It’s New Year’s Eve here in China with the Year of the Monkey slated to begin at midnight and Shenzhen has the feeling of a bit of a ghost town with the streets largely empty of traffic, stores all closing early so that people can spend time with their families, and those that are out moving at a rather languid pace as the week-long holiday gets underway.  I feel a bit like a Jew on Christmas Eve in that my family is 8000 miles away in Jersey, but I can’t even enjoy Chinese food for dinner because all of those restaurants will be closed this evening.  So instead I went down to Sea World, the expat haven of restaurants, and took out some hummus and a Cobb salad from Element Fresh so that I would not go starving this evening.  It’s probably also a good thing that things are relatively quiet today because I need to pack for my trip tomorrow back to the States, which is really a full day endeavor because I cannot stand packing.

It’s been a few days since I last wrote and the past week really felt like everyone going into vacation mode knowing that school would be closed for the week.  I was in double vacation mode because I knew that I was also heading back to the States.  But even though it felt like an odd week, it does not mean that China was taking a break from its usual assault on the senses.

Last night was perhaps one of the odder encounters I’ve had since being here this time around.  I had just taken the ferry back to Shekou after a day in Hong Kong furniture shopping, setting things up for my new apartment, and catching a few drinks with friends.  Trying to be economical, I took the bus from the ferry terminal back to my apartment.  It’s actually quite easy because the ferry terminal is only a ten-minute ride from Apartment One and all the buses that run by there also stop at the ferry terminal, so it would have been irresponsible not to take the bus.  Anyway, I’m sitting on the bus talking to one of my best friends back in New York when I notice an older white man in a leopard-print fleece and his Chinese lady friend get on the bus one stop later and sit directly across from me.  I don’t pay them much attention beyond noting the fleece and continue on with my conversation. Two stops later, they get up to get off the bus and the old man stops right in front of me, puts his hand on my knee and with his boozy breath on my face hisses with a British accent ,”Go back to where you came from you f*#king Moos-lim.”  I was startled and in that split second decided not to engage with this man. It also took me a second for what he said to register because it was so absurd.  He then exited the bus and the few people still on, along with the driver just looked at me.  They knew something had happened, but were not quite sure exactly what.  There were so many things wrong with that moment from his inherent hatred of Muslims to mistakenly identifying me as one to getting in my space and touching me.  I guess my coloring is a bit darker than most people and I am sporting a bit of a winter beard in preparation for winter back in the States, but I had been yammering away in English to my friend and for the life of me cannot figure out what prompted this man to lash out at me in that way. It’s alarming on a deeper level because even if I was Muslim, such treatment is inexcusable an constitutes harassment for something for which one should not be harassed.  A day later I am still baffled by this man’s behavior and while I can easily chalk it up to his inebriated state, there’s always truth in the drink and I believe that this interaction is no exception.

As I watch the presidential race play out and the implicit (and sometimes explicit) distrust and even outright hatred for Muslims on display, including in yesterday’s latest GOP presidential debate when President Obama received flack for visiting a mosque to show solidarity with American Muslims, I experienced some of that here in Shenzhen, China from an old white man in a leopard-print fleece at 9:45pm on a Saturday night.  I wasn’t going to explain what had happened to the bus driver or the other passengers because China has its own complicated issues with Muslims, often using the rationale of terrorism to harass and imprison the Uighurs in Xinjiang who often rail against the Chinese government for more freedom and autonomy.  Even though I am not Muslim, I am alarmed that such hatred exists and that this man would shower his hatred upon a total stranger who was doing nothing by minding his own business having a conversation on his phone.  As for a larger takeaway, I am not sure I have just one, but there a lot of hatred out there and if it’s not Muslims, it can just as easily be another group of people, most of whom have done nothing to deserve such blanket hatred.

Not only am I baffled, but I am shaken that this stranger got up in my video like that motivated purely by his own hatred.  As a Jewish gay American, I have plenty of other identities that easily arouse irrational hatred in people, so while I had this experience based upon something I’m not, I’m acutely aware of the dangers that exist out there in people who harbor prejudices and are not afraid to act upon them.  It was definitely a wake-up call and just drives home the idea that irrational hatred and prejudice is the same for all of us, no matter the specific target, and it’s something those of us who are still rational should do everything in our power to fight and eradicate.

