Thursday, June 6, 2013

A Scene of Past and Present in Qingdao, China

I've seen some foreigners who are knowledgable about China express their aversion to photos that explicitly capture the country's past and present together. One reason they may feel this way is that the photos can at least be reminiscent of those sometimes used to express something to the effect of "Look, China has both old and new!"--not an original point requiring much experience or knowledge to make. But I think you're missing out on something if you automatically dismiss such photos. Even after years of living in China and appreciating many of its nuances, some scenes of "old and new" still captivate me and stimulate a variety of thoughts.

So without any shame, I'll share a scene I recently saw in Qingdao:

sculpture of traditional scene in front of modern skyscrapers

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

The Path Ahead

a pier disappearing into the fog

Like last year in Xining and two years ago in Chengdu, most of what I saw as I walked around Qingdao on this June 4th was the same as what I might see on any other day. For some people in China the day was different. They may have further questioned what they should tell their children. Or they may have discovered that censorship in China now included blocking searches for "big yellow duck" and even words such as "today". Or if they were in Hong Kong, they may have gathered with tens of thousands of people holding candles in the rain.

What China's people will find on the path ahead remains unclear. But although censors can block the word "tomorrow", they can't prevent it from happening.

"This is China"

A week ago a section of the pier to Qingdao's Huilan Pavilion collapsed. Several days ago I saw that the collapsed section had been filled with large stones and that there were new barriers of metal sheets at both sides of the collapsed section, at the beginning of the pier, and around a large area in front of the pier.

Qingdao's Huilan Pavilion and pier with a beach in the foreground

The barriers appeared to be serving their presumed purpose. I didn't see anybody on the pier.

However, it was a different story when I walked by 90 minutes later. At one of the more open points in the barrier to the area in front of the pier, I saw a regular flow of people ducking under a bar and a "limit line" tape.

woman ducking under a bar and security tape

After ducking in myself, I noticed mobile police stations* remained at the same places where they had been before the pier collapse. Police were inside at least one of the stations and not reacting in any obvious way to the crowd of people.

I then noticed people ignoring the barriers at entry points from the beach.

people on the other side of a do-not-enter sign
A "do not enter" sign

The barrier at the beginning of the pier was porous as well, although getting around it involved more risk.

woman carefully goes around a barrier at the edge of an embankment

man carefully goes around a barrier at the edge of an embankment

And the collapsed section of the pier? Not only was one of its barriers equally ineffective but a low tide offered another route.

people climbing over a collapsed portion of a pier

There appeared to be some limits though. I didn't see anyone passing the final barrier and reaching the pavilion. Construction workers standing in the area may have played a role.

While at the pier I unexpectedly heard an appraisal of the situation by a young Chinese man from a city near Qingdao. When I was photographing the people ducking under a bar I saw him looking at me questioningly. So I said to him, "It's interesting."

After a few seconds he replied, "This is China."

His brief but loaded statement struck me as remarkable, yet it made me recall analogous cases I had seen elsewhere in China, such as people ignoring barriers to cross a potentially dangerous construction site in Changsha. As I walked away from the pier I considered why people are willing or allowed to break some rules but not others and how what I had seen was an instance of people enjoying a particular type of freedom.

Later in the day I happened to pass by the pier again. It was now empty of visitors, although people remained in the area in front of the pier. As in other cases in China where walls have been determined to be too porous, new barriers had been added.

fencing added to edge of a wall

I wonder if the young man who had previously spoken to me would say, "This is China too."

*Added note: To be precise, one station was for police and the other was for chengguan, police-like local government bylaw enforcement officers. The station I could easily see was the one for chengguan.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Tsingtao Beer To Go In Qingdao

This is how you get 2 jins of unpasteurized beer to go in Qingdao, China.

beer in a plastic bag with the Tsingtao logo
Another part of Qingdao's beer culture

Straws available on request.

Friday, May 31, 2013

Chinese Signs at Factories in Cambodia

Three months ago I stared out the window of a bus as I returned to Cambodia's capital, Phnom Penh. About 40 minutes outside of Phnom Penh I noticed a number of "for sale" or "for rent" signs for factories or land.

