From November 2008

Emergency in Lychee Park

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Today was my first day off work in a long while (excluding weekends). After a leisurely start to the day I took the metro to Lychee Park, otherwise known as Shenzhen’s central park. The park was buzzing with people enjoying the pleasant autumn weather – mostly old people practising Tai chi and looking after their children’s children (as is the way in China).

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Grannie

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Granny”

Emergency Toilets

Emergency Everything

It seems the park was well equiped for all possible emergencies, the veritable menu of services included; Emergency Command, Emergency Water Supply, Emergency Fire “Ingufsher”, and last but not least an Emergency Toilet! Something tells me whoever was responsible for translating has had the last laugh 😀

Ma Luan Shan Mountain

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Last weekend I joined some colleagues to climb another mountain, this time near the coast in Yantian district and more of a scramble rather than a walk! The path took us around a large reservoir and then up a rocky river bed which provided for a pretty unforgiving obstacle course. Due to the volume of other people on the same route the pace was a bit slow but luckily we had perfect weather; not too hot, not too cold.

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There were one or two hairy moments, especially at a steep waterfall where an old rope had been provided to climb up, the only problem being that water was still running over the rock face. The sensible ones in our group opted for the detour around the obstacle but yours truly decided it would be more of a challenge to go directly upwards. After clambering around the plunge pool I started climbing only to get stuck half way up with the numbing fear that if I slipped I would probably crack my skull open and drown. Unfortunately the crowd below were all to busy watching to take any photos so the event only remains in memory but somehow I willed my way to the top and then promptly swore never to try that again!

Pigeon Wing

After the a day’s exercises it was time for an early dinner. Above is the local delicacy which turned out to be pigeon wing! I can’t say it was particularly delicious and as you can imagine a pigeon doesn’t have much meat, even less so than chicken wings. I filled up on a eggplant (otherwise known as aubergine to us Brits) dish and Mantou – sweet steamed buns from Northern China.

Ugly Beach Sculptures

While waiting for the bus back we sat on Dameisha beach as the sun went down which was surprisingly clean for China but rather marred by the hideously ugly sculptures which graced the shoreline. Good taste is not something you’ll find anywhere here!

Forever Enthralled

Zhang Ziyi has a new film out next month (in China anyway) about the life of the late Peking opera master Mei Lanfang titled “Forever Enthralled“. It’s a slight departure from her former action roles (House of Flying Daggers etc.) but the trailer looks promising:

The director, Chen Kaige, has had mixed succes in the past so it will be interesting if this film is a return to form after his pretty but shallow previous outing, The Promise.

Mei Lanfang (1894-1961) is well known for having stood up to the Japanese occupiers in 1937, who liked his art but for whom he is said to have refused to perform, making him poor until the war finished in 1945.

I personally find Chinese Opera pretty incomprehensible and headache inducing but perhaps this can change my mind.

Civic Shenzhen

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Shenzhen has got one of the most audacious looking city halls I’ve ever seen with the sweeping roof supposedly resembling traditional Chinese architecture and a bird in flight, as a symbol of the city’s upward growth. It even dwarfs some fairly large skyscrapers beside it giving you some idea of the scale – click the photo for a much larger panorama.

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The roof is quite beautiful and elegant but the square red and circular yellow supporting columns are ugly and the lack of symmetricity upsets the balance between both sides. I can’t quite work out if I love or hate it.

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Nearby is the main library, another building with an interesting roof, but for some reason they didn’t appreciate me taking photos inside even though it appeared to be fine to use your phone! It was nice to see some civic architecture that for once wasn’t laden in oppressively heavy grey fake marble or covered in musty red & gold drapes as is so often the case in China. By contrast the library is light & airy and propounds to contain over four million books covering six floors with 2000 seats.

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For library buffs it’s also the worlds second largest RFID enabled library which provides full automation to the high volume of users through the new electronic tags.

Every Coin Has Two Sides

People love to bash China over it’s human rights and environmental record which I don’t thing anyone can dispute is pretty abysmal. I’m sure what gets reported is only the tip of the iceberg but when you consider the enormous size of China, it’s long history and all the cultural baggage which comes with it I don’t find it particularly surprising. Social and political change is no doubt under way but it’s a long process which will take decades and probably wont be fully fulfilled until the current vanguard are long gone.

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Photo by kmeron

This came to mind last week when I interviewed around 50 fresh graduates from Shenzhen & Guanzhou universities who were looking for their first job. I asked each group of students a question which we then discussed for about 15 minutes to gauge their level of English. Here are a few of the questions I asked (there were 20 overall):

  • If you could change one important thing about your hometown, what would you change?
  • Is it better to enjoy your money when you earn it or to save your money for some time in the future?
  • What is a very important skill a person should learn in order to be successful in the world today?
  • Which is more important for success: the natural ability you are born with or hard work?

I explained that there were no right or wrong answers; it was just a test of English skill, and while a lot of it was fairly mundane some of their responses were quite enlightening…

Many students came from poor country families who could barely afford to send them to university and spoke of their duty to their parents to pay them back for the hardship they had suffered to give them a good education. Many will be supporting not only themselves but also their parents and eventually their own family. Nearly all of them valued hard work over natural ability and were surprisingly individualistic about people’s ability to better themselves (not exactly communist). At the same time they felt a responsibility to the places they had come from and a hope that one day they could use their future success to help others who were not so lucky.

