Thursday, October 18, 2007

Chinese Confession - Hong Kong

One of my lifelong dreams finally became a reality. For more years than I can count I have wanted to go to Hong Kong. Needless to say, I was extremely excited to finally be able to go. I had heard great things about the city and entertained even more spectacular visions of what it would be like to be there. Finally I would be able to see if it measures up to all of the hype. As high as my expectations were, I think it is pretty safe to say that it even beat those.

Hong Kong has almost everything that I could possibly hope for in a city. It’s lively, vibrant, affluent, not too prohibitively expensive (unlike NYC or London), extremely international, clean, modern, and orderly. It has amazing architecture, with some of the most widely recognized skyscrapers in the entire world. As land is extremely scarce, it is incredibly dense, easily rivaling Manhattan Island. In fact, much of the flat land where the buildings stand has actually been reclaimed from the ocean. Majestic, rocky mountains set a beautiful back drop that offers a unique contrast with such an urban environment, and a deep-water harbor welcomes both small ferries and massive ocean vessels.

When darkness falls, the lights bath the city in a dazzling, energetic glow. Every night at 8:00pm, you can stand at the edge of the harbor in Kowloon and listen as music is played overhead and the skyscrapers on both sides of the harbor come to life and offer a light show unmatched anywhere else in the world. Synchronized with the music, the lights dance and streak across the sky, meeting each other in the middle, while stationary lights on the building flicker and change color, offering free entertainment for the millions who come every year to see it.

Above this spectacle, on the peak of Hong Kong Island, is an observation deck that offers a breathtaking, unobstructed view of all of Hong Kong. As you stand there and gaze out over the magnificent eye candy before you, you truly see just how beautiful, dense, colorful, and dazzling the city really is. The lights reflect off the water of the harbor below as yachts and ocean liners make their way through. Stargazing is definitely out of the picture here.

If you want to find a quiet, uncrowned beach where you can take a swim in the warm, water of the Pacific Ocean, you can easily find that on the South side of Hong Kong Island in Stanley, or venture of to one of the many other beaches elsewhere around the city. The climate is very warm, with temperatures jumping well into the 100s at times in the summer and dipping into the 50s in the winter. So, if you are dreaming of a white Christmas, you had best look elsewhere. If, however, you dislike the whole of winter like I do, from the biting cold winds to scraping frost off of your windshield in the early morning before the sun rises, then Hong Kong offers a wonderful refuge. In fact, you don’t even need a car. The public transportation system on the island is so good that getting around is a breeze. Double decker buses, innumerable cabs, subway lines, ferries, and trams can take you anywhere you need to go. The prices are quite reasonable as well, which is more than can be said for the Lamborghini dealership which was mere blocks away from our hotel. But if you do want to drive your car, be prepared to not feel too wealthy. Mercedes and BMWs are as common as Toyotas, Nissans, and Hondas in the United States.

Overall I would say that prices in Hong Kong rival those in the United States on average. A decent meal in a restaurant will cost about US$10, which was definitely a transition from the US$1 to US$2 I have been paying in Shanghai. The variety is amazing though. Do you want authentic Indian food? How about Turkish, American, French, Italian, English, German, Vietnamese, Korean, or Japanese? Hong Kong has it all, and it is readily and abundantly available.

One of the most enjoyable things for me was the availability of information. English bookstores were easy to come by. News and internet content is unfiltered, which means you are free to spend as much time on flickr, blogspot, or as you would wish. For the first time since I have been in Asia, I felt like I was truly free to say what I really thought about things and didn’t have the feeling that there was a government hovering over me, watching my every move. Perhaps this was a mere delusion, but it was a welcome feeling nonetheless.

Beneath the glimmer of Hong Kong, however, lies a culture and environment that, since the 1800s, has developed a unique fusion of Chinese and European style. It does have some similarities with Chinatowns in America. Still, there is no place in the world quite like it.

