Wednesday, August 31, 2011

The Beauty of the Chinese Language

                Mandarin is a brilliant language.

                It’s a river: constantly flowing, slowing and speeding as needed, blending well. Unlike the often coarse sound of French, or the electric jumps of Spanish, or Russian’s spittle-laden, palatalized glacial flow, Mandarin is a smooth speech. It is soft: even the hard consonants have a certain smoothed-down quality to them.

                Yet Mandarin is also a language that finds itself in every moment of life. It is idiomatic such that a short description can give a sense other languages take pages to describe. The grammar is flexible such that a construction exists to get the finest point across, but simple enough to not lose itself in declensions, conjugations, and the like.

                I’ve been studying Mandarin for seven years, and I still can’t get over how fluid, yet how strong it is.

                Here in Shenzhen, I’ve really been savoring speaking the language every day.  It’s really fun to be able to express myself basically 24/7 in the language. I’m not completely fluent, but I have conversations and attend meetings and exchange emails in the language. Part of my job also includes a lot of translation, so the language comes in there too. Mandarin is phenomenal for business, and there’s a lot you can say at a meeting in Mandarin. I have to interpret for a new Korean-American employee when the language switches to Mandarin, and some of the discourse is pretty weird to translate.

                It’s nice to dive into that river and float in its current. It’s really great to take all the Mandarin I’ve learned in the three years since I was last in China and to put it into action. There’s a feeling of reward. But there’s an even greater feeling of realization.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Zhongshan: Guangdong and Her Famous Son

Sun Yat-sen (or Sun Zhongshan, as he is more commonly known in China) is a big hero of mine. He rose from fairly humble beginnings to become one of the 20th century’s most notable statesmen, completely changing the lives of a fifth of the world’s population and forming Asia’s first modern, independent republic. He also laid a lot of blueprints for later Chinese progress, which came to fruition in the 1950s in Taiwan and in the post-Deng era in Mainland China. If Sun was around today, he’d likely be nodding in approval (a certain other Chinese leader, one from Hunan Province with a famous jacket, would not be so approving). I admire him for his nerve, his innovation, and his steadfast beliefs. While I don’t necessarily agree with all of his methods, I also think that he started a huge change in the way not just Asian countries set their goals, but also in the way the West and Asia interact. He’s flawed, but he’s a cool guy.

Sun Yat-sen. This image is in the public domain in China.
He was also born and raised quite close to where I’m staying, in Cuiheng Village, now part of Zhongshan City – they named it after him posthumously. The village still exists, although in a much different form, and the family house that replaced Sun’s birth house during his own lifetime is still there, now surrounded by a park and several museums in a free-admission complex. There was no way I was not going to visit.

Zhongshan City (中山市) is located roughly 120 kilometers by road to the west of Shenzhen – a hop, skip and jump across the Pearl River Delta and an easily day-trippable distance. It is very much a Cantonese city: unlike Guangzhou, Shenzhen, and Zhuhai, Zhongshan hasn’t really received much migration. It very much keeps much of the “ye olde Guangdong” allure: the cab drivers barely speak Mandarin, and the local Cantonese dialect is the language of the street, of the conversation, and even in some cases of officialdom. (Rarity: the bus announcements are in the Cantonese language alongside Mandarin). Besides the Sun Yat-sen complex, Zhongshan is also noted for a minor pagoda and for being a great place to buy traditional Guangdong products.

On Sunday, I went.

Getting from Shenzhen to other cities in Guangdong is pretty easy. Bus travel in China is popular and cheap, and Shenzhen has several huge bus stations to choose from. I got to Futian Bus Station at 7:30am and bought a ticket for a roughly 8am departure. 

Taking the bus in China is an experience. Firstly, bus stations, though more automated than those in America, with security checks and printed, bar-coded tickets, are chaos. Crowds and crowds of people hover around the gates, and when boarding for a bus is announced, it’s a sudden crush to get on board. Secondly, the buses are hugely varied in their clientele, ranging from village people coming back from the big city to the urban sophisticate going back to visit relatives. Thirdly, buses are loud: people talk loudly, and it’s not rude to talk into your cell phone. People are also more outgoing on the bus.

The bus left at 8:05am. I talked with my seatmate for a while – a Zhongshan native who lives in Shenzhen, and was going back to visit his niece for two days. The bus passes first through the industrial areas of Shenzhen and Dongguan, then over the very long Humen Bridge – just over the point where the Pearl River fans out into the sea – then through rural Nansha and north Zhongshan into the city itself. There are mountains and streams and rice paddies and great views en route. For two hours, it’s quite a ride.

