June 6th, 2011 by

Last Day (really)

June 2nd, 2011 by

What I did this morning really summarized at least the China part of the month-long journey. I got up in the morning and stood in line (for an hour) waiting for the National Museum to open. The tickets are free, but limited, so getting there early was a priority. I think I was number 20 in line. I had time to see three exhibits (not necessarily in this order):

The first one was Ancient China to 1911. While I took some pictures of the artifacts, I was more fascinated by the explanations of the dynasties and what they brought to Chinese history. The coverage included descriptions of the Chinese periphery (the other than Han peoples) and some information on foreign relations. I paid special attention to the 80-year Yuan Dynasty (founded by Genghis Khan). Most museums have wondrous collections of Chinese materials; Scouts who went to New Hampshire last year with me saw one in the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto. What was surprising to me was that the last time I was there (the museum seemed to be always closed), which was probably around 2000, the exhibits stopped at the Ming Dynasty, and the explanations could have been lifted directly from Marx, Engels, Lenin, and Mao—and probably were. Feudal was the most common word (or to put it one way, it was like the museums in Vietnam). I remember asking my colleague Dr. Jin why history stopped around 1400. Based on his experience as a mainlander whose family was persecuted during the Cultural Revolution, he suggested that any closer to the present incurred the risk of a revision in the party line—and dire consequences for the historian. 1400 was safe.

The new exhibit, much more spritely displayed, demonstrated why China’s cultural supremacy was so pronounced in Vietnam and East Asia.

The second exhibit I found quite by mistake. It had some weird title like, “the Rejuvenation of the Chinese People.” It was also in a difficult-to-get-to part of the immense building, which is a twin to the Great Hall of the People, where 1000 delegates meet in the Chinese Parliament. I suspected it was the party view of history since 1840, since I knew that the new Museum had merged with the Museum of the Revolution. When I got into the exhibit, I realized that yes, it was about the freeing of the Chinese people from the century of humiliation, and I was the only foreigner there. The captions were mostly in Chinese, but it’s the Chinese I could read (sort of) from learning my Chinese during the Cultural Revolution. There was the missing rhetoric on feudal society and the imperialists who made war on China and whose businessmen and missionaries drove a militarist policy that reduced China to poverty and oppression. This was the “remember history, save the nation” that I saw in several places, culminating with a party history of the period through the end of the 1990s and the wisdom of following Deng Xiaoping’s version of Communism—the creation of the New China.

The third exhibit was the one I knew I had to see more than I wanted to see. It was the “New New China,” the global player of global economic integration (and political influence), as emphasized by Louis Vuitton and some of the art he inspired. The first room was a room dominated by octagonal mirrors featuring a video of an explosion of a rock, called “the beginning.” One of the highlights was a variety of trunks that LV had created over the near-century of its existence. This was the “New New China” I’ve been talking about (and if there’d been a few copy-LV bags, it would have been perfect).

And then it was time to go home. Here’s what I’ll miss (and some of the items on it may surprise you).

1) Fresh pineapple in Thailand, and fresh fruit in Southeast Asia

2) Murtabak in Malaysia, and the ambience of Penang

3) Order in Singapore, but the chance to bicycle in a jungle

4) Crossing the street or walking on the sidewalks in Vietnam. Good exercise. Adrenaline rises.

5) Vietnamese food

6) Vietnamese prices

7) Old and new friends in all of Asia

8 ) Hong Kong scenery

9) Macau’s resemblance to Lisbon, and vice versa

10) Imperial sights in Beijing

11) Traveling with students, sharing experience and enthusiasm and knowledge. Hopefully, some will be infected.

12) Traveling alone, which I enjoy partly because of #11. Better restaurants as a result, and am responsible for one irresponsible person.

13) Crowds, because there must be something worthwhile at the end

14) Solitude, because crowds make you appreciate it when you can get it

15) Realizing nothing’s in English and no one speaks English and it’s obvious I’m from out of town

16) Learning new things, and remembering old. Putting things together to make sense.

17) Learning from guides. And sometimes teaching them.

18) Asian toilets. I like a challenge.

19) Long train rides. Did you ever find where I left those cobras on the train in Vietnam?

20) Beijing duck someplace atmospheric

21) Working on my Chinese to the point where Chinese answer back in Chinese—and I understand what they’re saying

22) Long flights are great if you can sleep—or if you read

23) Mindlessly wandering through markets or parks

24) Asia

25) Adventure. Give me a few days and I’ll be ready for my next one!

The “New New China” — Last Day in Asia

June 2nd, 2011 by

Mao proclaimed the “New China” in 1949 from the gate of Tiananmen, a China free of imperialism and one that would reclaim its role as a great power and a leader in promoting peace and stability. They’re still the themes of the current regime.

It occurred to me when I returned to Beijing that I’m witnessing, as well, the “New New China,” in the big cities anyway, a prosperous, modern, integrated into the world economy—and full of a middle class that understands consumerism!

