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Xi’an: Into the incandescent future

By 20 June 2009 No Comment
Photo by Mike Melanson

Pedal to the metal: An old city puts distance on the past | Photo by Mike Melanson

“History,” said the young Chinese man seated at the table next to me in one of Xi’an’s Starbucks, when I asked him for his thoughts on the most important aspect of the old capital city. “Xi’an is very old.”

But while citizens pay lip service to the past, it appears that Xi’an, a bustling city of over 8 million and growing, is more than anything a place that appears intent on hurtling itself into an incandescent future without casting many lingering backward glances.

My conversational partner was a case in point. Growing up in Xi’an, the man, whose name I didn’t catch given the casual nature of our conversation, now lives in Flagstaff, Arizona, where he is studying international hospitality. His goal is to eventually move to Las Vegas to work in a casino. And when he returns home for a visit, he says he enjoys nothing more than going out to the city’s nightclubs.

Dominated by Xi’an’s Bell Tower, built over 600 years ago, the area is home to the city’s four Starbuck outlets and other unmistakable ornaments of economic growth. It is an island amid a sea of ever-honking taxicabs, double-decker busses and throngs of people streaming in and out of the subterranean walkways that will someday become Xi’an’s subway system.

At night, spotlights dot the ancient structure’s swooping eaves and the kitty-corner KFCs, grandiose shopping malls and designer clothing stores cast a neon glow. A few blocks up the street, a high-rise hints at Xi’an’s possible aspirations as a city, announcing a “New Times Square” across the top in giant, metal lettering.

Michael Schulman, a retired journalist from Toronto who I caught up with on a street in the heart of the city one day, said that a lot has changed since he was last here 29 years ago. “None of this was here,” he said. “The Bell Tower and the Drum Tower were the tallest buildings in the city, there were no cars and bikes were everywhere. In the morning, the sidewalks were filled with people doing morning exercises.”

Schulman said that he would continue on westward, past Urumqi, in hopes of “finding the old China” before it was too late. “The future is China,” he said, looking around at the congested streets. “Everything used to look like the Muslim Quarter.”

Moving away from the city center and outside the old city walls, dumpling shops replace fast food chains and high-rise complexes with glass elevators give way to smoke-stained, concrete housing projects and single story buildings. China’s struggle to develop is more apparent, as is the hopeful anticipation.

Jin Jianping lives in one such development with his brother, Heping, and his brother’s wife, Tianlan. The gated complex, dubbed “Fabric City”, has housed employees of a local fabric factory for several decades but is slated to be razed in the near future. They say that the government has allotted money to rebuild the area, a prospect they’re awaiting anxiously, as new apartments for the company’s workers are on deck. Hopefully, with new buildings will come new technology and creature comforts, doing away with coal burning heat and outdated plumbing.

Jianping, 48, has lived in Xi’an his entire life and says that he enjoys the benefits that come with the importing of foreign businesses such as Walmart and supermarkets, a commercial model borne of the West. “They’re cheap, clean and have high quality stuff,” Jian Ping said.

Tianlan said that she enjoyed the variety of goods she could find at a supermarket over a local shop. “Most families want to go to supermarkets,” she said. “You can get anything you want.”

While all agreed that the benefits of a developing Xi’an were numerous, they acknowledged a few negative effects. While people used to worry about getting enough food, they said, now they worry about crossing the road because of the drastic increase in the number of cars. Income inequality and soaring property values were among the top problems, they said. Nonetheless, they chalked it up to progress, saying that the benefits of Xi’an’s development far outweigh the problems that come with it.

“When you open the window, some fresh air comes in and so do some flies,” Heping said, paraphrasing the man who started China down the road to economic reform 30 years ago, paramount leader Deng Xiaoping.

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