On the Humen bridge, looking northwest. 

An agricultural area of Nansha. This is orchard-land.
I got to Zhongshan at 10:00am. The bus dropped us off in an area of the city center filled with tourist shops and a fancy hotel. Zhongshan, despite its relatively “low” status compared to its neighbors, has definitely received more than its share the Chinese economic boom, and is quite prosperous. I saw a lot of construction going on, and this fancy hotel seemed pretty big for somewhere so close to Guangzhou, Zhuhai and Macau. The shops, however, were a cornucopia of good old Guangdong products. I spent close to an hour browsing around for presents. I got some fancy confectionary for my recently graduated friend, and another food gift for someone else. All my presents this trip seem to be food-related. I think I’m going through an “eat your gift” phase.

Then it was time for the park itself. I took a city bus to get there – a forty-five minute drive that took us outside the city proper through several villages before reaching the destination: the Sun Yat-sen Former Residence Park.

The entrance to the park. On the left, one of Sun Yat-sen's alternate names: Sun Wen (Sun Man in Cantonese).
The park is beautiful. It’s well maintained and clean, with trees and benches, stones and fountains. The foliage is lush. The restored village houses and Sun Yat-sen’s house are to the north, while to the west there’s a huge museum commemorating Sun’s life and work. The environment is one of peace, contemplation, and honor. This place is notable as a major pilgrimage site for China’s more nationalist types. It’s also a popular day-trip for Guangzhou and Zhongshan locals, given that admission is free.

My route took me through Sun Yat-sen’s old house, restored houses of Zhongshan village, the park, and then the museum. Sun’s house is quite pretty: it is painted in a mauve and yellow pattern, and has a certain celebratory feel to it: it is bright! The famed tamarind tree that Sun planted on his return from Hawaii is still there, twisted after a storm in 1931. It’s a popular picture spot. The older houses are well-restored, but present an unusually gay depiction of life in a village. It definitely was not that comfortable – I’ve done enough research to know this. A couple of the houses are hard to find. I walked into one and was simultaneously chilled and thrilled by the eerie quiet I found there. I hadn’t heard this kind of silence yet in Asia.

Sun Yat-sen's old house

Inside another restored house. Some of the furnishings are original, some aren't.

Part of the restored village. I really like the windows.
The museum is interesting, but very much plays to the hyper-patriotic expectations of many visitors; someone familiar with China would definitely identify a lot of the phrasing and depictions as fitting into a certain expectation (e.g. the lack of Chiang Kai-shek). What I found interesting was the huge collection of photographs, manuscripts, and artifacts relating to Sun’s life that are maintained there, including his family’s tea set. There are also quite a few modern paintings and depictions of events in his illustrious life. 

The entrance to the museum, with Sun Yat-sen's statue and curtains in  Republic of China colors.

An enlarged version of a 1910-ish photograph of the Sun clan, pretty much taken right where this photo was taken 101 years later. 
I spent almost three hours in the park. By this point, it was 2:30pm, and I hadn’t had much since breakfast – just a bao in the city center. I walked to a nearby village and got some lunch from a local shop: vegetables and rice. I think the owner was a bit surprised to see a tall white guy speaking broken Cantonese; he seemed to be staring at me as I ate. The food was good though.

Afterwards, I took a walk around the village: some shops, a few homes. It seems to be a servicing center for the nearby museum-institutional complex and for the main road passing by it. I walked down the drag for a few minutes, passing by rice fields and locals on motorbikes. Zhongshan has a lot of motorbikes. I also spoke with a local for a few minutes in an awkward mix of Cantonese and Mandarin. He told me that the village was fairly typical until tourism boomed in the capitalist era, when it became fairly well off, along 
with Cuiheng, due to the influx of Mainland, Hong Kong, and Taiwanese tourists.

Walking towards Shimen village.

Shimen village. I ate at the place with the yellow awning.
Then I headed back again through the villages on the bus, after stopping in another village for some tea, 
and took the bus back to Shenzhen. I got back to the city around 5:30pm and to my apartment at 6.

I was really glad I went, even if Zhongshan’s not the biggest or most interesting place in the world. I got to see some really interesting historical sites, and also was able to visit the park dedicated to and birthplace of one of my favorite historical figures. It was also a journey to see “normal” Guangdong-given that Shenzhen is a city of migrants. It was also a great experience to practice my Cantonese. Zhongshan people are really happy when someone tries to speak Cantonese: they’re really proud of the language. I’m also happy with the little progress I’ve made thus far.

