Monday, July 02, 2012

The Juxtaposition Of Maquanying

Maquanying is a neighborhood way out at the northeastern outskirts of Beijing. In two summers of visiting friends out there, we have always been struck by the weird juxtaposition of the different pieces of China that co-exist literally side-by-side in Maquanying.

At its heart, Maquanying is a series of alleyways of brick and concrete structures. These several-story high buildings are rather modest, to say the least. They constitute a very typical place to live and work for those Chinese people who live in that place between rural villages and the big city. These are often young people who see no future in the countryside, but who do not have the education needed to crack into the world economy. And so they toil at the edges, renting rooms and living frugally at the margins of Chinese society.

Cross the street, however, and a whole new world opens up. Right there at the edge of Maquanying is an outlet mall, the likes of which would seem right at home off an exit on I-95. A two-story collection of buildings, decorated with palm trees in pots, where you can buy a collared shirt at Polo, on sale for RMB 550, the equivalent of nearly 100 American dollars. That shirt may represent one-quarter to one-half of the monthly wages of a typical Maquanying resident. And that is only the beginning. Why not stop by Baskin-Robbins and try one of their 36 flavors? Or let your kid play in the water fountains out in the front plaza? The living can be large at the Beijing Scitech Premium Outlet Mall.

So who is it that actually is doing this large living right next door to alleyways of poverty? One might expect the outlet mall to be teeming with foreigners, expats seeking a little piece of home. But the vast majority of the Land Rovers and black European cars that pull into the parking lot (a parking lot itself can be a rarity in China) are driven by upward mobile Chinese. On a recent weekend, we saw only two foreigners in the entire complex. So, yes, a country that just a few decades ago was a people's communist nation is now staring in the face of a yawning income and wealth gap between those who have "made it" and those who are trying to figure out their place in the China of the twenty-first century.

It all makes for a very strange tableau, a tableau that all comes together in Maquanying, one of the harder to understand and explain places we have come across in years of living and traveling around China.



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