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Saturday, December 20, 2014

Just another Shanghai Saturday...

With Christmas just five days away, this morning saw my daughter engage in intense negotiations with a representative from the North Pole. Amber assured Father Christmas that she had been, and will continue to be, "good", while Santa Claus pledged to seriously consider her request for a certain present. Both parties described the talks as "productive" and resolved to meet again a year from now to review progress, though some observers present at the negotiations expressed skepticism that the eight year-old girl would still believe in Old St. Nick in a year's time.

Lunch this afternoon was at the Captain Bar, located on the 6th floor of the Captain Hostel on Fúzhōu Lù 福州路, close to Shànghăi's 上海's iconic Bund 外滩. The food wasn't bad, though the prices were somewhat high (especially for mediocre beers like Tiger), but all sins were forgiven for the excellent view of Pŭdōng 浦东.

The Art Deco Hamilton House, formerly an apartment building, constructed in the 1920's. Its twin across the street, the Metropole Hotel, was covered up in scaffolding.

A passerby stops to check out the former American Club, built in 1924. Many of the historic buildings in Shanghai have plaques out front listing the original occupant, the year it was erected and the architectural style of its design and construction.

Amber poses in front of the Foreign Language Bookstore. Not one of the most imaginatively named business establishments in the city, but it is one of the best sources for English-language reading material, especially for books on China.

Fuzhou Lu, a street full of shops selling art supplies, books and stationery. And attracting a lot of people in the process.

Raffles Mall 莱福士广场 , one of Shanghai's busiest (in a city bursting at the seams with shopping centers). Despite the Christmas music playing in the background and the attempts at seasonal decorations, the festive Noel air was lacking. My daughter said it was because the tree was red, not green.

Shanghai No. 1 Department Store, another edifice whose planners didn't spend much time on naming. Once the city's most upscale shopping outlet, it still attracts Chinese visitors from out of town. My wife sneered that the fashion on offer was dated. Pamela, by the way, grew up in rural Taiwan.

Close to the department store on Nánjīng Dōng Lù 南京东路 is Taikang Foods, the place to go if you're in the market for flattened pig heads. My wife settled instead for something labeled as "Streaky Bacon" (which, I've since been informed, is actually what normal bacon is called. Forgive my ignorance).

Shanghai First Food Store is another fine purveyor of flattened pig heads. The second floor specializes in traditional food and snacks, including that most Chinese of dining establishments, Màidāngláo.

The site of the former Wing On, opened in 1918 and once considered one of the "big four" department stores in Shanghai. Walking through the first floor today, it's hard to conjure up the building's former glory.

Nanjing Dong Lu after the sun goes down and the neon comes on. Though certainly lively with all the pedestrian traffic, the shopping options are desultory for the most part, and the constant offers of crappy kids toys and knockoff watches and bags get tiring quickly (and had it not been for the presence of Amber and Pamela, I'm sure I would've been given ample opportunities for procuring the services of "girls" and/or "massages").

Gold shops proliferate along the pedestrianized street. As China's middle-class continues to grow, the demand among the nouveau riche 土豪 for tasteless jewelery to show off the new-found wealth of Wēnzhōu's 温州 prosperous factory owners shows no signs of abating.

While many of the items for sale in the shops along Nanjing Dong Lu were lacking in taste, the same couldn't be said of the food. You can't go too wrong in China in this regard.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014


Periodically, I'm asked to go on what are known as "outreach" visits to cities located in the provinces closest to Shànghăi 上海 - Ānhuī 安徽省, Jiāngsū 江苏省 and Zhèjiāng 浙江省. The idea is to establish a presence in localities that would normally be overlooked in the usual government-to-government exchanges and frequently involve visa presentations to business and/or student groups, courtesy calls with local officials and visits to American companies or Chinese firms with strong business ties to the United States. I've been on a couple of these trips already, and have just come back from my third such outing, an overnight visit to the city of Chángshú 常熟 in Jiangsu Province. It was a typical outreach foray in that I met with officials from the local Foreign Affairs Office, gave a presentation to a business group in one of the city's two development zones and was taken on a tour of two companies doing business in Changhsu. Hopefully, the trip was a success. With one exception, the photos below were taken during my free time there.

This is the exception. It's me looking as if I'm elaborating on the finer points of American foreign policy, in particular the strategic implications of the "pivot to Asia" as it pertains to China with a local official. In reality, we were just exchanging the usual pleasantries. The officials I met on this visit were all very friendly; in many of these outlying cities, they seem appreciative that someone from the U.S. mission, even a peon as lowly as me, has taken the time and effort to reach out to them. Many thanks go out to my coworker Charlie (on the left), who did so much to make this trip happen.

Changshu is considered a "small" city. It's an indication of just how big China is when an urban area with a population of one million registered residents (and another million or so unregistered denizens), and comprised of a dozen towns as well as two economic and technological development zones, is thought of as being in the minor leagues. Traditionally, textiles and garment-making were its largest industries, but in recent decades the automotive manufacturing sector has become dominant. Compared with many Chinese cities of similar size, Changshu seemed somewhat clean and well-organized, at least in the newer part of the city where I stayed. This was the view from my hotel room:

And this was the view from one of the corridors inside. The large apartment blocks in the background are gradually replacing the older housing seen in the front. The numerous condo complexes visible as I was driven around Changshu gave the city a Pyongyang-like appearance at times.