So what is my impression of Hong Kong now that I spent five wonderful days there? If Shanghai is the pearl of the orient, then Hong Kong is the diamond.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Chinese Confession - A Place Called Shenzhen

Last week during our trip to Southern China, we had the opportunity to visit a very unique city. If you have never heard of it, do not worry because most Americans haven’t. In fact, merely trying to pronounce it correctly would be enough of a task to deter someone from learning more about it. This is where I can come in and, amidst my random thoughts and photos, possibly offer a brief glimpse of it. The city is called “Shenzhen”, and it pronounced “shun jun” where the “j” sounds like the j in “just” and the –un’s rhyme with “sun”, as in the bright thing up in the sky.

Now, ugly introduction aside, Shenzhen really is a fascinating place. It’s not fascinating in the same way that Beijing, Shanghai, or Xi’an are fascinating. Those places each have an incredibly rich history and culture. Shenzhen is fascinating for exactly the opposite reason. It has almost no history because the city is literally about 30 years old, as opposed to being 3,000 years old or even older. Its culture is almost completely eclipsed by what has been happening there over the same period of time.

Okay, now I am going to offer a comparison by which we can benchmark the growth of Shenzhen. I was born and raised in a quiet city in Colorado called Loveland. If you go there and ask people if they think Loveland is growing fast, they will almost all unanimously agree that it is. Some think it is growing way too fast, and they are tirelessly striving to bring its growth to a standstill. There is good reason for it to be growing so quickly. It’s a close neighbor of Fort Collins, which was named as Money Magazine’s best place to live in all of the United States for the year 2006. Both cities regularly draw in people, and have grown relatively fast compared to other places in the country. Loveland currently has somewhere between 55,000 and 60,000 residents. If you rewind to 1979, it was considerably smaller. I don’t have an official number, but it probably had 30,000 residents at most. At the exact same moment, on the other side of the Northern hemisphere, there was a sleepy little fishing village near the Hong Kong-China border. Its population was a mere 20,000, which is extremely tiny by Chinese standards. At this point in time, Loveland was about 50% bigger than this small Chinese village.

In 1979, China was going through the initial phases of economic reform as it turned away from a fully planned and controlled economy and began to experiment with market economics. Deng Xiaoping and the leaders of the nation decided to setup a small area in which they could be tested, monitored, and contained. They decided on this small little fishing village because of its ideal location on the coast and in close proximity to Hong Kong. They declared it the first “Special Economic Zone” (SEZ), and Shenzhen was born.

This SEZ was able to attract businesses in a way that the rest of China and much of the world were unable. They generally offer incentives such as free trade zones, export processing zones, industrial estates, etc. If you don’t understand the allure of this, think of it as offering delicious zero-calorie ice cream that sacrifices no flavor to a bunch of people dieting and anxiously sweating away on treadmills and stationary bikes in a hot, non-air conditioned gym in Phoenix in the middle of the summer. That’s the kind of allure Shenzhen had for businesses.

Our little fishing village of 20,000 people began to grow. And grow. And grow. And grow. It basically exploded, but rather than the typical explosion that features chaos, disorder, destruction, and death, this was an explosion of growth. During the 1990s, people would refer to it as the city where they would finish one high rise building every day and one boulevard every three days. The city was well planned, though the actual construction of some buildings may have been a bit hasty as there was so much incentive to complete construction. Some already began to look old by the time they were completed. Others have been built to high standards and still stand glistening and tall today.

During the 1980s and 1990s, there was a modern city wall of iron and barbed wire that encircled the city – a vain attempt to contain the experimental capitalist economics that had such a powerful effect on the region. People had to pass through gates to get into the city where they could work, and if they didn’t have the documentation, they tried to find other options. All around the country stories were whispered of people making millions in this new, amazing place. Shenzhen was the modern day Pied Piper of China, drawing people in with a comforting melody of offering hope to millions who were stuck in poverty, unemployment, or starvation in the rural countryside.

Shenzhen’s growth was too much to contain. Businesses and high rises sprang up all along the outside perimeter of the city. Many factories would also build on-site housing where their workers could also reside and eat. This agglomeration made it challenging to get an accurate count of the population, and so the actual population of the city is higher than official figures.

