Beijing is a city with a public relations problem. It’s plagued by all manner of 21st-century urban maladies: clogged streets, packed public transit, an astounding wealth gap and the occasional “Airpocalypse.” Those are real problems with real consequences for real people.
But beyond the banner headlines there is another Beijing that’s rarely seen in the international press. The city is home to millions of human beings trying to make a life in one of the fastest-changing societies on the planet. They grind away at offices, schools and construction sites with a patience and a tolerance for drudgery (the Chinese call it “eating bitterness”) that astounds foreign eyes. Many of Beijing’s newly arrived urban workers — called “Beijing floaters” — are one generation away from tilling rice paddies, and the sacrifices that brought them to this metropolitan cityscape aren’t easily forgotten.
Each city block or packed bus is a human medley of class and culture: migrant workers fresh off the train from China’s poorer interior provinces, first-generation college students getting a taste of international lifestyles, and multi-generational families whose roots in the city date back to China’s dynastic era. It’s a bubbling and sometimes volatile mix that turns an ethnically homogenous city into a stunningly diverse human cityscape. For its many problems, Beijing is a city with a pulse, a place that is changing the world as it constantly reinvents itself.
I made the short film “Rhapsody in Beijing” because I wanted to capture the city in all of its grit and glory. One video in itself could never encapsulate Beijing’s manifold lifestyles and characters, but my hope is that this brings the city to life by zooming in on the people and places that drive it.
Privacy is rare in China, as few Beijing residents are blessed with spacious living rooms or solitary studio apartments. As a result, private lives — the romantic courtships, conversations between old friends and instrumental jam sessions — unfold in the most public of spaces. Many Chinese parks are packed at sundown from March through November. Three generations are often interacting in the same space, doing everything from singing Mao-era “red songs” to taking cheesy group selfies.
For a culture often derided as clan-like and a political system averse to crowd-sourced anything, Chinese urban life is a miracle of spontaneous organization. There’s no app or listserv needed to create and sustain the daily badminton games that endure for years, and the line-dancing grandmothers aren’t part of any Facebook groups (not that they could be if they wanted to). What brings them together is a desire for connection and ritual, something most Chinese don’t have the luxury of finding in their crammed apartments.
At the 2:15 mark of the video you’ll see Beijingers rallying for deceased Chairman Mao Zedong in the city’s central Jingshan Park. Thirty-five seconds later, you’ll see a woman from China’s Uyghur minority dancing in the same park despite ethnic tensions in the city running high; one day before, an Uyghur man had killed two people while speeding through crowded Tiananmen Square in a car, just a mile and a half from where the woman danced.
For all the bustle, pressure, tension, pollution and poverty at play, Beijing still manages to chug along. In that way it bears a resemblance to the New York that George Gershwin had in mind when he composed “Rhapsody in Blue” in 1924: a city that combines exorbitant wealth with widespread injustice, and harsh realities with almost limitless possibility.