I saw both in Dalian. As I identified yesterday, the city was born of the ambitions of the Russians and the Japanese, who fought a major war on Chinese territory for Chinese territory—without resistance from the Chinese, who’d lost the right when they lost the war against Japan in 1895. Japan wanted the resources Manchuria held; Russia wanted to compensate for a “mistake” it made when it reached the Pacific. Unlike the U.S., which found San Diego, L.A., San Francisco, and Seattle had harbors, Russia had Vladivostok, which froze in the winter. In addition, by its borders with China, Russian contact with its Far East had to go around the long Amur—I prefer the Chinese name, Black Dragon River—bend. Hence, Russia cut straight across with the trans Siberian/Chinese Eastern Railroad, then dropped a railroad to Dalian from Harbin, a city still with some marvelous Russian buildings. In fact, Stalin tried to get the Chinese to cede Russia the use and possession of Dalian into the 1950s (Sino Soviet friendship indeed!). The Japanese, who took the Liaodong Peninsula, which included Dalian, from the Russians, with the consent of the United States (Roosevelt won a Peace Prize!) made it the headquarters of the Kwantung Leased Territory, run by those generals who gave us World War II in the Pacific. It was the location of the railway headquarters too, that helped drain the resources—coal and iron—that helped make Japan one of the great powers. As I recall, Japan kept the Kwantung Leased Territory as a possession into World War II. I know I have Japanese stamps used in Dalian through at least the 1930s.

The “new new” China was also on display. June 1 is celebrated in China as International Children’s Day. Given the One Child Policy, there were a lot of “little emperors” yesterday, in their finest clothes, usually with their grandparents, everywhere. In the morning, my guide took me to Ocean Park, a seaside park/aquarium that features several shows. In line with the new Russian theme (the languages are Japanese, Russian, and Chinese—much less English than elsewhere; I was easy to spot as the guy from out of town in the park), during the busy months there are Russian dancers, “beautiful blonde ladies with long legs,” my female(!) guide intoned. There’s a Russian street which has some old Russian buildings (one, an “Arbat” restaurant, reminded me of a similar street in Moscow, where similar goods are sold—the matryoshka dolls, Soviet-military things, binoculars, etc. I had a guide once in Beijing who took us to the Russian market, where mafiosa-looking people came and loaded suitcases with goods to sell in Russia. “Is this a good place to shop, ” I asked her. “Not good enough for Chinese,” she sniffed. And there is a Japanese street too, and more Japanese buildings left (the police station is now a chemical engineering university), but the Japanese rule lasted from 1905 through 1945. And Dalian has a street I call Michigan Avenue, like so many of the big Chinese cities, with world-class brands (the real ones; the copies are a block away)

When I got back to Beijing, I headed for Dashalar, a street I remembered fondly for its small shops, in front of the Arrow Gate to the Forbidden City. It was close enough to walk. I remembered vaguely construction the last time I was there, and what had happened is that the area had gotten a complete makeover, made to look old and traditional—kind of forced, I thought. Next to the shops with the traditional brands (many of them from the vilified 19th century Qing Dynasty) from Beijing and elsewhere (a silk shop from the 1700s, sauces since 1871, etc.) in made-to-look traditional shops, were the Starbucks and the Armanis. The toilets were real (only the handicapped stalls or senior stalls have western sit-downers; and in any case bring your own papers), and so were the restaurants. The choice of a “last supper” was easy: Roast Duck at a place that had the fewest foreigners!

I walked down the back streets until I reached an area where the old shops were not “olde shoppes” to remind me that I was in China.

I leave the hotel in 7 hours, and I am hoping to get some last sightseeing in. My goal is the National Museum; I’ve not been there for years (it was often closed), and I understand a 2008 renovation tripled the size. The number of tickets is limited so I’ll probably stand in line after breakfast until the place opens in hopes of getting one. In line with the New New China, a special exhibit is on Louis Vitton! I like my irony delicious.

Fred, the First Emperor, and the Russo Japanese War

May 31st, 2011 by

The first emperor, Qin Shi huang, came to the city I visited north of Beijing over two centuries ago in search of an elixir that would guarantee him immortality. Needless to say, the fountain of youth eluded him (as it did Ponce de Leon and others), but the grateful (or frightened—emperors could be quite capricious) citizens renamed the city in his honor, which is how Qinhuangdao (Emperor Qin’s Island) got its name—and two thousand years later, it’s still the only city named for him.

My goal was much more modest; I wanted to see somewhere I’d not been that might be interesting. That’s what I was doing there, a city of about 3 million containing the best harbor in North China.

Qinhuangdao is the hub for two nearby cities, Shanhaiguan and Beidahe, that it turned out were more interesting to me.

Shanhaiguan was located in what the Romans would have called the “limne.” Thus, it became a garrison town early, based on being where land and water meet—and where the great wall comes down to the sea. Beginning in the late 14th century, “old dragon head,” the encampment at the pass assumed importance in barring the Manchurians and Mongolians from invading China; in 1644, however, an officer opened the gates for the Manchu invaders, who proceeded to Beijing and swept the Ming Dynasty into history. In 1900, as part of the suppression of the Boxers, the 8 Allied armies ransacked old dragon head; it was not rebuilt until the 1980s, and has become a tourist attraction (5 stars, no less). It had a maze within the walls for training troops! Qianlong visited here (he was emperor for over 60 years) and inscribed a thought on a rock (he did that everywhere), which was defaced by the Allied armies and restored along with the fort. His statue is there, and for a fee you can have your picture taken with him.

