Saturday, August 30, 2008

The End of a Road Trip

So this is it--my Great China Road Trip has come to an end. I had a lot of fun journeying around the country looking at China's traditions and transformations during this Olympic moment, and have very much appreciated the feedback and words of encouragement that many of you sent via Facebook and personal e-mail. Hope all of you have enjoyed reading it as much as I have writing it.

And, one final note of appreciation: many of the pictures published on this blog as well as the one on NBC were taken by my old Berkeley friend, Angilee Shah. She joined me in Shanghai, and remained all the way through Hong Kong. She has been an extraordinary photographer and editor. I encourage you to look through more of her pictures--from this trip and others--on her flickr site. She also has a blog of her own.

Friday, August 29, 2008

The Gates of Kai Tak: Hong Kong, China, and the World

HONG KONG — A black flight status switching board used to dominate the only terminal at Hong Kong’s old Kai Tak International Airport. It was a popular spot for family pictures, where relatives tuned out the flipping sounds of the board that radiated throughout the terminal, hoping for one last snapshot before they would be an ocean apart.

Since Kai Tak was the sole airport to serve a city of six million, almost all residents were familiar with that departure board. From the time it opened in 1925 until it was replaced in 1998 by Chep Lap Kok Airport, Kai Tak was the point of goodbye, the physical line between the politically uncertain pre-1997 Hong Kong and some place else.

To follow Kai Tak’s story is to follow an important part of modern Hong Kong’s narrative, as well as the former colony’s complicated relationship with China.

Though I grew up and went to school near the airport, the planes and their noisy engines never bothered me. There was something magical about seeing a 747 fly right past my fifth grade classroom window. It was a nail-biting experience to watch jumbo jets make their last, sharp right turns just before landing. And the planes flew low—some felt dangerously low—at no more than 100 feet above rooftops during the last few moments of flight. Passengers often said they could see television screens flickering or residents playing mahjong from their cabin windows.

Apartment buildings and vibrant communities developed around the airport in its 73-year life span. Kai Tak and everything that came with it—the planes and the noise—were absorbed by the neighborhood. For the residents, Kai Tak even became a kind of hang out. Young men from nearby housing developments climbed up hills to get a better view of planes taking off and landing. Young couples started their dates at neighborhood dessert shops and ended them near the airport fence where they could see 747s revving their engines just feet away.

"I want to study in America and go to Disneyland," says one of the characters in the recently released Hong Kong film Lao Gang Zheng Zhuan. She stands along the fence at Kai Tak with her boyfriend, awed by a jumbo jet that has just flown above them. It is a "feel good" movie that aims to remind people how much Hong Kong has progressed—mostly for the better. While the film is probably not the most objective narration of Hong Kong’s recent history, it does well to capture the local fascination with Kai Tak.

"Think Berlin," James Watson, my former advisor and professor of Chinese culture and society at Harvard University, told me, referring to the city’s Tempelhof Airport where the Berlin airlift took place from 1948 to 1949. "Or the movie Casablanca—there is a certain ‘take me away’ feeling."

Before the 1990s, when extensive urban development in the outlying areas and islands began, Hong Kong suffered from geographical compactness. Though the city’s total size is about 400 square miles, most of its residents lived on only eight percent of the land in the post-war decades. Growing up in the 1980s, I often wished that the planes that flew so low over the crowded streets and alleyways could take me with them.

There was also a political dimension to Kai Tak: the realities of the Cold War. Hong Kong was surrounded by water on three sides, and to the north was revolutionary China. While there was no evidence that mainland authorities ever planned to take back British Hong Kong by force, the horrific tales that locals told each other about China’s political upheavals, the occasional tortured dead bodies that flowed downriver from the mainland, and the violent and communist-inspired anti-colonial riots of 1967 made many residents uneasy about Hong Kong’s geo-political situation.