新年快乐 (Xin Nian Kuai Le) Happy New Year!

 

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I’m giving some solidarity with my snowbound friends and family on the East Coast of the US right now as they get hit with their first major snowstorm of the year.  While there isn’t any snow here in Shenzhen, it’s damn cold.  We’re experiencing a polar vortex of our own with temperatures hitting record lows.  It’s 45 degrees in Shenzhen and it feels even colder because most homes don’t have heat and even with heat, they are built without any real insulation since it’s normally warm and humid.  Add the humidity factor into it and it feels even colder because it’s that raw, wet cold that gets into your bones.  I am sitting here at . . . where else?  . . . Starbucks in the mall in my winter parka and wool beanie because someone had the bright idea to leave the front doors of the mall open even though it’s freezing outside.

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Freezing at the mall

Trying my best to type without gloves, but it’s not easy.

I’ve been meaning to write for the past couple of days, but the combination of work and Internet problems from being behind the Great Firewall have made it hard to sit down and do so.

You’ve probably noticed that the stock markets have had a wild week with most of the turbulence being traced back to the much-discussed slowdown of the Chinese economy.  The government reported it’s growth for 2015 of 6.9%, which while the envy of most other countries, was the slowest rate in 25 years.  It’s hard though to tie the gyrations of the market to just the slowdown of the Chinese economy.  That would completely leave out human nature and the irrational impulses of investors or perhaps the all the rational follow-the-herd mentality that often pervades markets.  A sell-off in one market is usually going to lead to a sell-off around the world, especially in this day and age when everything is so interconnected.  But I did not set out to turn this post into a lesson about markets, investing, or even the global macroeconomy.

China never ceases to amaze me in how screwed up and fascinating a place it can be, usually all in the same moment.  The five booksellers from Hong Kong are still missing, though two have kind of turned up.  One who was allegedly abducted from Thailand (and is a Swedish national) went on national television to confess to killing a young girl in a drunk driving incident in 2003 and the other, Lee Bo, who is a British national, is somewhere in Guangdong province, but no one knows exactly where or why.  It’s galling that nearly a month after Lee Bo went missing, we still do not know where he is. Worryingly, the Hong Kong government has asked the central government and Guangdong officials and all they could get out of them nearly three weeks after he went missing is that he is indeed on the mainland.  Chinese officials do not think that the HK government merits a detailed response and so the HK government and its people still remain in the dark about whether mainland law enforcement officials actually came down and abducted Lee Bo, as well as the other four missing men who are connected to this particular publishing house.  What’s more troubling is that the mainland allegedly took these men away because they did not like the content of the books these men were publishing, which tended to be gossipy take-downs of top mainland officials.  All of this adds up to some serious violations of “one country, two systems”, which was the policy that has undergirded the handover of HK from the British to the Chinese.  China has become more and more brazen about violating this policy and the Hong Kong people are truly powerless to stop it.  In the grander scheme of things, it unfortunately dovetails with a number of other moves on the mainland that reflect a central government still attempting to snuff out any sort of dissent.  From President Xi telling government officials that some questions should not be asked to the continued takedown of government officials on charges of corruption to the conducting off war exercises off the coast of Taiwan the other day, nearly a week after the election of Tsai Ing-wen, reflecting a Taiwanese electorate that increasingly sees itself as Taiwanese and not Chinese.  In one bizarre move last week, nearly 45,000 people, mostly from the mainland, criticized Tsai for her pro-independence stance.  It’s known the comments came from the mainland because they were using simplified Chinese characters versus Taiwan, which uses the traditional ones.  It’s bizarre because Facebook is still blocked on the mainland unless you have a VPN, so many suspect it was the work of government-enlisted individuals who were able to evade the Great Firewall to post on her page.  While some Taiwanese supporters pointed out this irony in reply comments, Tsai probably had the best post of all replying, “”The greatness of this country lies in how every single person can exercise their right to be himself or herself.” (“這個國家偉大的地方就在於每一個人都有做自己的權利”)

Tsai FacebookPretty brilliant reply to what was probably a coordinated mainland response seeking to rattle her so soon after being elected.

