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The Last Days of Old Beijing: Life in the Vanishing Backstreets of a City Transformed
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The Last Days of Old Beijing: Life in the Vanishing Backstreets of a City Transformed

3.92  ·  Rating Details ·  826 Ratings  ·  102 Reviews
A fascinating, intimate portrait of Beijing through the lens of its oldest neighborhood, facing destruction as the city, and China, relentlessly modernizes.

Soon we will be able to say about old Beijing that what emperors, warlords, Japanese invaders, and Communist planners couldn’t eradicate, the market economy has.  Nobody has been more aware of this than Michael Meyer. A
Hardcover, 355 pages
Published June 24th 2008 by Walker & Company
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Jul 31, 2012 Judy rated it really liked it
Recommends it for: those interested in present day China or urban renewal
Unofficially, this is my favorite memoir I've read this year. For my Around the World reading, I've made it a point to mix in some memoirs to give a personal look at a country's culture up close. This book satisfied that as well as gave a look at pre-Olympics Beijing in the process. Since I've been on a quest to determine what happens to people when their homes stand in the way of "progress", this book was near and dear to my heart.

When I picked up the book, I wondered if it could keep my intere
May 01, 2009 Mike rated it liked it
Recommends it for: Anyone
Although I took forever to read “The Last Days of Old Beijing” I enjoyed the book (the lengthy read was entirely my fault, not the author’s.) It gets three and (3.5) stars. Or as Dan would have it, 3 stars and a smiley face: *** :-)

I’ve been to Beijing twice, but only flying in & out to get to Tianjin. I never got to see anything of the city (and in the mid 90’s the airport was pretty dismal, although I was happily able to find some dolls requested by one of my Taiwanese friends.) I had, bu
Aug 13, 2008 Lee rated it it was amazing
As China hosts the Olympics, stories abound about the transformation of the Chinese capital into a modern, efficient city. High rises, shopping centers and eight lane boulevards are rising out of a fictive nowhere. In Michael Meyer’s wonderful new book, this transformation by bureaucratic fiat has very real consequences on the residents of the old hutong (narrow lane) neighborhoods that are the traditional core of Beijing. Meyer, who lives in a crumbling hutong southwest of Tiananmen Square, is ...more
Sep 04, 2015 Sue rated it really liked it
Michael Meyer lived in one of Beijing’s hutong neighborhoods and came to know it in the most personal ways, as a living, organic entity. When he decided to move there, the old courtyard residences of Beijing were already being torn down at a rapid rate, a rate that was accelerating in anticipation of the Beijing Olympics.

A person could awake one morning and find the dreaded character painted on his house that indicated it was slated for demolition. No one ever saw “The Hand” come to paint the ch
Nov 24, 2008 Karlan rated it really liked it
Shelves: adult
The author spent time in China in the Peace Corps and then stayed on to study and work as a volunteer English teacher for 4th graders and for senior citizens. The book includes interesting chapters of history interspersed with Meyer's own experiences. His living accommodations were primitive, but he felt privileged to live in an old part of Beijing which was rapidly being torn down. The tradition of tearing down the old to build anew is an ancient one in China, and it was fascinating to read ab ...more
Mar 15, 2012 Jennifer rated it liked it
This was an interesting contrast to "Beijing Welcomes You," which focused on changes in the city more specifically through the lens of the Olympics. Meyer writes more broadly about living in Beijing and working as a teacher. His experiences at his school, and in the hutong, traditional courtyard housing in which he found community, are appealing. His preservationist bent is a blessing and a curse. For me, the book started to slump under the weight of its details, and as a more casual reader abou ...more
May 20, 2012 Melissa rated it really liked it
I was planning to read Rob Gifford's 'China Road' and this book in May, before leaving for my month-long trip to China. Realizing I just didn't have the time to read both, I stopped reading 'China Road' and switched to reading this since Beijing was one of the places I planned to visit. I'm glad I made that decision, and the decision to buy the Kindle book to continue reading on my phone into the trip.

I was about 60% of the way through the book when I arrived in Beijing. It's a surreal experienc
Jul 14, 2008 Emily rated it it was amazing
Abso-stinkin-lutely fascinating. I may be biased because I think I was Chinese in a former life. And I wish I was Chinese in this life. Either way, I think China is so interesting. Also, I like Chinese food a lot. When I was in China I had a bacon/cabbage dish that was so good. The bacon was in cubes, not strips. And it was covered in an amazing sauce, perhaps soy sauce based. If you ask people in China a 'yes or no' question, they always say 'yes'. So frustrating. Also, if you ask a non-yes/no ...more
Mar 26, 2012 Mark rated it it was amazing
Shelves: recentlyread
If you go to Beijing, take a Lonely Planet guide for the maps, but if you really want to understand the city--its past, present, future, its real people and their character--read Mike Meyer's "Last Days." Meyer lived and worked for several years in the Dazhalan neighborhood he describes, in a traditional hutong courtyard house in Old Beijing. He taught English in a small public school there and got to know his neighbors, mostly poor people living under the constant threat of losing their homes t ...more
Nov 19, 2008 Phil rated it liked it
Shelves: china
Based on our trip to Beijing last year, the author seems to portray life in Beijing's Dazhalan hutong accurately - close community, simple lifestyle, etc. He also describes the government's almost ruthless effort to eradicate the old hutong in favor of new, efficient (if soulless) highrises. Dazhalan was his home for several years as an English teacher in Beijing.

