The Last Days of Old Beijing

The front gate in Beijing, in an early-20th century photograph, from the The Last Days of Old Beijing.
The front gate in Beijing, in an early-20th century photograph, from the The Last Days of Old Beijing.

NEW YORK, May 7, 2009 - Longtime Beijing resident Michael Meyer visited Asia Society headquarters for a slideshow and talk accompanying the publication of his new memoir The Last Days of Beijing. Following his presentation, Meyer was joined in conversation with Orville Schell, Arthur Ross Director of the Center on US-China Relations at the Asia Society.

For the past two years, Meyer has lived like no other Westerner in China—in a shared courtyard home in Beijing's oldest neighborhood, Dazhalan, on one of its famed hutong (lanes). There he volunteered to teach English at the local grade school and immersed himself in the community. Meyer recounted with affection his experiences getting to know the many colorful figures who, despite great differences in age and profession, make up the fabric of this unique neighborhood.

Lately, however, that community is rapidly being torn apart 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. As Meyer explained, Beijing has gone through this cycle many times in the past, but never with the kind of dislocation and dismantling of its storied culture now taking place.