...and dawn:

After breakfast and with some spare time before the first item on the day's agenda, I took a walk in the park located across the street from the hotel. It was below-freezing, but the sky was clear, which doesn't happen all that often in China.

Close-up views of the above scenes:

Examples of older houses:


Like public parks the world over, ghastly art set the scene in Changshu:

Outside the hotel...

...and in the lobby:

Following a visit to an American company and lunch with officials from one of the development ones, Charlie and I had some time to kill before the drive back to Sūzhōu 苏州 and the train ride back to Shangahi. We were taken to see one of the local sightseeing spots, Shājiābāng 沙家浜. It's an odd tourist village, being one part propaganda, one part historic lakeside town and one part protected wetland. The propaganda element concerns a battle in the reeds there that apparently took place during the Japanese invasion of China. The battle has been celebrated in a revolutionary opera and was the subject of a popular TV series in the 1960's and '70's. Performances of "Let the Bullets Fly" are held regularly in the village:

In many tourist spots around China, signs are written in Mandarin, English and Japanese. In Shajiabang, however, Japanese has been replaced by Korean:

For some reason, we weren't taken to see the military museum:

On this very chilly Wednesday afternoon, only a few tourists were out braving the cold:

Among the things we did on our brief sojourn to Shajiabang was to visit the home of a wealthy family that once lived in the area and to take a boat ride along some of the waterways.

The local firewater, Osmanthus wine 桂花酒, has an alcohol content of 78%. I was able to finish the small cupful I had by taking small sips. The woman who served it to me finished hers in one gulp. Sorry, America.

At Suzhou Railway Station 苏州站, en route to Shanghai:

Monday, December 8, 2014

Hong Kong Park

Our  brush with the Occupy Central movement came on our last night in Hong Kong, and it was all my fault. We could've easily caught the 12A bus in Central after returning on the Star Ferry from Tsim Sha Tsui in order to get back to Steven and Shih-Ling's place on MacDonnell Road. But, no, I had to insist on taking the MTR one stop to Admiralty just so the family could experience the ride. Alighting from the station, we couldn't find the bus stop at first, though it soon became apparent that it was because we'd taken the wrong exit. Retracing our steps, we found the bus stop, only to discover that the street in front of it was partitioned off, and people and tents were camped where the buses would usually have been pulling up. A sign pointed the way to an alternate stand, but the friendly young policemen standing guard nearby didn't seem to know where it was, and suggested we take a taxi instead. So it was back into Admiralty Station and out another exit to the taxi stand, which of course was also deserted due to the nearby protestors and their encampment. In the end, we had to get back on the subway and ride it to the next station, Wan Chai, where we were finally able to hail a cab and make it back to our hosts' place. 

The next morning we had some time to spare before needing to get to the airport for the flight back to Shanghai. Shih-Ling suggested taking the kids to Hong Kong Park, a short walk down the hill from the apartment building, which is how we spent our last free moments. Lonely Planet describes it as:

Deliberately designed to look anything but natural, Hong Kong Park is one of the most unusual parks in the world, emphasizing artificial creations such as its fountain plaza, conservatory, artificial waterfall, indoor games hall, playground, t'ai chi garden, viewing tower, museum and arts center. For all its artifice, the 8-hectare park is beautiful in its own weird way and, with a wall of skyscrapers on one side and mountains on the other, makes for some dramatic and interesting photographs.

As our time was limited, we only got to see a small section of the park. The girls enjoyed the Edward Youde Aviary, home to more than 600 birds representing 90 different species. The 10 meter-high wooden footbridge allows visitors to get up close with the winged beasts, who were clearly quite used to having people staring at them. Then, while the girls, Pamela and Shih-Ling went over to the playground, I ventured up the lookout tower to have a look at those dramatic vistas. Alas, it was soon time to leave, with the three of us taking a taxi back to the airport and the short flight home.

So now I've experienced Hong Kong when it was a British Crown Colony (in 1993) and its current incarnation as a Special Administrative Region of China. The appellation "Royal" is now absent, the Queen's silhouette is no longer to be seen and there're a lot of high-rise buildings that I don't remember from my first visit. Always crowded, Hong Kong seems even more commercialized than it was before, with a lot more tourists thronging its attractions. The Peak, in particular, with its shopping malls and long lines for the tram, is hardly recognizable from 1993, though the view is still as impressive. No doubt this is a reflection of the influx of visitors from China, probably the biggest change for me from 21 years ago. Back then, Mandarin was hardly spoken (even trying to get by on English was a challenge at times, especially in the New Territories), and the only Chinese were those who lived and worked in the colony. Now, neither Pamela nor I had any problems communicating with taxi drivers and restaurant workers. 

Though it's changed somewhat since the 1997 handover, Hong Kong is still unique in its place within Greater China. Despite the crowds and the noise, despite the social problems and the drugs and the Triads, there is still a sense of civility and order that is lacking in China proper. The establishment of Hong Kong as a colony, the result of the first Opium War, was hardly one of the British Empire's more prouder moments, and during the 156 years of British rule could hardly be characterized as a shining example of the superiority of democratic political systems (though Christ Patten tried his best near the end to give Hong Kongers a greater say in how they're governed, something Beijing has been continuing to deny them). But the British did leave Hong Kong with a legacy that is sorely lacking in China - government by rule of law. Hong Kong seems to work in a way that China, with its deep-rooted corruption and benefits earned through guanxi, pays lip service to but is still seemingly unable of putting into practice. When it comes to which of the Two Systems in the One Country is the better, the choice seems pretty clear.