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Olympics Clean-Up Hides The Real Beijing

Associated Press in Beijing – Updated on Aug 07, 2008

It all began when my colleague Steve’s favourite noodle lady was forced to close down. Soon after, the ice pop lady was gone, followed by the scary fruit guy.

Then, a few weeks ago, the shabby apartment complex across the street from mine was covered up with a three-metre high sheet metal fence. The barrier blocks a row of small shops on the ground floor that offer everything from handmade Chinese bread to bicycle repairs.

The Beijing that visitors and television viewers see during the Olympics isn’t my Beijing. It’s unnaturally sanitised and stiffly coiffed, with much of its frenetic grittiness and earthy charm falling victim to zealous organisers who want to host a flawless event.

Since I moved here from the US 16 months ago, I’ve found the beauty of Beijing to be that it’s full of contradictions and doesn’t try too hard to please.

It’s an ancient capital that’s constantly being rebuilt. It’s the cultural heart of China, yet also home to hip-hop clubs packed with kids swilling cold green tea mixed with whiskey. In the downtown business district where I live, I often see bare-bottomed babies, horse-drawn carts and chickens pecking the sidewalk.

That’s the real Beijing. In Olympics Beijing, half the cars have been taken off the roads, and many migrant workers and students have been sent home to reduce pollution and congestion. Much of the city seems eerily quiet, much like the feeling you get driving around an American town on Christmas morning.

Almost all construction has been halted. Building sites where machinery pounded and banged 24 hours a day in the lead-up to the Olympics are quiet. I used to count nearly 30 construction cranes from my apartment window; now I only see six.

Authorities have taken pains to hide as many of the unfinished buildings as they can. The concrete skeletons are draped with giant sheets decorated with pictures of Olympic athletes or forest scenes. A structure on Wangfujing, Beijing’s famous pedestrian mall, is covered with a drape painted to look like a finished building.

Taxi drivers have been issued uniforms and are now among the sharpest-looking drivers in the world, with navy trousers, butter-yellow shirts and striped ties. Believe me, visitors here wouldn’t normally confuse a cab driver with an office worker.

And then there’s Steve’s noodle lady.

The food stalls that crowded many side streets have been ordered closed and a lot of sidewalk dining has been banned, because they’re considered unsightly or unsanitary. Meanwhile, the menus at proper eateries now have officially approved English translations. No more “the temple explodes the chicken cube” (kung pao chicken) or “fried crap” (er, carp).

The noodle lady and her cart behind the AP Beijing bureau have been gone for weeks. For just three yuan you got cold, spaghetti-like noodles mixed with shreds of cucumber and bits of tofu, seasoned with sesame paste, soy sauce, vinegar, chili oil, plenty of garlic and a special sauce.

Steve Wade, our sports writer, ate two servings every day, slurping his noodles from a big soup bowl. “Hey, if I went to your house and your mom made something really good, I wouldn’t eat just one bowl,” he told me. They really were that tasty.

Though I had been writing about the coming Olympics for well over a year, it seemed intangible and far away â until the noodle lady stopped showing up. Then I knew the Olympics were for real.

“Two months, we’ll be back in two months,” said a man filling in for the ice pop lady one afternoon a few weeks ago. Mr Wu clutched a wad of one yuan and fifty-cent bills in his hand, interrupting our chat to sell snowman-shaped ice cream bars to schoolchildren. Mr Wu, who wouldn’t give his first name, lashed out at the government for what he said was its obsession with looking good for foreigners.

“When other countries host the Olympic Games, they do it to make money, but look at China. It’s only for face,” he said.

Mr Wu has since left for his hometown of Chengde, northeast of Beijing. Also gone is the burly fruit guy, who peddled small piles of apples, peaches and slices of pineapple at night from the back of a tricycle cart in the parking lot of my apartment complex.

“Hey!” he’d growl at scurrying passers-by. “Fruit! You wanna buy some fruit?”

Many people are waiting for the Olympics to be over, so life can get back to normal. The more enterprising are finding ways to survive.

This week, a co-worker tipped me off to a woman who was secretly selling cold noodles â behind a huge Olympics sign.

And life goes on behind the sheet metal fence blocking the Soviet-built apartment complex across from mine. A shop owner has hung red lanterns and a Chinese flag around a little opening left in the fence so customers can get in. Her cold drink cases are back outside along with the crates of peaches. For her other wares, the marital aids, someone has rehung the “sex shop” sign over the door, and last week she was giving someone’s dog a haircut.

Crazy, unpredictable Beijing is still alive, after all, just behind the fence.

That made me feel better.

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