Whta he couldn't explain, though, is why the government (or the people, for that matter) don't seem to be able to reach a middle groun
Sam Gilbert
Jun 19, 2015 Sam Gilbert rated it liked it
While by most standards this is a pretty good book—vivid characters, interesting topic diligently pursued, and so on—at a certain point the reader confronts Meyer's writing, his basic use of English, and that is where the book collapses. Here are a few of the worst examples, collected mostly from a span of twelve pages.

"In Chinese, the still ubiquitous phrase is weifang gaizao, appended [he meant "abbreviated"] to weigai" (38–39)

" . . . adding new luster to a city whose economy was already surgi
Jan 06, 2009 Cynthia rated it it was amazing
When we went to Beijing in March 2008, we were lucky to stay in a hotel where we could walk directly into a traditional hutong neighborhood. The old buildings were beautiful, and we quickly found a favorite breakfast shop, drinks shop, and small park with water and bridges nearby. What I remember most, beyond the hutong buildings, was the friendliness of the people who lived there. Though one of the largest shopping malls in Beijing and the Forbidden City were both just a couple of blocks away, ...more
May 02, 2013 Bonnie rated it it was amazing
Meyer provides a fascinating insight into life in China's old neighborhoods, the hutongs. He writes about his own experience teaching English while living in a hutong as well as explaining their history and the destruction of classic architecture in favor of "modernity" in both China and other countries.

While hutong life is not perfect - it definitely could use better utilities - it has a true community feel. If money had gone into providing improvements for the residents, it could have been th
Mar 24, 2010 Danica rated it liked it
- dry historical recounting of demolition in beijing = major snooze

+ against all expectations: cute?

- meandering narrative with nowhere to go = more zzz's
Aug 10, 2012 Cecily marked it as to-read
Shelves: china-japan-asia
Added after reading Judy's review (
I really enjoyed this book. After having spent time myself wandering the streets (could have been the old streets he mentioned), it was enjoyable seeing Beijing through another person's eyes. After having worked in China myself, in other cities, I to a certain extent pick up the desire most foreigners have after living in China, to eat non-Chinese food (i.e. those good random fusion resturants, decent western food, and the endless parade of Starbucks and Subway.) I unlike other foreigners still ...more
Feb 17, 2014 Asta rated it really liked it
It took me three attempts to finish this book, but don't count that against the author or the book. First I thought this was an easier read, say, more like Peter Hessler's excellent books about China, and I set it aside for another time. Then.. I started reading it again.. and needed a break from it, the destruction of the traditional neighborhoods and the futile resistance against this destruction is hard to read about. This time around I finally finished it, and I feel a bit abandoned. I would ...more
Sep 01, 2010 Errol rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
A publisher friend of mine sent me this as a birthday present a couple years back and I just got around to reading it. And I was impressed! Meyer, a Minnesota native who did a Peace Corps stint in Southern China, wound up living in an old Beijing hutong (traditional alley neighborhood) and teaching at a local public school. He does a great job of weaving together his personal experience with the stories of his neighbors, and a brief history of Beijing urban planning (and destruction).

The key po
Feb 10, 2009 Pat rated it really liked it
The author describes a way of life that is fast disappearing in all of China, though most probably, even faster in Beijing and other large cities. It would appear that progress is happening all over China and, as in many other places around the world, progress very often means getting rid of the old communities and neighborhoods - especially anything that the "powers that be" (known as the Hand in Beijing according to Meyer) deem smacks of "slums" or "downtrodden" even if it means community to m ...more
Sep 11, 2008 Pearl rated it liked it
I went to Beijing last month and was totally surprised by how much more cosmopolitan the city seemed than it was 8 years ago. Sure, it had been extra dolled up for the Olympics, but there was no denying that even without the world's attention, the city had already adopted a whole bunch of modern architecture and mass-scale landscaping. It was all pretty impressive, but according to Michael Meyer in this thoroughly researched book, it came at the cost of "Old Beijing" and its narrow-laned "hutong ...more
Carol Wakefield
Mar 01, 2015 Carol Wakefield rated it it was amazing
M. Meyer writes of a possibly dying part of Beijing culture as neighborhoods are razed to be replaced by modern buildings and people are uprooted and moved from city locations to suburb high rises. A change that is sad for many, mr Meyer included?, but greeted eagerly by others. Meyers is fluent in Chinese and chooses to live in one of the numerous sections of old Beijing, where accommodations have been reduced in size many times in order to accommodate greater numbers, including immigrants from ...more
Jan 04, 2014 Kathryn rated it really liked it
This is a great read--thoughtfully written and well researched. Michael Meyer masterfully weaves the charm (and difficulties) of hutong life and the implications of razing (demolition of the hutongs for development) with a contextual comparison on urban planning (or lack thereof) in other parts of China and the world. Most commendably, he does this without passing superficial or ignorant judgment on Chinese culture or people. Rather, he makes observations and chronicles the lives of his hosts an ...more
Jul 26, 2013 Loisa rated it it was amazing
It's the best book I get.
it was so weird , I was being attracted by the book when I walked around the book store this Spring.
woahh! I've been greatly moved by the story told by the author .

