Monday, May 16, 2005
Ni Hao from Beijing!
I have just spent nearly five days in Beijing, the capital of China. Tomorrow, I will depart for Canada, with a 24-hour stopover in Vancouver, the most Chinese of Canada's cities. I will have the opportunity to visit my friend Eric, who lives there.
Whereas I found Shanghai to be a relatively compact and easy-to-navigate city with ultra-modern buildings, Beijing, by contrast, is very spread out and is split into districts by huge avenues that are as many as 14-lanes wide. Alongside these main avenues are block-like Communist style buildings containing government ministries, apartments, convention halls, shopping malls and offices. These buildings are so long that it requires several minutes to walk past each of them. Even the more recently constructed buildings on these huge avenues are block-like and do not show the imaginative architectural styling that the Shanghai towers did. At most, these Beijing behemoths might have a small pagoda-like structure on the roof to make them look a bit Chinese. Basically, Beijing's huge avenues are reminiscent of those I saw in Moscow, although this place is less drab than Russia's capital.
Unlike Muscovites, the people of Beijing smile a lot and are generally fun to deal with, as were the residents of the other Chinese cities I visited. Older Beijing residents tend to dress more stereotypically Chinese than in the other cities I visited, especially when compared to the fashionable residents of Shanghai. In Beijing, it is very common to see men wearing drab grey Mao suits and Mao hats.
Because Beijing is flat, the bicycle is a major form of transportation. Usually, these are cheap one-speed models and are driven by people of all ages. Delivery men and rickshaw drivers favour three-wheeled bikes. There are special bike lanes on most wide avenues. Although the bicycle is king in Beijing, the automobile is rapidly gaining popularity. There will soon be 3 million cars in Beijing, which is not much for a city of 16 million, but which nevertheless will test the capacity of the existing road system. As a result, construction of a sixth ring-road is underway, as is an expansion to the city's subway system.
The subway here is cheap, efficient and easy to use. For 45 cents, you are whisked to most major sights. Important announcements and essential signage are bilingual - Chinese and English. The only problem is that I tend to bang my head whenever I exit one of the subway cars. It is not easy being one of the taller people in town!
Behind many of the block-like Communist buildings are narrow alleyways called Hutongs. These alleyways contain primitive one-floor houses that face into courtyards. In the Hutongs, one also finds basic restaurants, fruit stands, butcher shops with raw meat hanging on hooks, long distance calling centres (for people who cannot afford their own telephone, I suppose) and other types of stores. It is fascinating to wander along these shady tree-covered alleyways. You never know what you might find in the Hutongs.
Entire Hutong districts are gradually being torn down and replaced by ultra-modern apartment and shopping complexes. It is not uncommon to be walking among the third‑world conditions of a Hutong, emerge from the Hutong, cross the street and then enter a luxury shopping mall that replaced a former Hutong. The mall may contain luxury boutiques that our economy in Montreal cannot even support. The contrast between being in the third-world one minute and enjoying the Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous the next is remarkable.
The residents of the Hutongs that are torn down are relocated to more modern apartments elsewhere. Thus, although tourists may complain that the heritage of the Hutongs is disappearing, the actual residents of these neighbourhoods are often quite eager to have their poor homes expropriated by the Beijing Municipal Government.
All this construction is likely to accelerate as Beijing nears 2008, when it will host the summer Olympics and become the focus of international attention.
The Square; not the Massacre
In the centre of Beijing is Tiananmen, which around here is the name of a public square, rather than the name of a massacre. In fact, Tiananmen Square is the largest public square in the world. At the north of the square is the Gate of Heavenly Peace, which you have probably seen in photographs. It is a pagoda-shaped parade reviewing stand with a huge portrait of Mao Zedong hanging from it. Communist leaders stand on top of the Gate of Heavenly Peace during Chinese military parades.
Once you pass through the gate under the reviewing stand, you eventually enter the Forbidden City, from where Chinese emperors ruled from the 1420's until 1911. The walled‑in Forbidden City is filled with numerous pagoda-shaped buildings, where the emperor and his ministers, empress, concubines, eunuchs and other hangers-on lived, worked and played. It is said that there are 9,999 rooms in the Forbidden City. I skipped a few.
During my visit to the Forbidden City, I rented an excellent audio tour narrated by Roger Moore. It was somewhat disconcerting at first to hear him begin, "Ni hao. My name is Roger Moore," instead of the more familiar, "Hello. My name is Bond. James Bond."
On the West side of Tiananmen Square is the Great Hall of the People, which is what passes for a parliament in this Communist state. In contrast to the hoards of people visiting the Forbidden City, there were very few visiting the Great Hall of the People. Visitors have to pass through a metal detector and then must place plastic protectors over their shoes, so as not to scuff the floors. These covers resemble a shower cap, but are designed to cover shoes.
Since there was no organized English-language tour, I was left to wander around China's parliament by myself, shuffling along in my plastic-covered shoes. At one point, I found myself alone in the 10,000-seat theatre-like room where the Central Committee of the Communist Party meets. You have probably seen photos or video of this room when it is filled with senior members of the Communist Party. The building housing the Great Hall of the People is basically the ultimate in Communist-style architecture, with numerous huge square plain-looking meeting rooms with high ceilings and paintings of scenes from the Chinese countryside on some walls. The carpets are a little scuffed.
