China is so big, diverse and protean that no single photograph can sum it up. And yet iconic images often come to represent the country at a particular point in time, the way the-man-who-stopped-the-Tiananmen-tanks did in the late 1980s. Michael Meyer's impressive new book, "The Last Days of Old Beijing: Life in the Vanishing Backstreets of a City Transformed" (Walker & Co. 368 pages), goes a long way toward illuminating some of the scenes that have come to symbolize early-21st-century China, at least before the unrest in Tibet and the Sichuan earthquake. They include wrecking balls knocking down beloved small businesses; schoolchildren dragging their migrant-worker parents, who have never been in a restaurant, into a KFC; human-powered vehicles in a land of high-rises, evoked by the canopied pedicab set against construction cranes, as depicted on the book's cover.
These images eloquently capture the sense of eras colliding, which is a core part of many China stories—including Meyer's own. A former Peace Corps volunteer, Meyer spent several years in a Beijing hutong, or alleyway, living in a tiny rented room that lacks indoor plumbing, like all the houses in the neighborhood, yet has a broadband Internet connection. Indeed, one of the book's main attractions is its intense local focus, conveying the daily rhythms of life in his neighborhood. His route from his room to the public latrine takes him past "the vegetable seller arranging a pyramid of cabbages, the hairstylist massaging the temples of a customer, and the open doorways from which spills the clack of the gamblers' mah jong tiles." He describes his relationships with students and the faculty at the dilapidated Coal Lane elementary school where he teaches, as well as with local characters like the elderly widow next door who is addicted to Flying Horse cigarettes and televised opera performances. Some of his best writing details her daily visits, which typically involve her walking through his doorway without knocking and cajoling him to eat some of her homemade dumplings ("It's too hard to cook for one person").
Perhaps China today is best crystallized by Meyer's description of the Chongqing Nail House, a home that gained fame when its owners refused to sell to a developer even after all their neighbors had taken the money and run. The structure's nickname had a double meaning, Meyer writes. The term "nail house" was "slang for a structure that tenants refused to vacate." But in this instance, as the widely circulated photograph illustrated, "nail house" also "described the scene: the couple's building balanced atop a spike of earth in the middle of a pit fifty-six feet deep." The image could even serve as a sort of update of the famous 1989 Tiananmen Square photo, with two people—not just one—defying bulldozers instead of tanks.
Many Chinese admired the Chongqing Nail House's owners. With the country in the midst of the largest urban-redevelopment drives in history, more than a few urbanites have learned firsthand how difficult it is to stand up to developers, who often have close ties to corrupt local officials. Yet the tale of the colorful couple—a "martial arts champion" and his "feisty forty-year-old firebrand of a wife," writes Meyer—also gained currency in the West, partly because they portrayed their struggle as an attempt to defend their newly granted right to own property.
Urban redevelopment is a recurring theme in the narrative. And though Meyer doesn't make this connection, Beijing's remaining hutongs increasingly resemble nail houses writ large. Once woven thoroughly into the urban fabric, they increasingly stick out—not by standing higher than the surrounding ditches but by sitting lower than the encroaching big-box stores and skyscrapers.
Meyer remains acutely sensitive to Beijing's many, often contradictory changes: it has more architectural showpieces but harsher divides between rich and poor; a greater sense of its global importance but a shrinking memory of its history; rapid development but a vanishing sense of the security that comes from looking out for one's neighbors. But his greatest strength is in depicting how such changes affect, for better and worse, the widow next door and the other memorable characters who populate this evocative tale.