"Wherever you dig in Beijing, you find history," Ren says. The race to build quickly meant archaeologists could excavate less than 1% of the area surveyed, but Ren hopes "the temple will help introduce Chinese culture to the world."
American Shauna Liu also is bringing history to life. Tucked deep in the hutong (alley) that once housed court musicians, the former investment banker has converted a Ming Dynasty temple, also used as a school in recent times, into Beijing's first boutique hotel, the Côté Cour. Inspired by the riad hotels of Marrakesh (formerly ancient palaces and residences), Liu battled bureaucrats and won.
"It is so difficult to win permission to open a hotel, especially for foreigners, but I want my guests to have a chance to experience local life," Liu says. "The old magic of Beijing still survives." It's there right outside the hotel door, where old men offer bicycle and shoe repair, vegetable sellers and knife sharpeners pedal by, and neighbors gather to gossip in circles. But don't wait too long. "The hutong area will get smaller and smaller," Liu warns.
The smile on Lily Li's face breaks when the immigration officer considers the Olympic tourist deluge. "I feel lots of pressure in my work. We are here to serve the people. But next year there will be five times the normal flow of people. How do we keep them all happy?" Li asks.
The Miss Manners of the Beijing Olympics never drops her smile, despite tough battles to change and save the city's face. "We need more people to smile. I wish the whole of Beijing would smile more to welcome the world," says Zhang Huiguang, head of municipal etiquette campaigns. "We are making progress, and there's still a year to go, but we have a lot of work to do. Spitting and littering still happens."
While the government mobilizes the masses for an immaculate, completely scripted display next summer, some officials suggest China should feel confident enough to let the mask slip, at least a little.
"It's impossible for everything to be perfect in Beijing in 2008," says professor Ren Hai, director of the sports ministry's Olympic Studies Center. "I don't want the Olympics to just be a communist symbol. It should be a real introduction to China — good and bad."