The Dead Communist Triple Crown
At the southern end of Tiananmen Square is the mausoleum of founding Communist Party Chairman Mao Zedong. I dutifully lined up with the true-believers one morning to see Mao's body, which is on display at the mausoleum. He looked pretty good for a guy who has been dead for 29 years.
The line-up contained thousands of people, 99.99 % of whom were Chinese, and wound its way through Tiananmen Square between yellow lines painted in a designated path. When someone in line strayed outside the yellow lines, one of the many guards would yell at them through a megaphone and they would quickly correct their errant ways. The line-up moved quickly (like the lines at Disneyland) and I was in and out in less than 45 minutes. I waited in line next to a tour group of short people with ruddy complexions who were probably peasants from the countryside belonging to one of China's 56 ethnic minorities. They all wore identical cheap white baseball caps from a tour company and looked positively thrilled to be visiting Beijing for probably the first time, as they awaited their impending encounter with their late esteemed leader. I towered over these small people. Throughout the wait, they stared at me and seemed to examine me. I suspect that I was the first tall white guy that some of them had ever seen up close!
Now that I have filed by Chairman Mao's glass encased body, I am proud to say that I have completed the Dead Communist Triple Crown: I saw Ho Chi Minh's body in Vietnam in 2001, Lenin's body in Moscow in 2002 and now Mao's in 2005. While Ho and Lenin are more wax-like, in the Madame Tussaud mould, Mao looks more granite-like. Ho and Mao still attract long line-ups. Lenin is far less popular: My 2002 meeting with him was nearly one-on-one, so to speak.
Besides the central monuments, museums and dead bodies that I have described above, Beijing has many other temples and monuments scattered throughout the region. You have surely seen many of these painted on the dishes in your favourite Chinese restaurant.
One of the highlights of my visit to Beijing was my visit to the Great Wall of China. Contrary to popular myth, the Great Wall of China is not the only manmade object that is visible from outer space. Indeed, the Wall has not been a continuous structure since long before the advent of space travel. Also, it is only 10 or 15 feet wide, for the most part. At present, there are some five sections of the Wall in the vicinity of Beijing that may be visited by the public. The one closest to Beijing is usually inundated by tourists and hawkers. I chose to instead visit one of the more outlying sections. When we arrived there, the vendors actually outnumbered the tourists, so I was happy with my choice. While exploring the guard towers and hiking along the top of the Wall, I was able to take photographs of sections of the Wall that had absolutely no people on them.
The Wall was built along the tops of mountain ranges more than 2,000 years ago in order to keep the Mongolians from the North from invading China to the South. To get up to the actual wall, the Chinese have installed a chairlift, like the ones you find at a ski hill. To return to the place at the bottom of the hill where buses and cars park, instead of taking the chairlift, they have installed a mountain luge, like the one at Mont Tremblant. It seems a bit un-historical, but sliding down a long track from the Great Wall of China on a little one-man trolley was a thrill, nonetheless.
Hiking along the top of the Wall was physically demanding as it rose up and down the mountain tops. Most of the way involved climbing or descending uneven stone steps. Only short distances had flat stones that were easily traversed. At one point along the way, I met a Mongolian family that was selling Cokes from a cooler. When they asked an outrageous price for one drink and I protested, they explained, "She carry it on back up mountain from Mongolia." I still managed to knock the price down by half. The Mongolians were happy and my thirst was quenched!
The Great Wall was a great feat of engineering and is quite spectacular as it snakes its way into the distance from mountaintop to mountaintop.
On the way back to Beijing, we passed a theme park devoted to honouring China's 56 ethnic minorities. Typical architecture of each of the 56 minorities is reproduced EPCOT Center-style. The whole place is constructed on top of a super-modern luxury shopping mall. Perhaps, the design of this "Ethnic World" is meant to symbolize the idea that, although the Chinese come from diverse backgrounds, they are all now unified under the common ideology of consumerism?
Another of the stranger sights I visited in Beijing was the Underground City. No, this attraction has nothing to do with linking a bunch of office buildings and shopping malls with the subway system. Rather, it is a huge bomb shelter that was constructed between 1969 and 1979, as a result of a fear that the Soviets would invade China. Instead, the Soviets chose to invade Afghanistan, so the shelter was never used.
To visit the shelter, one has to find a non-descript white building in a narrow Hutong. The building resembles one of Beijing's public toilet facilities and is therefore easy to miss. Fortunately, I noticed the small English lettering and entered the building, where I was greeted by several people dressed in camouflage fatigues. One of them, who spoke some English, escorted me down some steep stairs to a tunnel eight metres below ground. We walked along very long and damp oval concrete tunnels that resembled sewers - fortunately, without the sewage. Every so often, my camouflage-clad guide would point out a room and tell me its intended use. Some were to have been hospitals; others theatres and others living quarters. He also would point out darkened sections of the tunnel and say, "That way, Forbidden City" or "That way, Temple of Heaven." Every so often, an air vent would extend up to the surface and we could hear noise from the Hutongs above.
Supposedly, the tunnels were designed to allow up to 300,000 people to live in them in the event of a nuclear attack. In true inefficient Communist style, they were built entirely by hand.
