvest, and whether the seasons would be good or bad. The new calendar was published in the 11th month of each year with huge pomp and ceremony, and formally proclaimed to the people at the Gate of Heavenly Peace. Traditions of divination, arcane mathematical formulae were all brought into play. The phases of the moon were used to measure time. This continued for hundreds of years until the first "barbarians" came. These were what we would call Jesuit priests, and what seems to have captured the imperial mind most were clocks made in the West that the priests had brought with them as gifts. Everywhere you go in the private quarters you come across a clock from Britain or France and Germany.

Inside the private apartments are exquisite sights. A palace that was used by a dowager empress contains a miniature stage built in her private quarters so that she could have personal performances of traditional opera and theatre. There is barely room for more than two or three people to watch, and less for the players to strut. As you wander even the most public parts of the Great Within, nowadays visited by thousands, you still get a sense of the world that was kept apart from the rest of the nation; one that marched to its own rhythms, rhythms that slowly went out of step with what they called "The Great Without" until the last emperor was deposed in 1912.

The Forbidden City, of course, is a must, but you must also visit Peking on foot, and be prepared to walk for hours. It is the only way to see the old parts of the city that have not yet been destroyed by the Communist urge to purge as much of their past as they can while they put the long- suffering masses to work building a new city. The hutongs, as they are called, are miniature forbidden cities, each a walled area within which generations of many families live cheek by jowl .

You can peep in through ornate doorways, even be invited in if you are very lucky. And you will see reproduced in miniature another kind of "within", the secret universe the Chinese seem to inhabit that has survived the huge upheavals the nation has endured down the centuries. What also endures is the very Chineseness of the life, which persists whether the country is ruled by a a Mongol, a Manchu emperor or a Communist. Sometimes, parts of the Chinese way of life are suppressed, as was the trading instinct under Mao, but even that has come back again, for all along the narrow alleyways among the hutongs, small stalls are set out, offering trinkets, matches, but most of all food.

And eat you must at these stalls. The Chinese invented fast food. No sooner do you point to two or three dishes - no one really speaks other than their own dialect - than you are seated at a table, served, and enjoying superb flavours. Eating at this level is cheap indeed: for the equivalent of a pound or two you can have a small banquet. The most remarkable food I ate was in the Muslim quarter among the Turkic peoples. Two or three streets are lined with open-fronted shops where the food is cooked; whole sheep hang from hooks, a fresh chunk cut to order and grilled over charcoal, while in a huge metal pot noodles simmer in the steaming water. Seven of us went there for lunch; the whole meal came to pounds 8. The reason it cost so much, said one of my companions, "is because we had a bottle of beer each".

Walking like this, trusting, it must be said, to your own sense of direction, lets you see behind the modern face of China, the face she wants the world to see. If you get lost there's always a passing taxi to take you home, though its better to have the hotel card in your hand so that the driver will understand where you want to go.

There are small man-made lakes in Peking where the people go to swim. The water does not look too clean, but there is a club, like the Serpentine in London, where all-rounders swim every day of the year. And the winters can be vicious in Peking. Most Western visitors, as far as I could see, go on buses to the tourist sights. and are hustled along by military-minded guides who brook no hanging back to savour a view.

There's one tourist offering, though, that I recommend - the Great Bike Ride, complete with map. You'll see the best of the hutongs, the small lakes, the hidden palaces that still lurk in the most unexpected places. Or you can find, as I did in a small park on what I suppose was a small military bandstand, a group of old men, some still dressed like Mao in those blue-green overalls, playing their instruments and singing thousand- year-old songs from the opera.

There was someone there who could speak English and was more than happy to translate. Because that's another charm of Peking, the foreigner is made welcome, and so successful was a BBC television series on learning English that many Pekingers, especially the young, want to try out their skills.

The pace of change in the Chinese capital is so accelerated that you can spend the afternoon listening to traditional opera and at night be taken to a British pub called "The Poacher's Inn". There you can drink Guinness served by one of the three owners, a former Red Guard. His partners are British, young and fluent speakers of Mandarin as well as the Peking dialect. In fact, as I travelled around I came across a small mafia of British expatriates who had all studied Chinese and oriental subjects either at Durham or Leeds universities. Unlike the missionaries of yesterday, who tried to spread Christianity, these young thrusters are bringing the game of rugby to Peking, and the joys of jazz.