Okay, now it is time to make use of our American benchmark city of Loveland. As stated before, Loveland’s population was probably about 30,000 in 1979, whereas the small fishing village of Shenzhen was 20,000. About 30 years later, Loveland has a population of between 55,000 and 60,000. Shenzhen, however, now has about 9 million. That amounts to a 24.38% annual growth rate, compared to 2.51% for Loveland.

Think about that for a moment.

Suddenly Loveland, this “rapidly growing city,” looks like a snail in a drag race against a Ferrari. This is basically like another Chicago being built in just 30 years. If Loveland had grown at the same rate at Shenzhen, it would currently have about 13.5 million people, but it has 60,000 instead. This doesn’t even come close to a rounding error in the population of Shenzhen.

If you want to see some actual pictures of Shenzhen over the past 30 years, here is a great compilation that shows what a tremendous transformation it has undergone.

We also happened to be in Shenzhen on October 1st, which is China’s national holiday. There were some pretty crowded areas and some other cool sights we passed while on the bus. I was able to take a few pictures, but not too many because we only had a few hours of free time to experience the city on our own. Most of the time we were visiting companies and factories to see them first hand.

It’s amazing how fascinating it can be to look at life, things, and places outside of the United States. It helps put them into perspective, and suddenly trivial little things can be seen for what they truly are. A good example of this that was going on while I was on this trip was illustrated when I was watching an American news station while in Hong Kong. People on the news were having a very lively debate about the meaning of two measly words that were mentioned on an AM radio talk show. The words were “phony soldiers”. People (Americans) were up in arms over it, some saying that the man who said them (Rush Limbaugh) needs to offer a formal apology because he was insulting all soldiers, while others were saying that it was not at all what he meant. I won’t take sides because, (1) I think that people are entitled to their own opinions and that America does have something called “free speech” and maybe people should turn off the TV and actually read about it and find out what it means, (2) I hate the petty, immature bickering that is so prominent in politics. A bunch of supposedly mature adults are acting like pre-pubescent teens with their mud slinging and immature bickering. And don’t even get me started on the logical fallacies that are too often used to support arguments.

The main reason I am bringing this up is because something else was going on that, in my opinion, was much more important. They didn’t mention anything about it while I was watching the news for two hours, though it did pass as a small headline on the bottom of the screen. The leaders of North and South Korea were meeting together and finally talking about a peace agreement that could finally bring the half-century Korean War to an end. Now, a considerable amount of the population of the United States couldn’t even point out Korea on the map, let alone understand how great of a development this would be. Korea has a very painful history of constantly being influenced by or subjected to other countries’ wishes. If it wasn’t China, it was Japan, or Russia, or the United States, or some other country. They are basically the skinny kid that was always picked on and pushed around by those who were bigger than him. They have had very little time, especially in the past several centuries, where they have been free to be united, autonomous, and truly at peace. Even now, the Koreans see themselves as one people, but politics keep them from being with family who may just have happened to be on the other side of the line that was drawn through the peninsula in the beginning of the cold war. I hope things work out so that they can actually finally have their own united (and hopefully free) country. I also hope, probably in vain, that more Americans will open their eyes and become more aware of things outside of the borders of the United States and stop bickering about such trivial things as what is meant by the term “phony soldiers”.

Sunday, October 07, 2007

Chinese Confession - Travels, Monsoons, and Typhoons Oh My!

Time goes on, and Wipha fades from my memory amongst everything that I have been experiencing lately. As I prepared for a week-long trip to Southern China and Hong Kong, I was thrilled to hear that the weather was expected to be more-or-less pleasant. And for the most part, that’s exactly what the weather was – beautiful.

As fascinated as I am with big storms, I certainly did not want a much anticipated opportunity to travel be shattered amongst a torrential storm. The monsoon South of China pressed its way to Vietnam, where it unleashed its fury. When we arrived in Shenzhen on October 1st – the Chinese national holiday – the storm made its raw fury manifest despite it being so far away. It wasn’t devastating for us; instead, it brought massive, powerful waves to the beach that provided hours of entertainment.

