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One of the storylines before and during the Olympics was the architectural wonders sprouting out throughout the city. On nearly every other block, there was a construction project or billboards advertising a future project. But no one ever asked the question, Who’s going to rent/buy/fill all that space? Nearly six months after the Games, we have an answer: No one.
From the LA Times:
Beijing went through a building boom before the 2008 Summer Olympics that filled a staid communist capital with angular architectural feats that grace the covers of glossy design magazines.
Now, six months after the Games ended, the city continues to dazzle by night, with neon and floodlights dancing across the skyline. By day, though, it is obvious that many are “see-through” buildings, to use the term coined during the Texas real estate bust of the 1980s.
The Bird’s Nest, the linchpin of the Games, is empty — even though it costs $9 million a year to maintain. The mammoth concrete Olympic plaza is empty. High-end apartments and homes are empty because no one can afford them. As the article states, at some point the banks that financed all the projects will have to “pay the piper.” And when that time comes, how will that affect China’s investments abroad? More specifically, China’s investments in the U.S.?
As Hillary Clinton said during her trip to China, the U.S. still needs China’s investements. Although I am no economist or financial guru, it’s not hard to envision a precipitous fall in China’s markets this year or next. And I wonder if China can still keep financing American debt if that happens. Perhaps we’ll find out once the piper comes out to collect.
I know I promised to write some post-Games thoughts. I’ve definitely procrasitinated, partly out of the maddening internet connections (some sites, like WordPress, are blocked by the Great Firewall), partly out of laziness and partly out of the inability to add much to my wrap-up piece I wrote for msnbc.com.
The article pretty much summarizes how I feel about the Olympics in general. It was a extraordinary event with extraordinary athletes, but for me, the extradinary were the ordinary people I met along the way. Nearly every one was so gracious, so helpful, so eager. Years from now, I will remember those people more than any other performance.
But I’ll also remember the negatives. The smog that greeted me two weeks before the Opening Ceremony. It was nothing I had seen before. Now, after seeing the same haze over Shanghai and Hangzhou, I’m used to it.
I’ll remember how I was hassled and followed at the basketball park. All because I was a journalist who wanted to ask some players some innocent questions. I could only imagine how the journalists who were going into the small villages or mining towns trying to root out corruption and human rights abuses were being treated. It was unnerving, even though I was at the park for only an hour.
I’ll also remember how some Chinese people would not speak to me or my interpreter because we were part of the press. You could see the fear in their eyes — a look I’d never seen before — over talking to reporters. They would usually give us one last dirty look before hurriedly walking away. And all our questions were so innocuous. What did they think about the Fuwa? About Liu Xiang? About China’s performance? It’s sad when that fear of the press and speaking out is so palpable.
I also know that the Beijing I experienced was a sanitized version. It was cleaned up, the seedier side of life pushed off to the sides and underground. Visitors who were there during the Olympics (and now the Paralympics) caught only a glimpse of what life in China is like. I’m getting a fuller picture now that I’ve travelled more in the country.
For most of the country, they’ve moved on from the Olympics, although CCTV keeps replaying events and is now showing the Paralympics 24/7. Life goes on. My life also goes on, as my articles on msnbc.com are dumped into the archives bin.
But I hope to be back in Beijing, especially in four years or so (perhaps when the world turns its attention to the London Games) to see what kind of legacy the Games will have on the city and the country. I believe that’s the real story of the Games of the XXIX Olympiad.
That’s snake, a dish I sampled a couple days ago. I would say it tastes like … snake. No, seriously, I would compare it to some small fish because of how it was cooked (baked in some soy sauce, kind of like unagi, methinks) and all the bones, large and small. It wasn’t terrible, although I only had one. One was enough.
It’s by far the “weirdest” food I’ve eaten since arriving in China. I had fried pigeon — which came with its head and beak — in Guangzhou. I also had donkey meat. But I don’t really classify the two as weird food (OK, donkey might be a little).
But honestly I haven’t eaten much strange food since I’ve been in China. It’s not that hard to eat like I do back in the States. My diet has been pretty straight forward — chicken, beef, veggies, noodles. Perhaps the only food I’ve eaten more of that I don’t back home is mutton.
I mention all this because one of the stories that flooded very Western medium during the Olympics was all the “weird’ food that Chinese people eat. The funky foods on a stick — scorpions, sea horses, other weird shit — at the night markets. The exotic meats — dog, donkey, frog, turtle, other mammals.
Every TV station sent their reporter, every newspaper sent the columnist to the local market or out-of-the-way restaurant to sample the craziest food they could find. A couple guys even tried penis. Seriously.
NBC wasn’t immune to the weird food draw. The Today Show sent their anchors to the Beijing night market to try scorpions on a stick. So did every affiliate. Even my editors — bless their hearts — wanted me to try some “weird food” after watching the video of the two reporters chowing down on penis. Uh, no thanks guys. I’m not that adventurous. Plus, you’ll have to pay me A LOT more if I’m going try, even nibble, on boiled animal penis. I leave that to Anthony Bourdain and that tubby, bald guy who tries anything and everything.
The fact is that there wasn’t anything new to write about the subject. Unless it was an article lambasting the very idea of weird food — which most Chinese don’t eat anyway — and the media that gobbles it up (some in the media did write that story). So I avoided the story idea and avoided it and avoided it until — magically — the Olympics were over. So my editors were left without their “weird food” story (reporter 1, editors 0).
Perhaps the story I should have written about was the invasion of fast food chains in China. KFC seems to be one of the most popular. There’s one in every neighborhood, on every other block. That’s including Mickey D’s, Burger King, Dairy Queen, Domino’s, Pizza Hut. The United States’ biggest exports seem to be calories and expanding waistlines. Just look at all the corpulent children here.