After we had been walking for a while and the dampness started getting to me, we suddenly arrived in a huge store. It was filled with numerous camouflage-clad salespeople and specialized in selling silk blankets. My tour guide then suddenly turned into a silk sheet salesman. He explained how the silk sheets are indestructible and how they can keep one warm, especially in the cold dampness of a nuclear shelter tunnel (or the cold winters of Canada). Despite his persuasive sales pitch, I declined to make a purchase at this subterranean boutique. With that, he reverted to being a tour guide and we passed through a huge steel fireproof door - like one would find on a submarine - and continued our walk through the Underground City.
A couple of days ago, I spent the day with my law school classmate, Pierre, who works as a trade commissioner at the Canadian Embassy in Beijing. Pierre, who grew up in Quebec City and Montreal, speaks fluent French, English, Korean and Mandarin. He has lived in Beijing for the past four years. As a trade commissioner, he is responsible for helping Canadian companies sell their products and services to China, particularly in the aerospace, automotive and tourism sectors. He often lobbies senior officials in the Chinese government.
Pierre gave me a tour of the Canadian embassy. It is a place of work for 300 people and many of them live within the embassy compound, as well. There is even a swimming pool, tennis court and a bar (complete with a bubble hockey game, in true Canadian fashion) within the embassy grounds. The embassy compound is protected by a squadron of Chinese guards, barbed wire, two layers of steel fence, bullet-proof glass and closed circuit cameras. Basically, it is like a luxurious prison.
Unlike some other embassies (e.g., Japan's), the high-security protection of Canada's embassy is not in place to guard against protestors. Canada is not normally - if ever - the target of protests. Instead, this protection is in place in order to ensure that North Koreans do not try to enter the compound for the purpose of claiming refugee status and demanding safe passage to South Korea. This threat is more than theoretical. Last November, 44 North Koreans, posing as telephone line repair people, managed to climb the fence (which had less barbed wire back then). They had alerted the media and the whole thing was broadcast practically live on CNN. The North Koreans ended up camping inside the embassy compound for the next three months before eventually gaining safe passage to South Korea via Singapore. Since my friend Pierre speaks Korean, he was very involved with these "visitors" as a translator. He made several trips with them to Singapore. Also, when the 44 people jumped the fence, some were badly injured, so Pierre and the other embassy staff were involved in negotiating safe passage to the hospital for them under diplomatic cover in official embassy vehicles and had to stand guard to ensure that the Koreans were not snatched from their hospital beds by the Chinese police and shipped back to North Korea.
All of this adventure was taking place as an official visit to China by Prime Minister Paul Martin was being planned for January. Pierre planned a series of visits by the prime minister to natural gas depots. The public buses of Beijing run on natural gas and the equipment that allows this to happen is manufactured in Canada. Pierre had to deal with all the logistics of the visits, including dealing with security and both the Canadian and Chinese media. One famous photo-op that you may have seen in Canadian newspapers was when Martin drove a bus. Pierre had to ensure that someone was in place to shift the gears as Martin stepped on the gas pedal and steered.
Hockey Night in Beijing
At night, we went for dinner with Pierre's friend, René Roy, who had just played a game of hockey at Beijing's only ice rink. In keeping with his family name, René plays goalie. René's day job is to ensure the safety and proper functioning of Bombardier's jets in Beijing and sometimes in Japan, as well.
We ate some excellent sushi. Despite the general hatred of the Chinese for the Japanese, the restaurant was filled with Chinese diners.
Although eating sushi was quite straightforward, other restaurants here are a bit strange. I had an interesting meal at a restaurant called "Morals Exceedingly Food Seat of Government." I have no idea what that means. They serve braised carp lips, among other things. I opted for the beef, mushroom and rice, instead. It was an excellent choice.
The Gomery Commission became front page news here the other day. Apparently, funds were used to pay for a television series broadcast in China starring Da Shan. Da Shan is the Chinese name of Mark Rowswell, a white Canadian who speaks perfect Mandarin and who has become a huge television star here in China. Although he is barely known in Canada, every Chinese person knows Da Shan. In the China Daily, Judge Gomery is quoted as saying, "I don't think there are too many Quebec separatists in China."
It has been fascinating visiting China. This ancient country is being transformed into a modern state at an accelerated pace. Although it is technically still part of the developing world, China already has more middle and upper class people than does North America and their numbers are growing. China is Communist in name only. There is an unwritten social contract by which the Communist Party remains in power without challenge and, in return, it ensures a rising standard of living for the Chinese people.
The people here adhere to the ideology of consumerism. Unlike many Buddhists in Cambodia and Thailand, who believe that they will prosper in their next life, the Chinese want to prosper here and now. In bookstores, they no longer sell copies of Mao's little red book. Instead, they sell books with titles like the Business Plan of Wal-Mart or the Strategies of Toyota (along with the complete works of Donald Trump!). This week, Beijing is being turned upside down by a conference organized by Fortune Magazine. Bill Gates will attend, as will many CEO's of Fortune 500 companies.
As you probably know, Chinese couples may only have one child. As a result, this country is filled with children who are pushed hard to succeed, since all the dreams for the next generation are focused on one offspring. There are many educational books and toys for sale here. School entrance exams are discussed in the newspapers as an important event. Competition is ferocious: It has been said that, in China, if you are one in a million, there are 1,300 other people just like you.
Tom Friedman of the New York Times has written that, in the past, we were told to eat our vegetables because there were children starving in China; now, our children must be told to do their homework because there are children in China who want their jobs!
