Lovers in Guilin – mystery advert

Guilin Lights

Strolling around in Guilin at night is like walking onto a warm-up session for a non-competitive mini-scooter Grand Prix. Couples glide around on electric scooters embracing as they pass subtly lit bridges, with hues of green, purple, red and yellow reflecting off newly laid tarmac bridges and winding lakes. The Chinese young men chat as they effortlessly motor around the city – almost travelling in circuits, narrowly avoiding lonesome pedestrians and wayward cars. But no-one is in a hurry. This isn’t Shanghai any more. This is a more southerly part of China located in the Guangxi Autonomous Region.

Markets for miles

Miles of market stalls line the central area of the city, somehow all managing to co-exist if not profitable, it provides at least a social event for the locals. There is barely another Westerner in sight, but one does still not feel bothered by intruding glares. The centre of Guilin is a safe area, even at 11pm. The only bother comes from pedal taxis offering to take you home, but it is not the same thrill as scooting around on an electric powered bike. The locals charge their low-powered machines up at newspaper-style kiosks and can last for 6-7 hours, ready for a glide around town. Under and over the bridge, these aimless travellers pass the time through experiencing the city as it changes before them.

Cave lights

Colour is also infused at the Reed Flute Caves, a setting the bikers would feel comfortable in as low atmospheric lights bring shapes of imaginary mushrooms, peanuts, cities and snowmen to life. In the “Crystal Palace” the epicentre of the caves the reed flute was played with a light show, causing a Chinese wave of “wows” through the crowds of visitors.

I have come to appreciate the Chinese character. Polite, even if communication is very much limited or lost in translation. A glass of sparkling water became a can of coconut milk, a plate of braised chicken became bony lumps with a claw thrown in. Some cultural differences aside, what makes the Chinese, Chinese? What makes the British, British one might ask. It is still too early for an assessment. But a few things can be said. People here are not overly religious, perhaps more spiritual than religious, they are economically savvy, not brash or showy, they are incredibly talented and hard-working. Some of the more difficult questions still have to be asked, but social harmony really is a feeling I am getting from the place at the moment, at least in Guilin. For example, felt completely safe in this city of 1.9m people, walking around at night.

And finally…

O, yes and I need your help – who is this in the photo?
Ronaldo said he was going to sue over a similar advert…

Who is this footballer?

I got quite a shock when I saw this prolific scorer holding a packet of throat sweets in China!

Jewish Shanghai

During WWII the Archbishop of Canterbury lobbied the UK government to let Jewish refugees into the country before the onslaught of Nazi Germany would cause thousands of families to be sent off to concentration camps. Many were accepted but many more were refused with the exception of the kindertransport mission. Indeed few governments across the globe were prepared to allow a flow of migrants, especially at a time of economic hardship. But there was one government and one city in particular that welcomed ships of refugees to their shores. That city was Shanghai.

Over 30,000 men, women and children escaped to the East on ships set-off from Italy across the globe. The journey took them below the tip of Africa and past India on its route to the Eastern shores of China. There was momentary refuge for these Jewish families in Shanghai as the Japanese were soon to round them up into a Ghetto in the Hongkou district, where the memorial museum stands today.

Documentaries and personal documents tell of how people survived and interacted in the Ghetto area, policed by the Japanese. Michael Blumenthal was one such Shanghai resident who went on to become the U.S. Treasury Secretary.

Nanjing Road

It was surprising, but today I got a dose of more traditional, commercial communism. Department stores with rented-out sections reminded me of communist Russian shops. Nanjing street was not the force of commercialism I had perhaps expected, but it enlarged my perspective of shopping in Shanghai. There is clearly huge demand, hundreds of people filtered through clothing stores to pick their favourite t-shirt or pair of shorts. A stroll to the end of Nanjing Street takes one to People’s Square, at the epicentre of metro activity.

Yet Shanghai is not all riches and glam. From the overground metro I took this picture, showing more shanty-town constructs even in the heart of the city…

Shanty Shanghai

The evening ended with an all-you-can-eat meal at a Japanese restaurant beside the hotel. A Kiwi with his tall Chinese wife told us a few (expat) truths. He spoke of how the Chinese children study six days a week and have tests on the seventh, how in-laws live with the partner after a marriage and how incredibly difficult it is to learn the language.

And with that the Shanghai chapter ends. Tomorrow involves an early trip to Guilin. On the TV Hillary Clinton has just visited China and has spoken of dealing with the debt problem in the USA and three officials from China railway have been sacked after a fatal collision involving high-speed trains.

But tomorrow will bring more of historic China to life.

