Giant football dedicated to the local sports team and TV tower
... China makes California look authentic! This, at least, seems to be the perspective of most Western visitors to the Middle Kingdom. Last week I had the chance to spend 6 days in Dalian, a harbor city in China's North-Eastern Liaoning province. Dalian, also called the "Hong Kong of the North" (...), is relatively small with about 6 million inhabitants in the urban area (thats about twice the population of Ireland, mind the detail). However, in China the city is relatively famous for being livable and lively, as well as for its seafood and OK university.
As my trip was mostly work-related, I had the chance to meet other professionals from all over the globe and got plenty of time to talk to them. Some of them were in China for the first time, others were more seasoned Chinophiles and already knew what to expect. The most interesting conversation anyhow is always the one with the newbies and the hearing of their first impressions of the country. Once they figured out that I have been around this corner of the world for a while, they literally submerged me with questions in regard. The core issue always seems to be the
Downtown with higher buildings in construction...
same: for most Westerners China really looks "fake", "inauthentic" and "a cheap copy of the USA". This really does give me to think and I, honestly, can not deny their claims even after years of living here. So, what is it that makes China the probably least authentic place place on planet earth??
First, people tend to complain about the architecture and urban design. For those of you who haven't been to China, every major hub in the country looks pretty much the same: I suppose this is the result of centralized urban planning. You will find a paved walking area somewhere in the city center and most of the major shopping malls are likely to be found in this area. Most of the time the highest skyscrapers of the city are also located somewhere near. The walking area often offers a large selection of international franchised stores such as Starbucks, Maxim, Kung Fu and a variety of other shops. If you are really lucky there will be a tacky golden dragon statue somewhere in this area. In most cases, a night-market will start to assemble around the early afternoon hours and eventually crowd up in a noisy (and
mostly overwhelmingly smelly) conglomerate of smoky barbecue stalls, shiny and blinky souvenir shops, all kinds of food stores and fake designer clothing shops. As we know about the population issue in China, this place is usually unbearably crowded in the evening hours.
Outside of the walking area one usually finds large highway-like avenues clouded in pollution and dust, where bad-ass policeman try to wave traffic chaos into some kind of organized mayhem. You can be sure that there will be a park somewhere in this area. In most cases there will be a lake with a little bridge, leading to a small temple somewhere on a rock in the water (of course man-made). There you will find some elderly people practicing Tai Chi or playing some Chinese instruments, while the younger ones paddle their way on little swan-boats in the lake. This is the mainstream Chinese idea of a romantic day out I guess. In most cases you wouldn't find anybody having a beer o playing football anyhow, as it is the case in most European parks. Outside of the main urban area the true face of Chinese urbanization is usually shown: Impressive, suffocating, towering skyscrapers with minuscule apartments
usually cram the traffic-clogged streets into a picture of impressive, although somehow menacing, urban jungle. Franchise shops, as found in the city center, are usually rare in these places but small street-markets abound. In the summer months you will most likely see the not-so-pretty sight of obese Chinese guys preparing street food with their t-shirt tied up or, worst case, in topless.
This pattern of urbanization is interesting for a first visit, although it is not what most people expect China to look like (for those of you who look for Conical heads, water buffaloes and people in traditional clothes - go to Vietnam instead). An Israeli visitor has told me that the urban design of Dalian looks "vane" to him, and that it sees "a cheap copy of an American city". I am not sure about the latter, but it is easy to feel some vanity in this urbanization... As an example, the tour guide in Dalian told us that the city has "Asia's largest square" and the world's "largest wax museum". I am not sure how this is measured but I can tell you, both of these attractions have not been overly impressive. However, the trend in
Where Russia meets China
China to do things faster, bigger and larger (not better) than others seems to be omnipresent.
Second, there is something in Chinese culture which, for most Westerners, is confusingly ambiguous. Chinese people are very traditional, this is true. If you sit on a table with some locals, they will most probably just talk in Mandarin and ignore whether or not you understand. Confucianism, hierarchy, superstition and family rules are in place as they have been in the last 5.000 years. However, there is something particularly strange about the new generations... Although they are embedded in a sea of Chineseness, they seem to love and be obsessed with Western things. McDonalds is actually a luxury restaurant in most of China and so is Starbucks. In Dalian a meal can cost less than a crappy Starbucks espresso. If you are a white guy, there are big chances that Chinese girls will be all over you (although they usually won't marry you - family pressure). I can understand that a first-time visitor to China is confused by this wanna-be-western kind of thingy, adding even more to the feeling of "fakeness". Now, I know that some of you will say "hey, I have
The chairman and friends smoking two siggies at the time
been to the countryside and have experienced the "real" China"! My dear friends, I have got news for you: The countryside China is being abandoned by most young Chinese as they are flocking to the city, leaving dilapidated villages, old people and babies behind. Sure, the countryside is poor, but is poor authentic? Even most normal Chinese city-dwellers have never been to these areas.
What all this means for China is not on me to judge. What it means for tourists is more interesting. China is supposed to be world's most visited destination in 2020, but for what kind of purpose? Is the image of glittering skyscrapers that China wants to project to the outside world really the image-enhancing tool that the government believes it to be? Or does it simply enhance the reputation of China to be a fake-USA, copycatting country? I still do like to visit mainland China, particularly for the food (safety aside). However, as this time I came back, I can feel the emptiness that other tourists seem to perceive when they visit the country. Looking across the border to Shenzhen I can see the towering peaks of its skyline on the other side of
Buildings in Zhongshan Square
the river. Is this the China, economy aside, that the country wants to project to the outside world? Is most of Chinese tradition in architecture and culture inevitably lost? Who am I to answer this... but after all, asking questions is part of my job. And these questions need to be asked in the context of China... Happy to hear what other people think about this issue. Have a nice day folks!
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