And that my friends is a bit of what went down this week that leaves me sitting here shaking my head wondering what’s next, but still insanely intrigued and fascinated by the things that happen in this country.  Stay tuned for more.

A Monkey at McDonald’s

January 16, 2016

Happy New Year, albeit a bit late.  I must apologize for not writing the past two weeks, but my boss has been in town from the States and only left the other day.  While there were many things I have wanted to write about, it’s been a whirlwind with her here and there have been very few moments where I could sit down and write.  With her departure, things should return to normal and the pace of writing will pick up.  Just when I thought I couldn’t be surprised, as I was out getting my coffee at the local Starbucks and some milk and apples to throw into a giant bowl of granola and yogurt, I saw a man with his monkey outside of McDonald’s.

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Outside the McDonald’s by my apartment a man with his monkey

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Yup, it was a monkey

 

More to come tomorrow.  I promise.

Chengdu Cheating

December 28, 2015

I just returned to Shenzhen after what was mostly an awesome weekend in Chengdu, but today started off with an early morning cab ride to the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding (熊猫基地) where my cabbie tried to bilk me for double the fare.  My hotel hailed me a cab and when we were around the corner, he pulled out his phone and put a price in and said I should pay that.  I told him to turn the meter on and he told me it was too cheap.  Then I threatened to get of the cab, which was stopped at a light, and he finally agreed to turn the meter on.  Later on today, I ordered an Uber to go to the airport and at the toll plaza by the airport, the driver asked me for RMB14 for the toll.  Absent-mindedly, I handed him the money and he paid the toll.  When I was in line for security and received my Uber receipt via email, I saw that I was charged again for the same toll.  Now maybe my driver did not know that the app would include the toll or he decided the dumb foreigner would give him some extra cash.  I’m not sure, but I quickly fired off an email to Uber to alert them to what he did.

I spent a lot of time in cabs today, going to and from the pandas and then to the airport and ending the evening with a cab back to my room in Shenzhen.  I was stunned by the lack of road decorum in Chengdu and to a lesser extent, Shenzhen.  When I am here, I don’t take cabs often because I am not going all that far.  But in Chengdu, no one really follows the lanes noted on the road and at an intersection, cars weave in and out as they’re trying to make turns.  It’s sheer chaos, but somehow it generally works as long as everyone is refusing to play by the rules.  I think the likelihood of an accident goes up if someone actually attempts to drive safely.  It’s offensive driving at it’s best and worst.

This post is meant to tie up a lot of loose ends from the weekend, but I could not help but comment on the fact that China’s rubber stamp parliament passed the country’s first anti-terror law today.  It’s an odd concept in a state where the police and other public safety agencies already pretty much have carte blanche to do that they want to reign in the population when they’re acting out of line.  It will most likely be another way to justify repressing groups or individuals who take actions thought to be against the state.  After so many years, I should not be amazed, but I find myself baffled because upon reading that today, I had the thought that I am making a life for myself out here and interacting on the regular with a state that is seeking total control over or at least the ability to monitor its population in terms of thought, expression, and actions.

But really the best thing to happen today were the pandas.  I arrived at the Base right before 8:00am with the sun just coming up and at least 30 minutes before the first tour buses arrived, so I pretty much had the place to myself.  Though I saw more Westerners there than I had the entire weekend or even in Shenzhen for that matter.  I guess all us foreigners had the same idea to see the pandas on a cold winter’s morning right after Christmas.

So without writing anymore, here are some pictures and videos of today’s main attraction.

