Back to the Future

When I came to Beijing in 1992 with my father I recall him being particularly tickled by the elderly guardians of order on Wangfujing Street. Even in those days it was a well known shopping street given origins dating back through the dynasties and it was always crammed with sightseers. The sound of indiscriminate lung clearance was, and still is, a regular contributor to the orchestra of the city; the wardens on Wangfujing were responsible for ensuring that that street at least remained relatively gob-free.

My father had picked up the habit of chewing on guazi, sunflower seeds, still in their kernels, a snacking compulsion that remains popular in the countryside but this time I’ve hardly seen it in the city. The particularly skilled could pop an unhusked seed into their mouth and a few minutes later spray a spit-clean round of shell onto the nearest floor. Train compartments in hard seat were covered with the stuff by the end of a journey and streets in the cities were similarly adorned.

The Wangfujing officials were authorised to fine anyone littering the street either orally or manually and they were ferociously diligent. My father spent a good ten minutes trying to gesticulate and tease his way out of a fine but ultimately cherished the ticket he was handed at a cost of five mao (5p) for ejecting shells onto the street. It was a certificate of full immersion into the local culture.

These days you may have read about the pretty indifferent behaviour of Chinese tourists overseas from the mother who let her child defecate on the Taipei airport floor to the teenager who scrawled his name onto the Egyptian monument. But as many commentators have noted the behaviour is no better at home: it’s a question of education, or lack thereof, rather than a more cavalier attitude to foreign than domestic treasures.

So as I walked down the latterly pedestrianised Wangfujing Street the other weekend and saw a woman pull down her six or seven year old daughter’s pants so she could wee bang in the middle of the boulevard on the shiny ornamental paving slabs I thought back to the days of the rubbish monitors in the 90s. Perhaps they need to be brought back and behaviour might be improved on at least one part of the tourist circuit. After all: education begins at home.

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