We spent that night in a hotel on the beach, and decided to make the most of our time by going out on the beach. It didn’t matter to us that it was 11:00pm. In hindsight, it was actually probably better that way because it kept us from being able to see just how dirty the ocean is around China. Our attention was too focused on the activity of the water and the thousands of people around us to spare any thought for cleanliness. I am not exaggerating when I say that there were literally thousands of people on the beach. Most people would likely estimate this particular beach as being able to accommodate about 400 people. This one was so crowded that there was hardly any room to walk. Family and friends would come in groups, find a place in the sand, and mark their territory by building a big sand wall around their bamboo mats, belongings, and baskets. It was so Chinese. Amongst all of these micro walled territories, there was also an area of the beach that was roped off for people to come in, set up tents, and stay there for the night as they enjoyed vacation. They most likely didn’t have hotel rooms. Others merely ventured off from the beach and found places in the grass of a nearby park where they could sleep.

I unfortunately do not have any pictures of this crazy beach experience, but I did get a shot of the crowd in Shenzhen during the daytime. Hopefully this will act at least as an indication of just how crazy it was.

I tried to meander my way through these groups that were so tightly bunched together, each on their own little plot of beach. Of course, we drew many curious looks as we headed toward the water. We were, after all, the only westerners out of the thousands of people there. I still couldn’t get over just how many people would be out so late at night. Even in the afternoon of the 4th of July with perfect weather conditions, you would not see this concentration of people on a beach in San Diego or anywhere in the US. Perhaps it was because Chinese people are so averse to the effects of the sun. Perhaps it was because of a holiday. Perhaps it was the 6-foot waves that came crashing in against the beach every 10 seconds.

It was probably for all of these reasons that so many people had come. We certainly made the most of it in any case. We ran into the water Kamikaze style, well past the line of the most courageous Chinese kids in ankle deep water. We got to the point where the water was about waste deep, then slowed down and looked up. It was coming. It was huge. Soon enough it was rising up to bear all of its weight and force down upon us. We were thrown back like rag dolls as the wave crashed up against the beach. For a brief moment, it stopped as the crowded cautiously stepped backward. Then it began to retreat and pulled us with it, exercising nearly the same force as it brought when it made landfall. Finally it retreated fully, only to be pulled beneath another raging wall that advanced fearlessly toward us.

We were grinning ear to ear. I was especially excited because this was my first real time in the ocean, and it was a very memorable first experience. There I was, a skinny white guy with two other friends: one an average height, toned white guy, the other an incredibly muscular, tall, black guy. I could tell you which was more entertaining for the thousands of Chinese people around us: the crazy, relentless waves, or us three being thrown around as we made sure to have as much fun as possible. If we lost our footing, we would find ourselves at the mercy of the waves around us. My really muscular friend would practically act like a human bowling ball, being thrown by the crashing wave into the feet of the crowd, causing entire groups of Chinese kids to come crashing down around him.

We certainly weren’t without our wounds. I got a few scrapes on my left shin. I’m sure they will leave some scars, but those are true souvenirs. In fact, they are almost like war trophies, as they represent the battle we fought against nature’s fury. Actually, it was more like our battle that we waged against a tiny little miniscule side-effect of a side-effect of nature’s true fury that was being unleashed thousands of miles away in Vietnam. It is certainly a moment we will never forget.

And this brings me up to the present moment. I will fast forward through Hong Kong and the rest of Shenzhen, as there is entirely too much to write for just one blog. We left Hong Kong amidst beautiful weather and touched down in Shanghai late this afternoon. Apparently we made it just in time, because there is another typhoon that had been raging not far from here in the Pacific. This one is called Krosa.

I don’t actually know as much about Krosa as I did about Wipha. That’s probably because I barely even learned of her existence after she made landfall South of Shanghai. Since we arrived back at our residence in Shanghai, the airport has been preparing to close down to incoming flights. She already had her way with Taiwan, and now she appears to be enjoying the coast of China and is quite content to just spin around South of us. Of course, she is sending big cells of heavy rain our way just for kicks. I haven’t ventured out, especially since it is nearly midnight, but I imagine things will be nice and soggy in the morning. I have class all day tomorrow, so I don’t know when I will be able to post pictures from this trip, but I did a count and I have about 1,000. Needless to say, I will need to do some sorting and pick out the better ones.