Shanhaiguan is also a walled city, and we visited part of the encircling wall (and part of the Great Wall), the first pass under heaven. Within the rebuilt wall, the city has traditional buildings—one story, with eaves, a museum—the home of the wealthy Wang family, providing a stark contrast to the grim cinder-block high rises outside the city walls.

We then drove to Beidahe, a salubrious seaside resort for the rich to escape Beijing, both then and now. At one time, the area was the summer home of the foreign diplomats (there were barracks for the troops, and the German and Japanese maintained foreign post offices); then it was the summer home of the party elites—Mao and Lin Biao, his successor, had villas there.

Today, ironically, the area welcomes a lot of foreign visitors—from Russia! The three languages for most signs? Chinese, English, and Russian. My guide said during July/August she doesn’t know whether it’s a Chinese city or a Russian city.

Well, that was yesterday. Today I’m writing from Dalian, a city of 7 million that is important in the histories of Russia, Japan, and China. On a peninsula extending into the Yellow Sea, it had the warm water harbor that Russia craved in the Orient. So much so that the Russians bullied the Japanese (who had defeated the Chinese in 1894-1895) into surrendering the spoils of war (the Liaotung Peninsula)—to them. Dalian officially celebrates its birthday from 1899, when it became a Russian city called Port Arthur. Five years later, the Japanese fleet appeared before the harbor, sank the Russian navy, then declared war. The war here was brutal, with about 60,000 dead Japanese and 20,000 Russians, but the Russians lost another fleet (the one from the Baltic sailed half-way around the world to get defeated at Tsushima Straits). In a peace brokered by Theodore Roosevelt (who won a Nobel Prize for it), the Russians surrendered Liaotung to the Japanese. For the Russians, the defeat hastened the demise of the Romanovs (see the movie about the Battleship Potemkin). For the Japanese, the defeat was the first by an Asian over a Western power (at least since Genghis Khan), and hastened the end of empires that went on till the end of the century. Japan controlled Dalian until its defeat in World War II, and used the base to dominate Manchuria economically (the region has resources, such as coal and iron, that Japan did not) through special rights granted to the Japanese-owned South Manchurian Railroad Company, and eventually separate it from China under “The Last Emperor,” Puyi.

We went to the main battlefield, a hill overlooking the harbor which took 66 days for the Japanese to conquer. The Chinese have kept the battlefield, and the monument the Japanese crafted from bullets (to their arrogance and militarism, says the signs), but have turned the park into a reminder—roughly, don’t forget the past. If one needed another symbol of why China considered the 19th and early 20th centuries a century of shame, or humiliation, it certainly could be here. Russia and Japan fought on Chinese soil while a weak Qing government let it happen.

Quite a history lesson these past two days!

How I Spent my Memorial Day Weekend

May 29th, 2011 by

On the road again

The students left yesterday in a burst of OMG activities. Before leaving for the airport, we:

1) Visited the Confucian temple and the Imperial College, both founded in the Ming period to train and honor the scholars who successfully passed the exams and became the ruling elite of China. Until the exams were abolished in 1905, the system of learning the Analects of Confucius was one of the surest ways to wealth and power. The top three scholars were honored by the emperor at the Forbidden City, and were allowed to march through the same middle gate as the emperor. All the scholars who passed the exams had their names inscribed on the steles, and I said that anyone whose name was on them would get an A in the class. Unfortunately for them, only my name and Professor Sikora’s were on the stele. At least that’s what I told them. Though the complex is not usually on the tourist main route, I thought it would be useful to see the “mother church” of Confucian education since we’d see one of the “satellite” campuses in Hanoi, an indication of the power of Chinese civilization (I’d seen the equivalent in Seoul). As luck would have it, there was an International School graduation that day, so the college was set up to be a college that day. The Sage of Qufu (Confucius’ home town) would have been pleased.

Interestingly, the qualifying exams for universities today are just as competitive—and just as useful. When we went to Beijing University (the IWU of China), they boasted about the number of top student qualifiers the school had attracted from the Chinese provinces. And In Beijing several years ago, we had the president of Motorola speak to us. When she was done, she asked, “Any Questions?” She was Korean, and so I asked, “Did you graduate Seoul National or Yonsei University?” “Seoul National,” she replied, surprised. “But how did you know?” I knew because Confucius still lives in Asia.

2) The second must-do in that area, an area still marked by the dismount stones and other trappings of old Beijing, is the Yonghegang, the Lama Temple. Originally the home of Yongzheng (who will play a role later in this narrative), it was converted by Qianlong into a Lama temple to honor his mother (a stout Buddhist) as a place for his loyal subjects from Tibet and Mongolia who followed the Lama version of Buddhism. It is the largest Buddhist temple in Beijing today, with a crowning hall housing a 23-meter standing Buddha made of one piece of wood (everything is the largest, biggest, tallest, etc., but you do have to watch the qualifiers). What I love most about it is that it incorporates the Tibetan/Mongolian gods, too, that are terrifying in their demonic postures, especially the blue demon that I think should be the DePaul mascot.

