Thursday, October 1, 2009

China 13 years later

Thirteen years ago my mom and I closed our family-run record store and hopped a series of flights to San Francisco. From the city by the bay we were destined to depart aboard an overnight flight to Hong Kong, then still a crown colony of the United Kingdom. Following a harrowing landing between buildings in Hong Kong (I remember seeing laundry items hanging off balconies just outside my window), we boarded our ship, the Crystal Harmony. It wasn't long after that we were on our way steaming in the South China Sea towards our first stop: Manila in the Philippines. Many of the crewmembers were Phillipino, so it was a very anxious time on ship as we prepared to dock. Many of them were looking forward to seeing family they hadn't seen in as long as 11 months. On the other hand, I was looking forward to being in the historic Philippines, a hot and humid country that reminded me quite a lot of a Caribbean nation. We heard from tourist guides who talked unflatteringly about former dictator Ferdinand Marcos and his wife Imelda and her penchant for shoes. There were glowing references to Corazon Aquino, the female president who had been succeeded by her defense secretary Fidel Ramos, only a few years before. From Manila, we headed toward Taipei, Taiwan on the island nation formerly known as Formosa or Nationalist China. From there we began to be buffeted by high seas and powerful winds as we attempted to make port at Okinawa, Japan. We never made it due to two powerful typhoons (Zane and Yates), which made travel in the South China Sea perilous. At one point we had 40-foot waves and 60 mile-per-hour winds. The captain made the inevitable decision that the typhoons were not going to get out of the way, so he blew off the stop at Okinawa even though it meant breaking a taboo: no ship had ever traveled directly from Taiwan to mainland China. After all, this was an act of God. Although I never heard for sure, there were rumors on board ship that the ship's owners would have to pay a fine of $50,000. No to worry. We weren't paying. Nevertheless, after being buffeted by waves and dealing with powerful winds that made travel on the outside decks impossible, we arrived under sunny skies in Shanghai, the most populous city in China. At that time it had a mere 14 million people. By contrast, today Shanghai is home to 20 million souls. It had been my idea to go to China in the first place. We had finally arrived and Shanghai was a thoroughly modern city with practically everyone wearing Western style clothes. It was not unlike Philadelphia or Baltimore, only bigger and with more Chinese people. I marveled at the way they embraced capitalism and Western ways, despite towing the official Communist Party line. The Shanghai skyline was being transformed from a somewhat large colonial town marked by mansions and well-appointed hotels into a modern mega polis with a burgeoning downtown area overshadowed by cranes and skyscrapers. The significance of Shanghai as a final stop for Jews fleeing the Holocaust was recounted by tour guides and I felt a deep amount of gratitude for those that kept the community there safe, even if they didn't allow them to travel further to America or Australia. A stopover in Dalian was somewhat unimpressive until one was made to understand that all of these rows of large apartment buildings held over 10 million inhabitants. We met with a "typical" Dalian family that brought us into the apartment six of them shared. The kitchen was tiny and the living room doubled as a bedroom at nighttime. Throughout the entire trip we only ate food on board the ship. We were advised not to trust any food or drink not packaged or bottled. Even the bottles weren't entirely safe. When we arrived at our hotel in Beijing, we were all given bottles of water. Even though the water was not chilled, some of us wanted to open them and slake our thirsts. No, we were told. That water was for us to brush our teeth. We were told not to swallow it. Beijing had 12 million people living there in 1996, making it the second largest city in China. Today that figure is 17 million. What brought all of this back to mind was that the first day we arrived in Beijing was October 1, what would be considered a counterpart to our Independence Day for the Chinese people. Today the celebration goes on for a week. Back then the holiday was just beginning to enjoy the large traveling period (similar to our Thanksgiving) it has today. The Forbidden Temple, the Winter Palace, the Great Wall and the Temple of Heaven are all just memories today. In 1996 the siege of Tiananmen Square had yet to occur and Li Peng was bringing a sluggish Chinese economy to the world stage where it would soon become a major player. In the 13 years since my initial visit there, Hong Kong has become an integral part of the financial makeup of China and the new airport has made landings less scenic, but infinitely more safe. More recently, an Olympics Summer Games was held in Beijing with the most elaborate opening and closing sequences. The once clean air of Beijing has given way to smog and acid rain, but the powers that be have come up with solutions to make the city more bearable. For the big ceremonies being held today, the Chinese government actually came up with cloud seeding procedures that cleared away any threat of showers or overcast skies. In the 13 years since I was first there, the Chinese have gone from talking about the weather to changing it. Wow. A lot has happened in the interim. Today the Chinese people own more of the American capitalist infrastructure than we may wish to know. The world's most populous country is filled with many dynamic and progressive people today, yet they are still not truly free. That said it is still important to know the freedom they enjoy today is probably much better than they've had in any other period. Yes, a lot of change in 13 years. Who knows what the next 13 will reveal?

1 comment:

MA said...

Hola paso a visitar su blog y a invitarle al mio. El blog de MA . un saludo y compartiendo culturas desde Granada Andalucia España gracias .