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.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Beautiful Hangzhou

Train ride to Hangzhou

West Lake World (Xihu Tiandi)

Sunday, August 17, 2008

The Colors of Old Shanghai

SHANGHAI — In a neighborhood of alleyways tucked away along Jianguo Road in Shanghai, there is a new commercial development that deviates from the “tear down and rebuild” theme too often associated with the growth trajectory of arguably what is China’s most cosmopolitan city.

Though many vibrant coffee shops, art studios, bars, and restaurants fill the ground level of the Taikang Road area, these modern commercial establishments are accented by the traditional colors of living units on the second floor where residents still dry their clothes by clipping them on strings outside the windows.

“Hopefully this will be the model for Shanghai’s development in the future,” said Pan Tianshu, an anthropology professor at Fudan University who studies the development of Shanghai’s neighborhoods. Pan, who holds a doctorate from Harvard, contrasts the happenings at Taikang Road with that of Xintiandi, a similar neighborhood near the downtown area.

“At Xintiandi, they tore down the old buildings completely and used the old bricks to rebuild,” Pan said, adding that the resulting area is just an idea of what Old Shanghai looked like in the 1930s, leaving out the emotive qualities and storied characters that can only be fostered by decades of livelihood.

Taikang Road, however, has allowed old Shanghai to flourish even in the midst of rapid but inevitable changes.

Bagels are now served at Café Mojo, the front sign announces; and do not forget to try their Creamy Rosemary Pumpkin Soup during tea time, from two to six in the afternoon. Across the way, Café Maui promises authentic Hawaiian-American food, where a slice of cake and a cup of coffee only cost about five US dollars.

All the while, local residents—likely all retired—mingle with each other above, removed from the foreign wine tasters and young Chinese coffee drinkers living it up below. Unlike their air-conditioned commercial neighbors downstairs, the local residents leave their windows opened, letting the occasional Shanghai breeze circulate through the hot and humid summer day.

One can also browse through the prints of photographer Xuanmin Jin, who recently set up his studio to showcase work on modern Shanghai as well as a few images from the villages in Sichuan Province. Several corners down, at Jam Art Space, customers are encouraged to sit at the stools and easels, and paint with the acrylic colors provided. No artistic abilities required, but an urge to create and an ability to laugh are must-haves, stated the notice on the front door.

Just several feet from Jin’s art studio, though, two old women sat on short stools, hoping that the many visitors would buy some of the fruits and vegetables that they were selling on a piece of blue plastic sheet on the ground. Immediately above them hung several T-shirts and a pink underwear, waiting to dry.

The Taikang Road area is one of many old shikumen neighborhoods that are distinctive to Old Shanghai. Meaning “stone gate” in Chinese, shikumens are collections of brick townhouses individually surrounded by stone brick walls, forming the narrow alleyways between them. As the hutong courtyard homes define the residential footprint of Beijing, shikumen does the same for Shanghai.

Since Deng Xiaoping opened up Shanghai to foreign investments and rapid economic development in 1990, however, many shikumens suffered the same fate as their hutong cousins in Beijing—torn down to make way for modern buildings and glitzy neighborhoods. That was the case with Xintiandi, when Hong Kong developer Vincent Lo injected his capital to “remake” Old Shanghai based on his own version of Shanghai nostalgia. Inevitably, along with the authentic Old Shanghai, gone too were the many existing residents around Xintiandi.

In recent years, however, there emerged a local movement calling for a more sensible way to develop; a way to grow with respect to the city’s established blueprint, unique character, and existing occupants.

At Taikang Road, the sub-district officer—an official who oversees the neighborhood’s affairs—voluntarily acted as a broker between the developers and the residents. The government worked with residents individually for mutually acceptable compensation packages, and the residents are required to keep such deals private. This is smart politics on the government’s part, since it reduced the likelihood that residents would form neighborhood resistance groups.

On the developers’ part, they agreed to keep the original buildings at Taikang Road. Though protests happened, the developers moved along on a much slower pace than in other areas, leaving many of the second-floor living units intact. Thus, many of the commercial outlets only occupy one floor; and those that extend to the second were probably able to strike successful deals with the units above.

“Taikang Road is an example of gentrifying a neighborhood and enabling development while mitigating some of the negative aspects of growth,” Professor Pan explained. “Many of the residents have been there for decades,” the professor continued, pointing out that these residents have grown with their communities and are attached to their ways of life. They are comfortable.

So what happens when the second floor generation dies off?

“Then the developers will probably have to refurbish their living units, tear down some walls to upgrade and enlarge them. Perhaps a young urban Shanghainese or an expat would move in,” Pan speculated. At the very least, the old building will still stand, preserving Shanghai’s unique urban landscape.

With this fact in mind, perhaps the picture in Xuanmin Jin’s studio are just pictures after all, that capture the glass and steel towers, but forget the colors of Old Shanghai that refuse to fade away.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Postcard from Shanghai

When China's former paramount leader, Deng Xiaoping, initiated the economic reforms in 1978, he did not immediately grant Shanghai the status of "special economic zone" (SEZ). But when that designation finally came in 1990, Deng wanted to revive Shanghai's former importance; after all, before the Communist Party took power in 1949, Shanghai used to be one of the most vibrant financial capitals in the world. On the eastern side of the Huangpu River, a place known as Pudong, modern skyscrapers went up one after the other, directly facing the old colonial buildings on the western side that used to be the city's old international business zone.

Please check back later for a piece on urban development issues in Shanghai.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

From Beijing to Shanghai

Olympic vehicles even have their own lanes at the Beijing Capital International Airport! The painted Chinese characters read: for exclusive use of Olympics (vehicles).

Waiting area at Beijing Capital Airport

Welcome to Shanghai Hongqiao Airport, the city's international entry point before the opening of the Shanghai Pudong International Airport, site of the world's first magnetic levitation passenger train service.

Check back later for my dispatches from Shanghai.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

A Corner's View of an Always Changing Beijing

BEIJING - Shortly before the start of the Games, Beijing opened a brand new retail and entertainment district on Qianmen Boulevard, the street that leads straight into the city’s old front gate, Qianmen. An old entry point to the Inner City of Beijing, the area had long been a hub of commercial activities. When Puyi, China’s last emperor, expelled the remaining 1000 eunuchs from the Forbidden City, many of them opened up antique shops in the same area.

Originally, I went to Qianmen to see the recent renovations that aim to evoke the area’s commercial traditions with a modern—and cleaner and more orderly—twist.

But, several blocks from Qianmen, an old village caught my eyes. I went inside and found two women who had been living there since the 1940s. To listen to their stories is to follow Beijing’s transformations in the last six decades. To put the many changes that they have seen into context is to understand the Games in broader historical time.

To protect the women’s identities, I will refer to them as Mrs. Zheng and Mrs. Liao. Zheng was, at times, wary of strangers, and was less likely to jump into the conversation. With a thick Beijing accent, I asked her to trace on her palm the Chinese character for her last name.

“I can’t write,” she said.

“It’s Zheng,” Mrs. Liao jumped in, and did the tracing on her palm. “And mine is Liao.”

Born in Hubei Province in 1934 and arrived in Beijing nine years after that, Liao was never hesitant to share her rich life experiences. She came to Beijing in the midst of World War II during the Japanese occupation. That was six years before Mao Zedong “liberated” the city after having won the civil war against Chiang Kai-shek, who fled to Taiwan thereafter.

“I have lived in this village ever since I came,” Liao added while fanning herself to cool down as mosquitoes circled around in the oppressive heat and humidity.

Essentially a gathering of small huts, most of Zhong Jie (Middle Street) Village’s residents are now gone because the place is set to be demolished within a year, presumably to make way for more modern developments. Those who left were able to buy new flats in the city, usually supplementing the government’s compensations with savings or family help.

“Where can I go?” she shot back after I asked about her plans. The government only offered her RMB 60,000, which is only about $8,700 based on today’s exchange rate. “I have been here for so long, and I will just stick it out until the last minute,” she continued.

Even with all the uncertainties, Liao seems remarkably content. She enjoys living in the village. Her son drives a bus around the Qianmen area, where the modern shops and retail spaces are located—developments that have taken down homes just like her own. With her government pension, she is adequately fed and clothed. And during Spring Festivals, when it seems like almost every Chinese goes home, she marches across the street to buy groceries and makes her own dinner.

In her own private corner, she has seen war, occupations, political revolutions, marches, crackdowns, and remarkable economic growth. Her life is so packed with events that she does not even seem to recall some of the major ones.

“Tiananmen Square used to be smaller?” she asked Zheng, so to confirm my observation.

“Yes,” Zheng confirmed.

It was smaller, until Mao Zedong took down 10,000 homes in the 1950s to expand it for his own political agendas. When the Communist Party gained control in 1949, Mao wanted to remake Beijing into a modern capital worthy of the world’s respect.

Mao also demolished the old city walls quickly—he thought that they reminded the world too much of China’s shameful feudal past. He wanted to open up the city so that streets would be wide enough for tank parades. Like the Chinese leadership today, Mao wanted to jettison the “Old China” for a new one. He wanted a city modern enough to declare China’s “coming out.”

“The walls are all gone,” Liao told me as I tried to persuade her to talk more about Beijing during the early years of communist rule, also a time of great transformations. “But you can still see some of the gates. Have you been to Qianmen?”

Indeed, a few of the city gates—the entryways of the old walls—can still be seen, and Qianmen is probably one of the most visited and most visible, with the possible exception of Tiananmen, or Gate of Heavenly Peace. But, for the most part, they are merely name places, nothing more than a subway stop or a neighborhood for locals and foreigners alike to gather.

Shops and food stalls crowd around Qianmen; a busy transfer point for the subway system is situated at Xizhi Gate; modern high rises now populate all over Chaoyang Gate; and trendy bars can be found near Anding Gate, or Peace and Stability Gate. One may trace and experience the dynamic culture, lifestyles, eating habits, history, political leanings, and contours of Beijing—both old and new—by visiting the gates and the neighborhood of shops, restaurants, people, and public squares that surround them. To experience the gates is to experience Beijing.

But all of these developments are relatively new to Liao, and most of these new projects started around the time she retired from her factory job, where she took part in an assembly line and made telephones, even during the Cultural Revolution. She retired in 1984, only six years after Deng Xiaoping—the Chinese leader at the time—initiated the economic reforms.

I asked her if the two decades since her retirement have been the most fascinating ones. She did not answer. I then asked her to tell me which decade was the most interesting for Beijing.

“Nothing’s interesting if one has no money,” she told me, quite matter-of-factly. “If you have money, then everything’s interesting.”

I looked across the street to the right, trying to kill an awkward silence. But it was difficult, because the city just put up a brand new gray wall with brick tiles on top, complete with a beautiful lawn in front. The wall is a nice cover for Liao’s village, something so seemingly old compared to the Olympic buildings, which are all so modern and glitzy, ready to declare China’s “coming out” during this Olympic euphoria.

“I’m 75-years-old now,” Liao reminded me. “Who knows how much more I have to go?”

Liao and Zheng will most likely outlast their old corner, and soon the new “cover wall” and the old village that it encircles will be gone altogether. The huts and main alleyway that once formed the two women’s comfort zone—their time warp—will be replaced by, yet again, the image of a “New China.”

City Wall Subway

Though much of Beijing's old city walls were demolished in the first half of the 20th-century, their legacies live on in China's capital. Many of the city's vibrant neighborhoods are named after the individual gates, and one of the city's subway lines actually follow a good part of where the inner city walls used to stand. As this video postcard shows, these ancient footprints still define Beijing's modern urban geography. Please check back later for a more complete profile on old Beijing.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Going Global, Going Local

BEIJING - Earlier today, during an Olympic program on China Central Television (CCTV), the host asked Li Yifei, one of the advisors to China’s Olympic Committee, what the Games will mean for China in the near future.

“I think overall it will be excellent,” said Li, going on to mention that ever since China won the right to host the Games in 2001 she has been seeing new streets and transportation infrastructure popping up every month. Moreover, to hold Olympic competitions, many of Beijing’s universities have built new facilities. “Now Chinese students will have better venues to play basketball than before,” she continued.

What Li was talking about, of course, was the act to derive local meanings and benefits from a very international event. Beyond the great building projects, the process of preparing for and hosting the Olympics has given Beijing the chance to condition its own city settings and social norms and living habits—a way to, in the words of the Chinese government’s own propaganda, inject and emphasize “civility” in the city.

Now, street signs that instruct people not to spit on sidewalk in a country where spitting seems to be a national habit. At subway stations, yellow arrows indicate where passengers should form a line to board trains and where space should be left for people getting off trains. Just last week, as one impatient Beijinger cut to the front of the line to buy subway tickets, another local Chinese—noticing a foreign visitor was also in line to buy tickets—barked disapprovingly, telling the cutter to “line up!”

Last summer, during a lunch time visit to a pizza joint on Beijing’s Tsinghua University campus—widely known as China’s MIT for its focus on engineering and technological studies—I saw a sign above a urinal that read: taking a step forward is to make a great stride for civilization.

For the sake of a successful Olympics, Beijing residents are told to watch their living habits in order to impress foreign visitors. And in doing so, the government hopes to use the Games as a justification and an opportunity to further condition China’s capital into becoming one of the world’s great cities.

But will such efforts work? As in many things, one can always evaluate current attempts by thinking about past undertakings. The closest example that comes to mind is McDonald’s experience in Hong Kong in mid-1970s.

Back then, Hong Kong was not yet the international financial center that it is today. In the 1970s, the city was just beginning to figure out ways to absorb the large numbers of refugees who escaped the political revolutions on mainland China. (The city’s population jumped to around four million in the early 1970s from 600,000 at the end of World War II).

Many of these refugees never intended to stay; they considered Hong Kong as a mere midway stop, either waiting for their further moves to the West or as a holding place until political stability returned to mainland China. No one considered Hong Kong “home,” and that had a great effect on social behaviors. Quite simply, Hong Kong was a chaotic city.

But when McDonald’s arrived in 1975 as the city experienced great economic growth, the fast food chain ushered in a new concept for the city: the queue. Before then, the idea of lining up at banks or restaurants never existed, and crowds often pushed themselves onto buses, boats, and buildings without regard for common courtesy or discipline.

As James Watson, an American scholar on Hong Kong, wrote a decade ago, the arrival of McDonald’s did not gobble up local culture in the former colony. Rather, the locals used it effectively in order to facilitate their own agendas and local purposes. Like the Olympics in Beijing, McDonald’s played a part in conditioning Hong Kong into a “civil” cosmopolitan city that it is today. And residents act accordingly.

And so thirty years later, over the past few days during the Games, I have heard many foreign visitors remarking on the extent to which Beijing has become an “international city.” When these visitors say “international,” they mean more locals are speaking English; they mean seeing more Western franchises such as Starbucks, McDonalds, and even Cold Stone Creamery; and they also mean the many shiny new shopping centers populated with Puma and Nike stores.

And at the bottom of it all, they mean a city with “Olympic” conditioning—meaning, of course, that Beijing is more like the familiar cities of New York, London, Paris, or San Francisco, and less like what they imagine to be “China.” These visitors ask: with all the changes ushered in by the Games, has China become fully Westernized or globalized or, heaven forbid, Americanized?

Local focus here, of course, is strong enough to stand on its own. As much as the Olympics is an international event, Beijing has certainly made some effective local uses out of it. And that was exactly what Li Yifei had in mind when she appeared on China Central Television.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Noodle Shop Owner Finding His Way

Last Thursday, after slurping apple sauce noodles at Beijing’s trendy Noodle Loft, one of the owners, American Johnny Hsu, whose wife and child still live in San Francisco, gave me a tour of his two-story establishment on the edge of the city’s Central Business District.

“We have eight kinds of noodles,” boasted Hsu as one of his chefs sliced noodles with a chopstick. “We even have green spinach noodles that are 25 feet long."

Foreign media personalities, including chef and television host Anthony Bourdain, have profiled the restaurant. The chefs at the Beijing Ritz-Carlton are also showing up for noodle-making lessons.

But beyond the “glitzy eatery in modern China” news angle, there also exists a broader story behind Hsu’s culinary entrepreneurship. How, I wondered, does Hsu’s own story fit into the greater pattern of the Chinese migration narrative in the Pacific Rim?

A naturalized American citizen, Hsu was born in Taiwan but moved to California with his family when he was 14-years-old, largely for educational reasons but also because his family wanted him to avoid Taiwan’s compulsory military service. He grew up in the Bay Area, attended school in Petrero Hills, worked as a computer engineer for and the Pacific Stock Exchange, and also owned a Japanese restaurant in San Francisco’s Marina District.

But a little over a year ago, he jet westward for Beijing, and with the exception of his being without his family, he told me that he does not miss San Francisco very much.

“This is the place to be,” Hsu told me as one of his chefs demonstrated how to make a noodle shaped like a cat’s ear. “There’s great growth.”

Hsu’s sentiments reverberate throughout much of the history of Chinese migration. The outward-looking, merchant-minded, ambitious, and economically sophisticated have rarely been hesitant to journey toward places where opportunities abound.

Even before the world rushed into California for gold in 1849, a number of Chinese entrepreneurs were already thinking about business prospects on North America’s western frontier. In 1846, as words spread that war was likely to break out between the United States and Mexico, some Chinese with ambition and ability saw the opportunities.

If and when fighting began there would be a need for supplies. American soldiers quartered on the frontier would need food to eat, shoes and clothes to wear and alcohol to drink. “Armies always travel on their stomachs,” writes historian Loren Fessler. So it was understood that restaurants would be in great demand. The merchants in China, as Fessler details, immediately considered what troop movements in North America meant for business.

Because of the social and cultural connections between the United States and China, successful Chinese sojourners in the past have been eager to, in the words of historian Philip Kuhn, “leverage their marginalities.” To successfully leverage one’s marginality means to build a good reputation in one country in order to “climb up ladders” in another.

Those sojourners understood the comparative advantages of being Chinese in their adopted country, and also appreciated how their statuses as Chinese in America benefited their dealings with China. The history of San Francisco’s Chinatown is filled with such stories.

Hsu is a case of history continuing on its course. His American college degree and citizenship allow him to be seen in China as one who had risen up the ranks in the United States. Back in the United States, he is seen as practical and shrewd because his cultural knowledge of China allowed him to run a successful business in Beijing. As political and economic relationships deepen between the two countries, Hsu has positioned himself as an attractive commodity on both sides of the Pacific.

Obviously, for people like Hsu, today’s China offers a different sort of “gold rush” possibility. After decades of civil war, socialist experiments, and disastrous political revolutions, China only began the economic reforms 30 years ago, relatively recently in the grand scheme of things. As a result, it is inevitable, and perhaps not so surprising, that the country’s economy is growing at such a rapid speed.

The growth has brought more people—both domestic and foreign—into major Chinese urban centers in search of opportunities. But most of Beijing’s domestic migrant workers from China’s rural areas are still very poor and would never even think of entering Hsu’s restaurant. But there is also a growing niche of foreign workers, curious tourists, and Beijing’s expanding middle class who are eager to consume, a niche that has become Hsu’s target diners.

Hsu’s wife and child have no plans to join him in Beijing, so I asked how long he intends to stay in China.

“As long as things are good,” Hsu answered quickly, pointing out that he and his partners have plans to open four more restaurants in Beijing in the next two to three years, eventually turning Noodle Loft into a chain. “In northern China, one will start itching very quickly if there are no noodles.”

And so like so many sojourners before him, Hsu will live his life along the fortunes of the international economic cycle, trusting good luck and his own adaptive skills. Should China’s economy slow in the years ahead, which it will, or should China’s economy faces more serious trouble, which it might, Hsu will just adjust accordingly. Until then, though, he is quite content to leverage his marginality.

A Brilliant Thing from Home

Just as I was longing for some of the luxury of home like the California Pizza Kitchen and Jamba Juice (especially the latter in Beijing's deadly combination of heat and humidity) I ran into this at a local shopping center:

Opening Ceremonies at Wangfujing

Here's the scene from the Wangfujing district in Beijing during the night of the Olympic Opening Ceremonies. Tens of thousands of people gathered in front of the giant television screen as Chinese Central Television beamed images from the Bird's Nest Stadium. The video begins at the tail end of the Chinese national anthem, and then it shows Chinese shouting "Go China" throughout.

There were lots of cheering, mostly hot passion for China, though the crowd did cheer loudly for the US Team, the Bushes, and, not surprisingly, Vladimir Putin. But there were some booing as well. When the Japanese team marched into the stadium, the crowds gathered at Wangfujing immediately booed. Some locals were uncomfortable with the booing in the presence of foreign television cameras (NBC News had a crew there) and tried to encourage their fellow compatriots to settle down. They failed.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Beijing Air Quality

Though the President of the International Olympic Community praised Beijing for its efforts to reduce pollution levels, I must confess that it takes a while to get used to this air. It took about five seconds for my throat to burn after exiting the airport terminal and, twice over the past three days, I felt nauseous.

Sometimes the sun works as a valuable tool to measure pollution levels.

At 4pm on August 6, 2008.

At 6pm on August 6, 2008.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Postcard from Tiananmen Square

Check out the following video postcard from Tiananmen Square. This massive square, expanded in the 1950s under the orders of Chairman Mao Zedong, is the political center of China. With a capacity to hold 500,000 people, it is the site of many of the famous and infamous protests of yesteryears. When Mao came to power in 1949, one of his major goals was to jettison Beijing's old "feudal" ways. Vast and open, it is meant to stand in direct contrast to the center of the old imperial regimes, represented by the closed and mysteriously backward imperial palace sitting across the street.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

The China that I Want to See

Several months ago, as I went through my old National Geographic magazine collection at home, I stumbled upon an old issue that stood out from the rest: dated November, 1964, it was published 16 years before I was born.

