Monday, May 31, 2010

China’s 2 Richest Cities – Shenzhen & Hong Kong

For years Shenzhen has been the richest city in on the mainland. It's one of the biggest cities you've never heard of with a population of over 10 million people with a stock exchange, a subway system, parks, luxury hotels. Shenzhen is a factory town, the final assembly point of the iPhone and many other things in your house. The Taiwanese company responsible for iPhone assembly, Foxconn, has 800,00 employees in China, 400,000 of them in Shenzhen alone. 

30 years ago Shenzhen had a population of around 20,000. When Deng Xiaoping took over China after Chairman Mao finally shuffled off to that great collective farm in the sky he probably noticed how prosperous communism free Chinese places such as Hong Kong and Taiwan were and wanted to see what would happen if he allowed some of that capitalist evil in a corner of his kingdom. He did this first in Shenzhen and once the special economic zone was established money, factories and jobs poured over the border from higher wage Hong Kong. This transformed Shenzhen from absolutely nothing to a madhouse migrant city and Hong Kong from a city with a manufacturing economy to a city with a mostly service economy.

There's plenty of wealth out where people can see it in Shenzhen in the form of Audis, Mercedes, BMWs, Porsches and even a few Cadillacs. There's a fair amount of luxury cars tooling around on Shenzhen's wide streets with right hand drive and sets of license plates for both Hong Kong SAR and Guangdong province. While Shenzhen might be the richest city on the mainland it's the poor sister to the richest city in all of China, Hong Kong. It's a gigantic Tijuana with Hong Kong SAR playing the role of Asian San Diego. Shenzhen is a city built on hard work and other peoples money and it's paid off for many of the locals and investors. Glitzy wide shopping boulevards slowly dissolve into migrant laborer alley hells.

The women in Hong Kong are the picture of affluent fashion, their less well to do sisters in Shenzhen they seem to make it up as they go along.  After I saw the third woman in Shenzhen wearing thick, black Larry King frames without any lenses (I saw one woman stick a finger through the empty lens opening to rub her eye) I knew it wasn’t a one off aberration. 

Even with China's one child policy one thing that I've seen all over China are babies and pregnant women and Shenzhen is no exception. But due to the high cost of living babies in Hong Kong are few and far between. By day the familiar bellowing and barking of Chinese dialects on the mainland dissolves across the Hong Kong SAR border into another language. No, not Cantonese, the dialect most spoken in Hong Kong; it's the familiar puck-puck-puck of Pilipino. Hong Kong is packed with Filipinas. Although I'm sure they're out there somewhere it seems most of the male Filipinos are back home in Manila. Filipinas in Hong Kong serve as maids and nannies (as well as ply the world's oldest profession). Just as in Southern California the first words of a rich kid might be in Spanish, in Hong Kong his first words might be in Tagalog.

Unlike anywhere I’ve ever been in China, in Hong Kong you can drink the water straight from the tap. I drank Hong Kong tap and while it might be just a coincidence within 24 hours I had a roaring case of Chairman Mao's revenge. I knew I that eau de tap was graded as fit for human consumption the minute I went to a 7/11. In China 550 ml (roughly a pint) of bottled water can cost under .15 US, in fashionable Hong Kong it's .75 to a $1 US. Hotels in China usually spot their guests 2 bottles of water, in Hong Kong you can get all the water you want straight from the tap.

Hong Kong’s MTR is perhaps the best subway system in the world and riding it is a breeze.  The announcements are in 3 languages; Cantonese, Mandarin and British English.  Click here  and here for samples.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Shanghai – Better City, Better Life

Better City, Better Life. That's the official phrase of Expo 2010. It's plastered in English all over Shanghai along with their rendition of Gumby which they call Haibao. Haibao appears in neighborhood squares sculpted out of bushes, in both male and female form, unlicensed bootleg stuffed Haibaos are sold by hawkers on the stairways down into subway stations. You can buy a tiny Haibao to hang from your cellphone, blow up Haibaos, all sorts of Haibao shirts, there are Haibaos that wear a Mexican sombrero, Haibaos that play the bagpipes; collect the set! Olympic tchotchkes are for sale at official souvenir stands. The Chinese public has been whipped up into a nationalistic frenzy over Expo 2010 in a similar fashion to their fervor over the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

The Chinese government supposedly spent the equivalent of $60 billion US dollars on Expo 2010, rivaling or exceeding what they spent on the 2008 Olympics. Thousands of people and business were uprooted from what is now the Expo site, new subway lines were built and brought in. There are Expo information desks staffed with young English and Chinese speakers wearing white Expo 2010 uniforms set up in subway stations, hotels, airports, shopping malls and street corners. Handles for standees on the Shanghai subway bear the Expo logo. There's an official Expo song by Jackie Chan (who also appears in ads plastered all over China and all over town for frozen dumplings, appliances, Canon and some kind of Chinese herbal hair darkening shampoo for men called Bawang. Is there anything that Jackie Chan won't shill?). Attendance figures are updated the days Expo highlights are transmitted to displays inside Shanghai's subway cars on the Shanghai Metro's TV channel every 15 minutes.