Land for sale

Factory for rent

I also saw a number of signs for factories apparently in use. What most caught my attention about the signs (and why I knew what they said) was that they were written in Chinese. Often no Khmer (Cambodian) writing appeared. Sometimes there was English.

Whatever these signs indicate, the number of factories in Cambodia has been growing. In The New York Times Keith Bradsher raised several key points including:
  • Some companies are motivated to have factories in Cambodia in part due to increased costs in China or perceived risks in China.
  • Costs such as worker's salaries are lower in Cambodia than in China, but those savings can be offset by other factors, such as lower productivity.
  • At least in some cases, competition for employees and strikes by workers are leading to better working conditions and increased pay.
Despite all of this, it is not surprising that total foreign investment in Cambodia remains much lower than in China. There are a variety of relevant factors, one of which is that Cambodia has a population of 14 million people while China has a population 1.3 billion. But I found another comparison Bradsher made to be especially intriguing:
...last year was the first time since comparable recordkeeping began in the 1970s that Cambodia received more foreign investment per person than China.
See the article here for more.

In the China Law Blog Dan Harris emphasized that Bradsher's report does not suggest a current massive shift of factories from China to countries such as Cambodia. He also shared how some of what his "law firm is seeing among its clients" matches up:
  • Small clothing and shoe companies that seriously looked at moving operations to Vietnam or Cambodia or but then chose not to do so because it would be “too difficult” to set up a supply chain in those places...
  • Mid-sized and large clothing and shoe companies that have put their toes into Vietnam or Cambodia by doing a bit of outsourcing from those countries or by setting up small factories there.
  • Many companies of all kinds sending people to scope out Vietnam or Cambodia and, more recently and to a lesser extent, Myanmar.
See the post here for thoughts about what the future holds for foreign manufacturers in Southeast Asia.

Although the increased number of factories in Cambodia has potential benefits for the local population, not all is rosy. For example, a factory recently collapsed and workers are protesting at a factory that makes clothing for Nike. In The Globe and Mail, Mark MacKinnon and Marina Strauss take an in-depth look at a Taiwanese firm's factory and highlight another problem in Cambodia:
At Ying Dong, it takes only a glance to realize how young some of the work force is. “There are a lot of young workers here – many are younger than her,” said 21-year-old Danet, pointing at a particularly diminutive colleague wearing a pink Ying Dong Shoes shirt. The younger girl quickly hid behind other colleagues. “Lots of the girls are 14, 15, 16, 17,” Danet said.
See the article here for more about underage workers at Ying Dong and the working conditions there.

In some ways similar to China, the interplay of companies' motivation for having factories in Cambodia, the benefits of the factories for the local population, and workers' desire to improve conditions & pay will continue. It seems likely that the number of factories in Cambodia will continue to grow. One question I have is whether the Chinese signs are suggestive of who will be behind much of that growth.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Scenes from Qingdao's Taidong Pedestrian Street

Many Chinese cities have at least one large pedestrian shopping street with ample space for people to walk around. Although the streets can have much in common, each one I have visited has its own unique feel due to the retail activities, fashion, advertising, architecture, food, and, of course, people which can be found there.

Below is a series of photos I took one recent cloudy afternoon around the Taidong Pedestrian Street (multiple versions of the English name are in use) in Qingdao, Shandong province. Most, if not all, of the scenes might seem unremarkable to someone who frequents the street. Yet each photo could inspire a story about life in Qingdao or China which could easily exceed the proverbial 1000 words. I'll refrain from writing another +16,000 words, though, and simply share the photos. You can learn a little more about the street, including its night market and artwork, at QINGDAO(nese) here.

Looking down Taidong Pedestrian Street from the top of a pedestrian bridge

people at Taidong Pedestrian Street

wallets on the ground for sale

small chests with British and American flag designs for sale

row of street food stalls

people sitting on a bench in front of a Walmart

people walking by large photos of models

Durian, jackfruit, and other fruit for sale next to a street

shirts for sale. one says 'so what', another says "AUTHENTC WEAR Cluct LIFE GOES ON", and other has a skull

young woman wearing a backpack with fake spikes on it

young woman for a promotion standing next to a Pepsi stand

buildings with large paintings of women

promotion for bottled drinks and other items for sale at a street corner

monk walking on a pedestrian street

little girl walking on the sidewalk

people walking at Taidong Pedestrian Street

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

A Brief Reflection on My Recent Travels

When I arrived in Malaysia five months ago, an immigration officer asked me how long I planned to stay in the country. I replied, "One week, two weeks. Actually, I'm not sure." The officer shook his head and without any more questioning stamped my passport with a visit pass good for 90 days--typical for someone from the US and number of other countries. More than six weeks later I left Malaysia on a last-minute flight to Cambodia.