Kai Tak, then, came to symbolize a place where escape from chaos became possible. When the British and Chinese governments announced in 1984 that Hong Kong would be returned to China in 1997, many middle class families took to the airport. After the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989, Hong Kongers’ confidence in the Chinese government plummeted; from 1984 to 1992, more than 100,000 left the colony, many of whom were professionals essential to Hong Kong’s future economic growth.

Hong Kong Chinese settled most often in Australia, Europe, and North America to get "passport insurance policies." (California, following the Chinese migration tradition, became a top destination.) Should Hong Kong fall into political or economic turmoil under Chinese rule, they would always have a safe home overseas as citizens of western countries.

Almost all of these émigrés began their journeys right under Kai Tak’s iconic black flipping board. They, as did my family, took pictures in that limbo between uncertain Hong Kong and some place else.

In 1992, at the height of the exodus, I managed to be among the 60,000 Hong Kongers who left that year alone. At least for me, then, Kai Tak became more than just an imaginative conduit to some place else.

This past week, sixteen years after I left, I booked a room at the Regal Oriental, a once bustling airport hotel, directly across from the Kai Tak grounds. The planes are no where to be seen, the roars of engines just old tales. The taxiing grounds are being detoxified and weeds grow all over the runway, which still points firmly toward the South China Sea.

"It’s not there anymore, you know," one security guard at a nearby apartment building told me as I tried to get to the roof top for a good shot of old Kai Tak. He seemed quite surprised that I even cared about the place. A new airport now sits on an outlying island, so few Hong Kong residents share my fascination with planes these days.

More than that has changed, though. In a geo-political sense, China, freshly minted as an Olympic host, is now a different place: a different world with a different dream. Many of the Hong Kong residents who left years ago have since returned, banking on the new prospects that come with being part of China. But most still hold on to their foreign passports, ready to go some place else again should the cycle of history necessitate another move.

But for those who can remember it, the familiar sound of Kai Tak’s old flipping board runs deep: a local memory that shines light on a small piece of world history.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Leaving China, Entering Hong Kong

LO WU BORDER — When I started my China journey several weeks ago, I wrote about the travels of Jorgen Bisch, the Dutch journalist who scored a coveted trip to China in 1964. At a time when China was still closed to most Westerners, Bisch's six-week tour took him to Beijing, Shanghai, Nanjing, Xi'an, and Guangzhou. And at the end of his highly-controlled tour of Mao Zedong's China, Bisch left the country by crossing the Shenzhen River into Hong Kong, then a British colony, via an old wooden bridge.

"[My Chinese tour guides] accompanied me on the three-hour train ride to the Hong Kong border, the last leg of our long six-week odyssey," Bisch wrote in the November 1964 issue of the National Geographic. "At the bridge separating China from the British Crown Colony, they insisted on carrying my baggage to the middle of the span—as far as they were permitted to go."

These days, the train ride from Guangzhou to the Hong Kong border takes about one hour. Commuters may simply walk up to the ticket counter at the Guangzhou East Railway Station and purchase seats for Hong Kong-bound high-speed trains. Anyone can take this journey, even journalists—there are no handlers or official “tour guides” anymore.

Thus 44 years after Bisch’s journey, I find myself leaving China on the same route. Instead of the train, however, I decided to take a bus to the border, which took me about two hours. I wanted to get a different view of southern China, away from the rail line, and most of what I saw consisted of high-rises, factories, farmlands, suspension bridges, and vacation homes and resorts frequented by well-to-do Hong Kong residents.

Still, the buses and the trains all end their journeys at the same spot—the Lo Wu Border Crossing point where Bisch crossed that wooden bridge. During the post-World War II days, the bridge symbolized Cold War political tension: at the time, British Hong Kong had no direct rail service to China, so passengers with valid traveling documents were required to get off at the border and walk into China, or vice versa.

In this regard, things have not changed much. Today, at the Lo Wu crossing, passengers are still required to disembark, go through Chinese immigration, and walk across the Shenzhen River—though now via an air-conditioned bridge with floor-to-ceiling windows—before finally arriving at the Hong Kong immigration check point. Hong Kong residents may simply scan their identification cards at the immigration desk; but for me, an American, an official Hong Kong immigration stamp is required.

