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through the eyes of a laowai
singapore sunset
amw
Friday night it was, mercifully, 七夕节, which is lamely translated to English as "Chinese Valentine's Day". That's a shit translation because the Chinese also celebrate actual Valentine's Day on February 14.

I think i already wrote about Qixi Festival last year. It's the tragic legend of a cowherd and a seamstress who are in love but forever banished to opposite sides of the river and alas, each year but one day can they meet. It's on the 7th day of the 7th lunar month. That day was Friday.

What made it great was that i could go out for after work drinks, and all of the expat men with Chinese partners left early. This meant i didn't need to suffer the most obnoxious of the bunch, and instead got to spend the evening with A, who has slightly more nuanced politics than "Africans and Muslims are savages, Europe has been overrun, China is great because my delicate flower won't get raped by savages."

A also has a Chinese partner, but she is in Shanghai, which just got hit by a typhoon big enough to cancel the trains, so he was stranded here instead of being able to take his planned journey up north.

We talked a bit about Shenzhen, because he started working here around the same time i did and has already given his notice. Trying to maintain a long-distance relationship was a factor in his decision, but another part was that he found he really didn't like Shenzhen. He spent his first years in China living in Beijing, then Tianjin, and he's spent a bit of time in Nanjing, Suzhou and Shanghai too. He found Shenzhen to be nothing like the China he was looking for.

I found that intriguing, so asked for some more details what exactly he was looking for. He said Beijing felt like "real" China to him because it has the Forbidden City and lots of other ancient sights. Tianjin was great because it was a treaty port and has lots of grand European-style buildings from the turn of the (20th) century. He recalled Spring Festival in Shanghai, the streets festooned with lanterns and bustling in excitement - a far cry from Shenzhen's holiday ghost town. He bemoaned the fact there are no temples in Shenzhen. He's not religious, but seeing temples around is another aspect of life he considers to be essentially Chinese. (I recommended he visit Taiwan, where it seems there are more temples than 7/11s.) I started to think about what i consider to be essentially Chinese.

Certainly, there is a particular brand of Chineseness i imagined in my head from my childhood trip to Hong Kong and my love of John Carpenter's Big Trouble in Little China. That is: very narrow streets, tall glass buildings, loud storefronts, topless chaps brandishing machetes, hawkers selling digital watches and wind-up toys, chaotic dim sum restaurants, the smell of joss sticks and plastic and 叉烧 (char siew). It turns out that is only a Chineseness that exists in very small parts of Hong Kong and possibly some seedy overseas Chinatowns. Or, at least, i have never experienced it anywhere in the mainland or Taiwan. Perhaps Guangzhou? Whatever. The other Chinas i imagined in my head were ink wash 山水 (mountain/water) landscapes, Deng Xiaoping era modernizations and Xi Jinping era urbanization.

In reality, i think the 山水 landscapes are a bit of a mythological China. The karst formations around Guangxi and Guizhou feel close. Zooming past on the bullet train, you do catch glimpses of terraced rice paddies and straw hats, rainstorms and waterfalls, inverted jade parabolas rising from the mist. Then there are the epic gorges and mountains of Sichuan, which feels colder, wilder and more grim. And Taiwan, with indigenous tribes, volcanic ridges and ocean vistas lending more of a Pacific island feel. And that's just places i visited - there are dozens of AAAAA tourist spots in the east full of cloud-wrapped granite peaks and pillars. You can understand how artists were inspired to paint these weird and wonderful worlds. And aside from the classical 山水, there are also the Himalayas of Tibet, the salt flats of Qinghai, the oases of Xinjiang, the plains of Inner Mongolia... But let's be honest - anyone who has visited a country known for its natural scenery also knows that the vast majority of people do not live very close to it. It's a holiday destination - postcard fodder - but rarely an everyday experience.

