I dreamed up this video on a Beijing bus. They get a bad rap, but for those not close to a subway stop and possessing a limber mind, Beijing buses make for a fascinating real-time social-psychology laboratory. Sitting (okay, standing) in one of these sardine cans at rush hour, I watch the city stitch itself together. Forced to slog through a Dongzhimen Wai traffic jam also forces me to soak up the reserved dignity of a grandma jealously guarding her massive cabbage haul, or the feigned disinterest of uniformed high schoolers thieving glances and sharing earbuds. You’ve got Hall of Fame migrant grinders sitting on all the possessions they’ll be bringing home this year, and next to them the offspring of other grinders giggling on their way to blowing some cash at Sanlitun.
What can I say? I’m a total sucker for those scenes and the fictitious backstories that I whip up before hopping off at my stop.
When I paired this people-watching with George Gershwin’s masterpiece the stories around me took on that epic resonance only possible in the echo chamber of one’s own head. It’s a city of grinders, true believers and people who just don’t give a shit about anything except where their next donkey sandwich is coming from. And yet somehow when you throw it all together and cloak it in jazzy trumpet and yearning violin you get something utterly engrossing and beautiful.
Am I romanticizing it all? Yep. Is that way more fun than demonizing the place and the people around you? Oh hellz yes.
My dad introduced me to Rhapsody in Blue when I was in elementary school. He’d tell me that it was a tour through turn-of-the-century New York and he’d narrate the scenery and the characters as we flew from Brooklyn streets up into Manhattan apartments. I’ve loved the piece ever since then, and as Beijing welcomed me into its throttling embrace I kept making Rhapsody in Blue my soundtrack to the city.
Several more months of terrible air, bad publicity and one inspired brainstorm session with my friend Kyle convinced me that this was a movie that needed be made. Beijing right now is one of the most fascinating clusters of humanity in the world and yet it’s almost perpetually shrouded in a layer of physical and public relations pollution. I get that. I’ve read the history, I breathe the air, I eat the gutter oil, and yeah, that all sucks. But at the end of the day this place just has an energy that I’m in love with.
It’s the people, the bustle, the contrast, the audacity, the poverty, the history and the haggling over vegetable prices. Privacy is a luxury anywhere in China, but that means we have the luxury of watching life happen all around us.
So last summer I started roaming the city with a little handheld camera, discreetly (or not) trying to capture the people that give life to Beijing. I spent the summer in a language program at Beijing Normal University and I’d take off most afternoons to sweat through the streets and snag a few extra shots. The video includes lots of bits from my neighborhood (甜水园街北口, holla), my school (北京师范大学, PIB, come at me), and my absolute favorite place in the city: Jingshan Park.
And you know what? It was a gorgeous summer and an elegant fall. Beijing may be coy, but when it decides to flaunt its sun-soaked pagodas or let you lose yourself in its alleyways, the city is flat-out beautiful.
I made Rhapsody in Beijing because I wanted to give this city it’s due and show that it’s more than the butt of some cynic’s joke. I love Beijing and feel so damn lucky to be living here.
Matt Sheehan is a journalist currently writes for The Huffington Post/The World Post. You can follow him on Twitter at @mattsheehan88 or contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. His previous stories for Beijing Cream include Anatomy of a Chinese Airport Rumble.