This warning should not be seen as overly ominous. The rise of China can benefit everyone. The growing Chinese middle class can be a whole new market for us Westerners. In addition, although we cannot compete with China's cheap labour costs and work ethic (they work six or seven days per week; you see busy construction sites here early on a Sunday morning, when an equivalent site in Canada would be empty), we still have a capacity to think outside the box that I have not witnessed here in China. This is not a place where people can express themselves freely. We are thus able to do higher value-added work than most Chinese. However, we must not be complacent and rest on our laurels.
It will also be interesting to see how China develops and to see how it maintains social stability in the face of the widening gap between its rich and its poor.
China is a fascinating place that can offer us many opportunities. I am glad I stopped here for an initial visit and that I got a taste of what this huge nation has to offer.
All Good Things Must Come to an End
My trip is nearly over and I have enjoyed it thoroughly. I hope you have enjoyed reading my e-mails. They will serve as a journal of my adventures.
By the end of my voyage, I will have traveled nearly 40,000 kilometres by plane, train, automobile, bus, motorcycle, boat, three types of tuk-tuk, rickshaw, chairlift, mountain luge, subway, taxi, limousine and, of course, by foot. I will have taken 10 flights and one bus ride and visited 10 cities and 11 airports.
I think I will need another vacation just to recover!
Bye for now.
Thursday, May 12, 2005
Ni hao from Beijing!
I am now sitting in an Internet cafe that took me more than an hour to find. As I searched, I became more and more determined to find the place. It became my personal treasure hunt!
I had asked someone at my hotel to write the cafe's address on a card in Chinese for the taxi driver to follow. The driver dropped me off in the general vicinity of the cafe, but not specifically at the address indicated on the card, which is understandable, given that the buildings in this area do not have addresses posted on the outside and also given that it turns out that the cafe is located at the rear of the building, meaning that it is not even located on the street where its address indicates that it should be. I asked numerous merchants in the area for directions, which they gladly gave me in a combination of Mandarin and sign language (Unfortunately, I only understood the latter).
In addition, the cafe is located on the third floor of this darkened five-floor office building, which was impossible for me to know, since there is no English or even semi-English sign anywhere to tell me so. Fortunately, the one Chinese symbol that I have learned to recognize is the sign for Internet cafe (it is an upside down U with two small x's inside), so after finding a Chinese-only advertisement for this Internet cafe in the lobby downstairs, I knew that I was in the correct building. However, that still left the matter of finding the appropriate floor. I therefore ran up the fire escape checking each floor, and finally found the elusive Internet cafe, one of the few such places in Beijing.
To my great surprise, this is a great Internet cafe, filled with hundreds of modern flat-screened monitors with high-speed connection grouped together in pod-shaped booths, with music piped into each booth (In my pod, they are paying what sounds like a Chinese version of Celine Dion MUSAK).
Unfortunately, my adventure was not over. Only a few choice computers out of the hundreds in this place actually have Microsoft Word in them. (Most of the other customers are only here to play video-games). Anyhow, once I found an appropriate computer, there was still the matter of having the English letters on the keyboard switched on, which I was able to arrange with the helpful staff (who do not speak a single word of English; I imagine that they figured out that I wanted to type in English by looking at my Caucasian face).
So now that I have found myself a properly equipped computer, I will continue to tell you about my trip.
Yesterday, I left Shanghai after a very enjoyable stay. Shanghai is China's business capital. It is, for the most part, an ultra-modern city that looks like something out of a science fiction movie. In some respects, it may be a vision of what cities of the future will look like elsewhere in the world, including in North America. Most vestiges of the past have been replaced by glass and steel towers, usually with strange-shaped tops and flashing lights that illuminate the city's skyline after sunset. The side of one skyscraper even turns into a 40-storey high television at night!
Shanghai takes its urban planning seriously, with a distinctive modern five-storey museum dedicated to precisely that topic located in the Peoples' Square in the centre of town. The museum contains a detailed three-dimensional scale-model of the city that is larger than a tennis court.
Despite being a city of 20 million, Shanghai is very liveable. Its numerous skyscrapers are separated by parks and pedestrian malls. All the sights that a visitor would want to see are found within a five-kilometre radius. You can walk anywhere, take public transportation or enjoy an inexpensive ride in one of the multitude of taxicabs, whose white-gloved drivers are bound by law to wish you a good day … or you don't pay (... at least that is what the signs in the taxicabs say; they also say that "Drunkards and imbeciles must be accompanied by other passenger").
(The polite taxi drivers of Shanghai contrast with the animals who drive cabs in Beijing: Upon arrival at the Beijing airport, I had three cab drivers fighting over me - two quoting me outrageous prices as a flat fare to the city and another telling me that the meter in his cab was broken so he "make-a me goot price." I told all three to go to hell, grabbed my luggage from the one who had taken it from me and I flagged down a fourth cabdriver, whose meter worked just fine - although his Citroen could have used a few more horsepower. Traveling is always an adventure!)
Shanghai is a very international city that attracts visitors from all over the world. If you are a Westerner, you are not a source of curiosity as you would be in Chengdu or Chongqing, which I had visited previously. Instead, you attract attention of a different sort. Since Shanghai is China's wealthiest city, it attracts people from all levels of society who are out to make a buck. Some are businesspeople from abroad or well-educated Chinese, while others are poor people from the provinces. As a white male, whenever I walked in any area frequented by foreigners, I had to put up with a barrage of offers such as, "You want Rolex?" "You want handbag? I make-a you goot price" or "I bring you beautiful Chinese lady?" (... all three offers would often come from the same guy!). It is frankly no different than what I have had to put up with in the cities of other developing nations that I have visited in the past, but when contrasted with the charming innocence of Chengdu and Chongqing, it was somewhat disappointing.