So when the Chinese immigration officer stamped “exit” on my passport, followed by the “entry stamp” on the Hong Kong side, I had officially left mainland China and entered into the Special Administrative Region of Hong Kong. When London returned this city to Beijing 11 years ago, the deal was to allow Hong Kong to govern itself—except in matters involving defense and foreign relations—for 50 years. The two leaders who signed the deal, Margaret Thatcher of Britain and Deng Xiaoping of China, thought that the 50-year “phasing-in” time frame was the best political solution to a historical problem, the best way for Hong Kong to adjust after 155 years of colonial rule; hence the separate immigration system.

In my next and final entry for “China: Behind the Scenes,” I will tell a story about Hong Kong’s old Kai Tak International Airport, a place where, during the most tense political times in the final decades of the 20th century, many Hong Kong residents left to settle in the West—a great number of them actually ended up in California. The stories behind these Hong Kongers’ decisions to leave, and in many cases their subsequent returns, will shed some light on the politics, history, and culture of this former British colony.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Postcard from Guangzhou

GUANGZHOU — Sanyuanli Village, located in the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou, is proud of its standing in modern Chinese history. During the first Opium War (1839-1842), villagers here successfully routed the British soldiers from the area. As I walked through the village this week, several local residents reminded me of that old battle, pointing out that, at the village’s front entrance, stands an obelisk commemorating the courage of the local "martyrs" who pushed back "British imperialism."

"There are about 50,000 residents here today," one of the residents told me as I walked through a narrow alleyway that led me from one end of the village to the other, a walk that took about 20 minutes. "And many are the descendants of those who fought the British."

But Sanyuanli does not feel like a traditional “village” anymore. Up until 30 years ago, the area was still an agricultural area where all houses were actual one-story village homes. But ever since China introduced the economic reforms in 1978, migrant workers from other provinces began to pour into the Guangzhou area looking for work. Many of them settled in Sanyuanli.

As a result, living units (see video) were stacked one on top of another. Separated only by the narrow walkways from the original village layout, these makeshift four-story towers are so close together that one architectural writer has called places such as Sanyuanli “handshake villages”—where living units are so close to each other that residents can literally shake hands with neighbors. And the view on the ground is also different now: in some corners the living units have blocked sunlight completely, though the liveliness of the barber shops, snack stalls, and internet shops seem to remain just as vibrant as ever.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Short Visit to the World's Biggest Mall

DONGGUAN — I have been looking forward to visiting the South China Mall for quite some time now. The mall’s official website makes an exciting pitch: with almost two million square feet of commercial space and a total investment of over US$365 million, the mall boasts seven world themes where patrons can shop and dine in the relaxed ambience of California, romantic surroundings of Paris, or the tropical air of the Amazon. Last year, Forbes magazine even rated it the biggest mall in the world. In a country intoxicated with dazzling the world with the “biggest” structures, the South China Mall is a must-see, I thought.

I was disappointed to find, however, that the mall is a total waste of time.

During a taxi ride to the mall, I had a brief conversation with the driver about the shopping and entertainment complex. “You’re from America?” the driver, Mr. Zeng, asked me. “Then you’ll be quite unhappy with the South China Mall.” Surprised, I asked him to elaborate.

“Mainland China is not Hong Kong, and people here don’t do things whole-heartedly,” he continued. “In Hong Kong, there’s Disneyland, and it’s done well. But at South China Mall, most store spaces are empty. They did not plan well. Now there’s no business, the developers have given up. We were surprised when they decided to put the mall here. It’s too far from everything.”

Indeed, the South China Mall is about 20 miles, a two-hour bus ride, from Dongguan’s train station, the city’s main transport hub. Zeng told me that some passengers have even requested that he turn back half-way; they complained that the trip simply took too long.

