China Brief -  Part III

All text and photos 2008 Peter Newbury.


Part III

In previous decades and centuries, workers and businesses tended to stay close together resulting in housing-factory-restaurant-shopping 'sub-cities' within the larger scope of a city, but that is slowly changing for a small but significant portion of citizens able to afford commuting, be it in a car or on public transport.  I recall a picture I saw decades ago that showed a Chinese street absolutely full of black bicycles with riders astride in their work clothes, meandering their way to somewhere.  My grandpa rode the same way, just ticking along, not burning much energy and not going that far.  Daily commutes in China were measured in feet or maybe kilometres, but not 10s of miles as is done today in the States where an hour drive can be common.  As a result of a burgeoning middle class, and one that is willing and able to pay for a large house instead of a tiny apartment, China is looking to America's solution.  Now China has suburbs surrounding massive cities, and cars for many people.  Traffic is getting thicker, bewildering amounts of homes are being constructed that have no grocery store in walking (or bicycling) distance, and the need for space grows, both in land occupied by the populace (instead of farms), and the minds of the people.

China has a bemusing acceptance of complete incongruity, be it economic status, land development usage, etc.  Rolex stores can be right next to bare-light-bulb-single-family grocery stores.  BMWs (China is now the largest importer of BMW X-5s) occupy the same roadways as hand-drawn carts.  A lush 'treehouse' hotel with its own gardens and recycling center overlooks a massive container port and construction zones.  Shopping in Shenzhen (go to Lo Wu and you'll have 20 new friends in about 10 seconds) is a little of everything, everywhere - there is no 'toys' section or 'clothing' area.  There are some newer fancy-pants shopping districts that echo US shopping malls with brand names and landscaped look, but even that look is a thin veneer.  The old Microsoft building had a taxi graveyard next to it - unspeakable for any North American campus.  Most hotels run on themes, with the theme having nothing to do with the brand, location, surroundings, or history of the hotel or town.  This incongruence is probably the hardest characteristic to explain, both in words and pictures.  Basically, I never know what I'll see where or when.

The pure scale at which China has to think on is immense.  And the scale on which China can act with is no less staggering.  Labour is varied, cheap, and easily moved.  Skillsets and the job don't have to be perfect, they just need to be close enough to "git 'er done."  My first three days in China were exemplary: Day 1 - the building I am at for the next few days has a winding driveway lined with about 40 ten foot tall trees.  Day 2 - each tree has a moat cut into the grass and dirt around each tree.  My assumption is that they are preparing to put wood chips around the trunk as is so common in the Pacific Northwest.  Day 3 - the trees are gone.  No trace except holes in the ground.  No stumps, no leftover branches, just... holes.  Coming from North America where it would take a couple weeks to take the 40 trees (and stumps) out, never mind the months of wrangling and signs to notify the public of the trees' impending fate, this was worth an eyebrow raise.  How to take a photo that conveys that, I don't know.

It seems pretty clear when reading the news that 40 trees are measly compared to the ongoing and planned public works projects.  It's bewildering to me when I think about the scales of operations, but right now China is awash in cash and, as usual, people will spend amazing amounts of money when time is short and urgency high, even if the value of the project is debatable.  That urgency on an immense scale is obvious, though, when faced with over a billion people (1/6th of the world population), a relatively new government that favours control, the rise of a middle class, massive amounts of migrant workers, record resource extraction and depletion (both worldwide and in China), and the Chinese desire to save face.

The discussion above is far from exhaustive - China, like most countries, is fantastically complicated and is only getting more complex as technology makes the world (and China) smaller and pace of change faster.  I recall a line from years (decades?) ago "What does that have to do with the price of rice in China."  China has become a major producer and consumer in the world economy.  Now the price of everything affects China, be it oil, rice, wheat, copper, pork, gold or US dollars and given China's position as supplier to the world, the price of anything that affects China affects most of the world, somehow.  Even in downtown Seattle.

"Cathay Pacific flight CX460 is open for general boarding..."



A view from the porch of my treehouse

A large construction project right next to the lush Evergreen resort

One of the bars at the Intercontinental

View out the front of the hotel - note the wide open space

Travel partner Dave Beardsley and the Intercontinental pool

Hazy, but still engaging

A construction site

Lot of people bringing dirt up out of a lot of holes

Wind power exists in China, though not sure of the quantity

People waiting for the Olympic torch relay

I wonder where these boxes are going

For impatient drivers - traffic light countdown

more images...

Part I  •   Part II  •   Part III

Peter Newbury's Published Adventures