Shanghai is increasingly a conference and convention destination. While in Shanghai, I could have attended both the World Ping-pong Championships and the International Conference on Public Toilets (seriously!), but I chose to pass on both.
When I arrived at Pudong Airport in Shanghai, I took the Maglev (magnetic levitation) train from the airport. The Maglev is the world's fastest train, reaching speeds of as high as 430 kilometres per hour. It accelerates so smoothly that you barely notice the speed. However, when the cars doing 130 kilometres per hour on the expressway adjacent to the track look like they are standing still and you notice that the train track banks sharply on the curves to prevent the train from derailing, you realize that this is more than just your typical train!
After checking into my hotel, I got together with my friend Jake from Bangkok, who coincidentally was visiting his father in Shanghai at the same time as I was there. Jake's father, a Montrealer, is often in Shanghai on business and even speaks some Mandarin. The three of us went to an excellent Italian restaurant on the ritzy Xintiandi pedestrian mall. We were joined by a fourth man that Jake's father knows. This fourth gentleman is a Moroccan Jew from Montreal who now lives permanently in Shanghai.
The Italian restaurant could have been anywhere in the world. The chef was an Italian who spoke to us in French. The only reminder that we were in China was the heavy Chinese accents of the waiters, as they greeted us with "Buena sera" and "Grazie." The meal was very pleasant. In a way, it was like being back home in Montreal - with a multi-cultural touch: The dinner conversation was mainly in French, along with some English, Hebrew, Mandarin, Thai and Italian.
That night, Jake and I checked out the Shanghai nightlife. Among other places, we visited the current trendiest club in town, Park 97 - situated, funny enough, in the middle of a park. It was like any other club back home, except that the bouncers were elderly members of the Chinese Red Army wearing their uniforms (They looked like they should be marching through Tiananmen Square, rather than checking the ID's of underage drinkers) and the clientele consisted of a mixture of Caucasian expatriates and what looked to be Chinese "professional girlfriends."
The next morning, Jake's father had his driver take us to the Xian Yang market. Let's just say that the merchants at this market don't exactly seem to respect intellectual property rights. Just don't tell Ralph Lauren, Calvin Klein, Rolex, Mont Blanc, Nike et al.
Bargaining is fierce at this market. Basically, after the merchant asks for a given amount, you must respond with a counter-offer of 70 to 90 percent less and then you must stick to your price, say "take it or leave it" and then walk away. Invariably, the merchant will come running after you and say, "Okay, okay" while feigning tears as though you have made his or her life so miserable by paying so little. The "tears" invariably dry up as soon as you pay.
Most older neighbourhoods in Shanghai have been demolished or are slated for demolition in the near future, with the notable exception of the heritage buildings on the Bund. The Bund is the area on the west bank of the Huangpu River, which bisects the city.
On the Bund, one finds many magnificent European-style buildings built between 1900 and 1930, or so. In many cases, these buildings originally housed banks. Interestingly, now that China is open once again to business, they have reverted to serving as the local headquarters of several banks. The outsides of the buildings look quite out of place in comparison to other Asian architecture, but would look perfectly at home in Old Montreal, with their columns, stained glass and thick walls. The interiors have been renovated, in many cases. I visited one bank where the floor and columns in the lobby are covered in gleaming marble and the frescos on the ceiling above the bank tellers are worthy of the Sistine Chapel.
Facing the Bund across the Huangpu River is an area known as Pudong, which is to Shanghai as Canary Wharf is to London or La Defense is to Paris: In other words, it is an area being built up from scratch with ultra-modern office towers, hotels, residential complexes and shopping centres. The best-known edifice on the Pudong skyline is the Oriental Pearl Tower, a 1500-foot TV and radio transmission tower that looks like what would result if the CN Tower in Toronto and the Atomium in Brussels had a child: The tower has numerous spheres protruding from it at various levels and the tower stands on a three-pronged pedestal, which in turn has small spheres protruding from it. It truly looks science-fiction-like.
Next to the Oriental Pearl Tower is an 88-floor skyscraper housing the Grand Hyatt Hotel, the highest hotel in the world, which I had the opportunity to visit. The hotel is located between the 54th and 88th floors. There are spectacular views from the reception lobby (55 floors up) and, of course, from the 88th floor restaurant. The rooms are located around the perimeter of the building and inside, except for some glass elevator shafts, the tower is hollow, creating a 33-floor high atrium. The hotel's piano bar is located at the bottom of this spectacular atrium and the music during Happy Hour wafts up through the atrium from the piano to all of the guest rooms. It was probably the nicest - and certainly the most spectacular - hotel that I have seen.