But if my editors still want a weird food story, perhaps I’ll head to the local Pizza Hut in Shanghai, where I found this monstrosity. I give you the Seafood Pizza, one of the weirdest things I’ve seen in my two months in China:
I mentioned the impromptu parade in one of my articles about the atmosphere (or lack of it) at the Olympics. I finally uploaded the video I took of it. It’s not as long as I wanted since I caught the tail end of it. Not exactly the Rose Bowl parade.
Here’s my story about Mao Live, one of the best venues for live music in Beijing.
And here’s Wang Xiao Long, the front man for Fire Ballroom, in action. One cool, talented dude.
Well, only three more days to go here in Beijing. I have to admit that I’m dragging to the finish line. But at least I can see the finish line.
Here are some random news and thoughts from the last week or so:
— All the facilities have been well run. Logistically, organizers couldn’t have done a better job. The bus system is efficient; the main press center coddles journos with free massages, a hair salon, a gym and snacks; the information network at the venues are top notch. There are touch screens that display information in real time for every event. Very cool.
— But it doesn’t seem like that the venues and the Olympics are very fan friendly. The Olympic Green is impressive, but it’s a big square with a lot of concrete and not a lot of shade. That’s a problem when it’s 90-plus degrees with 60 percent humidity. It’s like they modeled the square around the Bird’s Nest after Tiananmen Square. Another complaint from fans: where’s the food? There aren’t a lot of concession stands around the Green. Moreover, the food choice is rather limited. Hot dog on a stick, a box of Chinese food, or McDonald’s. That’s pretty much it.
— What happens when Paralympians and their families arrive in two weeks? The city and the facilities just don’t seem accessible to people with disabilities. I saw one family hold up their grandfather while some one else held the wheelchair when they were going down an escalator. And this was at the Olympic Green subway stop.
— Just because you’re wearing a journalist credential doesn’t give you a free ticket to be disrespectful. When I was at the Bird’s Nest last night, there were three medal ceremonies. It’s only appropriate to stand up when the respective country’s anthem is played. But I saw many in the press area stay in their seats during the anthems. OK, I can understand if you’re on air and have to continue working. But some people were talking on the cell phones.
— Another example why not all journalists deserve a credential. A group of reporters had gathered around a TV that was broadcasting men’s rowing. The camera showed the Cuban team. One guy quipped to his friend/colleague, “They should be good in this sport, right? Since they’ve got so much experience paddling to America.”
— I’m definitely feeling the grind of the last two weeks. I’ve snapped at a couple Olympic volunteers and employees when I didn’t get the answer I wanted. If they’re reading this (which they’re not), I apologize.
— I love the breakfast buffet at the hotel, the Continental. Among the many food choices: scrambled eggs, dumpling soup, egg rolls, fried rice, spaghetti, hard boiled eggs, steamed pork buns, miso soup, sausages, corn on the cob … the list goes on and on
— One more thing about the hotel: they post an employee on every floor, 24 hours a day. They greet you every morning and every night and press the elevator button for you. Basically they keep track of your movements. Big Brother is always watching.
— I saw a kid pee on the grass of the ridiculous CNPC building in the Olympic Green. It was awesome.
— David Hawpe of The Courier-Journal gave me a plug in his column on Wednesday. Thanks for reading, Mr. Hawpe. Loved the column, not just because I was in it.
Olympic organizers must have a cheerleader fetish. They are everywhere — at the volleyball matches, at basketball games, at handball and at BMX. It’s a little odd to see them dancing on the dirt track. Perhaps the rationale of BOCOG (Beijing Organizing Committee of the Oympic Games) was this: most sports fans are male, most spectators will be male, thus the more cheerleaders the better to keep the men in their seats.
Here’s a video of a routine at the BMX event Wednesday. They obviously need to work on their moves, but they had one big fan in the stands. You can barely hear it but around the :50 point mark, a guy I met from Las Vegas (he’s the long-haired dude in my Flickr feed) said, “They are so hot, mmm, whooo!”
I went to Club Bud on Sunday night. Athletes who had finished competing after the first week were out in full force. Among the highlights: free Budweiser, Carl Lewis, Evander Holyfield, Chinese gymnasts (the entertaining kind, not the team), gold medal-winning U.S. rowers, Cullen Jones, go-go dancers and this guy:
Here are Denmark fans celebrating their thrilling handball victory over Russia Thursday night (here’s my article for msnbc.com).
I went to the Olympic baseball stadium today to check out the atmosphere of the U.S.-Cuba game. It was well attended and the crowd was into it. But I’d like to share a story that won’t make it into my piece for msnbc.com.
As I was walking around the media and restricted zone, I passed by an open door. I caught a glimpse of two volunteers playing catch. Naturally, I had to stop and ask what was going on. Two guys were on their break and were in the storage room under the stadium. They had picked up a couple gloves and a ball to kill time.
Here’s Wang Bin throwing the ball. Good form, eh?
After a little hesitation (they probably didn’t want to get in trouble), they let me join in and I played catch, the first time in years, for about 10 minutes under field 2. The two guys were graduate college students, working on their masters degrees in physical education. A third student, one of their friends, joined in.
Here they are, hamming it up for the camera.
Will baseball ever succeed here? I know the MLB is trying; I did talk to some one from the commissioner’s office about baseball’s struggles to get into the market here. Perhaps they should be heartened by the fact that a couple college students were playing catch and seemed to be enjoying it.
But when I asked Wang if he liked to watch baseball, he had a quick answer.
“No,” he said.
“It’s boring,” he explained. “It’s too long.