We continued. As he drove us to our destination, he pointed out row after row of new but mostly empty apartment buildings.

“The real estate folks who bought into the housing wave got burned,” Zeng said in Cantonese. “You see, not a whole lot of people live in these apartments. Many of the office flats are vacant as well. They built too much, too quickly. Are you on an investment trip?”

As soon as the cab pulled up to the mall, I understood what the driver had said. The front entrance the outdoor shopping walk has a few chains restaurants — a McDonald’s, KFC, Pizza Hut, and Kung Fu, the ubiquitous Chinese fast food chain. Off to the side, are a spa and a grocery store. But beyond that, though, there is literally nothing. The four stories of retail space above these stores are completely vacant — and that is only the front section of the mall.

Beyond the street-side shops is a vast expanse of unused commercial space, lined up along a faux Venice canal where gondolas carry no one other than the operators. A drop zone ride shoots up and down a tall tower without any riders. The only signs of excitement come from a few families standing below, occasionally shrieking at the unexpected drop of the ride above. The small amusement park of the mall, with its largely carnival rides, is the only place that shows any sign of consumer life in the mall.

“What’s going on here?” I asked one of the mothers who was watching her children play near the canal. “Oh, this section is not finished. Walk further down that way and you’ll see more.” I did, but found nothing but an electronics shop and a grocery store. Maybe she thought I was shopping for groceries, or maybe she was doing her part to make her neighborhood’s huge landmark seem a bit less desolate. Either way, I did not find anything resembling even remotely like the world’s biggest mall.

Of the approximately 1500 retail spaces, there are two or three small stores opened for business. Among them is the Polo of Britain store staffed by a sharp but friendly woman named Ms. Xia. Excited about seeing potential customers, she greeted me quickly while holding a baby.

“He’s not mine,” she said. “I’m just baby-sitting for a friend.”

I asked about the eerie silence in her section of the mall. Polo of Britain is surrounded on all sides by glass doors to empty spaces. Two escalators run up and down, escorting no one. “The developers have all failed miserably,” she said. “We just had a typhoon, so there are now fewer people, but not by much. There used to be a store down the hall, but that’s gone too.”

Later, when I returned to my hotel room in Guangzhou, about a thirty-minute ride from Dongguan’s train station, I searched on the Internet for some information to clear up my baffling visit to South China Mall. Two months ago Ms. Xia was interviewed by a journalist an Abu Dhabi-based e-paper called The National. It turns out, back in June, she was doing exactly the same thing—taking care of her friend’s baby and playing cards to pass time at the shop

After the hour-and-a-half visit, and after weeks of many Chinese meals, my traveling companion and I were looking forward to Italian dining at South China Mall’s Venice section. We settled for the closest thing available: chicken sandwiches at KFC before the long ride back to the train station.

The absurdity of the elaborate and empty mall hit home as we looked out the large windows of the bus. The shining but often empty apartment complexes and office buildings near the big mall quickly gave way to the factories, supply stores, and slums that still define the urban scene of Dongguan. Pass downtown and every block is lined with square factories and wholesalers for products like industrial-size knitting machines. At stops along the route, workers who probably make the clothes and products that fill so many malls around the world climbed in and out.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Holding on to Chongqing

CHONGQING — About a three-hour plane ride west of Shanghai on the Yangtze River there is a booming Chinese city that rarely gets mentioned in the American mass media. Until about ten years ago, many parts of Chongqing were farmlands and rural areas. Today, its cityscape has a density mirroring Chicago’s, and decorative building lights that gently turn the nighttime skyline into a festive showcase of a colorful urban space.

“The city is growing very fast, and my fear is that I won’t be able to recognize it anymore very soon,” said Chongqing native Kim He as she strolled along the banks of the mythic Yangtze River. Kim was a high school classmate of one of my Beijing contacts. Generous with her time and always thoughtful about Chongqing’s traditions and transformations, she offered to take me around her hometown to help me make sense of this rapidly growing city.