Unfortunately, I was not staying at the Grand Hyatt, but I did not do too badly, nonetheless. I stayed on the Bund at the Peace Hotel, which bills itself as the most famous hotel in Asia. That may once have been the case, but is probably not accurate anymore. The Peace Hotel was built in 1926 by the Sassoon family. It is a grand hotel in the style of Montreal's Ritz-Carlton. Despite its age, the Peace has been renovated, so the carvings, marble and chandeliers in the lobby look nearly as good as they did in Shanghai's heyday, when visitors from all over the world gave Shanghai a very international flavour (which, come to think of it, the city has now regained, but in a new historical context). My room had all the modern amenities, along with old-style wood carvings on the walls and 15-foot ceilings. Walking down the hallway from my room was like going for a stroll into the past, but then when I stepped out onto the street and looked at the skyline of Pudong across the river, it was like looking into the future.
The Sassoon family (that built the Peace Hotel) was the most prominent of a number of Iraqi Jewish families that had a profound impact on the development of old Shanghai. They, along with the Khadoory family, built most of the city's most beautiful hotels, mansions and office buildings, many of which are still standing.
Jews have been present in Shanghai since the 1840's. From that time until about 1917, there were typically only maybe 800 Jews in Shanghai, but despite their small number, they were among the city's most prominent and influential residents. The Sassoons, for example, were traders of spices, textiles and opium, as well as investors in real estate. They made their way over to Shanghai from Baghdad via India, where they also had interests.
After 1917 and especially after 1933, the number of Jews in Shanghai increased dramatically, as Shanghai became a place of refuge for Jews escaping Russia after the Bolshevik Revolution and then for those escaping Germany and other European countries, during the rise of Nazism. It is estimated that the Jewish population of Shanghai may have reached as high as 30,000 in the early 1940's.
During the time leading up to World War II, Shanghai was one of the few places where Jews were accepted as immigrants (Canada and the USA, along with many other countries, had shut their doors to Jewish immigration). At the time, the Japanese controlled the part of China where Shanghai is located. Certain Japanese and Chinese diplomats in Europe issued numerous visas to save Jews by allowing them to immigrate to Shanghai. Eventually, the Nazis asked the Japanese to round up the Jews of Shanghai for extermination, but the Japanese refused, although they did order the Jews to move into a ghetto in a neighbourhood called Hongkou, which I visited.
Hongkou is an old area of Shanghai, generally not part of the typical tourist's itinerary. Much of the area will soon be demolished, as Shanghai prepares to host Expo 2010. The residents of Hongkou are poor or working class. They live in the same buildings where many Jews found shelter from the Holocaust.
In Hongkou, I visited the Ohel Moishe synagogue, which is no longer actually used as a synagogue, but which houses a small museum dedicated to the history of the Jews of Shanghai. The museum's curator is Mr. Wang, a short and sprightly 86-year-old Chinese man with thick square-rimmed glasses, slicked-back hair and an old-fashioned hearing aid that extends from his ear by a wire to a device in his shirt pocket. He looks somewhat like Deng Xiaoping. Mr. Wang, who speaks excellent English (and supposedly excellent Japanese as well), insisted on giving me a personal tour of his museum (as he has several visiting Israeli presidents and prime ministers in the past). Mr. Wang is not Jewish, but worked for and with many Jews in Hongkou.
I learned from Mr. Wang that the common language of the ghetto was English (residents' mother tongues included German, Russian and Yiddish, among others). Communication with the Chinese was in very basic Mandarin and good ole sign language. Since the Japanese ran the place, all children had to study Japanese in school (I must admit that I have yet to meet a Japanese-speaking Jew, but there may still be some out there). During the Second World War, times were tough in the ghetto, with tea leaves being rationed and the like. Afterwards, though, the Jews of Shanghai enjoyed relative prosperity. However, once the Communists took over China in 1949 (and with the founding of the State of Israel in 1948), the Jews left Shanghai. Today, there are several hundred Jews in Shanghai, but they are here as expatriate business people and not because they are Jews.
Now I am in Beijing. Today, I visited the Great Wall of China. I will tell you more in my next e-mail.
Until then, take care.
Sunday, May 08, 2005
Pandas, Temples and Chongqing
I am now in Shanghai, a very modern, dynamic and international city where you often forget that you are even in China.
Eats Shoots and Leaves
When I last left off, I was in Chengdu and about to visit the famous pandas of China. Since I wanted to see some geographically dispersed locations, I hired a driver for the day. I first visited the famous Feng Feng and his fellow cuddly-looking pandas, covered in their black and white fur. They are very cute animals that are quite photogenic as they lounge around eating bamboo shoots. Pandas are born very small, but grow to weigh as much as 100 kilograms.
Qing Cheng Tian
After seeing the pandas, we drove past huge ultra-modern factories along beautifully landscaped roads to a Taoist mountain known as Qing Cheng Tian. These modern divided expressways had perfectly trimmed shrubs all along the median for miles and miles. On either side of the highway, there were flowers planted in attractive configurations. It was a display worthy of the botanical gardens. This landscaping is maintained by an army of ragged-looking peasant ladies whom you actually see clipping the shrubs, fixing the flower displays and sweeping the shoulder of the highway with brooms, as cars whiz by at 120 kilometres per hour. On more than one occasion, I saw one of these women tending her shrubs while standing in the passing lane, seemingly oblivious to traffic. Each time, fortunately, drivers would calmly swerve around the gardener. Labour in China is cheap and, apparently, so too are workers' lives: These ladies must surely get run over on a regular basis.
