Whose Forbidden City?

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I’ve always thought having a Starbucks in the Forbidden City was pretty tacky. But actually, when you look at it in the context of all of the other retail outlets, the ones pushing plastic jade beads and the cigarette lighters that play “The East is Red,” the coffee shop seems pretty innocuous. So one question I’d ask Rui and co is, “Is it the fact that Starbucks is Western that makes it offensive? Or the fact that it’s a fast food stand?”

If it’s the Westerness alone, one could make the argument that pieces of the West have been making it into the Forbidden City for generations. Most visitors never get to see the stately mansion that Yuan Shikai (the military commander-turned President-turned, briefly, self-proclaimed emperor of the early 20th century) inhabited in the Western reaches of the palace enclosure. Its style is unmistakably Western; it’s looks a little like you might find it in Brussels. But it’s off limits to visitors. Some friends and I snuck a peek at it last year after a tour of some other Western-influenced and thus-far off-limits sections of the Forbidden City. We were almost stopped. My friend told the guards in officious tones that we were going to kaocha Yuan Shikai’s former residence. Kaocha just means “examine” but it’s a word frequently employed to describe the inspection tours popular with officials and the guards very quickly apologized and let us through.

What was most striking about Yuan’s house was not its profound beauty (it has a few very graceful touches including balconies decorated with distinctively Chinese latticework), nor its profound decripitude, nor even the fact that practically no one ever gets to see it. What was shocking was that Yuan Shikai’s elegant residence was being occupied by a regiment of the Chinese military. I can’t remember just now, which branch. The soldiers at the gate were less easily duped than the guards, and after we’d admired the buidling for few minutes they shooed us away.

Don’t know how Rui Chenggang would feel, but to me the guys with guns seem a lot more out of place in a national museum than a cup of coffee. Full disclosure: I’m pretty sure my friends and I stopped at Starbucks before we went exploring.

As I said, the day I went to look at Yuan’s house I was in the Forbidden City on a tour of another Western-influenced section. This was a collection of private rooms that the Qianlong emperor had commissioned in the 1770s as a place to relax. A few years ago, after workers who had been living in the rooms moved out, it was discovered that under a few grungy layers, the walls were covered in spectacular trompe l’oeil that the emperor had commissioned in a Western style fashionable in Europe at the time. This section of the palace is known as the Lodge of Retirement. It’s being restored with great care as a joint project between the Forbidden City and the World Monuments Fund.
Funding for the project was donated by Houghton Freeman, an American born just a few blocks away, to a family with long ties to China.

The tour was great. Freeman and his wife were both on hand and asking terrific questions. Mrs Freeman at one point made the observation that the temperature in one of the rooms we were visiting was, “colder than charity,” an odd choice of words given the situation. When I suggested she could warm up with a cup of Starbucks, she seemed quite taken aback.

I was struck as we walked through the back alleys of the palace how many buidling had signs on them bearing the American Express logo. I guess Amex has also been among the donors responsible for funding restoration, and bravo to them for that, but the signs were everywhere. It was pretty vulgar. Starbucks is invisible by comparison.

The Lodge of Retirement is set to open this year, but it’s still unclear (as far as I know) who will be able to visit it. The rooms are too small and delicate to accomodate large crowds. It’d be a shame if it just became a place for entertaining the rich and powerful. There’s already plenty in the Forbidden City that’s off limits to the general public, though tours can be arranged for, oh say Time Warner executives, when they come to town. Sometimes I worry that the Forbidden City is becoming too much like so many other parts of China, a place where the wealthy few have a completely different experience than normal folks. I understand the Forbidden City’s probably still not in a position to make admission free, but I’m always seriously bummed out when Chinese migrant friends tell me they’ve lived in Beijing for years but never felt like they could afford a ticket.

Anyway, my point, if I actually have one, is that this palace, however magnificent, is a complicated and flawed place. Removing the Starbucks would probably be an improvement, but now that Rui Chenggang has the country’s attention, maybe he can direct it toward a more sophisticated discussion about what else does and doesn’t belong there.