Equal parts debutante ball, bar mitzvah and scarification, the 2008 Beijing Olympics contained all the classic elements of a coming of age celebration: the new clothes, the bow to cultural tradition and the backstage anxiety. As at similar occasions, the sense of significance was undermined by lingering suspicion that nothing had really changed.
If Beijing joined the ranks of the first rate world capitals in 2008, the event was neither pre-ordained nor inadvertent. As Tom Scocca documents in his new book Beijing Welcomes You: Unveiling the Capital of the Future, the Chinese Communist Party and the government of Beijing itself had spent the previous years working tirelessly to prepare for 2008, promising their citizens that the capital would never be the same even as they sponsored a variety of massive demolition and development projects that guaranteed their prophecy, for better of worse, would be fulfilled.
Scocca, who spent 2004 to 2010 -- off and on -- living in Beijing, describes a city shedding its skin, not evolving. This Beijing is a city of buck-passing bureaucrats, party spies and spitting pedestrians; a city that stubbornly refuses to be domesticated by any amount of central planning. Rather than trying to explain the city or contextualize the Olympian push for modernization within the gameplay of international relations, Scocca simply describes a place then, when that place changes, describes it again. The result is the written equivalent to this claymation clip of a flower blooming.
The book is both slightly surreal and pleasantly lived in. That Scocca, the managing editor of the snarky sports blog Deadspin and a former blogger for Slate, is observant and wry (“Another unfinished building had been slipcovered on all sides with a picture of a finished building's facade, complete with images of people in some of the windows.”) doesn’t hurt either.
Tom Scocca talked to Huffington Post Travel’s Andrew Burmon about his book and about visiting the capital of the future.