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A panda giving face before he tears into that bamboo

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Pandas

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More pandas

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Baby pandas sleeping

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And yet another

Another Day, Another Mall

December 27, 2015

I don’t want anyone to come away from my blog thinking all I do in China is walk around malls and sit in Starbucks drinking coffee, but if I didn’t spend any time doing this, I’d be missing out on a big part of what’s making modern China tick.  These luxury malls and the shoppers who frequent stores purveying these premium brands (yes, Starbucks is a premium brand here when the average drink costs RMB30 or a bit less than US$5) are the future of this country, especially when the leadership is hellbent on reorienting the economy away from manufacturing and infrastructure investment towards domestic consumption.  It’s places like the IFS and today’s mall, Taikoo Li (太古里), that represent the way going forward if China is to ever make that transition.

So yes, I am sitting here at a Starbucks in Taikoo Li, which was built by the Hong Kong developer, Swire Properties.  A good friend of mine in Hong Kong who lives in Taikoo Shing, a family-oriented neighborhood on Hong Kong Island, told me that anything with the Swire name is going to be a quality property and this mall is no exception.  Built around an ancient temple, Daci Temple,  where you can still partake in a traditional tea ceremony, Daci Temple (大慈寺), Taikoo Li is filled with your usual luxury shops including Gucci, Burberry, Max Mara, and Cartier, as well as the Chengdu flagship stores for Apple (which with its two stores in Chengdu has more here than in Shenzhen) and Muji and the first stores in China for brands like Victoria’s Secret and Hollister.  It’s quite the complex laid out as if it was a warren of traditional Chengdu alleys, similar to Xintiandi in Shanghai or even Sanlitun in Beijing, which is another Swire property.  And the place is hopping with people eating, drinking, taking pictures, and even doing some shopping.

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One of the main squares in Taikoo Li

The Christmas decorations are still out in full force and effect, but so are the after Christmas sales with some stores offering discounts up to 40 or 50% off.

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Entrance to Taikoo Li as coming from Chunxi Lu (春熙路) Metro stop

I blogged recently about the “real” China and malls like this one are the new “real” China.  What’s neat about Chengdu is that you can walk from your hotel to the Metro station in Tianfu Square and pass by little hole-in-the-wall or “fly” restaurants (苍蝇馆), wet markets, and people playing mahjong in the streets, so not all of the old “real” China is lost.  It’s perhaps this blending of old and new that Chengdu seems to still do so well, whereas a city like Shenzhen which did not exist 40 years ago is all new and will continue to be that way going forward.  I don’t know if Chengdu will be able to survive the onslaught of modernization and the power of the new “real” China, but at the moment it seems to have found some sort of equilibrium, however tenuous.

Having now been here for a few days, I still really like the city.  It’s hard for me to put my finger on it exactly, but this trip is my first time to the interior of China.  When you think of Chengdu, and Sichuan province in general, it’s the last extremely developed area of the country before heading off into the wilds of western Sichuan and Tibet.  Chengdu feels less like a frontier city and more like an experiment in modernizing the interior.  It’s no secret that the government has spent considerable time and money spreading growth from the eastern coast to the interior and Chengdu is something of a showcase city, much like Shenzhen was when it became China’s first Special Economic Zone.  Chengdu has not received so formal a designation, but walking around the city and taking it all in, it’s hard not to feel that there is something special about this place and it’s not just all the panda advertising.

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Panda ad outside of my hotel

Nor is it all of the amazingly spicy food that I have been eating, which I will write about another time.  Perhaps it’s what China could be, though without the pollution that has rendered today a rather smoggy day (though nothing like Beijing) or the fact that signs are still posted on the street reminding people not to smoke on buses and in the subway reminding parents not to let their kids go to the bathroom on the train. Chengdu, like most of China, is moving quickly to catch up to the rest of the world in terms of development, but it feels a little more comfortable taking it’s time doing so and making sure it’s being done the “Chengdu way”.

Of course I wonder how many Gucci or Louis Vuitton stores a city really needs and who actually fills all of these new office towers going up, including the top floors of the Evergrande Huazhi Office Tower, which sit there all lit up and empty at night.