There are three main areas in the city, Kim told me. Yu Zhong is the city’s Central Business District, sandwiched between the Yangtze and the Jialing Rivers. South of that is Nan’an, where restaurants serving Chinese food of all regions are tucked inside buildings with worldly facades on the river front. In a one block stretch along the river in Nan’an there are roman columns, cathedral-esque windows, and a square-edged Malibu-style beach house restaurant. And to the north is Jiangbei, where most buildings, including the Holiday Inn where I stayed, did not exist ten years ago.

“So why are you interested in my city?” Kim asked me after she pointed out Chongqing’s unique architectural features. “What have you read about us?”

I am a writer interested in history, I told her, hoping to hear her personal experiences as a 35-year Chongqing resident. We exited a building that has entrances on the top and the bottom to accommodate the city’s hilly geography. The changes must have been breathtaking: most people see social transformations as momentous as Chongqing’s over a generation or half a life time, but Kim has seen those vast changes in only a few years. By the time she finished college, she could barely recognize the city that she knew during high school.

“When I was younger, I remember watching a film called ‘Hua Yan’,” recalled Kim in a mixture of Mandarin and English. Set in Shanghai, the movie attempts to capture the mood of a fast-changing city, where storied neighborhoods rapidly give way to the unfamiliar. “I didn’t relate to the movie at the time,” she continued, “but now I do. I see that in my life in Chongqing now.”

Up until 1997, Chongqing was a part of Sichuan Province, the same province where a devastating earthquake killed almost 70,000 and left millions homeless last May. Now, Chongqing is one of China’s four municipalities—along with Beijing, Shanghai, and Tianjin—that enjoy provincial-level status. The Chongqing municipality is roughly the size of Maine, and it has a population of about 31 million. About five million people reside in the immediate urban area of Chongqing city.

Considered a “second-tier city,” Chongqing is now a priority in the Chinese government’s efforts to further economic development. As the “first-tier cities” of Shanghai and Beijing have achieved international economic importance and prestige, the process is now beginning to trickle down to the second-tier cities such as Chongqing, Nanjing, and Dalian.

The central government has been constructing expressways and other infrastructure to help facilitate second-tier cities’ growth, and foreign investment has been growing as well. According to the U.S. Embassy, almost half of U.S. exports to China in 2006 went to second-tier cities; that year, Chongqing saw a 178 percent jump in American car imports.

“Thirteen of China’s second-tier cities account for eight percent of China’s population but 53 percent of its total imports,” the US Embassy reported (PDF). No wonder Chongqing is now one of the newest Chinese “target cities” for Americans looking for new markets and opportunities.

Chongqing is growing fast, but you can hardly feel it. Unlike Beijing or Shanghai, sidewalk traffic is not shoulder-to-shoulder, and pedestrians rarely push each other. It is a glass, steel and concrete jungle, but the mood reminds me more of Sacramento. In contrast to the indiscriminate neon signs of Shanghai, Chongqing’s street ads seem to flash with more class and style, balancing the wall-to-wall bright ads with milky white lights in between. Located at the confluence of two rivers, Chongqing sometimes feels like an insouciant and pleasant space in the American Mid-West, keeping its distance from the hectic coasts.

“Chongqing people have a very strong sense of identity,” said Kim. “I like to judge a city based on livelihood. People in Chongqing seem to be happier than people in Beijing or Shanghai. Beijingers or Shanghainese might say that they’re happy, but they can never tell you why.”

So what is this “fear” that Kim kept talking about? If Chongqing is developing on terms and at a pace that is different from the first-tier cities, then what is she afraid of? At times, her feelings on Chongqing seem to be as conflicted as the city itself.

“I like a city that grows along with its history,” she explained. “See those buildings over there, where the lights are? In a few years they’ll probably tear them down and build something higher and newer. One day, my husband and I would like to be able to tell our kids where we played—our trees, our river, and our home.” She wanted, in other words, her own layer in history’s narrative.

