Beijing -- As the Zan family proudly takes me on a tour of the cramped hutong that has housed their family for nine generations, the car dealership across the road rings in its 873rd sale of the day. Welcome to Beijing.
Here a Starbucks can spring up next to a supermarket where hundreds of Peking ducks hang ready to eat, and street vendors sell goods ranging from the latest in pirated DVDs to Chinese medicines made using thousand-year-old recipes. There is no other city in the world like Beijing.
A 24-hour train ride from Shanghai brings me to the capital, with its dazzling mix of ancient Chinese and imported Western culture. Despite the short distance between the two cities, the difference is staggering.
In Shanghai, English is widely spoken. Cab drivers, transit system and service workers can usually muster a few English words, making Shanghai an easy introduction to China. In Beijing, English is rare, putting the onus on visitors to communicate in Mandarin. While Shanghai at times feels like any other Western city, Beijing is unmistakably Chinese, making it enthralling to visit.
From the Forbidden City to Tiananmen Square to the hutongs that are home to most of the city's residents, Beijing is bursting with stories. All the rage in home architecture during the Yuan, Ming and Qing Dynasties (13th to 20th century), hutongs continue to house half of Beijing's residents and cover one-third of the city.
The word "hutong" refers to the narrow lanes and alleyways that contain row on row of houses, structure that range from shoddy shelters hammered together from pieces of wood and tin to stately homes in which the most powerful leaders of Beijing once dwelled.
Entrance to a hutong is often through an ornately decorated gate ornamented with Chinese characters. Once inside, getting lost is a serious concern, as the path can have up to 20 twists and turns and become as little as 40 centimetres wide.
Hutongs have fostered Chinese culture over hundreds of years. In these lanes, generations of Chinese gathered to play, buy goods, gossip and connect.
In the past few years, construction sites and English-language schools have proliferated in Beijing, symptoms of the rapid changes engulfing the city's physical and cultural landscape. According to hutong residents, two factors are driving these changes.
The first is capitalism. In every Beijing street, residents seem to differ on Communism and capitalism. Once out of the hutongs and past the crowds of proud, flag-waving Chinese tourists visiting Tiananmen Square, it seems like capitalism is dominating. Western businesses dot the city streets, packed with locals ready to spend money. American fast food restaurants like McDonald's, KFC and Pizza Hut have as many patrons as neighbouring Chinese restaurants.
The second catalyst for unprecedented change is the approaching 2008 Olympics. The Chinese government has seized the opportunity to demonstrate to its international audience that China has joined the modern world. The hum of bulldozers fills every corner of the city, tearing down hutong after hutong to build high-rise apartments by 2007.
The service sector is scrambling to master English, while the public transit system is being anglicized to handle the onslaught of tourists expected alongside the athletes and world media. The new Olympic-ready Beijing is being built using Western-style plans and designs almost exclusively.
As a group of Swedish architecture students imported to aid in the rapid construction tells me, the new version of Beijing has little room or appreciation for ancient Chinese culture.
Back in the endangered hutongs, residents debate the merit and magnitude of these changes. Some voice frustration, while others hope for a better Beijing. They are deeply conflicted as to whether their culture is being eroded or improved. Most are fiercely proud of their capital and anxious to show it off to the world, and many have benefited from the government's acceptance of capitalism.
These residents find themselves torn between salvaging their rich history and becoming active participants in a new chapter in China's story. Part of a city distinct from the dazzle that greets tourists, they lament the modernization of ancient Beijing while celebrating its contrasts.