Beijing became strangely quiet this afternoon. Businesses shut down early and workers left to find their viewing spots for the Olympic opening ceremony. The streets, on which the authorities had struggled since July to reduce traffic, were finally almost empty. If they had only been able to achieve such results over the past two and a half weeks, perhaps the city wouldn’t be filled with such a haze.
I stopped to get a haircut before dinner, and the barber talked again and again how fast everything had gone. Was it really seven years ago that this city had been awarded the Games? When I went out, it seemed like the number of security volunteers on the sidewalks had multiplied, and the paramilitary troops stationed at intersections were wearing their full dress uniforms in the 90-degree heat. On the building nearby a 30-story Olympic banner was hanging. I don’t think it was there yesterday.
I rode my bike up to Ditan Park, south of the Olympic venues. A couple thousand people had gathered there to watch the opening ceremonies, and it got sticky and crowded as we funneled past police who gamely tried to keep order. A friend reported seeing a girl crying outside because she couldn’t get in. A man near me threw small Chinese and Olympic flags to the crowd.
Bats flitted in front of the two movie screens as the crowd watched the procession of fireworks travel north through Tiananmen Square, the Forbidden City and on to the Bird’s Nest stadium. A short while later everyone stood for the Chinese national anthem. I thought about the last time I heard it, sung spontaneously by mourners in Chengdu shortly after the May earthquake. During a slow moment in the performance someone led chants of “Go China!,” something else I heard that night in Chengdu.
Then for a brief moment the broadcast cut out, and then awkwardly switched to scenes from ancient Olympia. There were boos and grumbles from the crowd. Had something happened? I spoke with my colleague Hannah Beech, who was attending the ceremony. She saw no protest or anything that would have caused an intentional outage. Perhaps it was a glitch.
As reporting gigs go, this was one of the most pleasant I’ve had in China. Often you have to talk to four or five people to get one willing to be interviewed. Sometimes it can be 10 or more. But during the opening ceremony everyone wanted to talk. Just a few days ago I was asking people in Kashgar about a gruesome attack on police. Tonight I was chatting with happy and excited people about the Olympics.
Almost everyone was glad that Zhang Yimou’s production focused on China’s thousands of years of history. When Chinese people speak with foreigners, history is a frequent topic. If enough baijiu has been consumed, or if the train ride your on is long enough, someone may actually attempt to explain the entire 5,000 years. But it’s always too much. Now Zhang Yimou has provided a helpful resource. Just go to the video.
The best chat I had was with Wang Hongjie, a 60-year-old retired teacher. She was wearing a flowered dress and flapped a fan for us both as we spoke. She told me she appreciated the focus of the ceremony on Chinese culture, and that she loved to hear the guqin, the stringed instrument that was played during one segment. Then she began telling me about her life as a teacher, and about how she was sent to work in rural Jiangxi during the Cultural Revolution. Her students didn’t want to see her leave after 1976, but she wanted to go to college and she was already in her 30s. Wang watched the athletes from around the world file into the stadium, waved her fan and then told me, “When I was younger I never dared think we’d have a day like this.”