3) The third item (yes, we were busy—this was all before noon, and probably seemed an eternity to those who sampled the nightlife as a personal farewell to the trip and to Beijing) was a tour of the hutong area around Houhai, one of the artificial lakes the imperials created for themselves north of the Forbidden City. The hutongs were the old-style homes with four square units surrounding a garden; it’s a Manchu word. Once the predominant housing in Beijing, they’ve been replaced by high rises, and maybe it’s not a bad thing. The units once had no electricity, water, or sanitary facilities, except what was common. Today, the area has gentrified and is now the playground of young Chinese, and the residence of older ones. We stopped at one for lunch, where a woman and her retired husband preside over an empty nest (children get married and want privacy) together with same-generation elders.

When I took the students to the airport and checked them to security—free at last, and convinced that the experience had been transforming—I returned to the city, where I’ve been busy ever since. Yesterday afternoon, I walked for about three hours. My main goal was to climb Coal Hill and take pictures overlooking the Forbidden City. At one time the highest location in the city, Coal Hill was constructed of dirt dug out of the moat to build the Palace. It offers the best view of the Palace, and I was delighted that it had been reopened since I was there two years ago. I realized I had not been there late in the day before (I like to get there early in the morning and watch the tai qi and line dancing and ballroom dancing, and calligraphy, etc., but couldn’t entice any night owls to join me). One note of history there—supposedly, the last Ming emperor went there when the Manchu armies seized the city in 1644 and hanged himself. Interestingly, the Manchus had him buried in the same valley with the other Ming tombs, and carried on the burial traditions themselves, becoming more Chinese than Manchu by the end of the dynasty (they came and were transformed). I went around the Forbidden City to Sun Yatsen Park, which had been part of the Palace when the Emperors lived there, when it housed an altar for earth and grain. Another stupendous architectural wonder—and proof that the Middle Kingdom, or its rulers at any rate, was wealthy beyond belief. I emerged just in time to witness the lowering of the flag over Tiananmen Square, which had a larger “crowd than in the morning (after all, 7:30 at night is preferable to most people over 4:50 a.m.), the same snappy military detail, but no inspiring anthem, or any music.

Today was my “OMG, I’m outnumbered by how many to one?” day. I left early this morning for the thing I’ve never had time to do—visit the Qing tombs. There are two sets, one in Eastern Hebei province, which were ravaged during the warlord period, partly because one of the graves is of Cixi, the wicked Empress Dowager who poisoned emperors to keep power, the other in Western Hebei; I went to the west, where we visited the tomb of Yongzheng, the 3rd Qing emperor, and supposedly the most resplendent. He set up the first tomb in the area (supposedly, he killed his brothers when he became emperor; it wasn’t always primogeniture, making succession one of the problems in any dictatorship, or even an entrepreneurial company. Consequently, he did not want to bury himself near his father). Yongzheng designed the sacred way after the model of the Mings (who copied earlier dynasties) with some differences; most notably, the scholar/officials had the “pigtail,” the Manchu hairstyle that the dynasty made every Han Chinese copy. The tomb was every bit as impressive as the more well-traveled Ming tombs, but being 70 miles or so from Beijing, much less visited by tour groups. They told me I was the only Westerner to have been there that day.

Fragrant Hill was similar. Another imperial park, it is on a hillside in another playground (my guide thought the problem with the Qing emperors was that they had too many playgrounds and did not spend enough time on government; after all, they permitted the century of humiliation!), this one built by Qianlong. With a charming man-made lake (and a natural mountain, of over 1,200 meters, which we did not have enough time to climb or to ride the cable car to the top), the site houses the Azure Cloud temple. It’s another lama temple Qianlong built (partly to honor his mother), with Tibetan stupas; Dr. Sun Yatsen’s body rested here while the Republic prepared the elegant tomb in the capital (between the late 20s and 1949). Again, it was a park full of local people (it was Sunday afternoon), and I was the only American around. Beijing abounds with imperial sights, just as impressive as those on the tour, but more enjoyable because they’re not.

Right now, I am the only Westerner on a train headed (for me anyway) to Shanhaiguan, the mountain-sea pass where the Great Wall comes down to the sea. I’m spending tonight there, and visiting the pass, Qinwangdao (the only city named for the first emperor in his lifetime) and Beidahe, playground along the ocean of old and new elites. The car is a second-class sleeper (6 people, 6 bunks; fortunately I’ve got a bottom bunk), and if I speak English, I talk only to myself. I am, after all, In China.

I hope you’re enjoying your holiday as much as I am mine.

From the middle of the Middle Kingdom

May 27th, 2011 by

They say you can’t do everything in 3 ½ days in Beijing, but I think we’ve come as close as possible to exploring this majestic center of the center of the Universe. We’ve joined 19 million residents (it’s China’s third largest city, behind Chongqing and Shanghai), who all seemed to be on the subway tonight, 5 million-plus cars (so many that certain license numbers—today those ending in 5 or 0—are banned, though it’s hard to tell what 20% less means), and hordes of tourists.

