Shopping, Shenzhen and Farmer Ye: Pondering the New China

Travelling the Silicon RoadSHENZHEN, China — I’ve come to the conclusion that many, if not most Chinese people love to shop.

Now before the ignorant self-righteous weigh in, let me add that I’m not knocking China; far from it. After all, the movement to a market economy is still underway — less than a generation ago, really — and I imagine that many middle-aged people have disposable income for the first time in their lives, and want to spend it. As a middle class American I would feel hypocritical if I found fault with that.

Then of course, there is the bargaining. Travelers to China know all about the tourist or laowai price vs. the Chinese price, and one’s new-found Chinese friends are always on the lookout for you, making sure you get the Chinese price whenever possible. Like friends I’ve known of Middle Eastern descent, I think perhaps the bargaining is half the fun for them.

But for myself, I really don’t care to shop or bargain. While many Americans do, I think my disinterest stems also from being American — by Asian standards we tend to be rather abrupt and forthright; even by American standards most people would consider me very direct.

And I’m not one to mess around with shopping; if I need something I go buy it, as quickly as possible, end of story, no screwing around. I remember getting out of the mag lev station in Shanghai, along with my interpreter, Zhike; we were immediately besieged by taxicab drivers. When they realized that we wanted to go to the other side of the city, there was silence.

Finally one young man ventured timidly, “250 yuan.” I did the math in my head: expensive by Chinese cab fare standards, but still cheaper than many a cab ride from an airport or train station in the U.S. “Done!” I cried, happily. “Let’s go,” I said, proceeding to wheel my luggage toward the gentleman’s cab. At that point I was already sick of carting around luggage — business trips always seem to require 3x as much stuff as vacation — on planes, trains and automobiles, and the sooner this was done, the better.

But you could literally hear the sounds of jaws of everyone within earshot of this exchange bouncing off the pavement. Our cab driver looked a little bewildered; Zhike seemed almost shocked. At the time, I wasn’t sure what faux pas I had committed; now I know — crazy, hasty Americans.

But running around Shenzhen the past couple of days, conducting interviews or just wandering at random, phrase-book in hand, I’ve been thinking a lot about shopping. Shenzhen by all accounts was a sleepy, balmy fishing village 20 some years ago, when the central government decided to make it a special administrative zone. Viola — now it’s a busy, balmy port metropolis, the heart of the country’s electronics manufacturing, and consequently its richest city.

It shows. Everything seems new and sparkling, and the shops stay open very late; downtown there are shopping districts where the stores are open past midnight.

Shenzhen has also been recognized in China as a garden city, for its cleanliness and green space — and indeed it is, especially compared to China’s older cities, and even Shanghai. It provides quite a contrast to the rural areas that I glimpsed outside Chengdu this past weekend. Many of my newly met Chinese colleagues and associates have observed that the gap between rich and poor in China is greater than many in the West realize, especially those that never venture beyond the popular eastern cities — like Shanghai and Shenzhen. Judging from what I saw, I’m inclined to agree.

But I think it is also a generational issue as well; like Zhike and others pointed out to me, young people from rural villages are flocking to cities, hearing stories of the new wealth to be had; once they glimpse a “better” way of life, they head for the smoke.

I put the word “better” in quotes, because I suppose it’s a matter of perspective, in this case, a generational perspective. This past weekend, while hiking up the 1,200-meter Qingcheng Shan, a holy Taoist mountain some 65 kilometers west of Chengdu, I took us off the beaten path. I have a habit of doing that; chalk it up to a streak of Robert Frost.

The path took us to a small farm, a subsistence farm, really, of one Ye Wen Fu (you can see a few pictures of Ye and his farm in the photo section of the Silicon Road — I think it starts with photo no. 65). He told us that he and his wife had been living off the side of the mountain for nearly 50 years. At one point the government had tried to get him and his family to go down to the city, and he did for awhile, but he couldn’t meet his family’s needs, so he returned to the mountain.

While by the standards of any developed nation, East or West, Ye is literally dirt poor, all his basic needs are met, and he seems happy and content with his lifestyle as it is. It’s hard to argue with that, and I wouldn’t presume too. I wouldn’t choose his life, but I understand the attraction to its simple and uncomplicated nature. There doesn’t seem to be anything in the “New China” that interests him, even though he came down off the mountain to see it.

I have no idea how many people there are like Ye in China; I haven’t been here nearly long enough, and won’t presume to draw any broad conclusions. But I can’t help but think about him when I hear people who reside solidly in the New China talk about how China must bring the entire population up to speed in the modern world. People often talk about how 50 percent of the population doesn’t have any sort of reliable means of communication — no land telephone line, no mobile phone, no satellite phone — and how that is a market opportunity that needs to be developed, not only for their own sake, but for those who are rapidly becoming attached to disposable income.

Electronic News Travels to ChinaBut I’m guessing that Ye isn’t the only simple rural farmer out there who might not be interested in the Brave New World. Many of their children are, to be sure, but people like Ye are not. Just how much of a bump, if any, this will be on the road to the modernization of rural China remains to be seen.

Editor’s Note: As explained at length elsewhere on this site, this is a blog entry of mine that originally appeared on the now-defunct Electronic News’ website, which is long gone. While its former sister pub Electronic Design News (EDN) currently holds the copyright to all Electronic News copy (to the best of my knowledge), as far as I know, this blog content isn’t hosted anywhere else on the Internet, hence my reproduction here.

Original Comments

at 11/2/2005 12:47:16 PM, W. Wong said:

Hi Jeff: I was born in HK and left there to live in thhe US when I was 10. Now I’m 50, I have yet return or have any desire to visit China. Your article and pictures have really touched my inner soul, so that I should plan a visit to my own country and see the changes that have developed since I left. Thanks

at 11/2/2005 1:28:26 PM, TerryP in VA said: Can you get Chinese food without MSG there?

at 11/3/2005 7:40:53 AM, AndyB said: I look forward to seeing pictures and hearing more about Shenzhen. I spent about a week there visiting companies and was awestruck by the growth and size according to some locals (that was 6 years ago). I was amazed by the unmarked dirt piles blocking freeway lanes and dodging bicycle rickshaws as well (4-way unmarked intersections on the freeway were interesting as well). Thanks for the very interesting personal experiences.

at 11/3/2005 10:00:15 PM, Jeff Chappell said: Yes, you can order food without MSG; you just have to ask (I recommend the Lonley Planet Mandarin phrasebook). And the food is so awesome here. … You can also find espresso; it’s not the espresso you’d find in say, Rome or Paris, but it’s often comparable to what you can get in the U.S., much to my delight. Starbucks is already here, of course. But then some of the tea over here will wire you right up 🙂 and it is about 1,000x better than any tea in Europe.

at 11/3/2005 10:03:59 PM, Jeff Chappell said:

Thank you Mr./Ms. Wong, for your kind words. And I think you would find that your childhood home has indeed dramatically changed …

at 11/3/2005 10:08:12 PM, Jeff Chappell said: AndyB, what you describe is typical of many a Chinese city. In that respect, Shenzhen is Chinese through and through.

at 11/4/2005 12:55:25 PM, BobboMax said:

Hey, I’ve enjoyed the blog- a pleasant mix of humility, openness, observation and that rarity of modern life, good writing.

at 11/7/2005 12:30:52 PM, D Autry said: Hello Jeff, I have thoroughly enjoyed your stories and pictures. We are a small electronics company and will be opening an office in Dan Dong.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *