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Insight to China imbues ‘The Last Days of Old Beijing'

Michael Meyer's "The Last Days of Old Beijing" is a mixture of romanticism and Chinese pragmatism and an attractive, if meandering, profile of a city in ceaseless change. The romance, and Meyer's sorrow, comes from the destruction of neighborhoods and communities that's transforming the city for the 2008 Olympics. It's the obliteration of history that Meyer, who has written for Time and Smithsonian magazines, describes with crispness and detail. His insight and sympathy for the Chinese people and the city comes through on every page.

Shining through the wistfulness are hard practical Chinese people: Miss Zhu, an English teacher who sits with her husband "side by side at night, each staring at a different computer monitor hooked to the Internet;" Old Zhang who fought with the city for a larger settlement when told he had to move; and the Widow, who provides Meyer his breakfast of steamed dumplings.

"I always do what the Widow says," Meyer writes. "Although seven of us inhabit the five rooms of this courtyard, everyone knows what we are living in her home, even if she doesn't own it. The Widow has tenure. In sixty-five square feet, she raised two children and a granddaughter. She keeps the color television turned to Channel 11, the Beijing opera station. Crashing gongs and plaintive wails fill our courtyard from sunrise until after dark."

The Beijing hutong - the thin lanes that run between courtyard houses, are the stars of the book. In the hutong, he writes, "Grandmothers push prams filled with vegetables from Heavenly Peach market. The bells of black steel Flying Pigeon bicycles warn to make way. A five-year-old watches her pet chicken peck at the puddles on the lane's pockmarked asphalt." The hutong's lack of amenities, including private toilets, are outweighed by the sense of community where everyone watches over each other and where everyone calls Meyer Plumblossom (short for Heroic Eastern Plumblossom, which he was dubbed by his first Chinese language teacher during Peace Corps training.)

The community of the hutong is endangered by unnamed municipal officials and real estate developers. Their looming presence is "The Hand", a Chinese character meaning "raze" or "tear down", mysteriously sketched on hutong walls, designating the next to be leveled. Residents are offered "glassy high-rise" apartments far away from their communities and "no" is not accepted as an answer.

The uncertainty of the future permeates China and the 2008 Olympics looms over everything. "The Last Days" will give you a good introduction to Beijing just in time for the Summer Games.