Zhongshan is a special place: it, despite modernization, and wealth, and a constant influx of visitors, has maintained a unique identity, and offers a different side to Cantonese culture and history that glitzy Hong Kong does not. It’s definitely a town anyone interested in Chinese history should visit, and certainly a 
place to learn about Guangdong, China, and the way Chinese people view their past – and present.

Greetings from Zhongshan! (Yes, I look like a tourist. But let's face it. I could dress in anything and I'd look like a tourist. Because I'm a tall white guy.)

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Tanglangshan: The Little Mountain Next Door

Saying that Shenzhen is hilly would be like saying that winter winds on the Midway are brisk. An understatement.
250-300 meters up Tanglang. The city is under the smog in the distance.

While we’re not Andean Patagonia or the Himalayas, we are very much not flat.

The Pearl River Delta is both heavily populated and heavily mountainous. Shenzhen’s development skirts the giant hills and mountains scattered throughout. When you fly over the city it’s sort of like this:


For reference: I’m using the traditional English definition of mountain: a landform over 305 meters in height in relation to its surroundings.

Looking towards the top of Tanglang from a ledge a few hundred meters below.
I live pretty much smack across from the third-highest mountain in Shenzhen, Tanglang Shan. When I put my clothes on the clothesline, I’m looking at it. At 430 meters (1,413 feet), it’s not a whopper (unlike Wutongshan in the east of the city, which is 944 meters), and it’s not the highest I’ve hiked (689 meters) but is definitely a nice hike. On cloudier days, there’s usually a little cloud chilling on top (I've called it the Tanglang Kippah). It’s a really popular weekend outing for young families and spry old ladies, so they’ve added steps most of the way.

Steps at one of their shallower points. At some places the climb gets a lot steeper. 
Normally, I’d not go on the path, but I did so today for two reasons: 1) I’m still getting over a cold and 2) Snakes. I hate snakes. Just like Indy.

I got up around 8am after a really bad night’s sleep –only about three and a half hours. Combined with the remnants of my cold, it was probably a clarion call to say “no, don’t climb the mountain!” But I’m sort of stubborn, and decided to make a go of it. I bought some water and OJ and set off after breakfast.

It’s only a thirty minute bus ride to the entrance to the park on the other side of the mountain. I got there and still felt a bit shitty. I took a drink of OJ, a puff of the inhaler, and contemplated.

The trail near the start. Not shown: the bench I'm standing on. 
Then I thought: “fuck, let’s go ahead with this.”

The trail is gorgeous. It goes through really pretty forest, and occasionally a mini-moor. There’s also a point where you pass the poles carrying the electrical wires. 

Looking onto Shenzhen
Hard to believe that this is in the middle of a city of ~9 million people, in a region with connected metro areas totaling 70 million. Also: note that we have climbed through an initial smog layer.
You also climb through the smog. Having clear air, even for a short while, is a real blessing. I love the cleanliness of the air, even though I’m surrounded by city. There’s a coolish breeze starting at around 300m up.

Shenzhen through the smog
 There are also great views scattered around.

The top, now a lot closer!
I started feeling better some of the way into the climb and a lot better closer to the top. It gets quite steep at points closer to the end, but it’s really magnificent.

Then I got to the top. I felt really achieved. I went on the little viewing terrace, and looked down. And there was my apartment building. It’s pretty novel to see where you live from a new, crazy angle.
OK, see the stadium? See the four apartment buildings behind it? See the one furthest to the left? I live there.

This is a city. This place is gorgeous. Also, smog valleys.

Looking over to the more populated south side of the mountain.
My stubbornness was worth it. The climb was really rewarding. When you climb a mountain, even a small one like Tanglang Shan, there’s a rush of “I’m awesome because I topped this mountain.” And I felt that. It’s nothing compared to what some of my friends did this summer, but it’s special for me. Because I see it every day. And now I can say that I’ve been on top of that mountain. The most important one to me.

In retrospect, I realize what I did was stupid. Mountain climbing while sick, with breathing issues, on not enough sleep is just a bad idea. But the reward was really worth the risk. I think also…that it’s some progress for me. I’m getting over many of my anxieties, and I can take more risks now. But I promise that I won't take more health risks.

I descended, quite sweaty, and took a cab back. After lunch, I had a different event: a new roommate.


My roommate for the next three and a half weeks is Shitong, a Chinese PhD student at the Yale Law School. He’s staying until January. He’s a nice guy, a bit quiet, and seems clean.

It’s strange to have someone in the next room now. I’ve gotten so used to having someone here that it’s weird to have someone next to me. I guess I’ll get used to it.  He seems to be into doing his own thing too, so I don’t know how much of a presence he’ll be anyways.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Breathing in China: Quite an experience

Travelling with a breathing condition has its ups and downs at times.

