The Last Days of Old Beijing Life in the Vanishing Backstreets of a City Transformed

Michael Meyer

Bloomsbury USA




384 Pages


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A Wall Street Journal Best Book of Asia
An Access Asia Best Book of 2008

Soon we will be able to say about old Beijing that what emperors, warlords, Japanese invaders, and Communist planners couldn't eradicate, the market economy has. Nobody has been more aware of this than Michael Meyer. A long-time resident, Meyer has, for the past two years, lived as no other Westerner—in a shared courtyard home in Beijing's oldest neighborhood, Dazhalan, on one of its famed hutong (lanes). There he volunteers to teach English at the local grade school and immerses himself in the community, recording with affection the life stories of the Widow, who shares his courtyard; co-teacher Miss Zhu and student Little Liu; and the migrants Recycler Wang and Soldier Liu; among the many others who, despite great differences in age and profession, make up the fabric of this unique neighborhood.

Their bond is rapidly being torn, however, by forced evictions as century-old houses and ways of life are increasingly destroyed to make way for shopping malls, the capital's first Wal-Mart, high-rise buildings, and widened streets for cars replacing bicycles. Beijing has gone through this cycle many times, as Meyer reveals, but never with the kind of dislocation and overturning of its storied culture occurring as the city prepared to host the 2008 Summer Olympics.

Weaving historical vignettes of Beijing and China over a thousand years through his narrative, Meyer captures the city's deep past as he illuminates its present. With the kind of insight only someone on the inside can provide, The Last Days of Old Beijing brings this moment and the ebb and flow of daily lives on the other side of the planet into shining focus.


Praise for The Last Days of Old Beijing

"Michael Meyer's voracious curiosity has led him deep, deep into a vanishing world that other visitors and foreign correspondents almost all see only from a taxi window. He comes at it with a wide knowledge of history, a thirst for people's life stories, a novelist's ability to evoke a social universe, and an Arctic explorer's willingness to live through a sub-zero winter with little heat and the nearest communal toilet far down a snowy lane. This is a stunning, compassionate feat of reportage which will long endure."—Adam Hochschild, author of King Leopold's Ghost and Bury the Chains

"It's rare that a writer truly lives a book, commits himself to the rhythms of a place, and turns research into something deeper. For the past two years, Michael Meyer has lived and taught in the hutong neighborhoods of Beijing; nobody writing in English knows this world as well as he does."—Peter Hessler, author of Oracle Bones and River Town

"Nimbly told . . . Through his skillful weaving of his professional experiences with his intimate encounters with neighbors, The Last Days of Old Beijing is as much a chronicle of the physical transformation of the city as it is a tribute to the inhabitants of his beloved hutong."Julie Foster, San Francisco Chronicle

"Meyer is a graceful writer in full command of his voice, with a scrupulous eye for detail and a flawless sense of comic timing . . . There is a plainspoken eloquence to his account and a winning determination to subject himself to the same scrutiny he brings to bear on his neighbors and sources . . . An emissary from a nation that routinely junks its own past and starts anew, Meyer finds himself a champion of an unpopular cause."Holly Brubach, T: The New York Times Style Magazine

"A charming memoir and a compelling work of narrative nonfiction about the city itself."—Ian Johnson, The Wall Street Journal

"An American lives side by side with the fear-stricken denizens of an ancient neighborhood that will not survive China's Olympic Games. The Old and Dilapidated Housing Renewal program, reports first-time author Meyer, has evicted 1.25 million residents from their homes in Beijing. This massive official initiative to ‘clean up' the city for the upcoming summer Olympics focuses on demolition and removal in Beijing's traditional hutong (lane) areas, neighborhoods of narrow paths that crisscross the heart of the city. The author, who first went to China as a Peace Corps volunteer in 1995, moved to a walled courtyard home in a hutong in 2005, when the pace of demolitions was accelerating. He makes palpable the impact of this initiative on Chinese families and the many older people who have never known another kind of home. Compensatory payment is offered when ‘the Hand' (Meyer's epithet for anonymous, creeping bureaucracy) stencils the Chinese character meaning ‘raze' on their walls, the author explains. But even those who go quietly and promptly, therefore locking in the highest settlement, find that it rarely covers their expenses in a sterile concrete high-rise that could be a two-hour commute away. And such is the pull of the hutong on its older inhabitants that many hold out and get nothing; some who are forced out simply disappear. Most Beijing residents neither abhor progress nor revile the government, Meyer stresses; it's just the total lack of transparency that depresses everybody. Few Americans would care for the hutong's basic amenities—public latrines, bathhouses, coal- or charcoal-burning heaters—and ‘dilapidated' is often an accurate description. But these venerable lanes shelter neighbors who truly know, trust and depend on each other, avers the author, who paints a picture of deep personal loss as the old alleys vanish. Revealing portrait of urban change, and the consequences of China's unquenchable thirst for modernization."—Kirkus Reviews

"Meyer lived in a Beijing hutong (narrow lane) for two years while he worked as a teacher, having gone to China as a Peace Corps volunteer. Eventually, he was given the nickname Teacher Plumblossom. Meyer was often asked by his neighbors if he knew when their neighborhood would undergo the same razing occurring everywhere in preparation for the Olympics. To show us what this threatened neighborhood is like, Meyer takes us into his life, masterfully describing the seasons, his home and courtyard, and his students and their parents. We meet his landlady, for instance, who runs her house with an iron grip while bringing him nourishing soup. He also adds a wonderful sprinkling of humor, pointing out the sign that greets him on the way to a latrine: ‘No Spitting No Smoking No Coarse Language No Missing the Hole.' Ultimately, the neighborhood wasn't destroyed. Now tourists are brought there to see the real Beijing, and, reports Meyer, they rank the visit as a highlight over the Forbidden City and the Great Wall."—Susan G. Baird, Library Journal (starred review)

"Just in time for the Summer Olympics in Beijing, the Old City's narrow lanes and shops are being bulldozed and their residents displaced to make way for Wal-Marts, shopping centers and high-rise apartments. Part memoir, part history, part travelogue and part call to action, journalist Meyer's elegant first book yearns for old Beijing and mourns the loss of an older way of life. Having lived for two years in one of Beijing's oldest hutongs—mazes of lanes and courtyards bordered by single-story houses—Meyer chronicles the threat urban planning poses not only to the ancient history buried within these neighborhoods but also to the people of the hutong. The hutong, he says, builds community in a way that glistening glass and steel buildings cannot. His 81-year-old neighbor, whom he calls the ‘Widow,' had always been safe because neighbors watched out for her, as she watched out for others: the book opens with a delightful scene in which the Widow, a salty character who calls Meyer ‘Little Plumblossom,' brings him unsolicited dumplings for his breakfast. The ironies of the reconstruction of Beijing are clear in the building of Safe and Sound Boulevard, which, Meyer tells us, is ‘neither safe nor sound.' Meyer's powerful book is to Beijing what Jane Jacobs's The Death and Life of Great American Cities was to New York City."—Publishers Weekly

Reviews from Goodreads



  • Michael Meyer

  • Michael Meyer first went to China in 1995 with the Peace Corps. A longtime teacher and a Lowell Thomas Award winner for travel writing, Meyer has published stories in Time, Smithsonian, the New York Times Book Review, the Financial Times, Reader's Digest, the Los Angeles Times, and the Chicago Tribune. In China, he has represented the National Geographic Society's Center for Sustainable Destinations, training China's UNESCO World Heritage Site managers in preservation practices. The Last Days of Old Beijing is his first book.

  • Michael Meyer