Sobering Realization in Shanghai

Travelling the Silicon RoadSHANGHAI — Well, we’re sitting in the Shanghai Hongqiao airport, waiting to board a flight to Xiamen.

The voyage along the Silicon Road is half over; two weeks down, two weeks to go. There is so much to write about in terms of this blog after traveling two weeks in China, I hardly know where to begin. I thought a few days’ break over the weekend would be good — a chance to ponder everything I’ve absorbed since I’ve been here.

But I’m still not sure where to begin.

One important thing I’ve realized the past few days in talking with people and conducting interviews is that I was coming close to making the same mistake that I think many Westerners make when they see a developed foreign country: they assume it’s just like the West.

Shanghai especially encourages this mistaken line of thinking, given its history and its present role as a port city key to international trade. If there is a laowai-friendly city (“laowai” means Caucasian foreigner to those of you haven’t been paying attention), it is Shanghai.

And I think I may have given some readers the idea that indeed China is just like America, only it’s crowded and they talk funny and eat strange things like donkey and dog. It’s true that China perhaps shares more similarities with the West than other Asian cultures — it is more open to Western ideas and ways of doing things.

But this is a culture that is thousands of years old, and like any culture that history permeates it even today, even as modern Chinese culture is shaped by modern-day influences, such as its Communist government, economic growth — and problems — and the related overcrowding in its cities. It is a very different place culturally from the West.

A Problem to Address?

Nowhere is the gap between the Chinese nouveau riche and poor evident than here in Shanghai. Yesterday I gave Tony the Interpreter the day off to go visit old college chums that he hasn’t had a chance to see in two years. Of course this was the day that China’s ATM network decided to give foreigners problems, forcing me to wander far and wide outside my hotel in search of an ATM that would work.

Not knowing where I was going, I just kind of wandered, keeping my eyes out for banks and ATMs. It’s something I think every traveler should do in a foreign city — maybe not the safest thing when alone, but you see the city in way that you won’t from the back of a taxi or train. I quickly realized that while homeless and urban poverty are a problem in many cities in the U.S., it is on a much bigger scale here.

My stroll around the hotel last night only confirmed that opinion. Tony showed back up around 6 p.m., and wanted to go see The Bund at night. The Bund is one of the old colonial sections of Shanghai, where the European architecture is evident, but surrounded by gleaming new skyscrapers and office towers, all lit up spectacularly in the evening. Right on the Huangpu river, The Bund is a popular destination for both foreign and Chinese tourists , and it’s a good place to buy a “Rolex” for about 100 yuan, or about $12.50.

So after playing tourist we returned to the hotel about 11 p.m. I decided I needed some fresh air — too much wine with dinner, and too many thoughts swirling around inside my head, and the air in the hotel felt stuffy. Our hotel was right outside the central train station, in a cluster of business class hotels, so I walked around the block, circumnavigating the train station. There were many homeless people camped out in doorways, under awnings and roof overhangs — any place that offered shelter. Local police walked among them with flashlights — looking for what, exactly, I don’t know — but otherwise seemed to leave them alone.

There was also the Shanghai version of ladies of the evening out and about, risking harsh punishment under Chinese law. They consequently dress very discreetly, as ordinary people, and often pretend to hand out flyers to local restaurants or hotels to travelers, until a business prospect wanders by. Then the sales pitch changes; I quickly ascertained, and Tony later confirmed, that laowai businessmen, which are rich by Chinese standards and often traveling alone, are preferred customers.

It was quite a contrast to walking around The Bund and around the Shikumen Road area of Shanghai, where Tony and I had hung out earlier in the week. Back in 1920 the Communist Party held its second national meeting in the Shikumen Road neighborhood; today it is a trendy, upscale place of bars, clubs, shopping centers and bistros, many of them offering Western fare. Shikumen, incidentally, means “new world” in English. Indeed.

My colleague from EB China, Alma Wang, described Shikumen Road in recommending it to me as “crowded by a swarm of Shanghai bourgeois and also hippies.” Throw in a bunch of Western tourists and business types, and it describes the area perfectly.