So after the Chinese government unloaded their fat piggy bank on Shanghai what's the Expo like? I found it sterile. Security is tight, tighter than any recent US domestic flight I've taken since 9/11. My possessions were x-rayed and I was fully wanded before my $13 US ticket for evening admission was accepted (a whole day at Expo 2010 costs a steep $23.50 US).

The first thing I saw after passing through the turnstile was the China pavilion. It's a massive, in your face, upside down red pyramid of a structure and very popular with Chinese fair goers. I saw no reason to go inside, it had a giant line snaking around it and I was already inside China. For me being in China is sort of like a visit to a giant China pavilion anyway so why brave the lines to see in miniature what was already before me?

The European and USA pavilions were very popular as well with lines snaking around them. But unlike most of the Chinese visitors to Expo 2010 I can probably go to these places if I want to. For most Chinese today world travel is just a dream. It's a dream that's closer to reality for your average Chinese national than it was 20 years ago and China's rich and well connected does travel internationally but for most of China's 1.3 billion it's out of reach and will remain so for their lifetimes. Expo 2010's expensive day pass will be as close as they come to seeing the cultures of the world.

With that in mind I chose to avoid most of the pavilions and exhibits. But while the throngs of Chinese fair goers had no desire to see one particular pavilion, I did. No waiting! The North Korean pavilion was much smaller and more sparsely attended than the one from South Korea but it was the #1 pavilion on my to do list. For a follower of all things DPRK such as myself who has come as close as a cruise on the Yalu river it might be as close as I come to actually experiencing the closed land of Juche. What's inside? Not much. North Korea must be a pretty boring place. There's a model of the Tower of the Juche Idea in front of a large mural of Pyongyang and a few other cheap statues, artworks and recreation. Any good souvenirs for sale? Kim pins are mandatory for DPRK citizens, maybe I could buy one to go with the one I bought years ago in Dandong? Nope, just some postage stamps and a small gaggle of Chinese Expo fanatics wanting to have their Expo 2010 passports stamped. Whoever was in charge of the placement of the national pavilions either has a sense of humor or once worked in the Bush administration, or both. Yes, Expo 2010 has its very own Axis of Evil section. Right next to the DPRK discount house of dioramas was the pavilion of the Islamic Republic of Iran, howdy nuclear neighbor!

Without the Expo Shanghai is a bustling city of 20 million or 25 million, nobody's really sure. There are many more subway lines than when I was last in Shanghai a few years ago and trains are frequent, cheap and backside to navel SRO any time of the day. The food in restaurants ranges from Chinese and American chain fast food to what to North American eyes is most unusual. A sharply dressed middle class is on the move. The women are sharp dressers who tend to wear more cosmetics, higher heels and show more skin than their poorer and more peasant western sisters in Chengdu. Thanks to the Treaty of Nanking Shanghai has more western influence than perhaps any other Chinese city except for Hong Kong. Some of old Shanghai hasn't fallen to the wrecking ball and the historic Bund along the Huangpu river has just completed an expensive makeover.

As when we took the high speed CRH train to Tianjin I had wanted to take a CRH train for a day trip to a different Chinese city. Nanjing is 2 hours from Shanghai by CRH, other cities are closer. These trains leave from Shanghai's North railway station but unlike Beijing's sedate and organized railway station Shanghai's was a madhouse of peasant migrants with stained decaying teeth bearing huge cheap plaid bundles made out of a shiny cheap tablecloth material full of god knows what along with buckets of bottled water and packages of instant noodles for their long journey on the what the Chinese call “Iron Big Brother” to the provinces. Security was tight as it is at most Chinese transit facilities so we couldn't even investigate buying tickets without waiting on long slowly moving security lines where the peasants got wanded and their bundles x-rayed so we gave up, it was simply too much of gauntlet to run.

Shanghai pictures are here
Panda pictures are here

Chengdu – A 2nd Tier Chinese City

Beijing and Shanghai have had billions of dollars lavished on them for recent or ongoing international events and their citizens have been taken to charm school to smooth over bad habits such as suicidal driving, Chinglish and loud public spitting. So what about a large Chinese city that isn't on the prosperous coast and that hasn't had the benefits of the international spotlight?

