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Wednesday, June 22, 2005

The Bund, Tortoises, and Wild KTVs

The Bund, Tortoises, and Wild KTVs

 

 

Every time I am about to dial an external phone line, I am tempted to hit 7 instead of 9.  How time flies!  It’s almost a month since I left MAS, the Singapore central bank, and yet old telephone habits die hard (- my ex-colleagues would know what I’m referring to – oops – hope this is not a state secret).

 

From the timeless, dusty plains of Henan to the space age train lines and endless miles of skyscrapers of Shanghai, the New China continues to fascinate and awe me.  This is the Brave New World of progress with a capital P.  They say, the crane is the national bird of China – because the skyline of China’s cities, not just Shanghai, is full of construction crane. 

 

I was last in Shanghai in 1996 and now it is a space age city of skyscrapers and treads of elevated motorways floating like concrete ribbons in the sky.  Massive shopping malls, fancy bars and clubs, and monuments built by the world’s most renowned architects – some in adventurous experimental style while others are plain bad taste - all symbols of a confident global city which knows what it is and where it is heading. 

 

I strolled along the streets of the Xintiandi and the old French Concession – the quaint streets flanked by late 19thC/early 20thC residences, today turned into restaurants serving Shanghainese style and new fusion cuisines.  At 18 Bund, the swanky outfit on the 7th floor of a bella époque banking hall by the banks of Huangpu River with a panoramic view of the city and its river and skyscrapers, I had mango drop and mojito among a cosmopolitan crowd of expats and the young jet setting elite of China’s new middle class.  Images of the old China of water buffalos and Mao billboards seemed as far away as Outer Space, replaced with the most fashionable venues of London and Manhattan.  My poor old Singapore looks worn out and tired in comparison…

 

Not everything is perfect though – connecting international flights from the Pudong International Airport to the old Hongqiao domestic airport is a pain, and the one hour transit journey is painful, with endless congestion, despite the brand new motorways that crisscrosses the city’s skylines.

 

I flew to Henan, where I last visited in 2002.  Here, the old messy centre of Zhengzhou, the provincial capital with 5 million people, is now a mini Shanghai in the making.  Flashy new cars, brand new malls and fancy new hotels – Zhengzhou, once sprawling Soviet-planned metropolis, is the political heart of Henan, one of China’s most populous provinces.  Henan may be a poor province whose young men become migrant workers in the anonymous factories on the coast and where peasants get HIV-infected via contaminated needles while selling blood.  But having 100 million inhabitants within its borders means the existence of a wealthy local elite of a few million strong with cash to burn.

 

3 hours on the same motorway that links Beijing to Guangzhou and one reaches the city of Anyang.  Even this third tier city of China has one Carrefour hypermarket and I have seen at least 4 malls.  But Anyang is more than yet another city devoted to the new god of shopping.  This is one of the world’s oldest cities.  The ruins of Yinxu, capital of the Shang Dynasty more than 3000 years ago, lies near the city centre.  On a traffic island near the shopping district is an ancient monastery, whose 1000 years old tower with a larger top than bottom, is full of ancient carvings of tales of Buddha’s enlightenment and everyday life in mediaeval China. 

 

In Anyang, we had dinner with the mayor who governed this municipality of 5 million people with a surface area almost twice the size of Delaware, USA, from his palatial headquarters.  This is a gigantic complex in typical “socialist birthday cake” style, not unlike the Moscow State University and the Government HQ of Dear Old Ceausescu in Bucharest – but the Anyang version is much newer, and probably has more chandeliers and the latest German “smart lifts”. 

 

In its magnificent dining hall with an almost 270 degrees’ glass wall overlooking an enormous square, we had the strange dishes ranging from obscure parts of the bull to whole mini turtles (i.e., a complete turtle for each guest) cooked in thick herbal stew.  Like Tim Clissold said in his excellent book, Mr China, it’s as though cooks all over China are competing to serve the most unusual parts of animals cooked in the most unusual ways.  Days later, my accountant would introduce me to the delights of barbecue goat testicles.  Well, Clissold wrote about being served the tip of the deer’s penis.

 

My factory is located at a company town 30 minutes from Anyang City.  Tall chimneys and massive furnaces that produce organic chemicals 24 hours/7 days a week, all to meet the demand of China’s booming manufacturing industry.  Although many parts of the huge industrial complex are new, remnants of the old revolutionary era remains.  A faded red slogan on the tallest chimney read, “Long Live the Chinese Communist Party”. 

 

Henan may be a poverty stricken province, but the village surrounding the company town looks prosperous.  The Village Administration is building a whole new residential district, with pretty multiple floor houses that look more in place in the wealthy Bavarian countryside than the dusty rolling plains of Northern China, where many people still live in loess caves.  This village, I was told, had become rich from its fertile soil enriched by the irrigation project nearby; as well as the employment of its residents in various projects associated with this huge expanding chemical plant next to it.

 

More surprises – My 60 years old chauffeur plays computer games in the office when not on duty, and plans beach holidays to visit his daughter who lives in China’s tropical resort island of Hainan.  My young accountant told me about his desire to sun tan on the beaches of Maldives, a country most Chinese probably hadn’t heard of 10 years ago.  While I was doing channel surfing on my hotel room’s cable TV, I saw flashy ads by the Egyptian and Indian Tourism Boards on the Provincial TV Station of Liaoning in Northeast China.  Shanghai TV news reported price wars among airlines for London holidays.

 

The contrast couldn’t be greater, for not too far away is the coal mining region that straddles the trip-provincial area of Henan, Hebei and Shanxi provinces, where under-regulated mining activities has led to the world’s highest accident rates.  More than 600 died in 2004 - 80% of world mining casualties occurred in China even though it produced only 35% of the world’s coal.  China’s miners are paying a heavy price for the nation’s hunger for energy fuel in the wake of rapid economic growth.

 

We drove past the pathetic mining villages – gray, dirty and polluted – which reminded me of scenes from Great Expectations – the London of early Industrial Age, where millions worked in inhumane conditions, tolling for the Empire’s rapid industrial expansion.  Nearby villages had the word “Cai” or “To destroy” painted on them – these were to be torn down to make way for the new highway leading to the coal mining province of Shanxi.

 

Here I am in my hotel room in Zhengzhou, on my 2nd visit to China since I started this job a month ago.  The work has been exciting but challenging as well.  It has been a fantastic revision into specialist areas related to my past jobs as an auditor and an investment banker.  I also learned a lot about doing business in China and managing complex organizational relationship that exists in Chinese organisations. 

 

There are also some downsides (or upsides in the eyes of many) – for instance, Chinese business entertainment – this applies to many other Asian cultures as well – evolves around dining, liquor and women.

 

I love good food, but I would prefer to draw a line at moderation – not leaving heaps of food untouched, not to mention the endless intake of meat which may fell turn me vegetarian one day if carried to the extreme.  The endless rounds of KTV entertainment with hostesses offering the sleaziest suggestions are not exactly my cup of tea.  I missed the more diverse business entertainment I had experienced in Europe, which included attending cultural performances and sporting events, or drinks in palaces, castles and museums.  

 

Well, TWC’s travels continues…will update you guys with more juicy details of the itinerant financier’s adventures in China.  Hold on tight!

 

 

Regards,

 

Wee Cheng

 

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