Tue, Dec 29, 2009
The Straits Times
Singaporean abroad in Beijing

By Nicholas Yong

Age: 23

Occupation: Student

Length of stay: Two years

One of student Lim Weiyang's favourite activities in Beijing is strolling along the city's central avenue, Chang'an Jie, where many pivotal moments in Chinese history occurred, such as the declaration of the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949.

In quiet moments there, the Peking University undergraduate gains a powerful sense of a China that is 'at once dated yet modern'.

There are other things about the Chinese capital that fascinate the international relations student, such as how you can never quite run out of things to do, new restaurants and bars to frequent or places to visit.

After spending two years in the city, he says: 'I feel like I've only begun to scratch the surface of what Beijing has to offer.'


The best way to explore the city is...

By subway, definitely. The subway network is extensive, covering most popular destinations within the city. Taking the subway also helps you avoid the crazy traffic during rush hour and you pay only 2 yuan (40 Singapore cents) for a ticket to go anywhere.

Taxis are pretty cheap too. Taking one within the city centre will generally not cost more than $6, except in bad traffic.

The best time to visit is....

In March and April, when it is spring and the city and her surroundings are the most spectacular when the flowers bloom; and during autumn in October and November, when the leaves turn every shade of yellow and red.

The temperature ranges from about 11 to 20 deg C in March and April and from 10 to 19 deg C during October and November.

Which places in the city excite you?

The 798 Art District (798 Art Zone, No. 4 Jiuxianqiao Road, Chaoyang District, tel:+86-10-5978-9798) and Caochangdi Village (Caochangdi, Chaoyang District, tel:+86-10-6432-5598) are thriving hotbeds of Chinese contemporary art. These districts are home to many local and international galleries, art studios, shops and cafes.

Also, I thoroughly enjoy being anywhere that gives me a sense of how steeped in history Beijing is. For instance, the hutongs of Beijing are narrow alleyways alongside siheyuans (traditional courtyard residences), representing grassroots residential life in Beijing as it has been for many generations.


Where can you find food that is close to Singaporean fare?

There are a number of Singaporean food outlets in Beijing, such as Lau Pa Sak (Xindong Lu, Chaoyang District, tel:+86-10-6417-0952) at Dongzhimen, which has good hawker staples. An average meal there costs about $12.

Prima Taste Kitchen (No. 1 East Chang An Avenue, Unit FF03, The Malls @Oriental Plaza, Dong Cheng District, tel:+86-10-8518-6146) at Wangfujing serves authentic Katong-style laksa. A number of restaurants also serve Hainanese chicken rice and Peranakan food. A meal here will set you back about $12.

In addition, Bee Cheng Hiang, BreadTalk, Toast Box and Tip Top Curry Puff have outlets in Beijing.

Your favourite eating place is...

Xi Men Ji Chi, located at Beijing University's WestGate. For me, eating in this area defines Beijing. There are many restaurants serving chuan'r (skewered meat) and chicken wings, as well as some illegal vendors that just set up grills by the side of the road.

My friends and I just love sitting on plastic stools along a side road, eating all manner of chicken wings and chuan'r, and chasing them down with Tsingdao Beer. We usually spend about $6 for a meal there.

Not only can you find authentic regional cuisine from all the different regions across China in Xi Men Ji Chi but there are also many high quality international restaurants as well. We really are spoilt for choice.

The coolest place to chill out in is...

The restored hutong district surrounding the streets of Gulou Dajie and Nanluoguxiang in the Dongcheng district.

There are many good restaurants, cafes, bars and unique shops there, making it a great space to wander around and while the day away. It is an area that captures and feeds on the development of a hip, trendy spirit of Beijing, a vibrant place with a community comprising all sorts of interesting people.

Additionally, Wudaoying Hutong, near the Yonghegong Lama Temple and also in Dongcheng, is a quiet hutong slowly morphing into a place such as Nanluoguxiang, which has many cafes, bars and shops.

Now is a good time to visit Nanluoguxiang if you want to avoid the usual bustle but the non-stop development in this area means that it could be completely gentrified in just a matter of months.


What do you think Singaporeans will like most about your city?