Travelling in China with a breathing condition has wild ups and downs at times.

Background: I’m not sure what I have. I’ve had occasional breathing and throat issues for a while, but during allergy season in May I really hit the wall. Shortness of breath, chest pain, sore throat…you name it. The doctors think I might have asthma, but they’re not sure right now. Anyway, I’m on a cocktail of meds. This is new since the last time I was in China, and I had trouble then.

Shenzhen’s pretty clean on Chinese standards. But even then, it’s really polluted.

I’m loving my time here. I’m really grateful and it’s been awesome. But the health worry has made a bit challenging at times.

Because I’m short of breath sometimes. Or because I feel dizzy. It’s mostly the pollution.

The first few days were pretty tough. I had a really bad attack my second day here. It’s gotten better, but I had a lot of trouble for some reason today.  I also had trouble in Shanghai, which is really polluted.

I’m lucky enough to have plenty of medicine. Two puffs of an emergency inhaler and I’m usually good to go. 

But even then…

It puts a damper on the trip sometimes that I wish it didn’t. I’m enjoying myself so much. This is an amazing opportunity. But I also worry sometimes about my health here, and about getting used to the air here. I’m pretty new to the asthma world, and I’m nervous enough.

Thankfully, it’s been pretty straightforward coping so far. I feel physically good most of the time now and it hasn’t been that much of a damper. I’m lucky enough to have the resources I need to handle it, and my colleagues have been really supportive. But that attack today was really scary. I was alone, and lost, and feeling faint. Blessed be He, it got resolved.

In a sense, challenges like these are part of the travel experience. Travel is meant to challenge us, to give us experiences that aren’t always pleasant or beautiful. Some people end up in riots. Some people get malaria. Some people get mugged. I worry about my breathing, and look ridiculous when I jump off a bus so I can take a puff of the inhaler (as I did today).

But it’s not so bad. I’m learning how to handle it. And it’s been an experience to suddenly, as I experience 
the joy and novelty a new place. And I’m getting better by the day.

And I have lots of people to rely on. My colleagues. You guys, my friends. My family. I know that there's someone there, even if contact's delayed, who I can talk to about this. I pray, and when I do, I feel like it'll be OK and I can really enjoy myself here like I do most of the time. After my medicine (one that I take daily), I read and that makes me feel good too. Even if it's depressing Dostoyevsky.

I promise to take care of myself here in China. I’m eating well and I get exercise and I get enough sleep and everything. This is just one of those challenges requiring more work and vigilance. 

I feel guilty about complaining on such an awesome trip, but my health is important. I thought it would be good to write about it.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

A return to Shanghai: Part II: The Building That Means It All

The second day in Shanghai was a very special one for me.

This building is pretty important in my life.
Copyright Kohn Pedersen Fox.
My father is an architect, and very successful at that. He works at a large New York City firm, and has worked on a lot of really big mixed-use projects in the Asia-Pacific region. The rise of China basically paid for my college education. And it started from the building in Shanghai I visited; my dad was part of the team of architects that designed it.

The Shanghai World Financial Center is well north of 1400 feet tall, and was, for a short time, the tallest building not counting spires in the world. It is Shanghai’s tallest tower, and a big tourist attraction and office building of the city. It also paid for the educations of most of the children of my dad’s firms employees; it was one of the firm’s most important projects, and garnered a lot of attention – and future projects. This building, and my dad’s working on it, are responsible for my comfortable upbringing and for all the amazing opportunities I had, for which I am ever grateful.

Last time I was in Shanghai, the building had not been completed quite yet. So this time, I decided, I had to see it.

I left where I stayed at 9am, with my bags, and grabbed some custard buns on the way for breakfast. I am seriously going to gain back a good bit of the 25 pounds I lost this past year over this trip. Seriously.

I got there around 9:45am, and got a ticket. But before that, I snapped a photo.

Sorry about the finger. There it is!
First, I went up to the observation decks at the 97th and 100th floors-at the bottom and the top of the hole. I went up an elevator, and arrived and walked around and took pictures. It’s a pretty expensive trip up (about US$25), but definitely worth it. Most people were trying to see Shanghai through the smog, but I was looking at the building.

The lower deck. It's really neat.

Yours truly, and behind me, Shanghai's smog. The smog is like a low-lying cloud that the taller buildings pierce through. This is, mind you, over 1300 feet above the ground. My sour-ish face is from a camera flash. I was grinning like an idiot most of the time.
Good job, Dad. And good job, team. (Sorry, dads get priority.) It’s a beautiful building…very clean lines, very elegant.

