On A Midnight Train To Beijing

May 19, 2010

A definite theme of this trip is beginning to emerge.

Sitting on the overnight train to Beijing from Nanjing, I can’t help thinking that I am a member of a society on the decline. If the 20th-century belonged to America (one in which we’d hitched a ride on the coattails of), things are most definitely not trending that way in this one.

I mean, come on! Here we are on what is a regular high speed train route, covering 1,100+ kilometres, in relatively comfortable if cramped quarters, as a simple matter of fact. At least, I assume it’s matter of fact based on the ease with which our two Chinese, non-English speaking cabin mates share their bottle of clear, solvent tasting but with a hint of blue cheese liquor with us. They regale us with grand stories of adventure, I assume, given their reaction to the tales they tell. We all sleep like babies until I stumble out to the bar car a couple of hours before arriving in Beijing in order to take in the passing scenery.

At home this kind of trip is treated as a novelty. Train travel as a throwback to an earlier time; something to do when you’ve run out of other vacation options. A relic of the past that has no real bearing on the future.

A side blurb in a Macleans magazine issue last month talked of China’s negotiations with 17 Asian and European countries to develop high speed train travel traversing the two continents, culminating in a Beijing to London link over some 8,100 kilometres in 48 hours. And we can’t even get our shit together enough to come up with a comprehensive plan to build a modern rail system throughout the GTA and Golden Horseshoe region. No, diesel does not qualify as a comprehensive plan, people. It’s merely indicative of small-minded, short-sighted thinking and a lack of leadership and balls. (The emerging theme for those who just tuning in.)

Oh sure, I hear you mumbling out there, a half a day behind me, we could be all out on the forefront and cutting edge too if we gave over to authoritative, autocratic rule. Making the trains run on time is easy if you set aside democracy. If China’s so great, why don’t you just move there, you slavering, pandering, useful idiot Sinophile? (Huh. A passing side thought. If you’re a fan of Chinese movies, does that make you a Sinocinephile?)

You know that’s not what I’m having you suggest I’m suggesting. It is far from perfect here. Even ignoring the political reality for a moment, China is still very much a developing country in many, many aspects. It is dirty, polluted and does consume an ever increasing amount of the world’s resources although it does seem to realize that and is investing heavily in alternate sources of energy to a much larger extent than we are in the west. There is a sense that by watching the emergence of China we are being offered a glimpse through the window of what our very own industrial revolution might’ve looked like. It is a very relevant question of whether or not China is attempting to sustain what is not sustainable.

But this is not about China. It is about us, the former masters of the universe, the west in which the sun is very much threatening to set upon. We are being eclipsed not because of imbalances in trade or democratic principles. We have simply lost our way, locked as we are in a useless and unimaginative ideological either-or standoff. Money, and the accumulation of it, has replaced vision and grand dreams of progress and enlightenment. There is an assumption of superiority on our part owing to the fact that we have already overcome the battles China is now waging. Been there, done that. We are waiting for greatness to return, assuming somehow that it is our birthright. This is how it shall be for it has always been thus.

History doesn’t work like that. It is largely trial and error, learning from our mistakes and adapting to new and varied environments. Past success does not guarantee future success. In fact, as we who once were giants might slowly be realizing, resting on our laurels is the surest, quickest way to find ourselves standing at the back of the que as the rest of the world blows on past us faster than, well, a high speed train on its way to Beijing.

wistfully submitted by Urban Sophisticat


On The Road To Nanjing

May 16, 2010

Reluctantly leaving Shanghai behind us, we set off inland for Nanjing, twice the nation’s capital. Perhaps the exquisite trains and subways had spoiled us but the bus ride was pretty well unbearable. Long, bumpy, jolting. It’s a sad fact that rather than see western car culture as the blight on society that it is, China has embraced it, buying into the lethal notion of car as status. Traffic in these parts is truly awful, making us homesick for the relative pastoral quality of our roads and highways.