And this really was the overwhelming impression that I brought back from my three-day trip, that it's all change in Peking, where the authorities seem determined to become a Hong Kong clone in the next century. So while they have nothing quite like the latter's Nathan Road, you can go to Peking's Silk Alley and buy cashmere and silk at remarkably cheap rates, and even be approached by smartly dressed young men selling you CD-Roms.

Of course, on a trip like mine there's also the more formal side of the city. I attended a reception at the Palace Hotel, one of the latest to open its air-conditioned doors. Once again I was struck by how like Hong Kong Peking has become: the women wearing jewels and mainly Western clothes, the men in formal business suits. The banquet was served by waiters and waitresses dressed in those traditional black silk outfits that always look like expensive pyjamas. I sat next to Jung Chan, the author of Wild Swans, who was in Peking researching her next book, on Chairman Mao. As she explained: "Wild Swans was about what was done to three generations of my family. I thought it would be interesting to find out about the person who caused it to happen to us." She seemed unsurprised that the city she went to visit many years before was now so cosmopolitan. She even seemed hopeful of the political situation and that it would change in time. "We learnt from Russia's mistakes; they reformed politics and then the market. Result - near chaos. The Chinese are getting the market right, knowing that will force politics to change."

While I was in Peking there was some evidence of the pressure on the political system, as yet another purge of corruption was unleashed on officials, and one old Peking hand told me that a former mayor had killed himself after being involved in a corruption scandal.

The Shangrli La, where I stayed, is a fine modern Western-style hotel (even if your belongings are scrutinised in your absence). There are many like it now around the city. But the place I would love to stay is as inaccessible to me as the Forbidden City used to be.

A leading light in the China Heritage Fund is David Tang, one of the newer Taipans in Hong Kong. He is up in Peking these days at least twice a month as he develop business links with mainland China. As his business grows, so does his status and thus his contacts in the Chinese establishment. So much so that he is now allowed to stay in a State Guest House. He invited me to lunch on my first day. We swept in through the gate where two guards stood rigidly to attention, along tree-lined drives, looking out on an ancient landscape complete with lakes, artfully placed rock formations and waterfalls. At the front door of his villa, white-gloved butlers held open the car door, ushered us upstairs and led us along oak-panelled corridors hung with painted silk and past fine porcelain into his sitting room. Jasmine tea was served, servants stood quietly in the corner waiting a command. Lunch was served in another room - all 10 courses, which we picked at delicately with our chopsticks. The Queen stayed here when she came to Peking said Mr Tang. "It's the best that China can offer."

David Tang bridges both worlds easily, Hong Kong and China. He's not at all worried by the approaching hand-over when Hong Kong reverts to China in July 1997. It's Hong Kong money that is fuelling so much of the development in Peking anyway. Soon, it would seem, the casual visitor will see no difference between the two places. Deng Xiao-ping may have talked of "one nation, two systems" when describing the future for China and Hong Kong. He could just as easily have said, two cities, one architecture.

There are so many places in the former Communist world that are now accessible to the visitor from the West. Peking has a special resonance and appeal. But don't delay. Peking is changing fast. Some of its current charm and interest may soon disappear under concrete high-rise buildings and the passion for money-making driving it into the 21st century. !


GETTING THERE: Regent Holidays (01179 211 711) and China Travel Service (0171 836 9911) arrange flights on British Airways or Air China; return fares cost from pounds 400. Regent also arranges accommodation in a twin- room in a three-star hotel close to the city centre for around pounds 55 per night. A 12-day tour with China Travel Service costs from pounds 1,150; all visits to Peking include the Forbidden City. Campus Travel (0171 730 8111) has student flights to Peking for pounds 478 return.

FURTHER INFORMATION: China National Tourist Office, 4 Glentworth St, London NW1 5PG (0171 935 9427).