So, the Deng modernizations and Xi urbanization. Shenzhen is Deng's baby. It is the raging hub of no-holds-barred capitalism that he wanted to experiment with in the 80s. It follows the ancient Chinese principle of smashing everything that was there before and building something better on top. And what is better? Here in Luohu District it sometimes feels like a slapdash knock-off of the least interesting parts of Hong Kong. Out in Futian and Nanshan they did an objectively better job - taking a nod from Singapore and constructing harmonious rows of high-rises with plenty of greenspace and public transport links. In Bao'an, Longgang and Longhua districts you can see the industrial engine of the Pearl River Delta slowly being taken over by Xi's urbanization drive. The haphazard factories are being turned into condos. Business parks are getting set up for white collar workers. Pollution is being swept away. There are small but optimistic steps toward a greener future. It's fucking awesome. To me, Shenzhen is peak China.

When i mentioned this, A concurred that Shenzhen might be developing faster than the northern cities, but that he felt it doesn't yet have a soul. I explained that i think the soul of Shenzhen beats in the hearts of the millions of migrant workers who came here to seek their fortunes. It's like a mini America, a mini New York (albeit with more people), a place where rural folk want to go because they think life will be better. In reality life probably isn't that much better - there was always a wave of immigrants who made it before you did and grabbed all the best shit. But that's part of its soul too - the waking from the dream, the realization that now you made it to the big smoke it's not all Maseratis and Luis Vuitton, you're just feeding yourself to the capitalist monster and praying that one day you'll scratch together enough to move your parents out of their hut. Or not praying, since there are no temples.

It's funny because when A talked about the Forbidden City being essentially Chinese to him, it occurred to me i have no idea what the Forbidden City actually is. Is it a palace? An old gated community? I've read hundreds of articles and wiki pages about China but never read anything about the Forbidden City. I don't know what it looks like or where it is or what relevance it holds to modern China. It's not even on my radar as somewhere i ever planned to visit. Who fucking cares about how rich people lived hundreds of years ago?

Admittedly, when i was in Europe i did like to visit palaces. I never went inside, but they often had peaceful gardens around them and a coffee shop. There were always a lot of retirees wandering about, and it made me feel like when i was old i would be quite happy to just flit about Europe, strolling through palace gardens, reading books, drinking coffee and eating black forest cake.

I am not sure if Chinese palaces are the same. From walking past a handful of ancient sites in Xi'an, it seems they tend to be jam-packed with tourists and generally lacking in both the coffee and the garden department. Not my bag at all.

Anyway, A's point was that places like the Forbidden City give Beijing a soul that Shenzhen lacks. I guess, for him, the soul is in the buildings.

Although i generally consider myself a European, i think this is an area where i am not very European at all. I mean, old buildings can be nice to look at, but at the end of the day they're just buildings. I'm with the Chinese - if they're in the way, knock 'em down, throw up a new one, who gives a shit? What matters to me are the people that live there. The European palaces i like, i like because they provide public parks where older folks can potter about and chat over tea. The brand spanking new public parks of Shenzhen provide the same service and feel just as cozy to me. Any public space that acts as a community gathering point is a worthwhile space. But if it's not a public space, then fuck it, swing the wrecking ball. To me it's all about the people, the community... today's community, not some wistful notion of an elite community long dead and buried.

I guess that's where i lose the Chinese again and end up on my own little weird island of solitude. I am not so fussed about tradition or cultural heritage. For me, each generation starts new. I feel like an important part of growing up is exactly about the kids casting off the chains of their parents, their ancestors. Sure, it's fascinating to read about history, to learn from it... but then go out and live how you want. Push the world forward. Create new stories. Shock the system. Build the next shining city, a new destination for the next generation of huddled masses.

I think A's and my conflicting view of the essence of China helps illustrate the tightrope Xi and the CPC propagandists are trying to walk. How do you balance the need for urbanization with this cynical nationalism built on the myth of a millennia-old nation state? How do you flatten entire villages while also proclaiming to revere the ancient heritage of the Chinese people? This kind of wacky contradiction is exactly what i think is superbly interesting about this place.

I do wonder where i will go next, though.
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The forbidden palace is a huge palace complex in the middle of Beijing. It's 'the former Chinese imperial palace from the Ming dynasty to the end of the Qing dynasty' as wikipedia informed me just now.
I had a good look round seven years ago. Back then Beijing was the first place i'd ever visited in Asia, and it all seemed so new and foreign to me. Never would have guessed that i'd now end up living in this part of the world!
I can confirm that it is indeed jam-packed with tourists and lacking in both gardens and coffee, so may well not be your thing.

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