I went to Southeast Asia with a desire to not only learn more about a diverse region but also gain a fresh perspective on what I already "knew". As my conversation with the immigration officer suggests, my itinerary was not set in stone. Sometimes I found myself in unexpected destinations, such as Melaka in Malaysia. Sometimes I found myself staying longer than planned, such as in Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam. Sometimes I found myself heading away from a country I had hoped to visit, such as Indonesia.

After several months in Southeast Asia I could have productively continued my explorations, but Taiwan beckoned. And then I returned to a country I had not set foot in for several years--the US. As in Southeast Asia, there were unexpected destinations, periods of lingering, and changed plans. After the US, I headed to Seoul. Like so many of the other places, I walked many miles, spent time with fascinating people, and did not skimp on the culinary offerings.

Although my return to China means a resurgence of topics related to it and other old favorites, I plan to continue sharing what I experienced, learned, and pondered during my recent time outside of China. I have some specific goals in mind, but if you asked me to say exactly what I will be posting next week I'd reply, "Actually, I'm not sure."

Monday, May 27, 2013

Remembering Days in Dallas and Keene

Today I thought about a former commander-in-chief of the United States Armed Forces and my visit several weeks ago to Elm Street in Dallas, Texas.

Elm Street at Dealey Plaza in Dallas, Texas

The street was the site of an unfortunate event in U.S. history. Near where I took the above photograph is The Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza and a grassy knoll. The museum provides an in-depth look at the assassination of a US president. And not far away is a memorial plaza.

John F. Kennedy Memorial

Of course, many others have died while serving the US. And today I also pondered the words said by Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. (via) on Memorial Day, May 30, 1884, at Keene, New Hampshire, as he referenced what is still the deadliest war in American history. He addressed why the observation of Memorial Day should be continued and how to remember those who died in a war that pitted Americans against each other. In conclusion, Holmes said:
When we meet thus, when we do honor to the dead in terms that must sometimes embrace the living, we do not deceive ourselves. We attribute no special merit to a man for having served when all were serving. We know that, if the armies of our war did anything worth remembering, the credit belongs not mainly to the individuals who did it, but to average human nature. We also know very well that we cannot live in associations with the past alone, and we admit that, if we would be worthy of the past, we must find new fields for action or thought, and make for ourselves new careers.

But, nevertheless, the generation that carried on the war has been set apart by its experience. Through our great good fortune, in our youth our hearts were touched with fire. It was given to us to learn at the outset that life is a profound and passionate thing. While we are permitted to scorn nothing but indifference, and do not pretend to undervalue the worldly rewards of ambition, we have seen with our own eyes, beyond and above the gold fields, the snowy heights of honor, and it is for us to bear the report to those who come after us. But, above all, we have learned that whether a man accepts from Fortune her spade, and will look downward and dig, or from Aspiration her axe and cord, and will scale the ice, the one and only success which it is his to command is to bring to his work a mighty heart.

Such hearts--ah me, how many!--were stilled twenty years ago; and to us who remain behind is left this day of memories. Every year--in the full tide of spring, at the height of the symphony of flowers and love and life--there comes a pause, and through the silence we hear the lonely pipe of death. Year after year lovers wandering under the apple trees and through the clover and deep grass are surprised with sudden tears as they see black veiled figures stealing through the morning to a soldier's grave. Year after year the comrades of the dead follow, with public honor, procession and commemorative flags and funeral march--honor and grief from us who stand almost alone, and have seen the best and noblest of our generation pass away.

But grief is not the end of all. I seem to hear the funeral march become a paean. I see beyond the forest the moving banners of a hidden column. Our dead brothers still live for us, and bid us think of life, not death--of life to which in their youth they lent the passion and joy of the spring. As I listen, the great chorus of life and joy begins again, and amid the awful orchestra of seen and unseen powers and destinies of good and evil our trumpets sound once more a note of daring, hope, and will.