Welcome to Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province in China's interior. No obvious sophistication here, the start/end route information on the side of the #6 bus route says it all, and in English: “Engine Plant → Sewage Treatment Plant”. Chengdu has only one real internationally known attraction, the Chengdu Panda Base just outside of town. There foreigners and Chinese tourists alike oh and ah over the local and endangered bamboo eating bears with stubby legs and cute coloring. Otherwise Chengdu is a large city deep in the Chinese interior that hasn't had a reason for the central government in Beijing to put it through finishing school. People fire up butts almost everywhere, smoke free sections in local restaurants are unknown. People spit in a very loud public trumpeting exuberant phlegm clearing way that is so common that it has been described by Western expats here as the Chinese National Anthem. It sounds gross and it is too. Going for a walk? Best to forget the sandals. We rode a packed Chengdu city bus and heard a grumpy passenger go off on the driver. She screamed back at him for the entire ride. Chinglish abounds.

There's no subway yet (it's scheduled to open in October) so we took buses and cabs. Traffic is hellish. The cab drivers all drive like Stevie Wonder, in NASCAR, on meth. Which doesn't really differentiate them all that much from other local drivers. Unlike Beijing there are a fair amount of bicycles, pedicabs, mopeds and three wheeled trucks in the traffic mix too. The driver of the cabs we hailed all seem to like weaving in and out of lanes and cutting over double yellow lines to play chicken with oncoming packed city buses. Near misses seem to be the rule and it's a ballet of organized chaos that all the locals, drivers and pedestrians alike, seem to be in on. I don't pity the pedestrians, they're as fearless as the drivers and have more to lose.

For anyone who melts at the sight of a panda Chengdu is the panda Vatican. It's the headwaters of panda, the home office of cute. The pandas live up to their advance billing too, they are cute, they spend their days in captivity on display in open areas surrounded by people clicking camera shutters. The pandas don't have much to do, bamboo is delivered to them and they spend their days either playing with each other, climbing trees or on their backs chomping bamboo. Keepers dressed in blue smocks enter the enclosures when the pandas aren't looking and whisk away the panda poo. Pandas are cute but they're still powerful wild animals and when a panda decides he wants something he gets it. Tourists come from overseas, stay in nice hotels and are bused to and from the panda reserve in plush tourist buses. I imagine that other than the pandas the overseas tourists have very little contact or interactions with the locals. Just to be different Eleanor and I took a cab to the reserve and took public transit back to town. I didn't come all this distance to be isolated, if I want that I can vacation in a guarded camp.

Other than the pandas there's not much going on in Chengdu for someone who has no other reason for being there, doesn't know the place and can't pierce the language barrier. There's upscale shopping, there's middle class shopping with all of the worlds chains, there's Wal-Mart, Carrefour and their Chinese imitators like Ren Ren Le (which has shamelessly appropriated Wal-Mart's trademarked yellow smiley face) and there's shopping for the poor; a gigantic local market near the north railway station which has nearly everything at dollar store prices with dollar store quality. I bought a few Chinglish shirts but this place has everything you wouldn't want: rabbits and gerbils (rodent: it's what's for dinner), baby chicks dyed in dayglo colors that nature never intended for poultry, stuffed animals, cheap shoes, cheaper clothing, and all kinds of knock off cosmetics that fell off the back of a homemade three wheeled truck.

The food in Chengdu is outstanding and cheap and we didn't even try the local hotpot Sichuan province is famous for. Eleanor speaks enough Mandarin to make sure that we didn't order dog or chicken feet or pig blood pudding any other local specialties that might offend our (well, my) tender North American sensibilities. But some of the locals seem to take a little too well to fast food chain restaurants. KFC and McDonald's are very popular along with some Asian chains (like Dicos) and local knock-offs. Eating at these joints is somehow trendy but a burger, fries and a Coke not only is crap, it costs more than a belly plumping local lunch for two at a nice restaurant. A grande drip at Starbucks costs close to $3 US and most locals drink tea but trendy types manage to drink and be seen with the other local beautiful people at Starbucks.

Except for one slightly surly cab driver the locals were great. The folks at the Buddhazen Hotel went out of their way to help us. When we wanted to take the local bus the hotel manager didn't try to talk us out of such folly, he walked us the 3 blocks to the right bus stop. When we were looking for a nice place to go in the evening the manager took us in a cab with his girlfriend to what turned out to be a fast food chain preserve. But without Eleanor and her grade school Mandarin none of this would've happened. When I'm alone in a place like this I'm like a dog with a wallet. I can buy things but, what? I can't read (she can't either), I can't write and I can't say anything that anybody in a position to help me can understand. I can pantomime but unless you're Marcel Marceau that looks stupid. Besides, I long ago got tired of the various kind of gestures I've thought up when I really need the mens room.

More China awaits. Next stop: Shanghai and the World Expo.

Click here for Chengdu pictures.
Click here for panda pictures & video.