Qing Cheng Tien is the site where the Taoist religion was founded. It is billed as being the most secluded place in China. However, when I arrived and saw the chaotic situation in the parking lot, I suspected false advertising, and indeed I was correct. There were literally thousands of people hiking up the mountain. I was the only white person among them, which led to some friendly stares and hellos. However, it seemed nobody spoke any English, beyond the word “hello.” As I climbed the trail, I visited a succession of both ancient and refurbished temples, reminiscent of the scenery in the film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (minus the martial arts, of course). Once I got away from the crowds, Qing Cheng Tien was actually somewhat peaceful and the view from the 1,200-metre mountain was quite spectacular, despite a mist in the air.
At a temple near the summit, I was shyly approached by a Sichuan University student named Shirley (or some Chinese name that sounded similar). She is studying English and asked if she could practise with me (Unlike with similar requests that I have routinely received in Shanghai the past couple of days, she honestly simply wanted to practise her English).
I engaged her in conversation about current events in China in order to see what she knew and what sort of Communist brainwashing she had been subjected to. When she expressed a desire to live in freedom, I figured that I had manoeuvred the conversation in exactly the direction I wanted. However, when she elaborated that she was anxious to finish school in order to start earning the money that would give her the economic freedom to be able to do as she pleased, I realized that her view of freedom was exactly the same as that of any Canadian student. She did seem aware, though, that the Chinese government controls the domestic media and that broadcasts of the BBC International into China had occasionally been blocked by the Chinese authorities when their content was not to its liking. In addition, we discussed the importance of Guanxi (connections) in China. Shirley also asked me whether we had corruption in Canada, so I briefly described the Gomery Commission to her.
That night, I walked along Chengdu's immense outdoor pedestrian mall with its tacky neon commercial signs, few of which I could understand, as they were all in Chinese (I now know what it is like to be illiterate!). The place was packed with people strolling along, enjoying the warm evening air. The area reminded me of Fremont Street in Las Vegas (minus the casinos).
I also visited one of the trendier clubs in town, known as Age of Red. All of the decor was red, including a glow-in-the-dark red bar counter. The decor included photographs of Communist heroes - mainly Che Guevara. At certain points in the evening, scantily-clad go-go dancers (4 female, one male) danced along a mezzanine in front of huge Chinese flags (red with yellow stars) to the beat of loud techno music. Despite the Communist theme, the club is located next to the US consulate, serves Budweiser beer and plays mainly American music. Also, as I later learned, it is owned by a Chinese-Canadian.
The next day, I checked out of my hotel. After I paid the bill, I was given what appeared to be a Chinese version of Canadian Tire money in denominations totalling the amount of my bill. Each of these coupons had what looked like a scratch-and-win section. Indeed, that is exactly what it was. In order to minimize under-the-table transactions, the Chinese government requires businesses to provide customers with these receipts, which double as scratch-and-win coupons. A business' gross income must at least match the total amount of scratch-and-win coupons distributed by that business. The government funds the small jackpots that are paid to holders of winning tickets. Since the Chinese population enjoys playing games of chance, they insist on being given these official receipts and, as a result, local businesses are forced to declare most of their revenues for tax purposes. I think it is a stroke of tax enforcement genius on the part of the Chinese government (although waiting for the customer in front of me in line at the hotel to scratch all of his receipts did try my patience somewhat).
I took a nearly five-hour bus ride to Chongqing. The driver of the luxury coach steered through the turns on the winding highway like he was a Chinese Michael Schumacher. He passed every other vehicle on the road with his horn blaring the whole time. The suspension on the bus was weak and I was seated at the rear of the bus, so it made for quite the bumpy ride. To make the trip more pleasant, though, there was an attendant on board (like a flight attendant, except that we were not airborne). Her only job, so far as I could tell, was to serve us Dixie cups full of plain boiling water as a refreshment. We arrived 15 minutes late in Chongqing, because the driver decided to stop en route to have the bus washed!
Once we were finally dropped off in the centre of Chongqing, I proceeded to the Canadian consulate in a nearby building, where I was to meet my friend, Philippe, who is Canada's consul in Chongqing.
You have probably never heard of Chongqing in the past, but you are likely to hear about it in the future. Until 1997, Chongqing was a poor polluted town with old grimy dilapidated buildings and smoke-belching factories. In 1997, an order came from the central government in Beijing to turn Chongqing into a modern showpiece of China. The unspoken logic behind this decision was that, in order to maintain social peace throughout China, the Western provinces had to gain a taste of the sort of prosperity that the regions of the East Coast (i.e., Beijing, Shanghai, etc.) were experiencing.
Since 1997, entire neighbourhoods in Chongqing have been razed and replaced by gleaming skyscrapers and non-polluting industry. Buses and taxis run on natural gas and electric scooters are becoming popular. The latest skyscraper currently under construction will be 76 storeys high. There are presently more construction cranes in use just in Chongqing than there are in all of North America! When I mentioned to my friend, Philippe, that a certain place was located near the bridge that is under construction, he asked me, "Which bridge that is under construction? There are several." The metropolitan area of Chongqing has recently grown to become the largest metropolitan area in the entire world, with a population of 31 million people, surpassing the previous holder of that distinction, Tokyo (that being said, the urban centre of Chongqing has "only" 14 million residents).