Cultural Revolutions

Crowds after the acrobatics show

Acrobatics had always fascinated me, but this was something else. Remembering a cultural delight (although not politically correct in the slightest) by the Russians in St. Petersburg of a circus on ice involving Polar Bears on ice skates I had high standards for any circus act.

Yet the Chinese surpassed my expectations with astonishing death-defying acrobatics involving flames, rotating giant rings, body contortion and youths flipping through spinning hoops. We were forbidden from taking photographs but I was not surprised – a quick flash could be the difference between life and death. As two heavier boys jumped from a height onto a see-saw with another boy balancing on a long pogo stick at the other end – I had my hand in my mouth as the ramp swung and the pogo-boy did a double-back flip onto a landing pad held aloft by two helpers. To finish the event off seven men and one woman on motorbikes wowed the (mature) crowd with racing motorbikes around inside a spherical cage.

The future of commerce

After the show – we walked towards a new shopping district, laid out like a mini village with triple-deck flats containing more designer brands in flashing shops than I recognised. This really was the future – flashing lights and designer shops still open at 10pm on a Sunday night for scores of youthful Chinese attaining “moderate prosperity” to spend their cash. On the metro back to South Xangshi Road I noticed yet more shoppers returning after a successful day by the looks of it – armed with full bags from designer stores from the illuminated Huanhai Road.

Starbucks

Mandarin characters replaced Starbucks and McDonalds sings where English letters usually rested – perhaps showing how even these foreign brands were becoming Manderised (as opposed to Anglicised)  although many of the billboards along the high street were still showing white models as the ideal.

I took an afternoon stroll away from the hum of the main streets to find some evidence for the real Shangahi – which is not seen in the commercial centre. I found some evidence of what standard living conditions could be like, a row of terraced flats hidden behind by bars and cafes were less polished as a woman sat outside her home with a dirtied bra hanging from a piece of cord. Men played chequers near a much-out-of-place-lawn while others, while a policeman was shouting and pointing a crowd of bystanders after a car had collided with a motorbike – so it seems social harmony doesn’t always prevail.

Off the beaten track

I use the phrase “Social Harmony” because, just as the propaganda film I have just finished watching on CCTV 9 – an English speaking channel which contains programmes about China – has introduced me to the concept. “Social harmony” is the ideology of the CPC the Communist Party of China, something which has been furthered by educational and cultural programmes, with lower cost social housing made available in 2005 according to the programme.

Towards the close of the day we ate at an Italian restaurant – not unusual for Shanghai – from where we could hear the beats of the bar/club upstairs. It was a Sunday, but that didn’t stop the party. It made me question…does China have the same concept of a weekend like in Europe? We discussed the hard-working nature of the Chinese people. The perception at least was a sharp contrast to the laziness and self indulgence apparent in Unionist culture in Northern Ireland and indeed in many places in England I have been to or read about. I was almost ashamed of my own culture. Here (at least so far) polite, co-operative, private and unhurried Chinese put my home culture to shame. It was much less frantic than London, although the road junctions were somewhat of a mystery – while a footpath is often mounted by a cyclist or motorcyclist.

The roads are notoriously dangerous – Shangahi daily reported bus drivers were dying at the wheel because of stress. I’m not too sure I could believe that headline, but it is true that driving here is not recommended!

Shanghai – Business Class

Pudong – China’s Financial District

Centre-Stage

China almost needs no introduction as a fascinating fast-changing country. With unprecedented growth in the past couple of years stories of miraculous development have been hitting the front pages of the Financial Times and other media outlets in the UK and across the western world. The world’s most populous country (containing more than 1.3 billion people)  is soon to overtake USA as the world’s largest economy although GDP per capita remains 94th in global rankings. A communist state created in 1949 it is hard to believe China is a powerhouse of the world economy. But rather than read all about it, I took a plane to China, the world’s next superpower to find out for myself what all the hype was about.

In this blog I will be documenting my experiences – the sights and sounds – of a country on centre stage. It will be a discovery of the Chinese as much as a reflection of the media, inter-dispersed with anecdotal tales of personal interactions, searching for evidence of development and cultural showcasing. My journey will begin in Shanghai, with visits to Xi’an and Guilin, culminating with an internship at a Chinese company in Beijing.

Business on the Bund

Business-Class

As I took my seat at the very back of a Jumbo airline from Amsterdam, I was already eyeing up the co-travellers, all too aware of the party of children on some kind of football tour of Europe. Lamenting my fate, I took my seat with a reluctant slump into the cushioned armchair, while chest-height youths dropped footballs on unsuspecting passengers.