Singaporeans will like the fact that the city changes and grows at spectacular speed yet never loses its core identity.

There is a certain consistency about the dramatic changes in Beijing that is not only visually evident on the streets but also seen in the resilient attitude of its residents.

Singaporeans will also appreciate that their dollar can go a pretty long way there. You get about 5 yuan to one Singapore dollar.

What is the biggest difference between Singapore and this city?

Beijing is huge. The Beijing Municipality is 24 times the size of Singapore and it seems just about everything that is built is on an exaggerated scale unimaginable in Singapore. Beijing's sheer size also means that there are lots of diamonds in the rough to discover on your own here, when you stray away from the more formulaic tourist destinations.

For instance, you can come across shops selling very kitsch and retro stuff such as Cultural Revolution-era shoes or old wind-up clocks or, perhaps, really fresh yogurt. These are the sorts of things that make exploring Beijing such an experience.

What is one place you always take your friends to when they visit you?

To eat Peking duck. The ubiquitous dish has a strong reputation with good reason. Da Dong Kao Ya (22A Dongsishitiao, Nanxincang Tower, Dongcheng District, tel:+86-10-5169-0328), for instance, has a tradition of roasting ducks in brick ovens, which results in consistently crispy and very tasty birds. This does not come cheap, though - a whole roast duck costs about $41.

Most restaurants serving Peking duck allow you to make an extensive gourmet meal out of different parts of the duck which can be quite wonderful.

What is the one thing you must do in your city?

Visit the Great Wall of China, especially some of the 'wild walls', which are parts of the Wall in their raw, unrestored state. This way, you avoid the hordes of tourists at Badaling, the most visited section of the Wall.

The wild walls that I have been to include the Mutianyu Great Wall, which is quite accessible and relatively manageable, and the Jinshanling-Simatai Great Wall, which can be more challenging for visitors. This is because many sections at this stretch are unrestored.

There can be loose tiles as the floor is not properly paved, and some sections do not have walls on one side. Also, there are parts of the wall which require steep climbs, so it can get quite tiring. It should still be manageable for most people.

What do you do on your weekends?

On those precious weekends when I am not churning out essays or involved in student activities, I enjoy a good massage in the neighbourhood of Wudaokou, near the Wudaokou subway station, followed by copious amounts of samgyeopsal (Korean barbecued pork belly) in one of many Korean restaurants nearby. The student-package massage at Yurentang within the Huaqingjiayuan Apartment Compound costs $12.

Alternatively, just staying in, getting food delivered to you, surfing the Net and watching some DVDs can also be a treat.


Where is the best place to go on a shopping spree?

It really depends what you want to buy. Many people go to Zhongguancun for electronics, and to the clothing market near the Beijing Zoo (Xizhimenwai Dajie, Xicheng), Xi Dan and many other markets scattered around the city for cheap apparel.

These places require hard bargaining, though, which can be exhausting for some people. I would suggest as a basic rule to just be persistent and not be afraid to walk away if you are dissatisfied with the price.

Chances are, they will call you back. In most markets, you can knock off up to half the starting price but getting it down to that price is an exercise in patience and endurance.


Are there any festivals that travellers should look out for?

The Lunar New Year is a rare chance for Singaporeans to experience playing with fireworks as Beijing lifted the ban on them a few years ago.

You can set fireworks off for the first 15 days during the Lunar New Year.

That said, most people return to their home towns to reunite with their families during this period, so many shops and restaurants are closed.

Also, avoid Labour Day on May 1 and National Day on Oct 1. During these public holidays, the city spills over with domestic tourists taking advantage of the long break.

Are there things to see or do outside of the city?

Venturing into the Beijing suburbs is often very rewarding, whether for recuperation or adventure. There are many options to stay and eat at a nongjiayuan (loosely translated as a 'countryside residence'), pick seasonal fruit in the orchards, climb mountains and so on.

Good day-trip destinations include Shi Du, sometimes dubbed Guilin Of The North, which is about 100km from Beijing.

Tianjin, Cheng De, Hebei and, really, the rest of China, are also but a train ride away. A two-way train ride to Tianjin costs $24.

This article was first published in The Straits Times.

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