Filed under: China
Tomorrow is the big day. I fly off to Beijing (w/ an overnight layover for some kimchee in Korea) and am very much looking forward to setting foot in China for the second time. I went to Shanghai and Beijing in early 2001 with one of my best friends Harry How (who will also be covering the games for Getty Images.) A lot has changed since then – 9/11 happened a few months after our return and clearly the world has changed quite a bit since then. But mostly – I’m looking to see how China has evolved since my first visit.
By most accounts – quite a lot has changed. I’m often taken aback when I see current images from Beijing on the web or TV – capitalism appears to have made its way deep into the Chinese culture – in downtown Beijing people are wearing the same things and shopping for the same items we are in the U.S. One of the biggest shocks for me on my 2001 trip was how common McDonalds, Starbucks and KFC franchises were… almost as ubiquitous as in the U.S. – to me that’s always a sad sight (I like to travel overseas to see new cultures – and not feel “at home.”) If you’re a tourist, what’s the point of shopping at the “Wal-Mart” in Beijing? I never quite understood that (yes, obviously the Chinese shop there… but so do the tourists) – but this trend is by no means unique to China, the same goes for Paris, London and pretty much anywhere these days.
I have a lot of great memories from that trip. Harry and I first went to Shanghai and Harry hooked us up with an incredible deal at the Ritz Carlton – $80/night with complimentary access to the Executive Level. This meant that we could go to the Executive Level every afternoon and get unlimited refreshments – at no additional charge. Four to Five Gin and Tonics – each – is a great way to kick off an evening. We had a blast – most of our time was spent doing street photography 10-14 hours a day. We both shot film (I shot everything with a Hasselblad X-Pan panoramic 35mm rangefinder camera, a 45mm lens, and 60 rolls of Ilford XP2 B&W film.) Shooting black and white film with only one camera, on lens, and a small Billingham bag … man those were the days… times sure have changed in the past 7 years.
During our one week trip, Harry and I stayed off the main streets and ate food from street vendors (shrimp omelettes in the morning, and dumplings with vinegar during the day – or come to think of it, for breakfast as well.) Those were the best meals I had in China (no – we never got sick) – the few restaurant meals we had were nearly identical to what you would get in Chinatown in either New York or San Francisco (and cost as much.) I hear that most of the street merchants are being “swept away” by authorities for the games – I sure hope I’m misinformed… we also hired a cab to drive us to the Great Wall – won’t soon forget that adventure either. We went to a “non-touristy” section of the wall – a section that was actually quite perilous at times. Some of the sections were actually quite steep – and at a few times rocks would loosen and start to slip right underneath our feet – and the fall would have been – well – deadly. An amazingly enough, the only person we ran into that day – was a Irishman on vacation, who worked as a doorman on Park Avenue in Manhattan of all places!
At one point we went to a hole in the wall and we stood out like sore thumbs amidst the workers having lunch. We soon engaged in a good discussion and ended up buying the entire table (maybe 15 guys) a round or two of beers (these were big bottles of beer) and the entire meal cost less than $10. The workers at one point asked us why in the world we would eat with them in such a “plain” setting when we could eat at the Marriott a few blocks away – we told them that our conversations with them were what we valued most. We had some great exchanges and the conversations we had with a variety of people is something I’ll never forget. (Luckily Harry speaks Mandarin quite well.)
I love Shanghai and would recommend the international city hands down over Beijing. (Shanghai is to Beijing what New York City is to Washington DC if you will.) Shanghai has historically been a major foreign trading post – and is much more used to welcoming in foreigners than the nation’s Capital. The choice of restaurants and places to visit is also much more varied – you can easily find an Irish Pub or excellent Vietnamese food.
In retrospect, there were a lot signs of the impending changes in plain site in some of the images I made back then (link to the gallery here.) Construction cranes littered the skies, it wasn’t uncommon to see one to two dozen men either demolishing an old building with sledgehammers, or carrying cinder blocks by hand to build new walls (back then – as I’m sure today – it was cheaper to hire a few dozen workers than to buy/rent/maintain modern construction vehicles.
I can’t wait to see how things have evolved – and I hope to get a least a brief chance to walk the streets again – before I get sucked into the Olympic bubble. As I mentioned in earlier posts – I’ll be blogging daily from China for Newsweek. Some of the initial posts will detail the gear I’m bringing, why I’m leaving some stuff behind, and how I packed it (for the gear heads in the crowd.) As soon as that link becomes available I’ll make sure to put a post up on this blog.
For a more in depth report on contemporary life in China, here is a pretty fascinating Frontline piece that illustrates the lives of 9 young Chinese people’s lives produced for PBS. (Two of the startling facts from this piece – the average wage at the factory where one of the young people is working is $0.40/hour and more than 70% of people in China do not have health insurance… here’s to seeing the day where those workers are paid $4 an hour in China, and then eventually match our minimum wage in the U.S. – it’ll be good for them, and for us… although it’s sure to mess up the global economy’s balance in many interesting ways… I hear that the costs of fuel and shipping is already causing some US Manufacturers to bring production back to the U.S…. hmmm…)
Oh and on a more lighthearted note – the language barrier will most definitely be one of the greatest challenges for all of the journalists heading over to Beijing – and here’s an example that shows it goes both ways: a Chinese restaurant got a less than desirable result in their attempt to translate their name using an automated online service… What is the restaurant’s name you ask? “Translate Server Error.” I should point out that I’m not poking fun at the folks over there – I tried to create a business card in both English and Mandarin for my trip to the games – and translating my name into Chinese has proven almost impossible… if you know how to do it pls do forward it along to blog (at) vincentlaforet.com – thanks!
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