It was also totally amazing to be on it at last. I grew up with the building. The project started when I was 2 and finished when I was 17. It was my symbol of pride for my dad, and for the surrogate family formed by my dad’s amazing colleagues, for a long time. The building is basically a buddy. So it was just really awesome to be in it at last!

After the observation decks, I went down to the 94th floor to procure some souvenirs, and to also take a breather. I got a nice poster for my room.

The tourist shop. This is from my phone camera, since my real camera ran out of battery.
Then it was down to the lower floors, which holds a shopping mall with stores ranging from a cheap, ordinary convenience store to a very posh-looking Japanese restaurant. Unlike a lot of other Chinese skyscrapers, the developer seems to have gotten a good mix of stores in.

At that point, I met another friend. Rebecca is a friend of my father’s who lives in Shanghai. Originally from Sichuan, she and her husband are trained, incredibly skilled architects. They are also extremely cultured, and in general are great people.

I hadn’t seen her since 2008, but we were soon talking quite excitedly. Her family and I went down to the building’s food court to eat lunch, and we caught up. The food court in the building is really good, and cheap too. They have really, really good Shanghainese food.

By this time, I had been in SWFC for a few hours. There’s a lot to do there.

Rebecca also updated me about Shanghai, including a long discussion about wealth inequality in the city, which has noticeably widened in the past few years  - even if the widening has slowed in China generally. Shanghai is a huge economic center, but it also has a huge migrant population. It’s also become really expensive on Chinese standards, but the salaries of most people haven’t always kept up.

We actually discussed a lot of things. Rebecca and her husband, Jason, are very curious people, and also knowledgeable about a huge range of topics. They know a good deal about UChicago and had a lot of questions about my time there. Their son, an astonishingly well-behaved, intelligent nine-year-old, was listening intently, although he’s rather quiet. I can tell that that kid has tons of potential.

Then, it was time for me to go home.

My flight back was from Shanghai to Hong Kong-which meant I’d cross and recross the Mainland border to get back to Shenzhen. It’s not that bad.

I took the Maglev to Pudong Airport:

Copyright Viator.
A few years ago, Shanghai opened what is still the only commercially functioning Maglev railway in the world, linking the 30km between Shanghai’s international airport and an area close to the city itself. It was quite a white elephant, but also became a tourist attraction. It’s also the easiest way to get to the distant airport. Originally, it was supposed to extend 200km to the west, to the city of Hangzhou (which I’m going to in a week and a half). But that plan seems to be shelved for now.

I paid the roughly US$8 and got on. The ride was eight minutes, but reached 431km an hour. Going at that speed down a track, tilting, past fields and buildings and industrial suburbs, is nothing less than mind-boggling. 

It’s literally watching the world become a blur.

And then I flew back and crossed the borders and got back home and sat and reflected.

Shanghai is an amazing city. It is a place that really has no comparison, in spirit or in energy. It’s changed, and it will continue to change.

It was good to be back, albeit briefly. It was great to walk around and take the train and know the streets and recognize – and smile at – the idiosyncrasies of the taxis and the awkward format of the street signs.

I definitely plan to go back at some point. When, I don’t know. But Shanghai will, hopefully, continue to draw me back to her, again and again.

Monday, August 22, 2011

A return to Shanghai: Part I (Lengthy)

Side note: new toy at the bottom of the page: a map of countries and states I’ve visited.

At the tender age of 16, I hopped onto a plane and spent several weeks at a Chinese study program in Shanghai. I lived there for a few weeks with a Chinese family, attended Chinese classes with a group of mostly Korean college students, and explored Shanghai and environs. It was a sketchy program, but I got to go to China. Anyway, by the end of that summer in 2008, I was quite familiar with Shanghai. Furthermore, my dad’s been to Shanghai many times on business over the past twenty years – more on that later – so the city’s also basically paid my dad’s salary for quite a bit. So when I got the internship here in Shenzhen, there was no question about it: I was going to go to Shanghai, for however briefly, to have a nostalgia trip and see how the ever-growing city has changed in three years. Even though the school shut down during swine flu, and my host family immigrated to Canada, I still felt that I had a lot to see there. So I went.

Shanghai street scenes. The first is in a more residential area, the second is in a denser area closer to the downtown area.
I flew out of Shenzhen late on Friday night. My flight was delayed by an hour, so I only arrived at where I stayed at about 2am. I fell onto the bed. Even then, it was nice to be back.

