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  All materials © 1999 
  Beijing Scene


Beijing Scene, Volume 6, Issue 1, October 15 - 21

Beijing Scene 

and the Scene in Beijing

It's been five years since Beijing Scene began inflicting its irreverent cultural commentary on the capital's captive international community. In an unrepentant act of navel-gazing, we take a look back at the launch of Beijing Scene and the capital's passing scenery in the leadup to the new millennium.

In January 1995, perky fleets of yellow miandi taxis, sputtering unapologetic clouds of exhaust, bounced along the bustling avenues and alleys of Beijing. A newspaper advertisement for a Macintosh user's group asked, "Don't know which Apple products blow up at 220 volts?" A tour company enthusiastically invited one to "Visit North Korea!" Two bright-eyed Americans and one bushy-tailed Australian schlepped a few bags of coffee beans to Haidian District, planning to make their fortune with a strange, nerve-bending new substance called "freshly roasted coffee."

(This, mind you, was a time in the mystical past when it was actually necessary to explain who or what something called "Starbucks" was. Truly a long-lost Golden Era.) The heirs of the Last Emperor, Pu Yi, won a landmark copyright suit that regained ownership of his own autobiography. The annual fee for the Swissotel health club was ?5,400. A foreigner's Mandarin was considered exceptional if he or she could use, in one coherent sentence, the words gemen'r (buddy), xiahai (to plunge into the sea of business) and dageda (the huge desktop-sized cell phones now available only in museums).

There was no Sanlitun Bar Street. There was no such thing as "ecommerce"

(or email for that matter). Teenagers did not stand in front of speakers at discos, mesmerized by ecstasy and shaking their heads to the bass line.

There were no VCDs. And there were no billion-dollar Wall Street IPOs for companies whose names boasted "China," and "com," with the little all-important "dot" in-between.

In that same January of 1995, an unprecedented, 12-page, biweekly paper hit

the streets of Beijing and quickly became a local institution. In its inaugural issue's letter from the editor, the paper introduced itself as a publication produced "by and for Beijing's international residents," whose goal was "both to reflect and come to symbolize Beijing's increasingly cosmopolitan identity."

The first issue's feature broke the explosive story of how to keep fit in Beijing, providing much-needed advice on health club memberships and tanning salons. It was even suggested, in deference to Chinese tradition, that unfit foreigners might do well to walk backwards, meditate upside down, or just plain scream-in a primal manner, if possible.

Reproductions of artwork by Chinese artists appeared in the midst of a biweekly listing of art, music, film and community events. The listing was entitled Zhaole ("find fun"), after the quintessential Beijing expression for killing boredom, seeking entertainment, or doing anything besides gazing at one's navel.

A column written by a fictitious, know-it-all Chinese ayi explained perplexing cultural conundrums such as how to use chopsticks without unintentionally offending one's Chinese mother-in-law; while the Comrade Language column provided advice on how to win friends and influence people with chic new vocabulary terms and street slang.

The free, tabloid-sized biweekly "weekly" featured so few ads-the biggest ad being a shameless bit of self-promotion, not unlike this article you're reading right now-and so little actual newsworthy content that you would be hard-pressed to call it a newspaper or magazine. It was something else.

It was a meeting point for the international community; an informed voice that could express a knowledgeable appreciation of what was unique about Beijing and China, a humorous, sometimes downright irreverent local paper that reported on people, places, and events that no other China-based English-language publication had covered in more than half a century.

It was Beijing Scene.


If anyone is to blame for the creation of Beijing Scene, you would have to point the finger at former United Press International correspondent Scott Savitt.

After reporting on China for more than a decade, including covering a handful of presidential summits, a virtual who's who of China's Reform and Opening effort, and one extremely bizarre day accompanying U.S. President Richard Nixon during his 1989 visit, Savitt felt a need to move beyond what most papers were reporting from China.

"I had been working as a foreign correspondent," says Savitt, "and was frustrated that some of the best stories I came across couldn't be written.