It is the better part of a five hour trip and once I’ve quelled an unusual wave of nausea due to the bouncing and swerving and honking and smoggy air, I begin to take in the surroundings. Shanghai extends for fucking ever. We are still fully urban 3 hours into the trip. It goes on and on and on and on.

As I look closer, I realize entirely new cities are being built on either side of the freeway. Blocks of high rises, some 10-15 St. Jamestowns in number, some other more townhouse like low rises, roads, highways, major infrastructure rising up at breakneck speed for miles on end. Empty land is being gobbled up. Older settlements have been levelled or built around. New communities (most of which are surprisingly green and treed throughout) springing up relentlessly.

A passing billboard catches my attention. Export Processing Zones. In amongst these communities and cities, I begin to spot factories and plants (of the very non-green type) dotting the landscape or, in some cases, dominating it. Hey, look! There’s a Makita Tools site. Clearly what we are witnessing is the making of modern company towns right before our very eyes.

Moreoever, we are travelling through the destination of lost, well paying North America manufacturing jobs. That is not a condemnation of China (in case anyone’s listening in.) This is simply the outcome of the deal made by our titans of industry and signed on by us twenty years or so ago, in return for access to cheap trinkets and gewgaws. Here lies the remains of our healthy middle class, may it R.I.P.

What boggles the mind upon further reflection is that we’ve really learned nothing from this whole situation. We’ve applauded the Chinese for reaching out and embracing western style, free market capitalism while choosing to ignore the fact that the state, in fact, still holds a mighty heavy hand on the economic tiller of the nation. When the global economic meltdown occurred nearly 2 years ago now, fuelled by our laissez-faire attitude to financial regulation, lack of government oversight and a blind zeal for the market knows best thinking, it was China that weathered the storm more stably, didn’t dip as deeply and has come out the other end more vigorously.

Us? We stood by and watched as our governments came to the rescue of short-sighted failed businesses and bailed out greedy, reckless industries, saving our entire economic system from yet another cataclysmic collapse and then immediately upon spotting a possible turnaround started demanding that they step back, pay their bills and allow everything to go back to normal. No harm, no foul. Because remember, as St. Ronnie told us: government is the problem not the solution.

All the while, China marches forward, continuing to build its cities.

— also shamefully submitted by Cityslikr


The Laddies Of Shanghai

May 13, 2010

The pre(mis)conceptions about China started to peel away almost immediately. At least for the China as represented by the city of Shanghai just kicking into Expo 2010 gear.

Maybe it was the 8 minute 30 kilometre train ride in from the airport aboard the Maglev train topping out at a speed of 430 km/hr. Or the shiny new subway system that was extensive, easy to use and costing 60 cents to cross the city. (Quaint might be the word a polite Shanghai native would use in referring to the TTC.) The Bladerunner skyline of Pudong peeking out from the drizzly mist across the Huangpu River toward the Bund suggests that we’ve crossed more than the international dateline on the 14 hour flight here. It’s very possible that we’ve rocketed through some sort of wormhole, jumping decades not mere hours.

We’re certainly not the first to say that modern China is riddled with paradoxes but it bears repeating. In a place still operating under authoritarian rule, most people we encounter are open, startlingly friendly, quick to laugh and very eager to try out their English with you. In typical North American fashion, we’ve come equipped with not so much as a ‘please’ or ‘thank you’ in the native language while most folks under the age of 50 or so here can provide quite complicated directions in English. If these people would just stop learning our language maybe we’d be forced to learn theirs. There is a vibrant, challenging visual arts scene that is quietly questioning the country’s direction while attracting international attention and big bucks.

The museum that now houses the site of the First National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party is located in a fairly swanky neighbourhood. So a stone’s throw from where you can learn about the rise of Mao blowing ‘the horns of enlightenment thinking’ and the birth of his New China is a Porsche dealership and Tiffany & Co. An impossible juxtaposition to process at first but less so as you dig further into the history.