When I arrived at the Canadian consulate on the 17th floor of a major office tower, the guard on duty took a look at me, determined that I was not a North Korean refugee seeking asylum on Canadian territory, and let me into the consulate. In the reception area, there was a large Canadian flag, a poster of Bonhomme Carnaval and official photographs of Prime Minister Paul Martin and the minister of foreign affairs, Pierre Pettigrew. I immediately felt at home.
I was greeted by Philippe, a former colleague of mine at my law firm, Lavery, de Billy, and a classmate at McGill Law School. Philippe has been Canada's consul in Chongqing for the past year-and-a-half. He is responsible for the surrounding territories in Western China, an area encompassing 250 million people, with a gross domestic product equal to that of the province of Quebec. However, in contrast to that of Quebec, Chongqing's GDP is increasing at a rate of 13 percent each year, meaning that its GDP is doubling every four years. Philippe's role is to help Canadian businesses take advantage of this growth by selling their products and services in Chongqing and the surrounding territory. He oversees a staff of 10, including his personal driver.
Since Canada is well-respected internationally and diplomats are held in high regard in China, a nation filled with so-called "important government officials," Philippe is often quoted in the local press and courted by local officials and businesspeople. He also receives very good service in local establishments. For instance, when he moved into his apartment located within the confines of a beautiful five-star hotel, the entire staff of the hotel was apparently summoned to a special meeting and told that a very important person, the consul of Canada, would be moving into the hotel and that if management received a complaint from the consul about any hotel employee, that employee would be summarily dismissed. Needless to say, the staff treats Philippe very well. Since I was staying with Philippe (in a huge two-bedroom suite), I was able to benefit from that high level of deference!
Despite the great hotel service, Philippe is in the process of moving into a spectacular 2,500 square foot 35th floor penthouse apartment in the centre of town overlooking the Yangtze River. It is positively Trump-esque.
Philippe has established some good Guanxi (connections) here in China, but also in Canada, having had opportunities to meet and brief important Canadian officials, including Prime Minister Martin.
Because he speaks (and writes) excellent Mandarin, Philippe has had no trouble meeting the locals. Also, when you are a 6-foot-2 white man speaking Mandarin in a place where nobody is taller than six-foot and there are at most 800 white people among 31 million Chinese, you tend to attract attention. It was hilarious to see the jaw-dropping looks of passers-by when Philippe would start joking with a sales clerk in fluent Mandarin.
As another 6-foot-2 white man, I also attracted my share of attention in Chongqing, such as when I went for a walk through one of the few remaining poor shantytown neighbourhoods in one of the central hilly areas of town. As I strolled down narrow alleys past crumbling two-floor clapboard houses with barbershops, tailor shops and the like on the ground floor of each, I was constantly stared at and sometimes approached by the locals. They engaged me in apparently friendly conversation. However, they did not speak a single word of English (not even hello), so the interactions would mostly consist of my smiling, waving and repeatedly saying, "ni hao" (hello) and "Canada," while they blabbered on incessantly - in a friendly tone - under the mistaken impression that I understood them.
At one point during that walk, I wandered into a food market in the basement of an old apartment complex. Business was quiet, so as I walked past the primitive stalls - one selling vegetables, another eggs, another live chickens and still another, live fish - the shopkeepers would engage me in the same sort of friendly, but incomprehensible, one-way conversation as had the folks in the narrow alleys. Eventually, I had attracted so much attention that I had a crowd of some 15 people following me around the market and actually applauding whenever I would take a photograph of one of the shopkeepers or their children. They clearly do not get many foreign visitors in this neighbourhood. The local residents treated me as though they were welcoming an alien from another planet! It was truly an unforgettable experience - for me, definitely, and for them too, probably.
Even in the fancier area of town, where they occasionally see foreigners, we attracted positive attention. One evening, we visited the trendiest club in town, whose owner, Mr. Bao, is a friend of Philippe's. Mr, Bao is a small always-smiling 40-year-old who supposedly has a net worth of over $100 million. He travels with bodyguards. Several months ago, he opened this nightclub as a sideline.
We first bumped into Mr. Bao in the bar of the hotel where Philippe lives. We had a drink with him and his two associates. Mr. Bao and I got along well, despite the fact that he does not speak a single word of English (not that my Mandarin is any better). The secret is to smile a lot and clink beer bottles (Cheers!) on a regular basis. Mr. Bao insisted that we visit his club later in the evening.
After an excellent dinner of Australian rib steak and French wine at the 39th floor restaurant at the Marriott (Even though we were in China, man needs more than just Chinese food to live!), we checked out a couple of clubs. Being white men, we never had to pay a cover charge.
When we arrived at Mr. Bao's club, it was hopping. Mr. Bao was there to greet us and spent a good part of the evening plying us with alcohol and ordering his staff to bring us fruit baskets (a little different than a Montreal bar!). Everything was on the house. While there, we spotted a Chinese movie star in the crowd (I cannot recall his name; and in any event, even if I could, you probably wouldn't know the difference).
We were the only foreigners in the club. Some of the customers were apparently peasants from the countryside who were in town for the May Day holiday. Even though they couldn't communicate with us, they would thrust drinks into our hands and attempt to engage us in conversation. It was hilarious: Being seen with us foreigners was like some sort of status symbol for them!
Although I enjoyed being a status symbol, it was time to move on to Shanghai, the business engine of China, where English is widely spoken and foreigners abound. It is a very different place than Chongqing, but also a lot of fun. I will tell you more about Shanghai in my next e-mail.
Until then, be well.