Beijing Up Close and Personal


Beijing has been tense in recent weeks; two buses blowing up in the southern provincial capital of Kunming on 21 July and an attack on border police in far west Xinjiang on 4 August did nothing to allay locals’ fears of Games-related violence in the capital during the Olympics. So there was a palpable sense of relief in Beijing at the end of the opening ceremony on Friday night, when the only explosions were the thunderous fireworks going off all over the city (some of which were reportedly just an illusion).

Potential threats didn’t deter thousands of spectators from pouring into Ditan Park, one of a range of venues around Beijing where the opening ceremony was to be broadcast on enormous screens. The main threat to viewers’ health turned out to be the heat and humidity. Even though the sun had set by the time the ceremony kicked off, thousands of excited bodies turned the viewing area into a sauna. The audience chanted the countdown to 8:00pm as drummers on screen worked the crowd into a sweaty mass. An enormous cheer greeted the first volley of pyrotechnics.

The initial enthusiasm waned somewhat as the performance progressed, with the more esoteric symbolism eliciting some amusing comments from the tipsy Americans sitting behind me. "Dude, what’s this part about?" asked one. "I don’t know dude," his companion replied, "where are the cheerleaders?" Alas, the controversial mini-skirted beauties that artistic director Zhang Yimou contributed to the 2004 closing ceremony in Athens were nowhere to be seen.

For me, the ceremony was not unlike Zhang’s recent films: grand in scale but ultimately hollow. If online reactions are an indication, at least some Chinese viewers felt the same. But perhaps I was expecting too much; Olympic openers invariably offer a spectacularly bland and sanitised vision of the host nation’s culture. At least Friday night’s effort was blessedly free of any reference to the glories of Communist Party rule. In fact the section on "modern China" was decidedly vague. There was an unsettling moment in the park when the live feed cut out. A cry of "Something’s happened!" swept through the spectators, before the picture reappeared, spluttered, and normal service resumed.

Interest picked up when the athletes began entering the stadium, although the 205 teams competing this year meant a long wait before the Chinese delegation arrived at the end of the parade. "Chinese Taipei" got a resounding cheer, as did the US team – until George W Bush flashed on screen, generating a loud round of boos.

The Australian team arrived third from the end to a polite cheer. It was nice to see Kevin Rudd waving from the grandstand – I’ve been away from Australia for a year, so it’s still a novelty for me to see his broad smile in place of Howard’s twisted grin.

The climax of the night was undoubtedly the arrival of the huge Chinese team. Everyone in Ditan Park jumped to their feet, and even President Hu Jintao got a cheer when he appeared on screen. It was a little unnerving to be in a crowd of thousands chanting "Zhong guo, jia you!" ("China, come on!") while waving their fists in the air, but then large groups of chanting Australians have always made me uncomfortable too. The mantra didn’t last long, and once the Olympic flame was lit the tired, sweaty crowd quickly filed out of the park as fireworks rumbled in the distance. Judging by the quiet streets and semi-deserted subway next morning, most of Beijing had a good lie-in after the celebratory release of tension.

Early on Sunday I journeyed up to the Olympic Green with a friend to watch two women’s hockey preliminary matches. The ride to the Olympic zone was fast on Beijing’s efficient subway, but the situation at the Green was a tad chaotic.

My friend and I had expected to be able to reach our venue via the new Olympic subway line, but instead we were directed to a bus. It was a 30-minute wait to get on a jam-packed vehicle, and when we pulled away from the bus station we had no idea where we were supposed to alight. The driver’s rapid-fire announcements, exclusively in Chinese, left even the locals confused. Eventually we reached a stop everyone agreed was near the hockey venue, but had to tramp through light rain for half a kilometre before reaching an entrance gate.

The hockey was fun, although the first match was half over by the time we reached our seats. Japan beat New Zealand 2-1 in a closely fought contest. Next was China versus Spain, which saw the locals soundly thrash the Europeans 3-0.

After the games my friend needed to get to Shunyi Olympic Rowing-Canoeing Park on Beijing’s far northeast outskirts. An army of volunteers was on hand to help, but they’d apparently had no proper orientation on the layout of the capital or its new facilities. We spoke to personnel at two separate booths and neither had even heard of the rowing park. One of them told us it was in the Olympic Green, while the other studied a map for some time before concluding, "It’s going to be very hard to get there. I recommend you take a taxi."

The day’s crowning moment came when I caught the shiny new Line 10 subway home, to find the train moving in one direction while the electronic indicator board showed we were travelling in the other. If my friend and I, both Beijing residents able to communicate in basic Chinese, had trouble navigating the Olympic zone, how were new arrivals with no language skills coping?

When I told my Chinese fiancée of our misadventures she sighed and commented that a lack of attention to detail seems to be a "national condition". When you live here it becomes an often-amusing aspect of everyday life, but it doesn’t sit well with China’s desire to become a global player.

On the other hand, the weekend’s competitions appeared to run smoothly, and, most importantly, Friday night went off without a hitch. After more than a century of being invaded, colonised, plagued by civil war, and traumatised by the policies of the "people’s government", many Chinese regarded the opening ceremony as a chance to show that their country could do something positive, and do it well.

Judged from this perspective, it was a resounding success, and the warm glow I felt walking home Friday night was only partly the result of my heatstroke.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.