I stayed at a rather cheap hotel – it only cost $15/night more than the hostels, but had a locking door and bathroom. China has several chains of cheap, clean low-frills hotels that are quite decent. If you’re travelling in China, I strongly suggest you take a look into staying at these types of places. It is very much worth the money.

I got up at 8am, cleaned up, and then went to my very favorite tourist trap: Xintiandi.

Xintiandi: land of the moneyed tourists
In 2001, a very rich developer took a ton of old, colonial-era Shanghai houses and refurbished them into boutiques, restaurants, and a tourist area. This area also happened to include the birthplace of the Chinese Communist Party. So it became even more touristy. The old houses of Sun Yat-Sen and Zhou Enlai aren’t far away either.

I walked around, had some cheap noodles, and bought some presents. I spent a few minutes inside a nearby store specializing in products from Xinjiang. The area hasn’t changed much, but has become a lot more of a traveller’s spot. There are many more white people now. I saw more non-Asians than I had seen in two weeks in Shenzhen. In Shenzhen, if I see white people on the Metro, I think “why is there another white person on the train?”

Either way, Xintiandi is very posh and pretty, and the neighborhood around it is quite interesting too. Chinese people in Shanghai are a bit taken aback if a white person speaks Mandarin – a lot of expats don’t speak any, and tourists usually don’t. In Shenzhen, it’s less exotic.

More Xintiandi. It's a pretty good example of urban historic redevelopment.  Particularly in a country where it gets messed up 98% of the time.
I also went to a nearby city park that I really liked back in 2008. It’s built around a memorial to Marx and Engels (this area is great for CCP nerds and for Sosc addicts), but has a lake and a tea room and gorgeous trees. In China, people gather in city parks on the weekend to practice traditional instruments and sing in choirs. It’s a pretty awe-inspiring experience to watch a group of people suddenly gather, pull out hymnals, and start singing 1930s patriotic songs. (It should be noted that Shanghai is by far China’s most patriotic city).

By the tea room in the city park, a choir sings an ode to a beauty.
Then it was off for some Maroon time.

My friend and classmate Michelle is awesome. She’s a Cantonese-American from Texas who pretty neatly bridges Chinese and American culture. She’s also a crazy-brilliant mathematician and wears heels of heights that I didn’t know you could walk in. She’s also working in Shanghai this summer. So we met up.

I met Michelle and her friends at Zhongyuan Park in the west of Shanghai: a nostalgia trip in and of itself. Zhongyuan Park used to be my Metro stop. Since then there has been a ton of construction and the Metro station more than doubled in size. Wow.

Anyway, that neighborhood is a giant shopping neighborhood, with tons of cheap stores and malls of stalls. Michelle and her friend bought some phenomenal shoes, and I got more presents for people, and an inexpensive suitcase. Shanghai is cheaper than the west and is a clearinghouse for tons of great present-type things. I bought more than half the gifts here. It’s still pretty pricy for China though. I spent more money in 12 hours than I did in a week and a half in Shenzhen.

Fake Swiss Gear bags with the label "Swiss Win." Very win. Also, consumer capitalism galore.
Then, we ate.

No Chinese social occasion is complete without at least one embarrassing spree of gluttony. Sort of like Jewish occasions. Anyway, the five of us traipsed off to a Sichuan restaurant, where we talked and ate ridiculous amounts of food. Sichuan food is spicy, but good spicy.

Mishi and I caught up, and I talked for a while with Michelle’s friend-colleagues. We also ate a ton of food.

Part of our gluttony. That fish dish on the left swimming in the chili peppers is  among the best fish dishes I've ever had.
We had chicken, mushrooms, more mushrooms, vegetables, noodles made of carp, fish braised in broth with chilies and bean sprouts, and other food. The others had some bull frog, which I, being the good kosher boy, did not partake in. Each of us went crazy on one dish. Mine was the fish. 

Thankfully, there weren’t any carbs, so we didn’t feel too heavy, although our food comas were pretty epic. Michelle and I talked a bit about Chinese food culture, and we all went at length about the pitiful quality of American vegetables. Chinese veggies are amazing. Michelle noted, “it’s best just to keep eating and not think about how much you’ve eaten.”

Then we did some more shopping – found some awesome edible presents for people , and also visited a KTV booth, where some of us made total fools of ourselves singing songs. Karaoke is awesome.

I headed back later that night and took note of my acquisitions. The next day would be pretty busy as well. It was great to be back.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Beach Trip

We took our summer students to the beach yesterday. The beach is in Dapeng, on a peninsula under Shenzhen City’s Control but about 60-70km away from campus. I led some team building activities, and later, we had a barbecue. Barbecued mantou (buns) are amazing. I’ll let the pictures do the talking.

