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Game Over
Time Asia Magazine[Monday, May 08, 2006 23:20]
Lhasa: Streets with Memories offers a restrained yet devastating portrait of a city wrecked by modernity


There are, by one returning exile's count, 238 dance halls and karaoke bars along the main streets of Lhasa, and 658 brothels. Plastic palm trees and mushrooms that play pop songs dot the shiny boulevards. And where in 1978 there were fewer than 500 individually run enterprises in the whole of the Tibet Autonomous Region, more than 5,000 new such enterprises came up in 1993 alone. The Chinese who have occupied Tibet for almost half a century may have failed to destroy it with their bulldozers and guns, but the Lhasa of old has nonetheless been developed to the point of extinction. One strategy that has proven particularly potent has been to triple the salaries of Tibetans working for the Chinese government, and then watch them construct gaudy "New Tibetan" houses that reproduce the features of the traditional Tibetan style, but are deracinated within.

Lhasa: Streets with Memories, by Robert Barnett, is, on its surface, a meditation on the city's past and future by a lecturer at Columbia University in New York, who draws heavily on such cultural icons as Roland Barthes, Walter Benjamin and Italo Calvino. But underneath the high-toned exterior, it is something much more interesting: Barnett spends part of each year in Lhasa, and appears in no hurry to alienate his Chinese hosts; at the same time, he was one of the few foreigners to witness the demonstrations Tibetans staged in Lhasa in 1987, and so can understand the pain and fear that lie just below the city's ever more modern surfaces. His rumination on the capital of Tibet is the rare book that can draw tears just with its assemblage of neutral, entirely unpolemical facts.

The very best parts of Barnett's work come in the italicized sections that break up the academic discourse and recall, in whisper-quick fragments, the scenes he has experienced on the streets of Lhasa, then and now. Like many a romantic tourist, Barnett knew little about Tibet when he arrived in Lhasa in October 1987 and suddenly found himself witness and even party to a violent uprising against Chinese rule. Eager to help a wounded Tibetan at one point, he bangs on the doors of the compound where the man is hiding—and realizes, too late, that he has thus drawn the Chinese authorities to the fugitive. To Barnett, such misunderstandings are part of a long history of foreign interventions that, in the interests of assisting Tibet, have usually imperiled it.

In a field cluttered with propaganda on both sides—the faithful in Beijing exulting in how China has saved Lhasa, their enemies abroad insisting that all Chinese are evil and all Tibetans are pure innocents—Barnett's meticulous documentation has a fresh and welcome air to it. Clearly, he has no time for those who would romanticize old Tibet, or traffic in images of Shangri-La: Tibetans were more than capable of brutality against themselves, he points out, with at least 200 monks dying during an attempted coup in Lhasa in 1947, and the city was never as detached from modern life as the starry-eyed like to believe—Elizabeth Arden cosmetics and the latest Bing Crosby records were freely available there long before the Chinese arrived. Barnett goes out of his way to say nothing about exiled Tibet, and every time Tibetans start to speak to him about their much-missed leader, the Dalai Lama, he shies away, if only because such conversations can have bloody repercussions for a Tibetan, if not for a foreign visitor.

Yet by simply amassing statistics in a scholarly tone of even-handed precision, he goes a long way to support those who claim that, when a rail link between Lhasa and Golmud, in China, is completed some time this year, Tibet as we know it will be gone forever. Already Lhasa is at least six times more populous than when the Dalai Lama knew it, and covers an area 20 times larger than the one square mile of old. A replica of a 40-meter-high mountain stands across from the Potala Palace, and the blue-glass shopping centers around Friendship Street, Happiness Street and Liberation Street would not look out of place in Las Vegas. The few traditional Tibetan buildings still left standing are like an artificially renovated "Old Town" in the middle of a modern metropolis.

And yet, in the face of these losses, Barnett reports that more and more Chinese visitors now give offerings to the Buddhas in the Jokhang Temple, adopt Tibetan names, and even seek out lamas to instruct them. Might Tibet creep into Chinese souls and consciences even as China takes over Tibetan streets? Barnett is too subtle and skeptical to concentrate on anything more than the silences that lie at the heart of many a Lhasa conversation, and the human realities that remain too complex for any simple right or wrong. In Lhasa: Streets with Memories, though, he shows us with overpowering restraint a city that, increasingly, has no memory at all. Memory—like history and culture and religion—is just one more redundancy pushed aside to make room for more skyscrapers.

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