Beijing 10 years on is as enigmatic

When I made my first trip to China a decade ago, I arrived in the capital thinking I would have a rough idea what the place would be like.

"Rough idea" was right.

For a country which gave me my cultural and ancestral roots, China was still quite an eye-opener.

First, there were the sights. The scale of Beijing's grandest sights, from the Forbidden City to the Great Wall and Tiananmen Square, was breathtaking. One can easily spend a day at each of these places and still scratch only the surface.

But Chinese life was even more of a revelation, with new discoveries every day.

Several quirks stuck in my mind. Having not had much interaction with Chinese nationals up to that point in my life, I was firstly surprised at how much loud public arguing there is.

In fact, within minutes of my arrival in Beijing, I heard one woman - after an altercation with an airport official - shout at everyone within earshot, "Shame on Beijingers!" before leaving in a huff.

For the next 10 days that I was in the capital, I saw people quarrelling at the top of their voices every day.

Whether it was between a fruit seller and customer, or two cyclists who knocked into each other, or a scenario where I couldn't even determine what there was to argue about, I would never fail to witness at least one altercation a day in public.

It was rather intimidating initially, but after a while, I got used to the noise.

Just like how I got used to the fact that there was no such thing as queues.

At subway station ticket counters, the queue was not a line but a semi-circle, and you simply picked a spot, squeezed in and nudged your way forward like everyone else.

I might've tried to take more taxis, but I was constantly being bested by the locals. Even if the taxi stopped right in front of me, someone would steal in and nick it before I had the chance to pick up my jaw from the ground.

Despite all these hiccups, the trip left a deep impression on me. It was not hard to appreciate the deep sense of history and culture that coursed through the city. Like a good jiaozi (dumpling), Beijing was hearty, if not always refined.

Ten years had passed by the time I returned to Beijing last month, as I began the process of relocating to the city for work.

In between - spurred by that memorable first trip - I had already visited China eight more times, from Guangxi and Fujian to Sichuan and Xinjiang.

While it was my first return to the capital, "rough idea" should probably have upgraded to "good idea" by now, I reckoned.

But if anything, I seem to know even less than I did before.

Going by media reports of Chinese tourists fighting or abusing airline stewardesses and the unruly behaviour I would occasionally see on my travels in China, I was expecting to see more of the same from a decade ago. Except I didn't.

I've not heard a single public argument in the five weeks I've spent in Beijing, and people not only queue to buy subway tickets, they in fact stand to the right on escalators as well.

The one time I had to fight with someone for a taxi, I actually won.

"Yah sure you go ahead," the Chinese woman told me, probably wondering who this unruly foreigner is.

Even in development - an area seemingly easier to understand - things confound me.

Beijing, dotted with skyscrapers and office buildings, is clearly more developed now than it was 10 years ago.

But in a city which has attracted expatriates from all over the world, it was hard to find a well-located apartment that's comparable in standard to an average condominium in Singapore.

In the place where I eventually settled, there are huge gleaming office and retail buildings nearby. Yet when I walked around a few of them, the atmosphere was dead, with space that seemed poorly utilised and many empty shoplots.

Food is one area that has actually gone backwards.

Eating in Beijing now is not only more expensive, but seems worse value- for-money than it was 10 years ago. The number of flashier restaurants and eateries might have mushroomed, but one can easily spend 50 yuan (S$10) at these places eating a very pedestrian meal, with surly service thrown in for free.

And while food safety was not really something I worried much about previously, the few small stomach upsets I've had so far made me wonder if the beef I just ate was really beef.

So the enigma grows. Is Beijing advancing or regressing? Developed or developing? Ask 10 Chinese and you might get 11 answers.

I was reminded of an article I read once, by a foreigner who had lived in China for many years. The longer you stay in this country, the less you seem to know, he mused.

I'll have to chew on this jiaozi a little longer.

chengwee@sph.com.sg