It was going to be one of those flights – I thought – the only problem was that it was to last 11 hours, racing towards the sun, cutting out time for much needed sleep. But today was my lucky day. A Chinese-looking attendant explained I was to give my seat up for a family of four, to be upgraded to Business class. Without a word of questioning I took my bag and marched to the front of the plane, quietly hiding any doubt that I was meant to be sitting in business class in the first place while concealing joy at the prospect of sleeping to the hum the massage-lounger chairs. As it turned out most of the people sitting in this area were transferred from economy class for myriad reasons, but I was not going to let that take away from the experience.

Perhaps it should have, but it didn’t surprise me that the Chinese girl sitting beside me had the Financial Times in her hand, and adorned an expensive looking coat. She was a student of International Business on her way home to Shanghai after completing an undergraduate degree at Coventry. She immediately introduced herself as Nancy, clearly an Anglicised version of her Chinese name, upon which I asked what my Chinese name would be. She said it was a brand name “Phillips” Great, I thought, I will be associated with a microwave or a fridge-freezer while living in this country. Perhaps “Phil” is how I will introduce myself from now on I thought. We discussed the front page of the Salmon-coloured broadsheet, and I joked that China was buying the West, purchasing Euro-bonds and holding trillions of dollars, while Obama was having difficulty raising the debt ceiling. She didn’t laugh but excused the programme – explaining it would bring more opportunity to us (although we would owe the Chinese big time in the future for borrowing so much money.) So there I was on a plane, escaping from economic woe to the prosperous East, discussing the demise of the Western economies as we knew them.

Yuyan Gardens as night approaches

Shanghai-Nights

Shanghai is  a city of the night. The attention of any visitor is drawn vertically to neon lights, giant glass buildings separated by leafy streets and a light smog illuminated by red and white tree-lanterns. In China it is not uncommon for a westerner to immediately feel taller yet more conspicuous, looking down in the air-cooled tube, trying to decipher unintelligible characters on the TV screens. Each station reminds me of Canary Wharf in London, glass barriers and shiny floors separating commuter with the outside world. The tarmac is freshly laid, Huanhai street is illuminated with brand names, fancy shoe stores and shop attendants armed with fashion-dog helpers. Revellers can be heard on street corners preparing for a night out, while older couples waltz in the open air to a ghetto-blaster rendition of classical tunes.

Donghu road in downtown Shanghai

Shanghai-Days

In the morning I come across a standard problem for the Western traveller while getting measured for a tailored-suit – the heat. There are various ways of preventing a deluge of bodily cooling liquids, or at least concealing them. Unfortunate as it may sound, not even the Chinese are immune to humid atmospheres. I try to emulate the male tactic of wearing a light cotton t-shirt with shorts and open trainers, but this does little to close the glands. I suspect I am the butt of jokes while getting fitted for a navy suit, as a sweaty white-man unable to fend off nature’s affront. The picture of Rafael Nadal on show in the front window does nothing to dispel momentary embarrassment either. But I walk out of the shop with my pride intact. Meanwhile I have seen many women carrying sun-umbrellas, fans and light tops, while few men go topless, wear sandals and walk slowly. Ok – It’s not London – so walking more slowly should not be a problem.

Back outside, the streets testify to a seemingly dichotomous atmosphere. As in any city poverty is a fabric of Shanghai, but it is well hidden as far as I have seen so far. The gleaming towers of Pudong look out over the Huangpu river carrying industrial shipping vessels, and stares at tourists and locals lining the Bund. Tourist trap shops are well concealed in contemporary commercial units fashioned out of traditional-chinese architectural structures – as roof lights illuminate the sky above the Yuyan Gardens.

After spending only one day in the cosmopolitan capital of China, I almost feel at home. Even with little understanding of the language – it is straight-forward enough to navigate the streets with English signs, and order a coffee with ready-made English menus.

As I finish this piece, the TV is showing a talk show in English about the rich Chinese youth, making their fortunes in shipping and discussing their fast cars. Their American accents are not matched with american enthusiasm, but a blasé explanation of their purchases. Other channels are showing highlights of the diving Championships in Shanghai, while the swimming contest was waters reach up to 30’c, just under the limit for competitions. Films, trivial talent shows and  soaps remind me that most of the channels in my hotel room are part of CCTV – China Central Television, a state controlled broadcaster operating since 1958 and is headed by Jiao Li who was formerly the vice minister of the publicity department of the Communist Party’s Central Committee.

Great Firewall of China

And I write with the realisation – that I can’t access Faceook, twitter, youtube and Google + – some of the many sites blocked in China – so I hope you will still be with me tomorrow.