I’ve been to Beijing, China twice for a week each time, and the more time I spent there, the more it reminded me of Brooklyn, NY — the place where I was born.
And I’m comparing it to the Brooklyn I grew up in. Nowadays with so many thousands of Chinese immigrants having flooded into Borough Park thru Bensonhurst, Brooklyn the last 20 years — Beijing REALLY looks like Brooklyn.
My second trip to Beijing found me staying at a Crown Plaza in the Northwest part of the city, traveling each day by taxi and then subway to a work location 20 minutes outside of the city. I was there with a number of co-workers who came in from around the world.
Beijing is in the Northeastern part of China — with Mongolia to its Northwest, and North Korea due East. It is inland from the Yellow Sea. It is close to Japan.
1. The Buildings and Architecture
On both my trips to Beijing, in which I saw and traveled around different parts of the big city — the buildings were what first made me feel like I was in Brooklyn, NY — condensed and low slung, most buildings 3 to 5 stories tall.
The northwest part of the city has a number of high rises — as Brooklyn now has on its shores facing Manhattan in Greenpoint, etc.
China is of course known for its utilitarian look — a great majority of its buildings built during the Communist era before the economic reforms of 1989 which introduced a capitalist economy.
Buildings built during this era are missing any kind of ornate architecture; they are very block like.
The pictures above show some of this — this video gives you a better look:
2. The Way of Life
The way of life also reminded me of Brooklyn. People are people.
One night I went down the street to find a good cup of coffee — and stopped into a local McDonalds. I sat down doing some work on my laptop, and at the table next to me was a mother and her 10-year-old boy, who was playing with Pokemon cards. Just like my son would be.
In the video below, I capture people walking to and fro — on an overpass across a highway near the hotel that gets one to a shopping center. You could easily be in lower Manhattan, NYC — or downtown Brooklyn.
Stopping into a local 7-Eleven type store, most of the chocolates and candies available were similar to what you’d find — in Brooklyn. Although with Chinese lettering and there were some other choices.
3. The Food
The food is FANTASTIC. Somehow, the Chinese food in China is so much more tasty and fresher and does not have the glooby sauce that Chinese food in America always seems to be drenched in.
The food is just amazing in China — and all of Southeast Asia. When there you find out from other people that the South Koreans REALLY have good food — astute in using natural spices of all kinds. But the Chinese are right behind them.
I always seek out local eateries — and in China of course you have no idea what the name of the place is — but I ate dinner one evening at this place:
Inside you pick out what you want, and they toss it into a combination soup-like meal.
Here’s video so you can hear and feel the place:
I found a table and my food was served to me — I had two bowls of food. Adept at chopsticks, I felt like I was at home. Not in Brookyn per se, but at home in China.
Here is my first dish — “god damn” good — tasty with spices:
Here is my second dish — also “god damn” good:
On the first night in Beijing, our work team ate in a restaurant together. In typical Chinese fashion, you picked out the fish you wanted from the fish tank if you were having a fish dish.
Also in typical Chinese fashion, the dishes were served to everyone in center of table and passed around.
Our Chinese co-worker hosts were very, very hospitable. Wonderful guys. We were from all over the world, but mainly Asia — Philippines, South Korea, and India. And me, from Brooklyn.
The food was — amazing. As said before, the Chinese food in China does not have the gloopy sauce that Chinese food in America has. The food in China tastes healthy and is full of spices. Just amazing.
4. The Cars
Unlike countries in Southeast Asia such as Thailand which has lots of motor scooters and the cars are small — China is filled with big or medium size cars just like the US. China is a big country and people need to get around and they’re not going to do long drives in a motor scooter or small car.
The appetite is for big to medium size American cars: Chevy’s, Buick’s, and Ford’s, and then slso Volkswagon and Peugeot. Not many Japanese cars. This video was taken in March 2013. I expect you’d see more SUV’s and electrics there now:
5. The Air
The air in Beijing is BAD. The air in Brooklyn is Good.