As China embarks on its next five-year plan, with one of its stated goals being to narrow the gap between rich and poor, I can’t help but think of Western history, and the many times the rise of a bourgeois class led to violent, bloody struggles between rich and the poor. You never hear it in the censored Chinese state media, and reports rarely make it into media outlets outside China, but this country has already had problems in recent years with economic-related riots.

Electronic News Travels to ChinaI’m growing rather fond of this country’s people and their culture, though, (not their government, so you right-wing types, just relax) and I hope that it manages to keep history from repeating itself here. I think from now on, when I hear some chip executive rave about Shanghai, I won’t be able to help but think about the people outside the Shanghai train station after dark. …

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 10/24/2005 12:21:59 PM, VANNROX said:

I’m going back to China this friday. This will be my fifth trip this year. This one will be a long one. Three to four weeks. Believe it or not, I have taken to the multi course meals in the little private rooms, and the after dinner karaoke’s. The Chinese conduct their business quite well.

But it is MUCH different than western business practices. You MUST go native to successfully conduct business there. That is the only way to be successful. While I spend much of my time inShen Zhen, and Shunde (Foshan City). This trip will take me to Ningbo, Hang Zou (in Guangdong provence) and to Shijiazhuang in Hebai Provence.

I hate to say it, but their level of technology, and infrastructure is far superior to that of the US. Afterall, they have been on a construction and industry expansion for the last 20 years. When was the last time you saw two new high rise buildings under construction within one glance? In China, they are everywhere. In a drive from Shenzhen to Shunde, I counted over 300 on the trip and then stopped counting… Its a great place, with wonderful people.

at 10/24/2005 12:53:01 PM, Paul said:

I just returned to the States after living in Shanghai for over five years. One small correction to your article. XinTianDi means “new world”. That is the name of the shopping/entertainment area you were in. Shikumen is the traditional Shanghai house design style.

at 10/24/2005 1:28:34 PM, Billd said: There are a lot of clues in the media pointing to problems that China may be getting into problems relating to the widening disparity between rich and poor. It is interesting that it is a stated goal of the Chinese government to narrow that gap. However, how real can such effort be when the enfranchised class would have to sacrifice in an attempt to divide their wealth among an essentially infinite poorer class?

On the other had, communist philosophy is founded on the notion that such redistribution is the imperative. Further the PLA is largely recruited from the poorer classes, and has a history of social activism. This is the eternal economic conflict, but in China, conditions could make it nastier than usual, and with a flare up relatively soon. .

at 10/24/2005 2:27:18 PM, Xie said: Those people sleep around the train station might be migrant workers, haven’t settle down until they find jobs, or poor travelers that try to save the money of an overnight hotel stay while waiting for their train (sometimes it is in midnight or very early in the morning). They are temporal homeless. Not exactly like those in the States.

But on the other hand, the homeless people in the States seldom poise a threat to me, but these crowds around Chinese train station do bother me a bit since robbers tend to hide among them. A

t 10/24/2005 3:00:29 PM, Ron Bauerle said: Should your last sentence read “won’t be able to _not_ think about…”?

at 10/24/2005 5:51:08 PM, Mike said:

It wasn’t that long ago that I saw the very same sceen you’ve discribed. I was about 20 years old and I had arrived at the train station. I stepped over the homeless sleeping any and everywhere. I was met by, in this case, overt hookers. I saw a delta between the social classes as different as night and day. The only differene is that I was in NYC in the late 1970’s.

at 10/24/2005 6:31:37 PM, said:

Welcome to ShangHai next time,I think more changes will be occured and you will enjoy it as your fatherland 🙂 at 10/25/2005 11:00:01 AM, Infogleaner said: A “man on the street” news report… This description of another side of Chinese life is what you seldom if ever hear of in mainstream media. Blog on, dude….let us see the truth throught your eyes….

at 10/25/2005 5:57:48 PM, Maurice in Shanghai said:

The train station is a pretty hectic, messy spot which takes some getting used to. Those homelss folks are moslty migrant workers waiting for their train to go back to their home towns, there’s a lot of migrant workers here. I do contract manufacturing in town and things are going very well. The electronics scene in Shanghai is vibrant, anyone in the business should make a point to get out here for a first hand look. Cheers, Maurice

at 10/25/2005 10:08:42 PM, Jeff Chappell said: I’m always amazed by what readers will read into a piece, things that aren’t explicitly there … but then people always tend to see what they want to see (and I’m not implying that I’m any different. But let me set the record straight: I didn’t say Shanghai wasn’t a beatiful, amazing, vibrant city in many respects. It is. As is China.

Nor did I mean to imply that the Chinese people are anything but warm, wonderful and amazing; they truly are. But Shanghai, and China at large, have a lot of problems to address as well, something the Chinese people will be the first to tell you. As for the folks outside the train station being migrant workers, I’m sure many of them were. But you’re talking to someone who has lived in several urban areas in the U.S., and someone who has been known to sleep in or outside of a train station or two in his youth, too cheap/poor to spring for a hostel or a hotel. I think I can tell the difference between a temporary homeless person and a truly homeless person — and like I said, I wandered some distance from the train station … and it’s not just Shanghai, you see this in Beijing and Shenyang as well.

at 10/25/2005 10:19:51 PM, Jeff Chappell said: Of course, you should know that communism as the Chinese have developed it is not really the same as the communism espoused by Marx and Lenin; indeed, I don’t think it is really communism at all, if it ever was.

The Chinese, are very pragmatic; much more so than us in the West, where ideology is more important. You can discuss politics with Chinese people all day, and “from each according to his ability, too each according to his needs” never comes up. I’ll be writing more about this in the days and weeks ahead, but I thhink in a nutshell, you could say that communism is a system that the Chinese found worked for them, for a time, and now it doesn’t, so they are changing that system. Many Chinese — common citizens on the street — still revere Mao Zedong as a great man, even while acknowledging that the Cultural Revolution was a horrendous disaster in which many people died.

I’m not saying that’s right; I’m not saying it’s wrong. I’m simply saying that it’s very hard for us in the West to understand this practical point of view, and I think it’s the source of many cultural misunderstandings and misgivings.

at 10/25/2005 10:26:22 PM, Jeff Chappell said: Yes, Ron, you were right. Thanks for the heads up.

at 10/30/2005 11:19:38 AM, Jim in Phoenx said: Re. your “I’m not saying that’s right, I’m not saying it’s wrong” comment about the killings during the Cultural Revolution, and how it’s difficult for Westerners to understand “this practical point of view.” It isn’t difficult to understand at all–it’s the same point of view that the US government takes with respect to killing foreigners to achieve an imperial goal, it’s the same viewpoint that anyone who makes a God of the state and then lets it decide what’s right and how to achieve it (just as long as they don’t have to pay with their own precious lives) thinks.

Very unprincipled of you to not take a stand on it–I guess you love the Chinese in general, but not as individuals–they all look alike and if a few miilion are killed, there are plenty more to take their place. And it sounds like plenty of them believe the same–so they truly are not so very different from many Americans. Or am I seeing what is not there in your blog? If so, continue to be amazed.

at 11/2/2005 9:19:28 PM, Jeff Chappell said: *sigh* … Yes, Jim in Phoenix, YOU ARE SEEING WHAT YOU WANT IN MY WORDS, AND NOT SEEING WHAT I SAID! It’s simple English: what I said was, I’m not saying that the Chinese reverence for Chairman Mao is right or wrong — NOWHERE did I say that the killing that took place during the Cultural Revolution was right or wrong, NOR DID I SAY OR IMPLY that the Chinese people in general think that the deaths that resulted from the Cultural Revolution was justified.

And it makes me laugh when you call me unprincipled, when people have died to ensure you have the right to free speech, and you don’t even have the guts to put your name to your words, when you exercise that right. …

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