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
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
was no Sanlitun Bar Street. There was no such thing as "ecommerce"
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.
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"
that same January of 1995, an unprecedented, 12-page, biweekly
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."
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.
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
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.
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
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
was Beijing Scene.
SHOOT COMRADE, I AM YOUR FRIEND
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.
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.
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.
editors in Washington always asked, 'Does it play in Peoria?'
And, the fact is, nothing from China plays in Peoria,
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.
was a growing cognitive dissonance between what I knew and
here and what you could write about as a foreign
I felt it was willfully distorting the significance of what
actually takes place here and what Chinese people really care
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
at a time when the international community in Beijing had no
established common gathering places.
these communities were mutually exclusive: the students up in
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."
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."
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
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.
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.
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
initially created for the English-speaking international
community, Beijing Scene attracted a significant Chinese
readership from its inception.
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."
Beijing Scene's influence in the Chinese community has not
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.
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.
IN THE INTERNET AGE
Scene was one of the first foreign companies online in
China," claims Savitt.
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.
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."
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
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."