Mountainous approach to the beach. It's *kinda terrifying* to be on a curvy, dirt road in a giant bus going at 70 km/h.

The beach!

More beach. This place is gorgeous.

Birthday line-up in progress. The activities were a success.

You can take me out of Chicago, but you can never take the Maroon out of me.

My colleague Chenli and his chicken skewers. 
That’s it. Sorry for the short post. I’m going to Shanghai tonight through Sunday night. Expect a post Monday or Tuesday.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Tianhou, Tombs and Soccer: A Day Exploring Shenzhen

So on Sunday I decided to explore the city I’m living in for these two months: Shenzhen.

The great myth of Shenzhen is that everything’s new here. Yes, it is true, 99.5% of the population and 99.5% of the buildings all showed up in the last thirty years, after Deng Xiaoping made this place basically “China’s #1 Capitalist Place.”

But Shenzhen is at the mouth of the Pearl River, which goes right up to Guangzhou (Canton), a major trading port for centuries. It also has brilliantly fertile soil and has been at the crossroads of migration for two thousand years: first Han migrants that brought Chinese language and culture, and then Hakka (also Han) in the medieval era who settled in the area. So there’s some cool things.

The Tianhou Temple and Song Tomb at Chiwan are among these attractions.

Tianhou Temple: the main gate
This is the Tianhou Temple at Chiwan. Originally built in 1274, and rebuilt several times over the centuries, it is one of the wealthiest temples in China, benefiting from donations from rich locals and Hong Kong business people. It is dedicated to the cult of Mazu, or Tianhou, a  goddess of the sea who is basically the big goddess in all of coastal South China and Taiwan. She started out as a folk hero in tenth-century Fujian, but later was deified. The cult then spread throughout coastal South China, and with immigrant communities to Southeast Asia.

The temple itself contains a large altar-and-incense hall, a smaller hall, and some surrounding buildings with incense towers, a Mazu museum, and shops to buy incense and sacrificial goods. It is very well-maintained and very beautiful. Also on the grounds: a turtle pond, and a rock garden.

Incense burners in front of the main hall.

The main hall, renovated and re-renovated for centuries.
Ten minutes’ walk away, you find the tomb of the Young Song Emperor. This area of China is pretty much on the southern boundary of what was once the great and mighty Mongol Empire, which replaced the Song Dynasty as the Yuan Dynasty in the 13th century. The royal retinue, centered around the 8-year-old emperor, was pushed south during the invasion until they reached the Chiwan peninsula. During the last major battle, the Song navy was crushed by the Mongols. One of the imperial retainers, realizing all was lost, picked up the little boy-emperor and jumped into the sea with him. Later, this tomb was built.

It stood for a long time as a site of local prayer, but was forgotten for a while. It was rediscovered by a soldier during the Cultural Revolution, but went pretty much untouched. After the reforms, the city cleaned it up and opened it again, and it functions now as a religious site. Imperial flags decorate the boundary, and there are memorial stones. It’s the southernmost imperial grave in China.

The statue is somewhat more recent, and the podium it's on is quite new.

It is chilling to go to a memorial for an eight-year-old child. But it is also, in a way, touching. People seven centuries later still remember tragedies and still keep in touch with a history oft considered lost in the post-1949 China. The efforts in the ‘50s and the ‘60s to abandon that old devotion just…allowed it to be reinvented.


My camera ran out of battery, so the last bit I will describe.

The Universiade is being held here at the moment. It’s basically an Olympics for college athletes. It’s a lot smaller in visitor numbers, and it’s not quite as crazy as one might think right now. However, this means two things:
1.       There’s a huge security presence on the street. Even the slightest peep of trouble and there are ten policemen right there.
2.       There are lots of tickets to sport events.

So for our students in the 9-day summer programs, we got some tickets to a soccer match. The stadium happens to only be ten minutes’ walk from campus. I can see it from my place.

It was a men’s game between Russia and the Ukraine. I was worried about rowdy, drunk fans, but it was mostly Chinese families who wanted to see what was going on in the stadiums that the city and province spent several years and much effort and money to build. It was also highly irksome for the citizenry of all classes. My dad comes here now and again for business and mentioned that people here were a bit irked in some ways by the various inconveniences that went unaddressed by the government, e.g. like my entire office was about public services shutting down for four days. The security was strict; I had to do my inhaler on the spot for the guard.

 It wasn’t the most exciting game, but it was fun. My colleagues and I sat with a great view of one end of the field, and a ball from a misfired kick came our way at one point. Russia won 1-0, and played a really good game against a disorganized, lackluster Ukrainian team. Watching soccer live is quite an experience. It’s one thing to “oh” at a missed shot, another to “oh” in front of the shot alongside 1,500 other people.