The capital of China since the Yongle emperor of the Ming Dynasty, worried about the barbarians from the north, moved it here in 1406 (from Nanking; it had also been the capital while Kublai Khan and the Mongols ruled for 80 years), Beijing was built to impress, and that it does. The phrase, “Oh My God,” overused (in my opinion, by some of our students) truly applies here. China has historically not only been the most populous country, but at times the richest. Certainly, the 24 Ming and Qing emperors who lived here spent as though they were rich, and they were successful in impressing foreign devils with the might of Chinese civilization—even today. Tourism is the biggest business, and China has both the history and the infrastructure to deliver it, aided by the “coming out party” called the Olympics. One benefit of that extravaganza (China reputedly spent more money on the opening ceremony than the country spent on education that year!) was the moving permanently of a major steel plant, which improved the air quality, noticeably for those of us who haven’t been here for a while.

The old Chinese saying, “come and be transformed,” is obvious from the sites we visited. This morning, we assayed the Forbidden City. Even though only a small part of it is open, it dazzles with length, breadth, and opulence. I can only imagine what it must have been like to be a foreign ambassador and walk through the city (the gates have three openings, one for the emperor, his empress or empresses, and the three top students on the annual imperial exams). If you haven’t seen The Last Emperor, you ought to—it’s a portrayal of the end of the Qing Dynasty. It’s filming in the Palace Museum (what the palace became after Puyi was thrown out in 1924) caused the sacking of the mayor of the city, who allowed foreign cameras to be placed on the buildings, etc. I had to point out the spot where Starbucks had been, evicted after an email campaign unusual for China in that it was bottom up. I’ve walked in the mornings, which is a great time to be up and about (the People’s Liberation Army unit housed in the Forbidden City hoists the flag at sunrise—4:51 this morning when a few of us got to watched it), and I’ve found parks that used to be part of the Imperial Court. On one side, what used to be the ancestral tablets and shrine is now a workers’ cultural palace, which has all the features of the palaces—centuries-old cypress trees in shapes meant to amuse (the Crown prince’s forest was planted by “naughty and playful” princes who planted them randomly), huge rocks in fantasy shapes, walls, buildings resplendent in red and gold—and no tourists. The other side is dedicated to Dr. Sun Yat-sen, but was also an imperial playground. I sought to explore more on the west side of the Palace when I rented a bicycle one evening, only to be warned by the army on guard that I was getting close to Zhongnanhai, the home of the chief party officials; the new emperors replaced the old.

Three other imperial sites reinforced the awesomeness of the middle kingdom and its all-powerful emperor. One was the tombs. Tourists usually go to the Ming tombs since they’re on the way to the Great Wall at Badaling. Here, the Mings buried 13 of their emperors in a valley whose entrance is guarded by the “sacred way”, animals and officials in pairs, one resting, one serving the needs of the emperor, to serve him in the afterlife. The tomb-type construction predates the Mings (at least as far back as the Qin Dynasty, 200 BC, whose emperor (the first emperor) unified China and gave his name to the country; his tombs have the terra cotta warriors etc. I’ve also been to Korea for a visit to King Sejong, who created the Korean language, and his tomb is a smaller version of the Chinese (but he was a king, not an emperor), and also to the tombs in Hue, which again reflect the notion of what it meant to be imperial in Asia—copy the model.

The second imperial site was the Temple of Heaven, which Beijing uses as its logo. With good reason. This imposing edifice also exists at the north end of a long walkway, where various preliminaries occurred before the emperor prayed for a good harvest (which provided job security!). If you think about a country based on agriculture, you realize that having a good harvest was important. Part of the wisdom the Jesuits brought to the Orient was their knowledge of Western science and astronomy, which intrigued the Chinese enough to allow the Jesuits to convert Chinese to Christianity.

The third “must see” is the Great Wall. The current version recreates the Qing great wall, although a wall protecting China from northern barbarians (and keeping Chinese in) predates the first emperor, one of whose accomplishments was to consolidate the existing walls. A business run by the City of Beijing, it has some of the most persistent hawkers in China. Steep, it never really kept out the barbarians or kept in the Chinese, but it’s a magnet for tourists.

We also learned a lot about doing business here at our visit to Caterpillar, a $40 billion company (doubled in the last five years). I thought it was interesting when our three speakers noted they’d been with the company no more than 3 years. From what they said, there is a lot of competition for skilled labor in China; they have 90 positions which have not been filled for a year. Competition is so stiff that 30% pay increases have to be offered as an inducement. “Talents are assets,” one said, “not people.” Cat has had a presence in China since the 1970s, and seeks to get more business from China, which is the world’s biggest market for certain of its products. What they said, though, was that China is a price market, and Cat is 20% more expensive than Japanese rival Komatsu, and 50% more expensive than Chinese products. Consequently, Cat gets only 10% if its sales from China. The company has introduced a GPS technology which tells where the equipment is located; it sounds like sometimes equipment in arrears has vanished. The other lesson was about doing business with State Owned Enterprises, which many of Caterpillar’s customers are. The company has hired someone with military experience who went to study public policy in the United States, and returned to head a program emphasizing corporate governance. In other words, someone who can navigate the bureaucracy. She noted that China is top down, where the United States is bottom up. Her point was that the rules of engagement are changing, from an export-driven economy to one that wants high tech and management skills, and stressed the idea of being a good corporate citizen.

