A Night At The Opera

May 22, 2010

Sitting watching Bizet’s Carmen at Beijing’s National Grand Theater on our last night here in China, my mind wanders over a few things as this amazing trip draws to a close. For one, why am I at an opera? It’s not even the Beijing Opera which is what I thought it was going to be when Urban Sophisticat said he’d secured us a couple tickets to the opera. We are in Beijing after all. If not now, when?

Otherwise, this is just opera opera and I fucking hate opera. There, I said it. It is nothing more than an elitist art form that has long since outlived any purpose whatsoever other than serving to build grand edifices like the one we’re sitting in, listening to Bizet’s Carmen. Oh for chrissakes, Don José, run, run!! The woman is nothing but trouble!

The National Grand Theater or, the Egg as it has been dubbed, sits just east of Tian’an Men Square, behind the Soviet style Great Hall of the People. Designed by French architect, Paul Andreu, this wonder is yet another example of the architectural boldness we have witnessed in China. While Beijing is somewhat more subdued than Shanghai, it certainly hasn’t shirked from embracing modernity when the opportunity has presented itself. In a matter of minutes, pedestrians can stroll through a 15th-century, Ming dynasty gate into an alarmingly open space lined with mid-20th Brutalist buildings before turning the corner to find themselves staring directly into the sci-fi future.

China seems undaunted by its 5000+ years of history, at least architecturally speaking. Instead of being weighted down by centuries of tradition, China today has little trouble obliterating whatever it perceives to be standing in the way of its progress. It is not an approach I embrace wholeheartedly to be sure. In this mad dash to assume a spot at the head table, lives and communities have been completely overturned and not everyone is sharing equally in the country’s dizzying growth spurt.

Still, I could go for a pinch of the Chinese gusto, their dispassionate disregard for the past when it becomes a hindrance. China remains a conservative country in many ways, especially politically and socially. Yet in others it is bold in facing the future. We, on the other hand, think of ourselves as progressive and forward looking while displaying all the attributes of cringing, cowering, unbending obdurates. (No, that isn’t an actual noun but I like the sound of it so I’m going to use it in a willful rejection of convention. See how easy that was?)

If they need to modernize their transit system, they modernize their transit system. Us? We fuss and fart, wring our hands and gnash our teeth. We can’t afford it, we mewl. What about the businesses that’ll be affected if we tear up the streets? Drivers are going to be so pissed off at more delays, detours and congestion. Change is difficult. Outcomes aren’t always predictable. But there are points in history when standing pat is no longer an option.

And right now we are quaking and quavering in the face of necessary change, clinging to tried and untrue ideas and philosophies in the vain hope of ineffectually staving off the inevitable. Maybe we were nothing but the luckiest nation on earth, chasing off the original inhabitants just in time for the resource boom that rocketed us into the modern age. Our number came up and we cashed in.

That’s all about to change, however. Only those that recognize that fact and act accordingly will prosper and thrive. Tradition and history strengthen us as long as we recognize that neither is immutable. What once worked is no guarantee of future success. Sometimes throwing the baby out with the bathwater becomes an absolute necessity if the infant is actually the devil’s spawn.

The fat lady has begun to sing. In fact, it feels like she’s been caterwauling for some time now. As tempting as it might be, we ignore her aria at our peril. Time to step up and move forward. China is showing us that it’s possible.

prophetically submitted by Cityslikr


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


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