A great walling in China

Enclaves: Foreigners in Beijing are finding refuge in gated communities, widening cultural and economic gaps.

May 05, 2000|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BEIJING -- A teen-age girl wearing inline skates rolls past identical houses as a father lowers his daughter onto a swing at a nearby playground.

Boys bounce over speed bumps on mountain bikes while mothers settle on the couch for another installment of "Oprah."

If the signs for streets such as Maple Avenue and Park Lane didn't include Chinese translations, one might never know that this was Beijing. And that is the idea.

In recent years, thousands of expatriates have flocked to gated communities in the northeast part of the capital, seeking refuge from the predatory traffic, polluted air and other annoyances of Chinese urban life.

Protected by stone and chain-link fences, the enclaves have names such as Dragon Villas, Beijing Riviera and Capital Paradise. With round-the-clock guards, grocery stores, swimming pools and putting greens, the communities in some ways exceed the U.S. suburban ideal on which they are based.

"It's like Mayberry in the 1950s," says James McGregor, chief representative for Dow Jones here and a former Wall Street Journal reporter who jokes that he moved out of China years ago. "We don't know where our children are half the time, and we don't worry about it. It's a very secure and sometimes surreal existence." In a world where Vietnamese can watch Britney Spears videos and Taiwanese can drink Slurpees, the wholesale export of U.S. suburban life may be a logical extension of globalization.

There are signs that the appeal stretches far beyond the arid plains of North China.

On the edge of Moscow, expatriates and some Russians fill U.S.-designed townhouses clustered along cul-de-sacs. Rio de Janeiro's Barra da Tijuca, home to newly rich Brazilians, features malls, multiplexes and an 88-foot replica of the Statue of Liberty.

Most expatriates who have moved to the outskirts of Beijing mention concern for their children as the primary reason. Though some poke fun at their lifestyle by referring to "the real world" outside, many say they would have left China if they had had to live cooped up in the center city with young kids.

Sitting in her back yard at Beijing Riviera, Chris Druckman recalls her decision to scrap apartment life in dusty, downtown Beijing. The epiphany came when she visited the suburban home of a friend who was drinking wine as her child played on a lawn while the sprinkler ran.

"I said: `That's it! We're moving,'" recalls Druckman, a 35-year-old Australian who owns a school in Moscow, where she lived before coming to China. In the city, "I felt I was depriving the kids of a normal childhood."

At Beijing Riviera, Druckman's family enjoys a lifestyle that was unknown in this nation of 1.2 billion people until a few years ago. With her 3-year-old daughter, Sydney, sitting in back, she rides her bicycle around the neighborhood while her physician husband, Myles, pushes 18-month-old Makensey, in the stroller as he skates behind.

With the help of a Chinese nanny, Chris Druckman finds time to play mah-jongg and study Chinese porcelain. . On weekends, the couple invite friends over for barbecues in a back yard that overlooks what will soon be a golf course.

"Where do you go from here?" she asks, wondering what other foreign jobs offer a comparable lifestyle.

However, the drawbacks of Beijing's suburbs are as obvious as the benefits. Suburban amenities cushion families from the culture shock of landing in China. Yet, they can also cut them off from the nation's rich culture and lead to a sort of armchair expatriate existence. Many children who live in the communities speak little Chinese, and few have Chinese friends.

Mark Brazzil, an attorney with the law firm Vinson & Elkins, moved to Beijing Riviera last year with his wife, Leslie, and their two young boys. His 20-minute commute to work is a big improvement over the one he had in Houston, and Leslie can read novels on a park bench while her kids play.

Mark Brazzil notes that his predecessor lived in an old Chinese courtyard house along Houhai, a downtown lake where many Beijingers exercise in the mornings and some swim. He often wandered along the waterside and shopped for food at open-air stalls.

"He could get anything he wanted, most of which I wouldn't know what it was," says Brazzil, a bit wistfully. "He lived in China in a way we don't."

Despite the array of facilities at Beijing Riviera, which include basketball courts and a movie theater, teen-agers complain about the sterile atmosphere.

"They've been playing this music for three years," says Jannik Rasmussen, 13, from Denmark, as saxophone-laden Muzak plays overhead in the atrium at the Beijing Riviera Country Club. "We spend a lot of time here."

Suburban communities began sprouting up on the outskirts of the capital in the mid-1990s as foreign investment sparked a building boom. Trying to cash in on the flow of expatriate families, developers grossly overestimated demand.

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