I’ll be going to the beach tomorrow for my job to direct team building exercises. Expect pictures and a post. Then Friday night to Sunday night I’m in Shanghai seeing people. I don’t think I’ll have internet at the moment, but I might yet bring my laptop.

Side note: so my friend Lizzy, who’s in Texas at the moment, is awesome. She’s been doing “I want to travel”-themed internet surfing and found for me a Tai Chi class in Hong Kong for free next month. I’m going to go!  Thanks!

Monday, August 15, 2011

Hong Kong Redux: Border Crossings, Dim Sum, and Mountains

My dad’s former colleague and her husband live in Hong Kong. I haven’t seen them for three years. They invited me to spend the day with them. I have a multiple entry visa, so Macau or Hong Kong were both possibilities  Originally, we were going to go to Macau for an architecture and food adventure for the day, but then the husband had a brief morning meeting, so they couldn’t leave Hong Kong.. Thus, I went in to see them for the day. Shenzhen is on Hong Kong’s border, so this is quite possible.

Hong Kong is a separate customs territory from Mainland China, with a different currency, legal system, and even driving system to boot. Beijing is largely only responsible for foreign affairs, defense, and some governance. Thus, one needs to cross an international-style border crossing to enter Hong Kong from Mainland China. Which happens to be quite an adventure. Photos aren’t allowed, so I need to describe it in words.

I left my place at 7:45am and got to the border at 8:30am.

It was chaos.

To enter HK from Mainland, you go through customs twice: once on the Mainland side to confirm your exit, and once in Hong Kong to confirm your entry. The Mainland exit hall is roughly seven hundred feet long by 100 feet wide, with fifty-sixty immigration desks. Each with about…thirty people behind them. Most with more. I’d say that 2,000 people were waiting to cross the border. Futian Checkpoint is the less crowded one.
The border guards do a meticulous inspection of each person’s documents. Crossing the Mainland exit takes an hour and a half alone.

It was all right in general. An adventure. I would estimate 95-96% of the crowd was Mainland Chinese, going into HK for shopping and to escape the chaos of the first day of the Universiade.

There were many small children. Many of them were driven a bit wild by the waiting, and started misbehaving. I was repeatedly accosted by a boy of about eight or nine until I asked his mother to get him to stop. She responded that he was “just young, and didn’t understand why we have to wait so long.” He stopped though.

The children became much better behaved after everyone crossed the footbridge to Hong Kong – I crossed around 10am. The Hong Kong customs officials are brook-no-bullshit types. I saw one rather strongly shove a child that cut the line. Wow.

The Hong Kong line is more efficiently managed, as one huge, snaking queue. The HK guards are quick. Even then, it took an hour due to the sheer mass of people. It wasn’t too bad though.
Anyway, I got through customs and took the train into the city.

The view at the border is phenomenal: on the one side, you have the mostly parkland, mountainous north of Hong Kong, and then on the other you have the city of Shenzhen and its enormous skyline, cut by other mountains. You have some of the sea, and the wetlands that surround the area around Lok Ma Chau/Luomazhou.

I met my friends at their fancy apartment building on Hong Kong Island a bit after 12. They live in a tony, mostly expatriate-populated complex on the side of a mountain. It’s positively weird to be in a well-appointed apartment while on a mountainside.

We had a dim sum lunch in the complex’s restaurant, which was phenomenal. This wasn’t normal dim sum, this was classy dim sum, and everything tasted amazing, including some really good “mock goose.”Over lunch, we caught up. The husband got his MBA at Booth and had a lot of questions about campus now.

Then we went hiking.

Not only is this only a few kilometers from Hong Kong’s business district, but that water is in a reservoir. You can hear birds singing.

We walked to a reservoir, then around it, and then up and down hillsides until we reached a main road several kilometers later. It was quite a hike, but afforded views like these:
Six kilometers from here, a middle-aged housewife might be in the giant Louis Vuitton store, debating which expensive handbag she should buy.
Mountains. MOUNTAINS.
From the road, we hailed a cab-which seemed to be travelling back to the more populated parts, and went to a touristy waterside area called Stanley for ginger ales and gawking at Aussie backpackers.

Then it was back to the apartment to wash up, and I went back that evening. The border crossing was a lot less chaotic - I hit a lull time – and I got back to my place just fine. I splurged on a cab from the border crossing to my place, and was pretty proud that I could direct him.

Expect a post tomorrow from events here in Shenzhen.

P.S. Location feature on Blogger! Awesome.