Changing Faces of Beijing

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Bejing is like a Sichuan Face Changing ritual, a routine in Chinese Opera in which a performer waves his cape and changes brightly-colored masks instantly, as many as 20 times in a few minutes. How it is done is a secret passed on through generations and the subject of a poignant 1996 film called “The King of Masks”. To the disgust of traditionalists, however, outsiders have picked it up to the point where it now almost a lounge routine.

Its original symbolism was scaring away wild animals.

Today’s Beijing is a big time Face Change Act.

I was almost denied a visa because I had “media” in my company name, sending up a flag that I might be a feared journalisticas badmouthicus sniffing out dissent at Tienanmen Square. Never even got there this time. In fact, once I got the visa, immigration was friendly and efficient.

But Bejing had changed face dramatically since I last visited, about eight years ago, when junior executives wore their suit labels on the outside. Now all is proper and fitted: Armani, Dolce & Gabanna, Gucci, all of the usual suspects. Mile after mile, trademark after trademark. Fine French and California red wines (they don’t seem to give a toss about whites). Beijing’s new rich are drop-dead stylish. The first time I was there, in 1987, I had little choice but shopping at the “Friendship Store” for Terra Cotta Soldier knockoffs, silk pillowcases and intricately embroidered kitty-cats sewn by the tiny fingers of little girls. Now most of the world’s designer brands are sewn in Chinese factories. You wouldn’t know by the prices here that labor is still pretty cheap, although that is changing quickly.

If I were a young entrepreneur on the rise I would probably spend quite a bit of time in Beijing, despite smog that would rival ringside at a 1950s boxing match. Lots of Americans here, lots of companies trying to cash in on the boom.

I spent last week in Beijing celebrating the 60th Anniversary Conference of  PATA (the Pacific Asia Travel Association), with which I have been involved since the 80s. Born in Hawaii after WWII, It is a unique combination of Pacific Rim governments, world bodies such as UN agencies, airlines, companies, educational organizations and others interested in promoting travel to, from and within the region, including the US. I was master of ceremonies, along with the irrepressible Richard Quest of CNN. The joke was that he went off to cover the Royal Wedding and I went home to feed that cat.

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I had little chance to go outside this time, but indulged in a week of binge banqueting that not only celebrated PATA and Chinese cuisine, but the heritage and culture of Beijing: including a fete at the Temple of Heaven, a fashion show of designs patterned after the architecture of the Forbidden City and a chorus line of kindergarteners. These were not your typical five-year-olds.

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