China views its “modern history,” as the monument on Tienanmen square indicates, beginning in 1840 with the Opium War. It is the current administration’s goal to restore the glory that was China, and from what I’ve seen in the last 21 years, has come a long way toward meeting that goal.


May 26th, 2011 by
at the convention center in HK--where Britain handed over Hong Kong in 1999

At the convention center in HK--where Britain handed over Hong Kong in 1999

Visit to Siam Foods near Bangkok

Visit to Siam Foods near Bangkok

In uniform for a visit to Siam foods

In uniform for a visit to Siam foods

At the Royal Palace in Bangkok

At the Royal Palace in Bangkok

Trip to KL a "towering success"

Trip to KL "towering" success

The stars of a cultural program in KL

The stars of a cultural program in KL

With parents of our alumni in Hanoi--probably a record IWU gathering in that city!

With parents of our alumni in Hanoi--probably a record IWU gathering in that city!

We are in Beijing

May 25th, 2011 by

As we hurtle from Hong Kong to Beijing (or another 20-plus-hour train ride)

It’s always difficult (for me anyway) to leave Hong Kong, and I think our students on this trip now know why; if you are going to have extra time anywhere, this is the place. We had a lot of time here partly because the train to Beijing doesn’t run every day; and I think it’s a great place to visit because of the comfort level most foreigners have here. Although the city is over 94% Chinese, and today over 80% of the visitors come from the mainland, Hong Kong was British long enough (1841-1997, with the exception of WWII) to have a veneer of Westernization.

Consider the need to get around. The Star Ferry may well be the best bargain in town, if not the world. Connecting Hong Kong Island and some of the over 400 smaller islands together, as well as the Kowloon Peninsula, the Ferry provides some of the most stunning views of the stunning harbor. The rapid transit lines move millions of people a day, and the double-decker busses and trams make sightseeing fun. Jim and I took the Star Ferry across last night to Central (the Financial District), then took the train back to Kowloon to find a place to eat, along the street my friend Eleanor had recommended near our hotel for dumplings.

Food is another reason to visit Hong Kong, as I mentioned before. Before we left today, Eleanor and her sister took me and Jim to the Little Sheep restaurant. That’s the English name. In Chinese, it’s the Little Fat Sheep restaurant. It’s on the 2nd floor (which is really the third floor), and I’ve found that above the second floor one sees few Guilo (foreigners). That’s not surprising since none of the menus were in English—but with our friends, we had one of the best dim sum meals here (and we’ve had several great dim sum meals). There’s an old saying in this area about Cantonese food, “if it flies and isn’t an airplane, we eat it; if it has four legs and isn’t a table, we eat it.” I would bet a good Cantonese chief could make a table or an airplane taste pretty good.

Yesterday’s group visits demonstrated to me what Mark Sheldon, IWU’s ambassador to East Asia, and I discussed: We have wonderful alumni and contacts through our alumni. Mark and Matt Drege, a 1999 alum, talked about the expatriate life. Both came temporarily—and have stayed, in Mark’s case, almost 30 years, and in Matt’s case, about 6 years. Mark has had a variety of academic roles, mostly in political science, and is familiar with not-for-profits and the politics of the area; Matt came out with PWC, an accounting firm, and did not want to go home. They did an excellent job in describing what it’s like to live in Hong Kong, and to work there. Mark has been active in the democracy movement—and has been in Hong Kong long enough to vote. He said that the presence of so many mainlanders (they can have 7-day visas; ours were for 90 days) sometimes creates tensions because of the cultural differences (Cantonese is the preferred dialect, not the Putonghua of the mainland). Matt changed jobs (and reinvented himself three or four times since leaving IWU; he stressed the importance of continually changing yourself to fit changing times) to work with AIA in corporate governance, and helped the company in its divorce from AIG. It sounds like he has done some interesting work. I met him at Starbucks where he was arranging his day, and his phone call referenced business in Thailand and the Philippines. His investment strategy includes major Asian enterprises, include having some savings in Renminbi.

Queenie Li, who was my advisee and a double major in business and music, helped her parents’ presentation to us on their company. Mr. Li is what Mark described as a typical “Cantonese” entrepreneur, having built a niche textile company—in cashmere—from scratch. The competitive nature of the business led to factories in China and Bangladesh to lower costs. He said that the Bangladeshi work force can be unpredictable. They like to strike, and one time struck for wages lower than what they were being paid! He contracts with major retailers in the United States and Europe, but also has several stores of his own, and his own brand. He stressed a lot of personal contacts (more important than the digital age), being honest, and understanding the complexities of cultures. He took us to one retail outlet, and several of our students will look a lot better next year (or their parents will).

