An insider’s guide to Beijing: caged birds, smog and internet satire

Chinas capital is home to nearly as many people as the entire population of Australia. Concrete sprawl might be prevalent but so too are buckwheat pancakes, traditional theatres and oases filled with birdsong

In five words

Alleys, imperial architecture, concrete sprawl

Sound of the city

Old Beijingers have a hobby of keeping caged birds that sing their bright, melodic chirps are a pleasant wake-up call, even if youre not an early riser. In the narrow hutongs, their tones echo alongside the boisterous conversations of residents, the thick Beijing accent unmistakable anywhere. But these oases are never far away from wide-scale chaos: bad urban planning from the Mao era means that huge roads cut across the fabric of the city, so the sound of cars is a constant in the capital.

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Gives you goosebumps Zhengyici wooden theatre

Hidden in the southern part of the historical area of Qianmen, is one of the most wonderfully preserved wooden theatres in China, Zhengyici, built in 1688. The outside, in keeping with Beijings traditional courtyard home style of siheyuan, is inconspicuous. But inside, its a two-floor space with fantastic acoustics for classical performances, and fewer than 100 seats. The roofed stage, when flooded with light, flushes bright red so atmospheric it can give you goosebumps. The theatre has hosted Beijing Opera from masters such as Mei Lanfang, and today it puts on some of the most original performing arts youll see in the city, doing classical with a contemporary twist very well indeed.

Worst building

Even worse than the big underpants housing blocks in the hutongs. Photograph: Yuan Ren

The ugliest building in Beijing isnt Rem Koolhaass controversial CCTV tower, known commonly as the big underpants due to its shape. More repulsive are a series of residential apartment blocks bland, occasionally communist in style and akin to the UKs giant housing estates which can be found bang in the city centre.

These blocks were built in the 90s and 00s after the one-storey housing in the hutongs was torn down for being too old, ironic given that many of their rapidly erected replacements have already fallen into disrepair. The complexes on the west side of Beixinqiao station, as well as Min An Xiaoqu nearby, are particularly oppressive.

Biggest controversy

A year ago it was used to be pollution. But since hazy skies are less of a pain in the backside now, everyone is talking about how unaffordable the city has become. Housing prices in Beijing have skyrocketed in the last decade, and continue to soar inside the fifth ring road. Prices are closing in on those of London and New York; completely absurd given that the average salary in Beijing is merely a fraction of what it is in these cities (around 500 a month).

Only residents with a Beijing household registration, known as a hukou, or who have paid taxes and national insurance for at least five years, can even think about buying. For the migrant workers that prop up much of the labour industry, many dont even get basic social benefits and are in danger of being kicked out.

Young people from outside Beijing often rent shared rooms, or even dormitory housing (as cheap as 30 or 40 a month), some of them in illegal underground basements.

Laws imposing higher taxes and deposits on second homes have seen buyers circumventing regulations by getting fake-divorced a privilege given many dont even have the right to buy property in the capital.

Homegrown talent

Theres not much in the way of English-speaking talent, but Papi Jiang has become Chinas biggest internet sensation after her satirical rants on topics of popular culture went viral on Youku (A Chinese version of YouTube) earlier this year. In her classic survival guide for males, she enacts what Chinese women really mean when they say reply nothing to their partners questions, including the line: You dont know my menstrual cycle and you dare say you love me?

Although shes originally from Shanghai, the capital is where Papi Jiang learnt her trade, honing her performance skills at the prestigious Central Academy of Drama, where she returned for graduate studies.

Papi Jiang doesnt do live shows the whole point is that shes a web celebrity. You may not understand what she is saying, but this mouthy student at the Central Academy of Film is clearly offering Chinese people something they crave.

Look on the street

Street style, the Beijing way. Photograph: Yuan Ren

Simplicity is a work-in-progress when it comes to high street fashion. While the nation is slowly coming round to the idea of less is more Beijing is at the forefront of the transition.

Long, drapey but slightly old-fashioned dresses are a popular style; for colder days, skinny jeans and sports trainers is a favourite combination with young women. In the summer, legs out is go-to for girls thigh-gripping jeans shorts paired with platforms or high heels (with socks) are everywhere. But while high on the leg is OK, low cuts on top will still get you a stare.

What is your citys most under-rated location?

Haunting the former Duan Qirui government building. Photograph: Jens Schott Knudsen

Next to Zhangzizhonglu underground station is a complex that is mysterious and spectacular. The Duan Qirui Former Government Building, constructed in the early 20th century, is unkempt. Many of the buildings are disused, with the back ones acting as dormitories for Beijings Renmin University (a bit underutilised, you would think, given the historical value of the site). Anyone can stroll in, although the complex is gated say youre visiting Peanut Cafe and keep striding along.

What does Beijing do better than anywhere else?

The Jianbing. These are crispy folded pancakes with an egg cracked on to them and spread out with a wooden spatula, all on a flat round pan. A layer of deep fried crispy dough is later added in the middle, sprinkled with hot and savoury sauces, spring onions and coriander, and then folded over. Different types of pancakes are often on offer, including wholegrain, purple rice and buckwheat rice.

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Jens Schott Knudsen is a lawyer and freelance photographer who has lived in the Chinese capital since 2012 and has collaborated with historians and urban planners to document the citys rapid change. He likes to shoot early or late in the day, when Beijing feels like a different world, he says. At 6am its quieter, less crowded, but there is still a lot of life on the streets from sleepy eyed workers to school children lining up for breakfast snacks.

How green is your city?

Not very. Beijing is known for its smoggy days, but things are improving since the government decided something had to be done all the news coverage from abroad was becoming an embarrassment. There has been an effort to shut down polluting industries around the city since, or at least move them elsewhere.

While no congestion charge exists, different digits on vehicle number plates are banned from the roads on different days of the week. The city that was once home to a million bicycles is forgoing them for public transport and cars though.

And to shortcut the route of cleaning up pollution, the city has plans to literally blow away urban smog, particularly in winter when its worse, by creating ventilation corridors, channels for the wind through the citys green spaces.

Moment in history

Beijing was a fortified city with an extensive system of inner and outer city walls, gates, watchtowers and defence that was not just mechanically advanced, but architecturally spectacular.

That all changed in 1949 when, with a view to making Beijing the next Moscow, Mao ordered the tearing down of Beijings city wall, which ran in a circle along what is now the inner ring road. With the citys defence destroyed (it took decades to pull down), much of the inside also underwent reconstruction in the 90s historical areas were heavily rebuilt and turned into featureless apartment blocks. Parts of the inner city have since become heavily commercialised, with the area near the Drum and Bell tower, the old clock towers of Beijing, and the nearby old Nanluoguxiang street, made into snack streets that are now forever chockablock with people and waste no-go areas for locals.

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