Because editors in Washington always asked, 'Does it play in Peoria?' And, the fact is, nothing from China plays in Peoria, really."

Increasingly frustrated by having to explain 'socialism with Chinese characteristics' to Americans, Savitt literally had explanatory paragraphs as macros in his computer to explain the same bit of basic China knowledge over and over again. "Even Deng Xiaoping!" he laments. "At that time, you couldn't assume that an American reader knew who Deng Xiaoping was. It was really absurd.

"There was a growing cognitive dissonance between what I knew and felt was

important here and what you could write about as a foreign correspondent.

And I felt it was willfully distorting the significance of what actually takes place here and what Chinese people really care about."

As the foreign population in Beijing skyrocketed during the unexpected economic boom of the early 1990s, Savitt came to realize that "a vehicle like Beijing Scene was a desperately needed medium of communication for the international community."

Especially at a time when the international community in Beijing had no established common gathering places.

"All these communities were mutually exclusive: the students up in Haidian,

the diplomats in Jianguomenwai, and the business people; none of them interacted with each other. The international community also tended to divide along national boundaries and coalesce around embassies." And, says Savitt, the Americans felt especially left out, "because the embassy was extremely exclusive. Whereas the other embassies were inclusive and would bring their students in and so forth, the Americans treated you like a total pariah."

"So, in some ways," he recalls, "it was only natural that Americans would form a large chamber of commerce, or something like Beijing Scene. It was in many ways a necessity."

Despite dire predictions by most that Beijing Scene wouldn't succeed, and the difficulty of securing initial financing, Savitt remained convinced of the demand for it, and its potential for success.

And he was right. "It got really big really quickly," Savitt says without elaboration. With a fast-growing advertising base and distribution in 150 locations around the city, Beijing Scene soon became an institution that international residents welcomed and adopted as their own.

"People were really encouraging. We started getting letters and lots of feedback. We had a sense immediately that we had tapped into a latent demand. Lots of people wrote in, saying things like, 'This is so necessary.

I live here and I feel totally isolated. The language is incomprehensible to me, and I just don't have any connection. But the paper is basically this key that opens up this place to me.'"

Although initially created for the English-speaking international community, Beijing Scene attracted a significant Chinese readership from its inception.

"In 1997, we did our first reader survey and found out that fully half of our readers are Chinese," Savitt explains. Which is one of the main reasons for the paper's move to a bilingual format. "Many Chinese readers not only read the Scene to improve their English, but also to get a different point of view on life in Beijing. We think that even in Chinese, we still offer an original perspective."

And Beijing Scene's influence in the Chinese community has not been limited

to its readership. With a staff that is comprised equally of foreigners and Chinese, Beijing Scene embodies a truly "international" philosophyand was one of the first companies to realize a fully bicultural, bilingual work environment.

"Someone like James Liu, [Beijing Scene's former art director], just walked in off the street, saying 'I want to work here.' He started out as an unpaid intern in 1995, and now he runs his own successful graphic design company, Moli Design, which designed and maintains the Beijing Scene website.


"Beijing Scene was one of the first foreign companies online in China," claims Savitt. 

China's first internet connection was established between the Institute of High Energy Physics and Stanford University in 1994. When the satellite link between the Institute and Stanford came online, Savitt, who was doing research for a book at the institute, opened up an academic internet account and soon brought Beijing Scene into the digital age.

"One of the first things we did to fund Beijing Scene was to become the first commercial internet service provider in China. We ran a server out of our living room and sold email accounts for an entire year, from mid-1994 to mid-1995, until Beijing Telecom started offering commercial internet service."

Via their online bulletin board, Beijing Scene was also able to provide much of the same information from the paper, and quickly established an early web presence at http://www.beijingscene.com in 1995 (the year considered to mark the birth of the World Wide Web).

With over 200,000 hits a month, Beijing Scene is transforming itself into an internet company. "We're an internet content provider," Savitt explains, "and we now have readers all over the world because this information is of interest to people not just in Beijing, but everywhere."

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