Letter from Beijing

By    Monday July 28, 2008

With less than two weeks to go before the start of the Olympic Games, there's definitely something in the air. You can see it, hear it and feel it. First there's the infamous Beijing smog. According to a page-one story in the state-run China Daily, it has been at unhealthy levels for four days running despite the recent reduction of construction and factory output. Officials must be getting nervous because they're now threatening to restrict the use of 90% of privately owned cars if the air quality doesn't improve.


Left to right: Beijing's persistent smoggy haze, shot in Wangfujing, a busy shopping street; Gia, lead singer of Kill Girl Kill, performing at 2 Kolegas; a Chinese soldier keeps an eye on things in an underground passage near Tienanman Square. All photos: David Butow, courtesy of the photographer.

Then there's the official Chinese Olympic song, which seems to be playing in every taxi around town. It's upbeat, somewhat tuneless, composed by committee, and sung in Chinese. This morning, my driver cheerily tapped along on his steering wheel with a stiff 4/4 beat. Like most visiting foreigners, I don't understand much of the language, so the lyrics in the surging, melodramatic chorus sound like:

Bei-jing, (something, something, something)
(Something, something).....Bei-JING!!!

Something tells me that by the time the Games are over on August 24, my driver won't be drumming along so enthusiastically.

There is also a sense of seriousness here. Stability is an obvious and reasonable government priority, but it's diminishing the positive and open feeling the Games are meant to encourage. As in the U.S. after 9/11, visas to this country are much harder to come by and hotels are at a surprisingly low capacity. Every ex-pat I know has had a visit from police required to check on their residency status. A prominent Asian newspaper recently reported that police are telling bar owners not to serve African-looking men. Most ex-pats think this only a rumor but no one can be sure it isn't true.

Saturday night I go with friends to a chill club to catch Kill Girl Kill, a new all-girl punk band. As a young-ish Chinese man casually roams the crowd with a point-and-shoot camera, word gets around that someone had run into him before, and that he's an undercover cop. But everyone shrugs it off - you don't get uptight about cops at a punk club. As I strain to catch the lyrics from Gia, the lead vocalist, I realize I'm getting some of the meaning. she's singing in English.

California photographer David Butow, who is represented by Redux Pictures, is based in Beijing through the middle of September.