China is rapidly approaching that largest English speaking country in the world and by 2010 will have have surpassed 22% of the worlds English speakers. On the ground what this represents is a generation of highly skilled and motivated workers who just entering the job market ready, willing, and furthermore expecting to take the world by storm. While there are skill gaps this is fast closing as they assimilate knowledge from around the world – China is no longer just about copying, it’s about learning and adapting.

The worrying side of this is not so much the loss of jobs to outsourcing (this will happen but job’s will also evolve) but that we have been almost blind to a serious denigration of our own basic freedoms. Considering America’s post 9/11 actions and its highly biased media can we say that it is any more free or democratic than China? While the answer is probably still yes the lines have certainly blurred considerably.

With Americas influence and power waning the world’s landscape is set for a dramatic change in the coming years. Perhaps the strongest beacon of hope for a more moderate route is Barack Obama‘s impending presidency but we have yet to see how that will pan out. One thing’s for sure, we’re going to be in for an interesting century which will no doubt be fascinating and horrifying at times but never boring.

Poverty, pollution, human rights, food poisoning, product quality and eWaste will all continue to dominate the headlines about China but sometimes it worth looking beyond the negative. Every coin has two sides and nothing is more true of China which contradicts itself in every conceivable way so to stereotype would be a gross misjudgement of this fascinating nation.

To be continued…?

Shenzhen Skyline

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In addition to interviewing around 50 fresh graduates this weekend I also went up the 9th tallest building in the world (10th depending on how you calculate it) to get a fairly stunning view of the city I now call home, Shenzhen. Located in the CBD, next to Da Ju Yuan metro station, Shun Hing Square skyscraper stands at a whopping 384m tall with 69 floors and is the tallest steel building in China.

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There is an observation deck at the top providing a commanding view of the megalopolis below in all its sprawling glory. Although clear skies are a rarity anywhere in urban China things were better than usual that day with just a thin haze covering in the skyline. From this hight the sheer scale is breathtaking and on a clear day you can pear over to the rich neighbour, Hong Kong.

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You are immediately struck by the density of construction, unseen in most of Europe and the west in general. With land at a premium and a massive population the solution has been to build upwards at an alarming rate which continues today with construction crews working 24/7 on new sites around the city. In what appears to be a bit of planning foresight a green area has been set aside as a “Central Park” ala New York to provide an oasis in the middle of the city.

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It has to be said that on an individual level most of the architecture is fairly uninspiring and frankly ugly but as a whole it has a certain brash charm and energy as if to express its aspirations as a city for the future.

What Are You Doing?

Whereas up until relatively recently the main lines of communication were Telephone, SMS, Email and IM to an extent (with snail mail for real old school types) the waters have been somewhat muddied in the past year with the advent of micro-blogging services like Twitter and so called “life streaming” services like FriendFeed, which aggregate content updates from across your accounts on different sites (e.g. as below).

Twitter and the like have often been criticised for contributing more background noise rather than useful content but since relocating to China I seem to have found an actual use for it. Where as all the aforementioned modes of communication are one-to-one for the most part, Twitter is one-to-many and visa versa many-to-one. It enables the broadcasting of short messages to a mass audience of “followers” (or just curious bystanders) without the expectation of a reply necessarily. When trying to keep in touch with people on the other side of the planet I have found this especially useful to avoid repeating myself to everyone who just wants to know “What are you doing?” (while trying to avoid mindless trivia).

In terms of consumption I especially enjoyed Twitter’s special coverage of the US election today where often the latest news updates were being “broadcasted” in a live stream even before the news networks could get the information out along with some interesting user commentary.

The medium is certainly in its infancy but will be interesting to see how it develops and what new ways of harnessing this collective voice are found. To get started why not see what’s happening — right now.

Misty Mountains

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Our second day in Yangshuo greeted us with rain aplenty and for those who opted in (yours truly included) a chance to get soaked on a long morning bicycle trip along wide roads enjoying the surrounding vista (while trying not to fall off holding umbrella in one hand!). The afternoons activity also included large volumes of water as we set to a river on bamboo style rafts. The locals were of course delighted to sell us rain coats!

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With light rain still falling a mist surrounded the mountains creating quite an mysterious and strangely eerie atmosphere. That said my colleagues were not dampened my the weather and and broke out into bouts of song along the way – I guess you could call it “team building“!

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And so that just about concluded our trip and it was time for a quick dinner of extremely spicy noodles from a dubiously (un)clean looking restaurant before being packed into the bus for the bumpy ride home through the night. Yangshuo is a truly beautiful part of China however I recommend nobody go by bus if you’re travelling some distance to get there – your wallet will forgive you for taking a plane believe me.

Silver Cave

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In the afternoon after visiting Lijiang River we headed underground to a fascinating limestone labyrinth known as the “Silver Cave”. Running through 12 mountains the subterranean tour covers approximately 2 km and takes about 1 hour to complete with a guide giving copious information about each rock formation (great if you understand Chinese, not so great if you don’t!).

Silver Cave

The cave has been well adapted for tourists with concrete floors and stairs so the able-bodied will have no problem getting around. Creative lighting has been used to highlight the cave with its many stalactites (the ones hanging from the roof) and stalagmites (those built up on the floor of a cavern). There are a number of natural pools which are so perfectly still that they act as giant mirrors and make the enormous space appear even larger.

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Funnily enough one of my Chinese colleagues commented during the tour “do you think these are real?” which I think pretty much encapsulates a lot about China right now. They were of course the genuine article but as with so much in China it’s always hard to tell!