For years, director Miao Wang, a Beijing native who moved to the US in 1990 at age 12, had the same dream. She was back in Beijing, in the house she grew up in, running to reach a drawer that she knew would be full of her childhood possessions.
“And of course, when I got to the drawer I would wake up,” she said in an interview on Friday. “It got to the point where I’d feel this urgency soon as the dream began, but I never made it.”
It was only when Wang began to make “Beijing Taxi,” a documentary that had its Cambodian premiere at Meta House on Thursday evening, that she stopped having the dream.
The film follows three Beijing taxi drivers making their livings, sometimes with difficulty, during the run-up to the 2008 Olympic Games. Wang spent five days in Phnom Penh screening the film. This was her second visit to the capital, having spent three weeks here in 2008.
“I like to go to a place and pretend I live there, so I would edit [“Beijing Taxi”] in the daytime and go out in the evening,” he said. “I found it to be a very lively art scene and met [Meta House director Nico Mesterharm]… we talked about how once I finished the film it would be great to have a screening here.”
Despite the obvious differences in scale–the UN’s latest figures put industrial goliath China’s gross domestic product at $4.3 trillion, while Cambodia has a population of 13.4 million and a GDP of $11.3 billion, according to the Ministry of Economy and Finance–Wang says that she sees striking similarities between the two countries.
“There’s so many parallels [between Cambodia and China]. All the construction suddenly going on here…but I also feel like I see in the kids’ smiles this pureness that I don’t see in China so much anymore…. It’s almost like [Cambodia is] like the China that I left behind.”
While the rate of economic development and industrialization in China has contributed to a more than tenfold increase in GDP since 1978, there is still extreme poverty in many rural areas. In Cambodia too, increased development in urban sectors has lead to a growing inequality between the rich and the poor.
For Wang, this enthusiasm for rapid development, sometimes at a cost to those on the lower end of the economic spectrum, can be in some measure attributed to the turbulent political history of the two countries:
“Every time I go to a post-communist country I see a similar pattern. I always think that ex-communists make the best capitalists.”
While Wang conceded that it is important not to idolize China’s communist past, she is also uncomfortable with what she sees as its contemporary “money worship society.”
Wang hopes that tracing the lives of ordinary citizens, or “lao bai xing,” will show that the extraordinary rate of change wrought in Beijing has more intimate consequences than just an increase in GDP.
“There has to be progress but…you can destroy things a little too fast without looking back, and that’s a shame.”