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The vacant and well-lit floors of the Evergrande Tower on the left

Those are questions for another day, but one that China unfortunately will have to reckon with as it continues working through it’s breakneck growth and reorientation to a consumption-driven economy.  These malls and buildings are part of the infrastructure and property investment that has driven growth in many cities around the country and if towers like Evergrande remain empty, one has to wonder what the means for future development and growth in these cities.

On that note, I leave you to get back to the hotel and get ready for a night of sampling Chengdu’s many street snacks.

Sugar Is My Savior

December 15, 2015

When it comes to mobile payments, China seems to offer an endless  is leaps and bounds ahead of the U.S. in terms of the sheer number of different payment programs out there.  There’s Alibaba’s Alipay, WeChat Wallet, and UnionPay, which is the debit card payment system used by a number of top Chinese banks, just released Quick Pass.  As long as you have a Chinese bank card, you can sign up for these programs. Unfortunately, I tried and failed miserably.  My first go was with WeChat Wallet.  I was out for Thai food and saw I could get 10% off my bill if I paid using the Wallet.  Of course I quickly tried to sign up right then and there, but as soon as I got to the screen where I had to enter my name exactly as it was on my account, I ran into trouble.  The app had already recognized my bank card, but for some reason I kept getting rejected and was eventually locked out from joining.  I gave up and left without my discount.  My second go was yesterday with Alipay.  Once again I made it through all the requisite screens, but then I was asked to enter my name and passport number exactly as it was listed when I applied for my back account.  Now you would think that my name as listed in my banking app would be how it was entered for my account, but once again after multiple tries, I was locked out from joining.  This time I decided to stop in my local China Merchants Bank branch by work and see if they could help me get to the bottom of it.  With the help of two bank staff and a selfless customer, we tried calling Alipay, which did not have an English customer service desk.  After being sent around to various customer service people, we were told that my account was locked and that I should try again in two days. Frustrating?  Yes.  And I could not figure out why I was even locked out in the first place.  You might be wondering who took a half an hour to help me get this answer.  It was the selfless customer named Sugar.  Yes, Sugar took time out of her day to help a hapless foreigner whose Chinese was woefully inadequate to deal with the Alipay customer service people.  Of course I am still not able to access the app, but I was touched that Sugar tried to be so helpful.  We ended up leaving the bank together and I found out she worked at Ping An Bank and had recently been to Los Angeles and San Francisco.  She thought Los Angeles was too busy, which is ironic coming from Shenzhen, a city that didn’t exist 30 years ago and is now one of China’s megacities with over 15 million people and a seemingly endless capacity for growing and swallowing up neighboring towns and villages.  As a New Yorker, I tend to find LA a bit sleepy, so you can imagine my surprise upon hearing that.  When we reached the main road, we shook hands and parted ways, probably never to see one another again.  I am actually a little surprised she didn’t ask me if I had WeChat, which to those who do not know, is the Chinese version of WhatsApp with much more functionality.  Almost any new person with whom I have an encounter that lasts more than a minute asks if I have it and then insists that I add them to my ever-growing list of contacts that I only hope I remember to use.  It’s kind of like the Chinese way of making brunch plans with that friend you see all the time, but never end up brunching with.

And just because it was completely unexpected, right before my run-in with Sugar I encountered an entire office practicing their kung fu outside of our school.

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Nothing builds office morale like some late afternoon kung fu

 

Zombies at Christmas

December 6, 2015

I am having one of those weekends where I am frustrated with China and it’s many contradictions.  As long as I have lived in and studied the country, it still does not make sense to.  I know that’s the reason it’s held my interest for nearly twenty years, but sometimes I reach a breaking point and then it passes.  Between having to deal with spotty phone connections, wrestling with my VPN so that I can communicate with the outside world, and the inability or express frustration in Chinese because my teachers only taught me happy words, at about the month point I am frustrated.

