Just in time for the 30th anniversary of US-China diplomatic relations, and reflecting the growing importance of US-China relations, the new US Embassy in Beijing and new PRC Embassy in Washington, DC, both opened in 2008.

The Beijing Embassy Compound was dedicated on August 8, 2008—the opening day of the Beijing Olympics. The embassy is the second-largest overseas construction project in the history of the US Department of State and will host about 1,000 employees. Located on a 10-acre site, the embassy consists of five buildings: an eight-story main chancery; an adjacent three-story atrium office building; a marine security guard quarters; a consular building; and a parking, utility, and ancillary guard structure. The buildings represent modern American architecture, yet the embassy compound is rooted in traditional Chinese forms. The buildings are connected by narrow, bamboo-lined walkways and are linked by a series of landscaped gardens.

For members of the embassy community who have served multiple tours in Beijing, the closing of the old US chancery and other embassy buildings in the heart of the city evokes many memories. Executive Director of the Department of Energy’s China Office Marco DiCapua, who served his first tour in Beijing from 1993 to 1997, remembers the feel of the old chancery. “The embassy was a period piece. It was reminiscent of the architecture that belongs to the first stage of the US-China relationship…. It was at times as dirty as it was challenging…. But the possibilities were endless concerning the US-China relationship.”

Defense Attaché General Charles W. Hooper first served in Beijing as a foreign area officer in 1979. He too remembers the character of the old embassy buildings and its neighborhood. “We got to know the old chancery building really well, all its nuances, like elevators that didn’t work, the ambassador’s office, and the tree-lined streets. It was comforting walking up to those old buildings, seeing the US flag and knowing what great things had happened there. There was little art, nor was there much history … you couldn’t show off in that building. You worked in that building. We did some of our best work in that creaky, craggy, building.”

The real institutional memory comes from locally employed staff (LES). Yang Gengqi, the embassy’s Print Shop supervisor who has worked in the Public Affairs Office for 29 years, remembers parties at Yi Ban [No.1Office]—the ambassador’s residence and the original embassy in Beijing. “Every year the American staff would put on a Christmas party for the LES, and in the spring the LES would throw a Chinese New Year party for the Americans. All the people joined together to make dumplings and decorate the program room.” Yang, like many embassy staff, is still warming to the new space. “My office was a place for business exchange. It was small and comfortable. There was a window and a garden. Here it is like a big company.” Yang also noted the parallel growth in the US-China relationship and the size of the US embassy: “We worked in the first building to start the relationship, we met the first ambassador. We are a part of the beginning of the China-US relationship. At first, everything was very small. We’ve seen everything develop into a huge relationship. After one or two years … we will love this new building, too.”

With such a significant change in the work environment, it is not surprising that staff have mixed emotions. DiCapua suggests “the transformation is as radical as any taking place in China today. For many LES members, it is like going from the hutong to the high-rise … for the first time, they’ll be working very closely with a lot of Americans. It used to be a lot of little provinces—Yi Ban, Er Ban, San Ban [Offices 1, 2, and 3]—all separated. Now we are all together in one big family.”

Deputy Economic Section Chief Robert W. Forden, now stationed in Beijing for the third time, said “the new building demonstrates the US commitment; it illustrates how the two countries have moved toward recognizing that this relationship may be their single most important relationship this century. The new building symbolizes strength, and it is a good expression of not only who we are but also the importance of this relationship.”

[author] Lydia R. Goldfine is press assistant at the US Embassy in Beijing. [/author]

Posted by Lydia R. Goldfine