BOOK CLUB: Tom Scocca’s Beijing Welcomes You, Discussed

Steel? Concrete? Steel? Concrete? Credit: Francisco Diez on Flickr

Welcome to our August book club installment, focusing on Tom Scocca’s Beijing Welcomes You: Unveiling the Capital City of the Future. I chose the book because, given the 2012 Olympics, it was topical: Beijing Welcomes You is an account of Scocca’s time in in the city before and during the 2008 Summer Games.

I didn’t expect weather control would supersede built-environment control in the book. But it did! Case in point: The Beijing Weather Modification Office.

While Scocca’s introduction of this particular branch of Chinese bureaucracy seemed absurd on its face, I I took it seriously after a few pages. Largely due to Scocca’s weaving the Weather Modification Office in and out of his narrative on Beijing’s role in the 2008 Olympics, I got the symbolism: If China could control the weather in the moments it mattered most, it could feasibly control the world. As Scocca writes, “Beijing’s weather planning, like its urban planning, seemed to demand that the subject be shrunk down to size” (p. 79).

Beyond that, Scocca’s detailing of everyday routines to show how Beijing was altering itself in preparation for the Olympics was, I thought, an excellent technique. Iain Sinclair’s Ghost Milk: Calling Time on the Grand Project, which I read in tandem with Beijing Welcomes You, employs the same device to convey the feeling of London’s East End prior to its pre-Olympics “renewal.” But while Sinclair glorifies the East End and mourns its forced evolution, Scocca is detached in his observations. Consider the latter’s revelation that no one actually knows what the buzzed-about Bird’s Nest stadium is made of, despite repeated claims from Chinese officials and journalists that the thing is entirely steel:

“On one edge, the silvery surface had been chipped by some passing object. In the chip, a dark gray was showing. I pressed my fingertip into the chipped part. When I pulled it back, there was concrete dust on it….I began to review in my mind a rough list I had been making since the first tap on the pillar in April, the list of all the editors to whom I might now owe a correction….” (p. 217)

But I found myself losing interest in the whole thing — the Olympics, Beijing, Scocca, Scocca’s writing — in the last 100 pages. His pattern of interjecting descriptions of sporting events with anecdotes of life in Olympic-battered Beijing was jerky. Though such a back-and-forth seemed consistent with the book’s theme, I didn’t feel as if I was grasping any point at all. (That said, I loved Scocca’s back-and-forth with Madame Wang, during which she claims American journalists hurt China’s feelings.)

How did you feel about the style of Beijing Welcomes You, which was in turns a journalistic work and an anecdotal account? Were you, like me, let down by the last third of the book, or did you think Scocca’s style matched the hubbub of a city in the throes of the world’s largest sporting event? What stood out to you more: The descriptions preparations for the games, or the only-in-China anecdotes — like the rather backward method of counting that excluded silver and bronze medals won by other countries, so Chinese athletes would appear consistently victorious?

Did you draw any connections to the most recent Olympics? There’s been more writing than I can link to on the redevelopment of London’s East End to accommodate athletes and spectators at the cost of the neighborhood’s residents — all of which parallels coverage of Beijing in 2008. Does Beijing Welcomes You contribute to the question of whether Olympic preparations are aggrandized, wholesale gentrification or much-needed regeneration? Though Scocca’s book isn’t a screed against wholesale redevelopment of Olympic sites, like Ghost Milk, in the end it faintly damns the process: “The new city had plans for an even newer city” (p. 405).

I look forward to your insights in the comments, on Twitter (I’m @alexbaca), and on NAC’s Facebook page. And check back here later today for the announcement of September’s book club pick.

Tags: politics & policy, london, book club, beijing, olympics, 2008 summer olympics, 2012 olympic games, beijing welcomes you, ghost milk, iain sinclair