On Friday I went up to Guangzhou for work. It was my first time back in over five years and while I was only there for a few hours and pretty much toured a school and sat in the train station, I had a two-hour drive up from Shenzhen to think about China and my time here so far.  The drive was up the 广深沿江高速, which literally translates to the Guangzhou-Shenzhen Along the River Expressway.  It runs up from Guangzhou through all of the factory towns of the Pearl River Delta, including Dongguan, through to Guangzhou.  Those factory towns are the ones that you read about in the newspaper closing up shop and moving to Vietnam, Bangladesh, the Philippines, other ASEAN countries, or inland China where labor is less expensive.  These factories are the ones that churned out jeans, iPhones, bras, shirts, printers, and many other goods over the years.  Now driving up the highway, many are either abandoned or look like they’re about to be abandoned.  But to counter those abandoned factories I saw lots of cranes putting up apartment blocks.

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View from the car headed towards Guangzhou

The thought that’s always front and center when I see these new apartments is “Who is going to live here?”, which from the number of so-called ghost cities in China is a plausible question.  However, this is the Pearl River Delta and if there is one trend I have noticed over the last 15 years it’s that there is a strong push to urbanize the entire corridor from Shenzhen to Guangzhou.  So there is little doubt in my mind that these towers will be filled and one day between the two cities there will be an unbreakable stretch of these towers.  So what happens to the abandoned factories?  Assuming there are no toxic chemicals on those sites, which is a big if, then towers will go up.  I’m not sure if China has the equivalent of Superfund sites like we do in the States, and if they did, I am not sure there would be enough political will to designate them as such.  It’s the unknowing or inability to know, assuming one wanted to know that drives me nuts about China sometimes.

It’s the holiday season, even here in China.

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Christmas tree at entrance to my apartment complex

Between the random Christmas trees and holiday music blasting in the shopping centers, including the ubiquitous “All I Want for Christmas” by Mariah Carey, it adds a surreal dimension to life in China.

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Holiday festivities at the Garden City Mall

Maybe its my frustration speaking, but there is something zombie-like about taking in this whole China experience as a foreigner.  I already disconnected because of certain personal uncertainties, but Shenzhen is a city built on commerce.  In fact, it’s really the reason it was ever conceived by the central government 30 some-odd years ago.  People mill about in a frenzy of eating and shopping, though I see very few shopping bags, which might lend some anecdotal credence to the stories you read of China’s economy slowing down.  It’s kind of like what it was like going to a mall during the last recession in the States.  People were there, but they weren’t spending.  The malls are more like entertainment zones with hockey rinks, playgrounds, movies, and restaurants.

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A hockey game at Coastal City Mall

Some days it feels like all people do here is eat and shop.  There is no real pervasiveness of the news like back home where big cities have tickers on buildings with the latest stories or elevators at work have the little screens with the day’s top news stories.  No tickers in China and the elevator at my school has pictures of pandas and penguins to go along with the date and time.  It’s a bit of an over-generalization to say that no Chinese people care about current events, but the government has put in place a number of distractions to ensure that people pay as little attention as possible to the world outside, unless it’s necessary to stoke nationalist sentiment as a bulwark for the government.  Of course there are intellectuals and people concerned with these sorts of matters, but they are on the fringes of society.  There are no cable news programs outside of CCTV and other government-run outlets, so there’s no real widespread forum from which people can get alternative opinions.  For better or worse, Donald Trump and his rallies get air time on television and we have a relatively robust network of columnists and commentators trying to make sense of things in our country.

This past Friday, China celebrated its second National Constitutional Day, commemorating its constitution that is supposed to provide for all kinds of freedoms that exist only on paper.  There were no noticeable celebrations here in Shenzhen.  In fact, it seems like the way the government decided to commemorate it was to continue snuffing out various forms of expression, ironically the same kinds guaranteed in the constitution.  Included in that snuffing out was a recently published book by a Tsinghua University (referred by some as the MIT of China for its science and engineering prowess) historian about China’s constitutional transformation.

I guess my frustrations this weekend started small, but have now led me down this path of wondering what is really going on in this country.  It’s hard to tell what lurks beneath the veneer of iPhones (and may iPhone wannabes), fancy shopping malls, and the smiling faces roaming about these shopping malls.  I guess only time will tell.