Her layer, though, seems to be thinning. Before our chat along the Yangtze, we passed by one of her favorite dessert shops, where we had bing fen liang xia, a popular sweet dish here. There, she pulled out a picture of her own childhood home in Jiangbei. The picture was only taken a few years ago; she stood proudly in front below block characters honoring “the Great Chairman Mao.” She then drew her finger a few inches away from the photo, helping me to picture her front yard.

“This is where a mulberry tree used to stand,” she said. “I used to play here, and my grandmother was a primary school teacher, so she often invited her students to come and pick the fruit.” This was one of those places that she would have liked to show her future children some day.

Kim’s story stayed in my head all day because it was too difficult to forget. Later that night, just as it was wearing off after dinner, it flashed right back at me as we strolled along the Yangtze River front.

There, across from the colorful building lights, and directly in front of the restaurants with the eclectic facades, are dozens of trees transplanted from the city’s older areas. And around one of these trees there are two iron metal figures depicting a grandfather playing hide-and-seek with his grandson, along with plaques that read “grandfather and grandson” and “childhood memories.”

The trees, figures, and plaques might very well be the only vestiges of Kim’s layer of history.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

A Glimpse of the Future

SHANGHAI — This November, Californians will decide whether to approve funds to build a high-speed rail service connecting the state. Projected to travel in excess of 200 miles-per-hour, the California High-Speed Rail Authority promises that the trip from San Francisco to Los Angeles will only take about two hours and thirty minutes.

That trip, of course, is still at least ten years away. But if one wanted a short glimpse of the future experience of high-speed commuting, perhaps Shanghai’s Maglev offers an opportunity.

The Maglev connects Shanghai’s downtown to its international airport about 18 miles away. Topping off at about 265 miles-per-hour, the train can travel end-to-end in about eight minutes. Imagine going from SFO to downtown San Francisco or JFK to Manhattan in that time frame.

As a matter of efficiency, the Maglev is well-integrated with the city’s existing subway system. Passengers can connect to the line from any subway station in the city, and upon arrival at the Maglev transfer station clear signs are posted everywhere showing how to get to the airport.

Many Shanghai locals, however, have questioned the practical value of the Maglev train. As I prepared to leave Shanghai last night, one American expat told me that the “local way” to the airport is to take a taxi to a nearby subway station, where direct airport buses are available for about US$3.50; factor in the short cab ride the total cost is just a little under $7. The Maglev, however, costs about $6, not including the taxi, bus, or subway fares riders need to pay to get to the transfer station. All told, a Maglev trip to the airport could cost well over $10. This is certainly a bargain by American transportation rates, but relatively expensive for China.

Still, quite a few Chinese are indeed excited about the Maglev train. Whenever it pulls to a stop, domestic Chinese tourists can often be seen fighting over the perfect spot for pictures in front of the sleek train. They are awed by what the Maglev train represents: a forward-looking China that provides efficiency and maturity—the idea that their country, too, has come of age.

But to others, the Maglev line, formally called the Magnetic Levitation Demonstration Line, seems to be nothing more than what its name suggests—a demonstration, and a wasteful one at best, offering nothing more than a joy ride for visiting tourists.

Nevertheless, shortly after the Maglev started service, the government announced that it planned to link the rail line to the city’s other airport, Hongqiao. But many residents who lived along the projected route resisted that move. They worried that the line could negatively affect their home values, and environmental concerns—such as noise pollution and the fear of radiation dangers—surfaced as well. As a result, expansion plans have been put on hold.

Despite the domestic concerns, the Shanghai Maglev does offer transportation planners everywhere a possible model of efficient and environmentally-friendly (as compared to more cars) commute. Like the world fairs of yesteryears that showcased the promise of planes and people movers, the Maglev line provides a brief look into a future when trains can compete with planes, and when suburban living can be sustainable. And Shanghai, a city that constantly yearns for the future, is perhaps one of the most fitting places to show it.