It seems that in his fervent but well earned anti-capitalist viewpoint, Mao was something of an anomaly here in China. On other side of him, this is and was a mercantile country. Trade and commerce, both forced and self-propelled is a strong part of the history here. We should not be surprised or sniff at the supposed contradiction of this communist country now being a global economic superpower. Mao seems to have simultaneously helped and hindered China’s progress toward economic dominance and it appears to be a sly insider joke that the Chairman’s likeness appears on the Chinese currency.

What is most obvious at initial glance here in Shanghai is the boundless optimism that permeates the place. Yes, we are seeing the prettiest of faces put on for outsiders as China welcomes the world for the second time in as many years. Yes, there is a certain rah-rah boosterism reminiscent of the 50s sloganeering when you walk through places like the Urban Planning Exhibition Hall. But the vision they are projecting is on a grand scale. They are attempting to develop a true, living, breathing, sustainable megalopolis in the face of very daunting prospects. Even if they fall short, this is going to be a city like few others anywhere in the world.

Compared to this, we in Toronto, in Canada, in North America, are simply standing still, waiting for the future to happen. Here in Shanghai, they are taking the future by the throat and slapping it into shape. This may be the biggest paradox of all. In a country rife with the heavy, heavy burden of a long, choppy past, they have eagerly seized the future while we, mere adolescents, having encountered a few bumps and bruises recently, refuse to face up to it, choosing instead to shrink in immobilizing fear.

shamefully submitted by Urban Sophisticat


China Bound

May 9, 2010

We didn’t want to spring it on you like this but there just wasn’t a good time to tell you. If it wasn’t yet another boffo gaffe of Rob Ford’s to talk about or the province flipping us the bird again, there was always Rocco Rossi lurching around, making completely inane policy statements that inevitably ended with him selling Toronto Hydro. What exactly does the guy have against Toronto Hydro anyway that he wants to unload it so badly?

To cut to the chase, we’re off to China today.

I know, I know. It sounds exotic but in these days of air travel? We’re there, we’re back before you can say Chiang Kai-shek (although I do realize that’s a name we won’t be saying out loud while we’re there). It’s not like the old days when there was only a slow boat to China. Direct flight, 13 hours or so, Toronto-Shanghai.

Pure research, you understand. Officially entitled the Asian Urban Experience. We prefer the acronym, A. U. E. Sounds a little more weighty and less like some world beat musical group.

The downside of all this, however, is that only two of us are able to make the trip. Seems a certain someone had a Tibetan  incident and is now considered by the Chinese authorities to be persona non grata (unsure how that’s written in Mandarin. Or Cantonese for that matter. Or do they use the same script but different pronunciation? We really have to break out our Lonely Planet China guide sometime soon.) We’re leaving Acaphlegmic holding down the fort, is what we’re saying.

This fills us with as much dread as it does you, I imagine. Irresponsible doesn’t even begin to cover it! Who do you know that’s had a ‘Tibetan  incident’?

He frequently… OK… invariably blows past deadlines. We’re always editing… OK… writing his posts. Truth be told, we’re not even sure he knows how to turn on the computer. Yet, who else are we going to turn to to keep you apprised of all that is political in Toronto? We’ve asked… OK… begged, pleaded, supplicated ourselves at the feet of our superiors for them to fill in and post on our site only to be rebuffed by the cruelest cut of all. Do I know you?

So, it may be slim pickens from us here at All Fired Up in the Big Smoke for the next 10 days or so. Oh, we’ll make sure that the regular Friday Meet A Mayoral Candidate post appears but aside from that, it’s tough to tell. There may be free and easy access to the outside world or maybe not. We tend to expect the worst and then we’re rarely ever disappointed and find ourselves very pleasantly surprised every now and then. I think that’s how Confucius instructed us on how to live our lives happily.

Whatever happens, things will be back to normal here around Victoria Day weekend. Regardless of the profound experience we may be undergoing in China, it’s not like they know how to party come May 2-4 weekend! After all, we reserved our spot at Wasaga Beach, like, back in January.

non-Occidentally submitted by Cityslikr