It was obvious when we crossed the border (especially when we left Shenzhen, the town just north of Hong Kong; it was one of the first cities Deng Xiaoping opened to foreign trade in the early 1980s, and is now a booming city of about 4 million, which resembles Hong Kong a lot more than what we’ve seen since. As we’ve gone deeper into China, we’ve seen new infrastructure, especially roads, but cities that are not neon-dazzling.

One of several reasons for taking the train is to demonstrate to students that Asia is not just glittering cities with skyscrapers, and as we’ve gone through Guangdong province, the manufacturing capital of the world, they’ve certainly seen that.

On to Beijing—just under 20 hours more!

It’s morning now in North China, and some observations on the countryside we’re passing through: We’re in wheat country (the home of Chinese noodles); some of the agricultural implements are mechanical—looks like harvesters to this city boy; the houses are brick, very functional, which is to say, plain; the rust belt is alive and well here; and the infrastructure improvements are real, although in the countryside, much of the traffic is in trucks. Rural China, as our students will see, is quite different from Beijing. Someone told me that the move from the farm to the city has lessened because the government is now subsidizing farm products (and commodity prices are escalating, leading to inflation here and elsewhere, but to an improved standard of living in the countryside). Farm unrest has toppled many a dynasty, and the current one is well aware of that.

A part of Portugal in Asia: Macau

May 22nd, 2011 by

I have been to Macau almost every time I’ve been to Hong Kong; indeed, I’ve stayed overnight a few times in the former Portuguese possession. I liked the Mediterranean feel so much, in fact, that it was one of the reasons I had to go to Portugal, which I did last summer. What would it be like to return to Macau having been to Portugal, I wondered?

I had the chance to find out Sunday, and took two students with me on the hour-and-a-half ferry ride across the Pearl River Delta.

There were really excellent museums in Lisbon dealing with Portugal’s once extensive overseas empire, including one on what the Portuguese still consider their special relationship with the Far East. Vasco da Gama is a national hero for having reached India, while Columbus, a Portuguese who sailed for Spain, is barely mentioned. That small country on the fringe of Europe crept down the coast of Africa, reaching India in the early 1600s, acquiring a trading post at Goa that remained a part of Portugal until India seized it in the 1970s (I learned that one of the colonial buildings in Macau, the “Moorish barracks” housed an Indian regiment—from Goa). In 1513, the Portuguese cajoled the Chinese into permitting a shipwrecked crew to dry its goods at Macau, and the Portuguese stayed until 1999. Until Hong Kong supplanted it as the main entrepot in the China trade, after the first Opium War, Macau played the premier role for foreigners. All trade with China was through Canton, but the traders were not allowed to stay all year in Canton, so they lived in Macau. Their families could not reside in Canton, either, so they lived in Macau. The Protestant cemetery houses tombstones that list the vicissitudes of life on the China coast—died of malaria or typhus, in childbirth, at sea, storming the forts of the Boca Tigris (Canton), etc.

Although the city declined in importance after Britain acquired Hong Kong, it remained part of the Portuguese empire, and parts of it grew to resemble Lisbon. The pastel colored colonial buildings, especially the governor’s palace (the pink and white exterior resembles one of the imperial palaces in the mother country), seem more Mediterranean than South China sea. The Portuguese officer’s club would not be out of place in Lisbon, and is one of the more elegant places to eat in town. The McDonald’s, housed in a yellow building, may have the finest setting in the world for the Oakbrook-based company. The food remains—I had African Chicken, the students who came with me had Portuguese rice, and we all had a Portuguese egg tart (just like in Portugal). There are also some blue tile/murals, just like in the mother country. The city has a number of elegant Catholic churches, and the treasuries have the monstrances and other artifacts of Catholic churches, just like the Museum of the Orient in Lisbon. A huge fort remembers the presence of the Dutch, whose repulse in 1622 on St. John’s day gave the city its patron saint. And Portugal’s Homer, Luis Camoes, lived in Macau for a time, and there’s a park named for him (of course, I was the only one on our tour in Portugal who had ever heard of him, but it was nice to make the connection).

In 1999, Portugal returned Macau to China, as a special administrative region for 50 years. Thus, although the order of the signage is now reversed (Chinese then Portuguese), Portuguese is still an official language (though not widely spoken). While I came for the old (and the mystery; as a neutral in World War II, Portuguese Macau provided a place of refugealmost 500,000 Chinese fled here, slightly less than today’s population, and spies abounded as well), most tourists flock to Macau to gamble. Hong Kong has race tracks (some of the students talked about going to a race), Macau has the casinos. Pre-1999, Stanley Ho (he of four wives) had the monopoly; today, it resembles Las Vegas, with a Sands, Wynn, etc., built mostly on reclaimed land in the last ten years. When we got to immigration, I was pleased because there was a line for senior citizens, while the tour groups clogged the others. The students took almost an hour to get through, that’s how many (mostly mainland Chinese) tour groups were there. The newer attractions are meant to keep tourists longer; a huge TV tower for observation and bungee jumping (we watched someone who had paid about $300 U.S. to plunge 1,500 feet), a Grand Prix museum (there’s a Grand Prix in September) and upscale shopping that can overshadow the traditional charm if one is not careful.

In all, another memorable day.

A peak experience

May 21st, 2011 by

At over 1,300 feet, the “peak” in Hong Kong towers over the harbor and the island; it also provides the backdrop for one of the most engaging settings for any city in the world. Shanghai may have an equally impressive waterfront, but Hong Kong has mountains and water. When combined, the Chinese characters mean scenery, and that’s one word for Hong Kong. Walking along the promenade that fronts Victoria Harbor and the peak, at night with the buildings lit up, provides truly one of the most memorable sights on the trip. I remember the first time (in 1990) blurting out, “This is more western than New York,” and in some ways, it is.

There’s an energy here that is palpable, fitting for a city that since its birth has been a commercial funnel between China and the West. The Qing dynasty, having spurned a Western emissary in 1792, saying the West had nothing China wanted, had limited trade to South China, the city of Canton. Unfortunately for the Chinese, the British did find something in India that the Chinese wanted to buy, and they bought it like they were addicted to drugs—it was opium. The drain of money from the country prompted the Chinese to try to ban the opium, and they burned it and threw the foreigners out of Canton in the late 1830s. Thus started the first Opium War, out of which came a treaty that ceded Hong Kong Island to the British—in perpetuity. A second opium war from 1858-1860 led to the acquisition of the Kowloon Peninsula, across from the island (and where we’re at), again in perpetuity. In 1898, in yet a third round of Sino-foreign troubles, the Chinese ceded the “New Territories,” but for only 99 years. The end of that treaty resulted in negotiations that in 1997 led to the handover of Hong Kong from the British to the Chinese. I still have a T-shirt, worn only that one night, that said, “Good-Bye Great Britain, June 30, 1997,” on one side, and “Hello, China, July 1, 1997.”

I know there were people who feared that China would rule Hong Kong with a heavy hand, but the PRC seems to have kept its word in the “Special Administrative Region.” There’s a lot of new public activity here—especially construction. A high-speed train is being built (I saw protests against it on the University of HK campus on partly environmental grounds) to Beijing and Shanghai that will bind the country more tightly to the mainland. And Beijing still hopes to reunite the “renegade province” of Taiwan to the mainland peacefully, which makes it imperative to make it seem possible for “one country” to have “two systems.” Hong Kong is still a major player in the trade with south China—the main port for products from Guangdong, the province north of here, to connect with the rest of the world. As was the case from 1841 on.

What’s there to do besides walk the city all night marveling at what there is to do 24/7 (I’ve actually done that)?

We did have a sightseeing tour that took us to the convention center (one of several projects the last governor of HK built to leave a less-than-full treasury; the wondrous airport with the longest three-layered bridge to it is another) where the handover ceremony took place, and with appropriate pomp and ceremony, Prince Charles and Governor Patten sailed into history in 1997; Aberdeen, once home to “boat people,” today a typhoon refuge for the tycoons and their boats as well as a smattering of fishing boats; Repulse bay, the most expensive property on the island (with the best beach on the island on what they call here the “South China Sea,” that our guide in Hanoi said was the “Vietnam Sea”; the peak with its splendid views from 1385 feet looking down on the city/peninsula; the road up to it with houses famed in movies (“Love is a Many Splendored Thing,” “Suzy Wong,” and the eminently forgettable, “Soldier of Fortune,” in which Clark Gable becomes enamored with Mrs. Hoyt, played by Susan Hayward; lucky Mrs. Hoyt, and lucky Mr. Hoyt).

Then there’s eating. Dim sum is a south Chinese specialty, and we had lunch yesterday in a restaurant that had surprisingly few tourists, and not surprisingly outstanding food (tho, alas, the days of the carts coming by your table so you could see and select are numbered); a dinner last night accompanying one of my long time Hong Kong friends, a teacher at a university here I met in Vietnam in 1995, who specializes in finding restaurants without English menus, and food none of us would venture to eat—I love the duck web feet we had, and I’ve never had it before).

And (as is true in much of developed Asia) shopping in incredible blocks of shopping malls, stores, etc. Good tailors, reasonably priced. Cameras reasonably priced. Fashions. You name it. There’s an old Chinese saying (I made it up, I think), “You got money, no problems.” Several students will look more professional at work or school next year.

Finally, there’s culture for those interested. I went the other night to the Philharmonic, which debuted a work by a young Hong Kong composer (it had been played by the BBC before, but not in Asia), and one of my favorite pieces, Symphony Fantastique, Berlioz’ account of an opium-crazed jilted lover’s nightmares (as I learned from the notes), which at one time featured 4 timpanists! And the art museum had a great exhibit in the form of a “tourist guide” to the Pearl River delta in 1839-1860. One tidbit I learned was that the Chinese baker in Canton tried to poison the entire foreign community with arsenic, but gave so much that everyone vomited and everyone survived. I’ll watch what I eat!

Not bad for a city of “only” 7 million people, with the highest density in the world.

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