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What the Rain Brings to Beijing

As soon as the rain comes down, the umbrella salesmen come out, scurrying from archway to archway to offer reasonable protection at unreasonable prices

By James Palmer Updated Oct.2

It rains in Beijing every year. And yet, somehow, it always seems like a surprise when it does. Airports close. Streets flood. Basements leak. Boats emerge from secret docks, ready to carry the elite to safety. Strong men panic, screaming, “Water falling from the sky! What madness is this!” Chaos reigns.  

Alright, that might be a slight exaggeration. But for a city that has regular downpours, Beijing seems to be remarkably bad at coping with them. True, things have gotten better since 2012, when at least 37 people drowned in the capital in massive rainstorms. Ditches have been dug, and drainage mildly improved. Yet city streets still regularly turn into sewage-filled swimming pools, roofs collapse and services shut down.  

Perhaps it comes as a shock just because of how dry a city Beijing is. Located right in the middle of the great Hebei plain, the city was never meant to bear the burden of more than 23 million people. Water resources run scarce– even more so because of the multitude of private wells illegally dug for hotels and spas, draining the last drops out of an exhausted land. That’s why the government launched the enormous South-North water transfer project, a revival of the Grand Canal of eons past. Now, at least in theory, water is sloshing northward from the wetlands elsewhere to reach the parched throats and gardens of Beijingers.  

After months of cracked skin and soil, then, free water from the sky can seem a pleasant novelty. It’s like the capital crams all its wetness into a couple of bare months. Beijing doesn’t do sprinkles, or showers, or drizzles; it does full-on downpours, crashing down from above, hammering on aging roofs and forcing locals to drag out the buckets. As the rain hits, you can see the leaks form in the roof, wet traces like fingers dragged across the ceiling, until they give and the drip, drip, drip starts.  

Ironically, it’s some of Beijing’s richest citizens who suffer the worst from the rains, at least when it comes to housekeeping. I have friends who adopted the vogue for American-style suburban houses, built with picket fences and dining rooms and even fake churches in the center of the development – and at the low, low price of a few million dollars. But unfortunately, these houses also come with basements – and basements built by migrant workers who’ve never heard of rain-proofing.  

I arrived at one well-moneyed friend’s house to find the waters already lapping at the top of his basement stairs. “All my stuff is wrecked!” he moaned, “I put my electric railway models down there.” I grabbed some buckets and we did what we could, but the compound’s maintenance guys – equipped with vacuum tubes to suck out the drowned remains of the rich’s vanity – were busy. “I tried to offer them 200 kuai [US$30] to do my basement first,” my friend groaned, unhappily, “And they said somebody else had already offered them a thousand.” “Mate,” I said, “You’re a millionaire. Why didn’t you offer them two thousand?” He looked shifty.“My wife would be mad if I offered that much money,” he confessed.  

But of course, at least he has a house. It’s not a good time to be one of the city’s migrant workers, either, confined to rickety barracks on construction sites or driven out to the edge of town. I poked my head into one improvised shack in the middle of a rainstorm, seeing three builders crouched against the side, eating noodles. They’d packed the holes in the roof with newspaper and cloth, gradually giving way as the storm continued to do its worst. I brought them beer. If you’re going to get wet, at least get drunk, I figured.  

And yet, I’ve got to admit I kind of enjoy the rain, living somewhere so dry. There’s something deeply satisfying about being inside when it’s wet, even if the roof is leaking and there’s a pool ebbing under the door. It’s an elemental pleasure; the sense of shelter amid the storm. It’s like arriving in air conditioned bliss on a hot day, or curling up under the covers in a snowstorm.  

And there’s a certain communal value engendered by the rain. Sure, taxi drivers might sail past, worried about being stranded on newly riverine streets or worried about mucky boots on their upholstery, but when they do take you it’s like you’re soldiers escaping from the frontline together. Then there’s the smiles and chat among strangers, stuck under a gateway to dodge the worst of a downpour.  

And finally, there’s the triumph of the entrepreneurial spirit. As soon as the rain comes down, the umbrella salesmen come out, scurrying from archway to archway to offer reasonable protection at unreasonable prices. It makes me wonder what they do the rest of the time. Maybe they travel the country, following the rain like nomads, backs laden with umbrellas – or maybe they just switch up. Someday, when global warming really hits Beijing, they’ll be the ones with the parasols and the iced water. 
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