When I was in Beijing in 2013, a smog was in the air at all times and on many afternoons an alert goes out that kids are not allowed to play outside after school. That’s how bad the air is.
Some people were wearing masks — long before COVID — it was because of the air.
I have a work friend who moved back to China with his family in the early 2000s and then came back to the US around 2012 because of the air. And then he came down with cancer to boot.
I learned the air is especially bad in Beijing because of the heavy industry (the manufacturing industry moved from the US to China starting in 1989) and then also the winds carry dust from Mongolia in the northwest into Beijing which sits in a valley. There are some internet sources that also blame auto emissions and the burning of coal for electricity for the smog, but this seems doubtful since the US has those sources too and the air is fine.
Hopefully they have cleaned up the air in Beijing since 2013 — although at this writing, articles on the internet say it is still bad.
According to an article in IQAir, “Of the twenty cities throughout the world with the worst air quality, 16 of them are located in China. Because of this, its Environmental Sustainability Index is ranked towards the bottom amongst countries worldwide.”
Interesting that is something that President Donald Trump has mentioned many times as a reason why he wanted the US out of the Paris Accords — since China is still categorized as a ‘developing nation’ and therefore does not have to abide by Paris Accord air quality regulations, giving them an unfair advantage in manufacturing.
6. Traveling Around
Beijing has an extensive subway system, and bus system, and taxis, and lots of cars that make you feel like you are in … Brooklyn, NY.
It is almost impossible to rent a car — China does not accept foreign driver licenses so that makes renting cars extremely difficult for tourists.
So you take the subway, which is very easy to use — there are maps with the names of places in Chinese English so it is easy to figure out what stop to get off at. This being my second time in Beijing, and having used the subway system extensively on my prior trip, I provided expert advice to the group of guys I was working with.
Not to say Beijing doesn’t have its motorcycles like the rest of Asia. In communist days, China used to be known for its massive use of bicycles, but bicycle usage has been massively superseded by the automobile.
We took a taxi to and from work on the first day in Beijing, and then took the subway the rest of the week.
7. Working in Beijing
The Chinese are hard working people.
But one of the things that blew me away in this work trip to Beijing, was that — while working at IBM China — everyone stopped work at 12 noon for lunch and didn’t resume work until 1pm. There were many people who took a nap at their desk.
This was Exactly the way it was when I worked for Unisys in the 1980’s through early 1990’s — a defense contractor that had an Engineer’s Union (Local 444). I had not seen this after leaving Unisys in 1994 and jumping into the software industry — where people work non-stop as if they are in a race.
And of course it makes sense as many people in China are still born from the Communist era, which had different values — for better and worse. Since there were no incentives, people will value life choices differently, and that becomes part of the culture.
But the people in China are hard working, smart, wonderful people who — from the conversations I’ve had — worry about their work, their family, their kids futures, their retirement, etc while planning what to do this weekend like everyone else in the world.
8. Where to Stay
I stayed at the Crown Plaza in the Northwestern part of Beijing. It was a wonderful Western hotel. I have no advice on if there are better places to stay. I’d stay at the Crown Plaza again for sure.
I you look up Crown Plaza Beijing you will see there are like 10 of them in Beijing, in different parts of the city. I assume they are all part of the same hotel chain, and none are ‘knock-off’ Crown Plaza’s. The prices at this writing are all reasonable — it’s running about $110 to $120 US a night.
When you fill in your Visa to get to China, you of course have to specify where you will be staying during your trip.
Here’s a video of my hotel room:
The lobby was a great place to kick back.
9. Shopping in Beijing
My hotel was across a main 3-lane-each-direction thoroughfare — not quite a highway but more like the West Side Highway in Manhattan. A pseudo highway. The shopping mall was much like what you’d find — in Brooklyn.
More Pix of Beijing
Below are some more selected pictures of my week-long stay in Beijing in 2013: