Posts Tagged ‘China’

After 9 years, I’ve reunited with an old friend, China.

June 12, 2017

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Well I’ve been back for several weeks now and been meaning to make a post about the trip ever since. I’ll probably post several as there is a lot to talk about as usual.

It’s been some 9 years since I last visited mainland China, a brief visit to Hong Kong for my 40th a few years ago the only break in that particular drought. On that trip I came close to taking the train to Shenzhen – not because I have any real interest in that city, but I wanted to return to that crazy place I had grown to know and love and to see whether after all this time, I still missed the place.

You’ve probably guessed from the infrequency of my posts that I’d sort of moved on from China. It was like a second home to me and so ridiculously interesting that for a long time after returning home I wanted to keep a solid link to the country – a link which became this blog. The more time that passed, the harder that link was to maintain and real life flooded in to fill that particular void.

Of course I’ve maintained a deep interest in the culture and tried to capitalize on it multiple times through my work. I’ve tried and failed to keep my study of Mandarin going – while I do study it in fits and starts, living in a non-Chinese speaking country is a real prick when it comes to motivation – despite our giant Chinese population here in Melbourne, but that’s another story. I still watch as many Chinese movies as I can, read Chinese books where possible (the awesome Three Body Problem being one), and listen to Chinese music. It all helps.

But damn, being in Beijing just a few weeks ago…it already feels like it was forever ago and I’m rearing to go back. Sadly that’s not going to happen – possibly not ever, but it felt so good to be back. Not wanting to sound clichéd but it was like I had never left, and travelling solo overseas for the first time proved to be every bit as intoxicating as I’d predicted.

I’d wanted to travel overseas for the longest of times. Like many others, I wasted my 20’s working shit jobs I cared nothing for and basically doing nothing with my life. Oh for the gift of hindsight then! By the time I was devoured by the travel bug, I was bogged down in commitments of the monetary variety and then  part of a long term relationship, spending the money solo just wasn’t an option. Not that I really wanted to at that point – travelling with my partner in crime, my wonderful wife is one of the highlights of my life. But I still had this nagging thing in the back of my mind, urging me to do it.

Then along came this bloody amazing Qantas sale where I picked up return tickets for a measly $499 return and on my wife’s suggestion, away I went.

As much as I love travelling with her, I still wanted to experience the unpredictable nature of international travel – but only relying on myself. I wanted to prove that I could do it, that I could get by with my rusty mandarin and get around relying on my own sense of direction and ability to navigate the various public transport systems.

There’s also two big differences between the way my wife and I like to travel. In addition to exploring unfamiliar cities and dining out, much to her annoyance I’m always bringing up the rear, stopping to read each and every inscription in its entirety. I’m always interested in the who/what/why when I visit historical sites. I like to know what was there and what happened while she couldn’t give a toss! Well that’s not completely fair, she can appreciate something for what it is, but you won’t find her googling the backstory when we return to the hotel that night like I will!

It still fazes me to this day that I found this awesome old Samurai cemetery in Kyoto, a place high on a hill that was being visited by elderly Japanese, and I still have no idea what it was or who was buried there. Something that fazes me even more because I have a good knowledge of feudal Japanese history!

The wife just doesn’t share this same passion, a good example: one afternoon in Copenhagen – she went to a modern Danish furniture exhibition while I spent mine in the Viking museum J

But getting back to China – damn did it feel amazing to be back. Almost immediately it was like I hadn’t left. Everything was familiar, from the hazy, yellow night lighting on the freeways to the scent of deodorizer in the taxi covering cigarette smell. Even the taxi was identical to those we’d used back in 2008 – one of the newer variety of Volkswagen’s that begun to roll out and replace the older models while we were there, I was expecting them to be newer this time around.

I had forgotten that the Chinese drive on the opposite side of the road to Australia, but not how they pay little to no attention to the road markings and duck and weave around other slower moving vehicles. I’ve always found Chinese roads interesting in that it feels like you’re on a never-ending freeway with exits constantly peeling off towards other freeways in other directions so that you never truly know where the hell you are. I remember looking at the signs as I did back in 2008 – clearly marked, but in Chinese and Pinyin and couldn’t for the life of me imagine navigating these roads.

Given it was after 11pm by the time I was on the way to my hotel, there wasn’t too much traffic on the roads – a good thing given the congestion that often afflicts Beijing. I struck up a conversation with the taxi driver in broken Mandarin and was surprised at how easily it came back. We spoke about Wang Feng – a singer I like (and who married the awesome Zhang Ziyi), who coincidentally came on the radio. He had no idea what I was talking about until I gave him a lyric or two from ‘Flying Higher’, in which case he immediately understood and ended up playing me some music that he liked from his phone through the car stereo. I didn’t feel overly bothered by him pissing around with his phone to find the music as we drove at night, moving through other vehicles, at speed, because shit – this is China.

I’d booked a cheaper hotel – Beijing 161 Wanfujing Hotel, about half a block from the Dongsi subway station, and several large blocks from the Wanfujing shopping street. I picked this area as I thought that being solo, a somewhat close proximity to Wanfujing would mean guaranteed western comforts if I needed them but it was also a different part of Beijing to explore. I’d previously stayed just north of the Bell and Drum towers.

I’d also picked a hotel that was specifically amongst the hutongs as I knew this was a much higher chance of being near street food (specifically spicy skewers!). And I chose a hotel that had a decent common area for being solo I had a completely different agenda than when travelling with my wife: I had no agenda at all!

Each day I only did precisely what I felt like on that particular day. I’d get up, have a nice lazy breakfast in the hotel’s café, read for a while, dick around on my phone and look at the local map on the Apple maps app. I thought with google maps being blocked by the Great Firewall that getting around would be annoying, but lo and behold the apple official map app was fantastic, particularly for navigating the subway. I’d look at this app, look at a few locations I wanted to visit and determine how annoying it was to get there. And that was it!

I’d either hang out for the morning and head out in the afternoon, or head out for most of the day. In short, I wanted to live the expat lifestyle as closely as possible within that 10 day period – not unlike being back in Wuxi. And that’s exactly what I did.

Next time I’ll tell you exactly what I got up to and just what I thought about Beijing, 9 years later.

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The air quality in China – oh dear.

March 29, 2014

In my regular web rounds I came across an article over at Kotaku which allows you to compare the air quality in China with the rest of the world. The article links to Air Pollution in Asia, a website which offers real-time data of global air quality. Having lived in China, I was more than aware that the air quality was terrible, but this website clearly shows just how bad it is – it’s horrendous.

We had a smoky day in Melbourne the other day, where smoke from planned burnings out East (a bushfire preventative) had the city so smoky it was like a thick fog. That kind of condition is abnormal for a place like Melbourne, where we’re blessed with very good air quality, but is normal for China.

I remember a few weeks into my stay in China, driving along with Pan Zilli (a good friend), and commenting on the haze. It was very smoggy – with visibility down to a few hundred metres at best, and I said to him, “The air is pretty bad today, huh?”

And his reply, “Oh no! Today is clear, the air is good.”

Wut!

Sure enough, he wasn’t kidding. That kind of air became normality. Upon my return to Australia, I couldn’t believe how crisp things looked. From the airport to the trees beside the road as we drove home, everything was crisp and vividly clear. Why? Because almost everything in China is hidden behind the almost permanent blue haze. Buildings 10-20 metres away, would still have this haze before them, never crisp and clear.

There was a tower several blocks away from the school we lived which I referred to as Dongting’s Eiffel tower (we lived in Dongting – or was that Xishan district – that never became clear), and it was always in a state of semi-visibility, despite being so close.

For much of the time we spent in China (during 2008), we had coughs and sore throats, particularly my poor wife who spent much of the year sick because of it. Looking at the map – Wuxi (just southwest of Shanghai) has poor air quality – but nothing compared to what you can see around Beijing.

Seriously – that’s a capital O.M.G. Look at that map – it is a *disgrace*. At what cost are the Chinese paying for their rapid progress? The total destruction and pollution of their formerly beautiful countryside? Or at the cost of their citizens.

Years from now, when the people who are living and breathing this air begin to die from various forms of lung cancers, there’s going to be a reckoning. China is trying to do something about it, but the real question is – have they already gone too far

Tian Yi, Wuxi

A bridge at Tian Yi school where I lived – note the haze between the location of the shot and the building in the distance – and that’s a somewhat clear day.

Remembering China # 5: Shanghai

June 27, 2013

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Shanghai. Wonderful, amazing Shanghai. I truly love this city, and when I think about China, it’s here that I miss the most. I would give anything to go back there, to live and work.

Shanghai is a city that’s rapidly changing – and not necessarily for the better. This formerly European concession was unlike any other place that I experienced in China. Of the 10 or so cities that I visited, Shanghai had the most distinctive personality.

The thing that makes Shanghai so special, is the old vs new. Beyond the amazing skyline, full of some of the most amazing buildings you’ll ever see, lies a facade of 18th century style European buildings that are truly beautiful. As I walked along a street that ran behind the tourist infested Bund, when I squinted my eyes and the people became just people, and not Chinese, I could have easily been in Melbourne. At night, when the Bund is lit up to the nines, and the old style buildings are glowing yellow with the snapping Chinese flags above each of them, it truly is an amazing sight. Across the river, the Pudong is also aglow, with the famous Pearl tower with its distinctive shape taking centre stage.

But what I loved most about shanghai was its feel. When you really get in there among the twisting roads and lane ways, it’s an amazing place. From the French concession, with its twisted trees stumps before old colonial style buildings, to the older streets lined with alleyways that could easily have been movie sets. There’s power lines and washing hanging above dusty bicycles and old Chinese characters painted on the walls. It’s simply intoxicating.

But unfortunately much of the old Chinese charm is also disappearing. Great blocks of old Chinese houses are being torn down in favour of skyrises. It was among these districts where you would find those amazing laneways, and snapshots of what the older city would have been like. The reality unfortunately is that while these places are visually amazing, the living conditions inside them are the opposite. Many old Shanghai citizens have been relocated out of the central city district into the suburbs, and relocated into high rise apartments.

But i have found that among people who have been to Shanghai, it is a polarising place. Some people love it, others, not so much. I think that it can come down to how you view the city, and what efforts you make to really get in among it. I had the luxury or visiting it on a quite regular basis. Compared to Wuxi, Shanghai was the closest ‘big’ city (they’re all big in China, really), and had the highest prospect of finding foreign goods such as English language novels and various other products. But beyond that, I also had a chance to walk around it like a local – with no agenda, and i think that made the difference. From simple tasks to just going in search of good coffee (which rocked in the French district incidentally) to finding a decent hairdressor, to enjoying watching all the locals do their tai chi and folk dancing in one of the many parks.
I hope to return to China in 2014, and it’s Shanghai that I am most excited to return to, and this time photograph with a proper SLR.

Demystifying the Chinese Economy with Professor Justin Yifu Lin

June 8, 2013

I recently attended a free lecture, run by Melbourne University entitled ‘Demystifying the Chinese Economy.’ It was run by former head of the World Bank, Professor Justin Yifu Lin and I have to say that while it was interesting, I didn’t learn really anything new. That was partially because the information was quite raw economical data, speaking about growth in percentages, but also because it was actually quite difficult to understand him speak!

Professor Lin had a fairly thick accent, and I could understand most of what was said, but a couple of times, there was a key word that I just could not work out what it was – it sounded like extortions, but it wouldn’t be that, because it was said in such a way:

“And the reason the Chinese economy was able to sustain over 9% growth for over 30 years was thisdamnedwordIcantunderstand!”

The frustration!

Anyhow, I am glad I went regardless, as I have a continued interest in anything that relates back to China. It did amuse me though, with half the room Chinese – likely economics & business students from the university, and the other half white/westerners, it’s possible that no-one actually understood what was being said! Perhaps if he did the lecture in Chinese then at least half the room would have been crystal clear!
There were a few things that I found interesting in what Professor Lin spoke of. He mentioned that as part of the growth and economic success of China, there of course had been problems too. He felt that the biggest issue that China faced was the disparity in wealth, with vast gaps still remaining between the countries rich and poor. In fact, he said despite the countries success, many Chinese were not happy because of this money disparity.

Professor Justin Lin

He listed several other negatives, which escape me now, but one thing I found interesting was that there was no mention at all to the damage China has caused to its environment as part of this massive growth. Now everyone is no doubt aware of the problem China faces with pollution – all problems of its own making, but what about the neighboring countries? How do you think the Japanese feel about the smog coming across the sea from China to pollute them? How about Vietnam, which is also copping it? It’s simply unacceptable.

Getting back to the reason for China’s success, in a nutshell, it can be put down to China leveraging its strengths as a nation. Back in the late 1970’s when this all began, it couldn’t compete with the other developing economies from a technological point of view, but it could compete in manpower. This has seen China develop into what is often termed the world’s factory.

So what then happens, when all of these millions of workers become fed up with working in factories – for peanuts no less? Yes there are income disparities, but what about quality of life? China now does have the money to upgrade its technology, and while I am no expert in factory based manufacturing, I think that logically, it would follow a path of many other countries, where manual labour is replaced by robots and machines automating much of the process.

What happens to these millions of people if they decide to do something else but slave away in a factory?

He mentioned that other countries could follow the Chinese model of success, but really, I can’t see that happening. There’s no way known you’d get a typical Australian to work the amount of hours a typical Chinese factory worker does, or for such low pay.

One thing I did find interesting, was his answer to whether India would be a competitor to China. I thought that it would, but Professor Lin said that India had focused on growing its service based industry – as anyone who has had to call their phone company recently no doubt knows!
While India created 2 million service based jobs – China created 75 million. I found that really quite telling.

Professor Lin said that by 2030, China would possibly have an economy the size of the USA’s, or possibly (more accurately) twice its size. China has become an absolute beast of a nation when it comes down to the size of its moneybags. It has so much money invested in so many different parts of the world, that I think there’s going to come a time when many countries resent that. I suspect that China might find itself paying a heavy price for its success.

Remembering China # 1: Where it all began

May 18, 2013

I recently entered the World Nomad’s 2013 travel writing scholarship contest, and while I didn’t win – or hell, I didn’t even get shortlisted, god how I wanted to. The prize this year was 2 weeks in Beijing under the mentorship of various travel writers in what would have been something of a dream come true experience. Of course, actually winning a heavily subjective competition like this one is comparable to your chances of winning the lotto – I mean, who the hell really knows what they’re looking for year to year. Anyhow, I didn’t win, and I have moved on – I promise!

While I was spending time on the competition, it had me reminiscing again of my own time spent in China. I went through my old photos, many of which I hadn’t looked at for many years now, and have decided to pull a few out and write about them. While living in China – stupidly – I didn’t recognize the need to have a really good camera, and so while many of our shots reflect our experience, I am still kicking myself today that I didn’t take over a proper digital SLR – the night shots we missed out on – gah!

This first shot is particularly average, but it’s also very meaningful for me. It was one of a handful of shots we took just after arriving, while heading back to the school in a minivan. This shot shows the real China – a China that we did not expect. Deep down we knew that it would be a heavily industrialized, very smoggy environment, but we also were still trying to fool ourselves that we would in fact be driven through bamboo forests, past teahouses and pagodas until at our final destination we were served delicious steaming dumplings by none other than a panda.

The reality? This photo:

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It was winter and just beyond some unseasonably heavy snowfalls. It does not always snow in Wuxi, but this year it had. In fact in 2008, China experienced such heavy snowfalls that it caused chaos across the country – made all the worse by the fact that half the population was on the move for Chinese New Year. It bordered on disaster.

Anyhow, for us newbies to the country, it meant that the country was freezing cold, both foggy and smoggy, and universally brown. All the foliage was flattened and brown. The grass – brown. The trees – not that there were any real trees – more shrubs, were partially bare and all brown.

It was grey and desolate and a depressing landscape. It was also eye-opening in its sheer size. Everywhere we looked were bamboo scaffold clad buildings such as in the image. On the horizon, random high-rise apartments and factories.

As we travelled across this landscape, through lines of identical blue trucks and flat-bed vehicles laden with yellow helmeted workers, we began to question if we had made a mistake coming here.

China – land of mishaps.

February 1, 2013

I read up on Chinese news on an almost daily basis, and I am continually stumped by the sheer ridiculousness of the stories that I see. This one today has to take the cake…at least, it’s up there.

In a nutshell: A truck loaded with fireworks on a very high bridge on an expressway in Henan province has promptly exploded, causing the bridge to collapse. WTF!!!!! They have reported the number of deaths to be in the 20’s (so more likely in the 50’s), with cars having been pushed off the bridge, with others having been crushed. I swear to god – this is almost as good as the newly opened, massively expensive CCTV building in Beijing burning to the ground due to fireworks going off next door…or the policemen dying from fireworks explosions as they tooled around with them, having created a massive fireworks bonfire instead of disposing of them properly.

The list goes on and on. The entire country is full of these incidents. They’re not sure with this one where to point the blame. Was it simply the size of the explosion that caused the collapse? Was it the way the fireworks were packed in the truck that set them off – likely just stuffed in there. Or was it a shoddy bridge design? It’s highly likely a little from column A and a little from column B.

Just the other day, a massive sinkhole swallowed several buildings in Guangzhou – caused by workers digging a subway tunnel out from beneath it.

China is widely criticized for skimping on proper safety standards in its mad rush forward – hell, just ask any Chinese miner how they feel about their job. These stories are as ridiculous as they are horrifying, and they are practically a constant feature in any news report focusing on the mainland.

Like being in China

January 7, 2013

Tonight it’s smoky, very smoky. We have gone through a recent hot spell and there’s been many bush fires in the north of my state. That smoke is now hanging around, like a distant haze.

In fact, as I sit here on the balcony of my high rise apartment, between the smog like haze and the smell of Asian cooking from an apartment below, I could easily be back in China.

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The Apple Islands

September 24, 2012

I cracked up this morning when I came across this news article concerning Apple’s iOS6’s brand new inhouse maps software and the Senkaku Diaoyu fisticuffs going on between China and Japan.

Apple has been coming under fire for their new maps software being extremely inaccurate. Apple removed the old Google maps version (which worked a treat incidentally), as Google are becoming an increasingly large competitor in the phone market. Apple’s new map software actually performs quite well – utilising new high-speed vector graphics which allow panning without that annoying catch-up effect.

Anyhow, one of the inaccuracies relates specifically to these most hotly contested islands. Yes the islands are there…but in duplicate! I have absolutely no idea how the software could possibly do this, but it has mapped two identical sets of islands – one for China..one for Japan 🙂

Who’d a thunk something so tense could be so easily solved? All that needs to happy now is to get someone from Dubai in to make this happen.

Twin Senkaku’s..or is that Twin Daioyu’s…

My island! Mine!!

September 17, 2012

Two things occurred today: I finally pulled my finger out and re-enrolled in Mandarin lessons, and I actually bothered to try and find the Senkaku (also known as Diaoyu) Islands on Google Maps.

Why did I try and find those islands I hear you ask? Well I was curious to see just how substantial these little islands were that are currently causing so much friction between China and Japan. But regardless of the importance of these islands specifically, it’s not like Japan and China need much provocation before they’re at each other’s throats. There’s a long history of bad blood between these two neighbours, thanks largely to Japanese brutality. Though it’s not just Japan that has thoroughly stamped on Chinese pride, England and many others have done more than enough damage there over the years.

However, getting back to the Senkaku Island’s issues – in a nutshell, both China and Japan are claiming ownership of this tiny (and I mean TINY) cluster of unoccupied islands just slightly North of Taiwan. In a move that has China seeing all kinds of red, Japan has cooly announced that they will be finalising the purchase of said islands from the current Japanese private owner. So what’s the deal with these islands? Apparently there are large reserves of oil to be found close by, effectively giving whoever owns the islands dibs on all the black goodies.

Now these islands are mere specks on the map. If I was in the business of handing out islands, I would probably give them to Taiwan as they’re effectively off-shoots of the Taiwanese island itself. Then again, they are also very close in proximity to the island chains that lead all the way up to the Japanese mainland.

What gets me though is the passion expressed as part of these protests. One can’t help but wonder if the words Diaoyu and Senkaku aren’t merely becoming public excuses for one race to hate the other. How many of these protesters actually know anything about these islands, let alone the reasons they’re in dispute? I would suspect very little. Living in a country that has no natural rivals or real enemy histories (no I’m not really counting the Japanese bombing of Darwin – I’m sure we did much worse to them), I can’t imagine specifically what it feels like, but I can imagine it wouldn’t take much to incite a bit of patriotism. Unfortunately in this country, patriotism is just a bit too scary close to boganism.

 

In other news I re-enrolled into Mandarin. Don’t let anyone tell you that learning a foreign language is easy – it’s hard, really, really hard. In fact I don’t think it’s the language itself that’s difficult, rather the vast reserves of motivation required to get you to continue with it. I find that I retain most things that I learn (particularly if I spend time studying it), but new stuff? That’s where the pain comes in. There’s a weird feeling of helplessness when presented with a new grammatical concept or vocabulary. In particular, I find myself putting up weird road blocks around certain subjects. For example the word school, study and students – I can simply never remember them! The amount of times in China we had to ask to be taken to our school….I just never knew the word – and still don’t! Well I do – but I just can never recall it.

I kid myself that I would like to learn some basic Korean and Japanese also…right after I’m done with Mandarin. When will that be? Never I expect.

Racism downunder

April 27, 2012

 If there’s one thing that pisses me off from time to time, it’s how some Australian’s treat foreigners. While of course it doesn’t apply to everyone, there are definitely underlying currents of racism running beneath many ‘white’ Australian’s. Typically these people are our own form of ‘trailer trash’, that we affectionately (and I say affectionately with tongue firmly in cheek) refer to as ‘Bogans.’ Bogans are utter trash, and unfortunately everywhere.

You know that tattooed guy on the train who’s drunk as hell and absolutely stinks of alcohol, abusing people around him? Yep – bogan. Those two young feral girls swearing their heads off in public and talking about playing ‘spot the aussie’ while in the middle of a town with a large Asian population? Yeah – bogans. Those guys parading up and down the shopping centre with no top on and using an Australian flag as a cape while intimidating the Asians as they walk by them on the Australia Day public holiday? Correct! Bogans. 

These people are my least favourite part of living in Australia. It was actually refreshing living in China as there

was absolutely none of this element. While walking the super populated streets of Wuxi at night, the people were completely normal. Minding their own business, wandering around shopping and dining. There were no in your face abusive drunk idiots – and man was that refreshing.

Of course that element is also not so prevalent in Australia that it’s a day to day problem – I have definitely over-emphasised it – but it is there none the less.

I was reading this article this morning about some Chinese students who were bashed by a gang of teenagers in Sydney. These poor guys were not only beaten, but robbed while their attackers said things like, “They’re Asians, they have money,” and other fairly hideous acts such as burning them with cigarettes. I would bet any money that these people who attacked them were aforementioned bogan scum. It is seriously not cool as most Chinese students I know or see around the place, are about the most non-threatening, harmless people anywhere. I can only imagine the terror they felt at the hands of these ferals. Thankfully it appears they were arrested.

There were problems last year with similar happening to Indian students, where they were attacked and robbed for no reason, all the while being racially abused. In the case of the Indian students, there was uproar back in India, and the same is happening now in China. Even old Kevin Rudd has dusted off his Foreign Minister hat and has been posting sympathetic comments in Chinese on various Chinese social media sites.

Old KRudd all across the Chinese social media

Australia most definitely is a secure country. You do not need to walk around looking over your shoulder or worrying that something like the above might happen. However, like in ANY country anywhere (including India and China), you also have to be aware of your surroundings and not take unnecessary risks. It is possible that these Chinese students were simply unlucky, but it did occur after midnight – and well, if you want to exponentially reduce your chances of this kind of thing happening, avoid travelling too late at night.

Anyhow, there is my 2 cents.


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