By Karoline Kan
Author Karoline Kan is an editor at chinadialogue, an independent website reporting on China’s environmental challenges, and lives in Beijing. She was born in 1989 and ‘Under Red Skies’, her memoir about growing up in China, was published this year.
I could easily list 10 things I do not like about Beijing, but at the same time I could list twice as many that I love about the city, which has been my home for 10 years.
As the country’s capital, Beijing has the best of everything China has to offer, from technology and culture to talented people. I love life in the cosmopolis, with its modernity and convenience, and the international exposure it provides.
I like the part of Beijing life that connects the present and the past, such as the retired men who gather in Jingshan Park for “bird walking” (morning walks carrying their caged birds), people fishing in the Liangma River, and the wormwood hung on the gates to the Dragon Boat Festival in the spring to ward off misfortune.
Where to live: Haiyuncang Hutong
Haiyuncang Hutong mixes the modern with the traditional. Its name means “barn storing grains that were transported by sea”. It is an old community full of life, 3km north-east of the Forbidden City, the vast imperial palace in central Beijing.
Every morning, our neighbourhood of apartment buildings, home to some 10,000 people, is full of parents sending children to school on their bicycles, grannies holding bags of vegetables from the morning markets and old men practising t’ai chi in the park.
Across the street are rows of traditional hutong (narrow alleyway) houses, along with restaurants, schools, cultural spaces, barbershops and mah-jong rooms.
If I want a taste of “modern” Beijing, five minutes on the trolleybus takes me to Sanlitun, one of the city’s most dynamic, fashionable and international areas, full of interesting bars, nightclubs, fancy hotels and flagship luxury stores.
Where to have dinner
Beijing has several good Yunnan restaurants, but In & Out, which is part of a chain, is the one I go to. The cooking in southern China’s Yunnan province is famous for its freshness and use of herbs. For me, it has the best mushroom dishes of any Chinese cuisine.
The In & Out near the Workers’ Stadium sports complex in central Beijing is spacious and simply decorated, with greenery and artwork from ethnic minorities such as the Yi and Hani. The waiting staff are from Yunnan, and are always willing and proud to answer my questions on their dishes.
Where to discover art
Songzhuang art colony in the city’s eastern suburbs is the biggest concentration of artists in Beijing, numbering thousands. Many of their works are reflections on political and social issues.
As the area has become more famous, however, property developers have been eyeing it up, and many galleries and studios have already been demolished. The artists themselves, who embody a spirit of free thinking and creativity, remain committed to fighting to retain their community.
Where to watch a film
Located in a hutong in central Beijing, Camera Stylo is a cinema, bar and art space. It screens several classic films each week and has monthly themes, such as Halloween.
You can rent a room for private screenings. I have done this a few times with friends. One summer night a few years ago we selected a film, ordered some wine and had a beautiful night on the roof with fierce discussions about politics and current affairs.
Where to listen to music
East Shore Live Jazz Café, hidden away in a corner of the touristy Houhai lake area, is small and cosy. Sitting at the window, you can see the lights from nearby venues reflected on the lake and watch tourists laughing and taking photos, while the beautiful jazz flows through the room. It is a place for me to forget my worries.
Where to walk
Ditan Park is big, quiet and very central. It is beautiful in the autumn when the ginkgo (maidenhair) trees turn yellow. “Ditan” means “altar of the earth”, and the park has a temple and altar dedicated to the god of the earth. Pensioners join in with group activities here, such as dancing, singing Beijing opera, practising t’ai chi or just strolling.
Where to write
I need to pay special tribute to The Bookworm in Sanlitun, which closed in November because of a problem with its lease. During its 14-year life, it was the centre of Beijing literary life. A bookshop, library, bar, restaurant and event venue, it was the best place to meet people, or to sit by yourself, reading or writing.
Nowhere else in the city compares for the dynamic, open environment it provided for deep discussions or constructive debate. It may be premature to say the bookshop is dead, however, as its management team is looking for a new venue.
Photographs: Getty Images; Dreamstime; Alamy