The cover featured a female Chinese performer adorned in a traditional Chinese opera outfit, complete with full make-up of pinkish white. There was a headline that read, simply, “This is the China I Saw,” a short teaser to a 48-page article written by a Danish journalist named Jorgen Bisch about a country that, at the time, was not seen by many who lived in the West.

As I read through the piece and the many colorful spreads, I wondered how Bisch’s feature article could help me make sense of my own China Road Trip during the 2008 Olympic Games. What, aside from offering a base for comparison showing China’s record-breaking transformations since the economic reforms started in 1978, could this 44-year-old story reveal?

The obvious and simple contrasts are certainly there. Bisch toured China under heavy supervision, always chaperoned by four to 15 guides who stood ready to lecture him about the virtues of communism. He was whisked from factory to factory so that the plant managers could recite state-sanctioned production figures and numbers that conveyed China’s industriousness and efficiency. He missed multiple chances to take scenic shots as his drivers and handlers neglected his repeated requests to pull over during car trips. And, most memorable of all, on an overnight train ride he woke up at six in the morning to the loudspeakers declaring that “socialism is good.”

Conversely, I will be among the estimated 500,000 foreigners, including 30,000 journalists, roaming the Chinese streets. Though my e-mails might still be read and some websites I try to access blocked, I do not expect a dozen officials carrying out duties of annoyance around me. As opposed to Bisch’s hesitant drivers, I will probably be encouraged to ride through the many new subway stations to my heart’s content, just so I may catch a glimpse of the new and supposedly better and more sophisticated China. And at least around Beijing, factories will most likely be shut down so that athletes can actually compete without choking on air pollution.

All of these contrasts, to be sure, are interesting to read, especially to the many general readers who might not know very much about China’s ancient traditions, political revolutions, and modern transformations. The human mind, after all, is often attracted to comfort zones: beginnings and endings are desirable, because they bring closure and clean understandings. Hence most are tempted to see the world in episodic ways.

But realities are rarely classified neatly, and as hard as the Chinese regime may have tried and still try, it is difficult to sever history completely from the present and the future. In China’s case, as in almost everything else, continuums and past connections are just as valuable tools to learn about the country as the exciting new developments and building projects.

One must bear in mind that changes are sometimes reactions, affirmations, breaks, or connections (or all of the above) to the past. After all, when the Ming Dynasty rulers built the Forbidden City in the early 1400s, they had the previous dynastic rulers’ palaces in mind. When Mao Zedong took down 10,000 homes in the 1950s to make way for the open and accessible Tiananmen Square, he had the closed and mysteriously backward Forbidden City in mind. And when Sir Norman Foster designed Beijing’s new airport terminal in the 2000s, he had the august and revered Forbidden City in mind.

Revealingly, in all of these cases, rulers, political figures, and architects managed to use the Forbidden City as a reference point to evoke a “New China.” With this fact in mind, how can one look at a new building in China merely as a stand-alone new development and still render its many layers of meanings, both sweeping and narrow, justice?

On Bisch’s six-week China tour, he covered 15,000 miles that took him to Beijing, Xi’an, Yan’an, Nanjing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, and a few other cities and villages. By coincidence, with only a few variations, my China Road Trip over the next four weeks will mirror Bisch’s.

As I explore Beijing and capture its modern and historic urban scene, hit up the glitzy financial capital of Shanghai, tour the rural villages away from the coast, take a train ride with domestic migrants into the crowded and complicated social scene of Chongqing, revisit the international trading port of Guangzhou of yesteryear, and examine how life has changed in Hong Kong eleven years after the British left town, I will keep Bisch’s trip in mind.

And, in doing so, I hope my China trip and the reports that I file will go beyond the “transformation snapshots” narrative, and instead reveal what, exactly, the Chinese have in mind when they think of the 2008 Olympics and the new buildings, social norms, and feelings that come with it.

“You may photograph whatever you like,” Marshal Chen Yi, China’s Vice Premier and Foreign Minister, told Bisch at the time of his visit. Though Bisch had some trouble taking Chen’s invitation literally, I fully intend to take up on the Vice Premier’s offer.