Partial Collapse of Pier to Huilan Pavilion in Qingdao

Huilan Pavilion in Qingdao on a foggy and not-so-busy day last week
Last night in Qingdao was one of those nights when typical umbrellas show their mortality. In other words, it was very windy and rainy. And sadly, the cheap umbrella I bought almost 2 years ago in Yuli, Taiwan, will never again do what umbrellas do best.

The rain and winds stopped today and around lunch time I took a walk over to Qingdao Bay. While there I noticed that the usually busy pier to the Huilan Pavilion, which can be found on the logo for Tsingtao beer, was empty. I then noticed a curious number of police and the closure of beach areas adjacent to the pier.

Police doing some of what they do best
Security doing some of what they do best

And then I noticed a portion of the pier had collapsed.

That seems to explain it.

According to one report (in Chinese), the collapse happened last night during the storm. Fortunately, no casualties were reported. Given last night's weather, it would be surprising if anyone had been on the pier during the storm. And for dog lovers out there, it would also be surprising if any dogs were sitting on top of concrete posts next to the water.

A dog two years ago in Qingdao doing some of what dogs might do best

I suppose I could now try to make a strained analogy with China's Great Firewall or collapsing bridges in the US, but finding that dog photo while digging through some earlier photos from Qingdao broke my flow. So I'll leave it at this.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Back in 中国

Almost exactly five months ago, I flew out of China from Xiamen in Fujian province. Since then I have celebrated New Year's in Kuala Lumpur, listened to a woman in Penang talk about a frustrating experience trying to enter the US, reacted to an attack I saw in Melaka, rode a bike through the Cambodian countryside near Kampot, snacked on spiders, observed people riding motorbikes in Phnom Penh, worked while sipping on drinks at cafes in Ho Chi Minh City, soaked up the atmosphere at a temple in Taipei, considered the unexpected connections my mind made while visiting the U.S., and wondered why a woman in Seoul sat outside a mosque while holding a book written by George W. Bush. And there was much, much more.

Today, after yet another international flight I took a walk through a market.

woman selling vegetables at a street market

In some ways it felt so different from the places I've been during the past five months. In some ways it felt so familiar to me. That's probably because the market is in Qingdao, Shandong province. Yes, I'm back in China (中国).

More about that soon.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Games in Seoul and Changsha

While passing through Seoul's Jongmyo Park today, I noticed a number of men playing games.

two men playing baduk (Go) at a park in Seoul

two men playing janggi (Korean Chess) at a park in Seoul

two men playing baduk (Go) at Jongmyo Park in Seoul

I was reminded of the park where I saw men playing games in Changsha, China. But instead of games such as xiangqi (Chinese chess), most of the men at Jongmyo Park were playing baduk (Go) and a few others were playing janggi (Korean chess). There's much else one could consider in comparing the scenes from Seoul and Changsha. And one's perspective could affect how similar or different they appear.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Lanterns in Seoul for Buddha's Birthday

Similar to some other Asian countries, South Korea celebrated Buddha's birthday this past Friday. One clear sign of the holiday I noticed was the many lanterns on display, especially at Buddhist temples. The colors, shapes, variety, and arrangement of the lanterns added another layer to the experience of walking through the temples I recently visited. To provide a small taste, I'll share a series of photos I took at the Bongeunsa Temple in Seoul.

lanterns at Bongeunsa Temple in Seoul

lanterns at Bongeunsa Temple in Seoul

woman praying under many red lanterns at Bongeunsa Temple in Seoul

lanterns at Bongeunsa Temple in Seoul

outdoor path with lanterns at Bongeunsa Temple

red lanterns at Bongeunsa Temple in Seoul

white lanterns at Bongeunsa Temple in Seoul

lanterns at Bongeunsa Temple with city skyline in the background

lanterns handing from a colorful ceiling at Bongeunsa Temple in Seoul

lanterns at Bongeunsa Temple in Seoul

For more lanterns in Seoul, see My Modern Met here and the Mail Online here (H/T Justin Ray).