Travel

Foreign Correspondence: Like New York, Beijing Has Its Own Soho Area

What's it like to live in a far-off place most of us see only on a vacation? Foreign Correspondence is an interview with someone who lives in a spot you may want to visit.

Song Tu, 46, is program director of the Beijing Music Festival Arts Foundation; the festival will be Oct. 10-30 this year in the Chinese capital (www.bmf.org.cn). He is a native of Shanghai, and a U.S. citizen who lived in Boston. Song played clarinet professionally for 30 years before moving into arts administration. He has lived in Beijing for 19 months.

Q. Beijing and Shanghai are enormous and cosmopolitan metropolitan areas. How are they different?

A. Beijing, I think, is more outgoing. People here will directly say how they feel about everything. Culture-wise, Beijing is more open-minded; there are lots of cultural events and activities.

I left Shanghai in 1986 and haven't lived there since. Even though I'm a native, it feels a little "distant" when I go back because everything has changed. There has been so much financial development and other types of development there. I feel less connection there, somehow.

Q. Many residents of Beijing live in apartments. Is that the case for you?

A. I am renting a very fancy one in Wan-Hoa International Apartments, a place that meets all international standards. The building is 27 floors high and it takes me only 12 minutes by foot to get to work. It's one bedroom ... I live there by myself.

Q. What's your rent?

A. 5,000 RMB (yuan) per month — about $730.

Q. Where in Beijing is this?

A. In the central part. Beijing is circled by rings and I live in the second circle, the CBD area, which is next to SoHo.

Q. Beijing has an area called SoHo, just like in New York?

A. Yes. It was completed in 2007 and is located at Third Ring Road as Jian Wai SoHo, named like New York's. It's a commercial center with 20 high-rise towers and four villas. Along there are also a few very expensive apartments.

Q. Is there an arts area in Beijing?

A. It's called 798 Arts Zone and is based around a very old factory. At the end of 2000, it was turned into an area for artists, especially painters. The scene is very active.

Q. The Beijing Music Festival — how major is this?

A. It's now in its 12th year and its maestro, Long Yu, the founder and artistic director, is also music director of three major orchestras in China: the China Philharmonic, the Shanghai Symphony and the Guangzhou Symphony. The festival is usually held in October, and we present close to 25 different symphonic, chamber and opera concerts during its three weeks.

We invite musicians who are of the highest standard on the international level. We engage artists from all over the world: the New York Philharmonic, the Orchestra de Paris, BBC Symphonic Orchestra, etc. For soloists, we've had people like (famed French-American cellist) Yo-Yo Ma and (Chinese pianist) Lang Lang.

We have three major venues for the Beijing Music Festival: the Poly Theater, the Forbidden City Concert Hall — (American violinist) Pinchas Zukerman will be there this year — and the Beijing Concert Hall.

Q. How far do you live from Beijing's famed Forbidden City?

A. It's about a 15-minute drive.

The Forbidden City is Beijing's biggest attraction, the historic scene of the city. And of course, next to it is Tiananmen Square; you can't miss it. One of the other attractions is the Great Wall of China, an hour and a half from the city. It's in an urban area. You have to drive through various Beijing districts to get there.

Q. Is Beijing an easy place to find your way around?

A. On one hand, Beijing is square and built of squares. You can't miss anything.

That said, the street signage isn't very obvious. People must know where they are and where buildings are in order to find where to go.

In hutongs (narrow streets or alleys) in neighborhoods, it's hard to find places even if you know the address. Signage isn't a system here. It's a tradition that a courtyard is the basis for residences, and everybody knows where his or hers is.

The system of street maps is OK, but to walk around and, say, look for a new place to live can be very challenging.

Q. What's your favorite type of Chinese food, and where do you go for it?

A. I like Sichuan, the spicy food that's one of China's most famous styles. I like Spicy Spirit. It's a chain restaurant that's all over the place, and the food is very good.

Q. Is Sichuan food spicier in China than you'd have in, maybe, Boston?

A. No, but it's different. When you eat Chinese food in the States, you can have it prepared by a Chinese chef in a Chinatown area that's just as authentic. But the ingredients in the States taste different from the more organic ingredients used in China.

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