As a citizen of Hong Kong, my mind was being blacken by the putridity of the government and the unrespected value , behavior like contaminated food of the mainland civil . Mainlanders grapping all the babies milk powder ,pee on the train ,shopping malls...

And always blaming about the poor hygiene . Yeah!! I d
Feb 26, 2016 Sue rated it did not like it
Shelves: non-fiction, china
A discussion of the destruction of the old neighborhoods and construction of new buildings that took place in Beijing in advance of the 2008 Summer Olympics.
This was a Goodreads recommendation gone wrong (for me). Because of reading other books of Peace Corps service in China, this was suggested, and is why I picked it up. Although the author *did* have Peace Corps service, the entire experience was compressed into three pages starting on page 9. After serving, he remained in the country, relo
Michael Meyer's rumination on the changing landscape of Beijing made me want to visit the city and see what he's seen. Alas, the point of the book is that much of the city's past has been lost, wiped out as China prepared to host the 2008 Olympics. When an outsider critiques changes in a society, there's always the question of whether that writer wants things to remain the same to the detriment of the locals who actually have to survive there. But Meyer lived and worked in a hutong neighborhood ...more
May 24, 2013 Deb rated it really liked it
If you have the patience for a long read, this book is fascinating. Written by an American teaching 4th grade Chinese students in a Chinese school, while continuing to live in true 'hutong' style. Meyer compares/contrasts the old Bejing with the new push to be 'modern' for the Olympics. 'Modern' means the government's elimination of several centuries of architecture, life styles and employment. He explains [quite well!] the Chinese government's perception of what China looks like to the outside ...more
Jan 12, 2009 Taylar rated it really liked it
This book closed out my world wide book tour. Written by a former Peace Corps Volunteer and a graduate of the UW-Madison, and written about urban planning/public participation, this was right up my alley! It's a really well written, well researched story of the author's stay in the middle of Old Beijing, a threatened place in history books by modernization. It shows very, very well the never ending influence Americanization has had on the developing world, with lessons that should ignored about ...more
Shonna Froebel
Nov 19, 2012 Shonna Froebel rated it it was amazing
This is a fascinating read, looking not just as the current day situation of architecture and urban planning (or lack thereof) in Beijing, but also at the history of the architecture of the city.
Meyer includes an extensive bibliography for further reading as well.
Meyer lived in a room in old courtyard housing in the Dazhalan area of Beijing, to better understand what was being lost with the destruction of these neighbourhoods. He found an active community that interacted with each other and kne
Jun 24, 2009 Judy rated it liked it
Read this, but did't quite finish, just before leaving for my second trip to China. Meyer deals with the destruction of the hutongs (the warren of dwellings lived in by generations of families) in Beijing. He is a teacher of English who chooses to move from the high rises to a hutong neighborhood. Despite the obvious drawbacks (no indoor plumbing, poor heating, crowded conditions) he finds the comraderie of the neighborhood well worth these sacrifices.

In one of those "traveller's moments", I sat
Sheri Fresonke Harper
Sep 16, 2012 Sheri Fresonke Harper rated it it was amazing
Shelves: china, memoir
Excellent view of some of the changes taking place in China. This book focuses primarily on Beijing, China, especially life in the hutong's. The hutongs are traditional homes that are a single story tall and centered around a shared courtyard, with rooms in each often rented by different families and joined together with other similar homes in a long row with tiny lanes separating them. Many of the families also rented work spaces for their businesses. Much of the discussion in this memoir is ab ...more
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Michael Meyer is an American travel writer and the author of In Manchuria: A Village Called Wasteland and the Transformation of Rural China and The Last Days of Old Beijing: Life in the Vanishing Backstreets of a City Transformed. He graduated from University of Wisconsin–Madison. He first went to China in 1995 with the Peace Corps. Following Peace Corps, he graduated from the University of Califo ...more
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