Beijing: It’s at the 中of Everything

Beijing is more colorful, more organized and less Chinglish riddled than I remember. The glow of the lavish Beijing Olympics doesn't stop there, there's much less lusty throat clearing and public sidewalk spit splashing too. For that alone the $50 billion or whatever fortune they spent on the 2008 Olympic games was worth it.
Beijing driving is a bit less aggressive too, it's still dangerous to cross the street but the drivers are a little more Miss Manners and little less Stevie Wonder.  As everywhere in China Beijingers still bellow into their cell phones in public places, on the subway, in parks and restaurants; oblivious of those around them.  The saving grace for me is that I have no idea what they're yelling about.

We experienced no gruesome amputees sprawled across our path on the sidewalk, people with burned off faces and ears and just one dirty Mom begging with a little screaming infant that might or might not be hers and just a few blind grannies working the always crowded subway cars.

In the run up to the Olympics the government tried to infuse the locals with some manners and in some regards such as spitting they've been moderately successful. The subway now has people standing in front of the doors of subway trains telling the waiting masses to queue up on the sides of the opening doors and to leave the center for people leaving the subway car. This works beautifully and unmonitored on the orderly Taipei Metro but so far there are mixed results in Beijing. Some people queue up on the side but to enter or leave a subway car it's still best to put your head down and pretend that you're an NFL linebacker.

In the past I remember sidewalk vendors and storefronts chock full of pirated DVD's, this time I saw just one lone street DVD vendor. Plastic bags? They're not blowing in Beijing's stiff Gobi desert breeze anymore, the government decreed that stores charge .20Y (around a penny and 1/3 US) if you don't bring your own plastic bag with you to the store.

The central government dictates other behavior as well. What else am I too think when the local police look the other way at jaywalkers, suicidal driving and driving on the sidewalk but bans the use of air conditioners by calendar date and not by temperature?

The Chinese government also decides what people can and can't see on the Internet. This has been a minor pain in the ass for me as some of the pictures I upload to Flickr appear to me to be empty blue boxes. There appears to be no rhyme or reason to the logic of the Great Firewall, if I upload 3 pictures of the Beijing subway 2 might be scrubbed while the third comes through unmolested. I can read the NY Times and the Seattle Times but not Even though Google left China it functions fairly normally in English but without Blogger or YouTube. There will be no blogging as the Golden Shield Project or Great Firewall has Blogger and YouTube hermetically sealed off from the 1.3 billion people within China's borders. I overcame this on previous trips to China but they seem to have plugged all of the leaks, this Blogger entry had to be uploaded later in the trip on a stopover in Hong Kong.

One positive aspect of a powerful central government is that large building projects get done in a timely fashion, the government simply decides what's best and organizes it unencumbered by lawsuits or the cries of the uprooted people in the way, they suffer for the perceived greater good. People living in the path of an office building, shopping mall or train line are sometimes given a token payment and told to be gone in 30 days. China is currently engaged in a crash program of building high speed train lines connecting its cities.

One of the first to enter service was the Beijing/Tianjin line which covers the 75 miles between the two cities in around 30 minutes at a top speed of 338 kph (observed). That's around 210 miles per hour for us non metric North American types and fast for anyone not used to measuring speed in light years. At first glance this would be wonderful for us in the US but even after having ridden China's high speed rails I'd be against duplicating this in the US. Projects like this would be tied up with lawyers feasting on them in the courts for a generation. China has more than four times the population of the US and they're concentrated predominantly in the eastern half of the country. Imagine a US with more than 4 times the people all stuffed east of the Mississippi river and you'll have an idea of what kind of density is conducive to high speed rail.

Back in Beijing we tried to see Chairman Mao in his glass casket in his mausoleum in Tiananmen Sq. He's open between 8 am and noon Tuesday through Sunday so we joined a seemingly endless line of peasants in cotton shoes and worker cadres with brown and furry teeth but halfway through the fast moving line to the old dictator a Chinese man with white gloves and a megaphone told us in Mandarin and broken English that we could bring nothing in with us. Nothing; no camera, no belt bag with wallet and passport; nothing. Of course they had a budding business of babysitting these things for a fee but I'm not leaving my consumer goodies or passport & wallet with any strangers ever.

So we wandered off to a tourist area just off of Tiananmen Sq selling Chinese tourist tchotchkes. T-shirts, caps, Chinese style blouses, panda refrigerator magnets. Eleanor likes this stuff and she indulged me two tries at seeing Mao without even a whimper of protest so I held my usual disdain for organized tourist activities and shops and did it.  This section of Beijing reminded me of any Chinatown in any city I've ever visited except this one was less than a mile from the Forbidden City, even closer to Mao's glass casket and the Vatican of the Chinese People's revolution. It's a strange world indeed.

Pictures of Beijing are here.

Next stop: Chengdu, home office of the Giant Panda.