On Pearls and Pandas – Shanghai and Chengdu

My dad came to visit for 10 days, first coming to Chengdu where we hung out with Pandas and other celebrities, before heading to Shanghai to marvel at Better City, Better Lights…

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Pandas are really cute. The pictures are better than words though. What other creature sleeps most of the day, only to wake up and lie on its back munching bamboo? Nice life.

Also watching the pandas at play was the former VP of Taiwan’s KMT party (which had been dominant from 1949 to 2000), Ji?ng B?ngk?n (aka Chiang Pin-kung, or PK Chiang). As our Chinese fellow students and friends told us, last year he was the first Taiwanese official to visit the Mainland. So we pushed our way in for an autograph and a little chat.

Also in the star-studded constellation was PK Chiang’s buddy, Taiwanese banking billionaire Jeff L.S. Koo. While my enthusiastic Chinese friends were discussing Cross-Straight (i.e. Taiwan-China) relations, Jeff and I talked shop, you know, high-browed finance stuff:

Me: “I used to work at Lehman Brothers in New York.”

My bud Jeff: “Ah Lehman! Hey I used to teach in New York — great city.”

Me: “It is. Great city.”

Busy shaking hands with history-makers, we didn’t shake hands with the pandas. I do have a take-home sized one on my bed though. 🙂

I don’t know much about Taiwan-China-US relations so if you have some insight into why everyone cares so much, and what solutions have been proposed, please let me know. For instance, I just learned that you can’t fly direct from China to Taiwan. To go the 90 minute 600km flight from Shanghai to Taipei, you have to stop in Macao or Hong Kong or Japan! Great article on Business week about this: http://www.businessweek.com/bwdaily/dnflash/jun2004/nf2004067_7717_db010.htm

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Magicians #1 trick of the trade is distraction: get the audience to focus on your wand in one hand while you slip the coin in your other sleeve.

China’s modern city planners are master magicians, and their skills light up at night. At night, Shanghai is a true city of the future: the stunning skyline glows and twinkles every shade of neon, the classic European-style buildings Bund are flooded with soft lighting, even the floor of the plazas splash with waves of color.

Even back in Chengdu, my modest home base, bridges and their on-ramps are lined with neon and spotlights, a moth’s Elysian Fields. At night, urban China is magical.

What you don’t see at night are the places where people actually live, the thick smog in the sky, the persistent poverty, the industry, the ship docks, the factories… The ugly reality for many people here.

If Beijing can’t control pollution and poverty by 2008, here’s a suggestion for a quicker fix: have the games at night, lit by China’s master magicians.

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The first and last impression of Shanghai is its sheer size — horizontal and vertical. Imagine if Midtown Manhattan skyscrapers covered the entire island plus most of Brooklyn. If Greenwich CT-style gated communities had 20 story tall buildings with 6000 tasteful apartments around each footbridge-lined community center swimming pool.

I heard they are planning to build 1000 skyscrapers in the next five years, adding to the 4000 already here — double the number in New York already. That the population of Shanghai is officially 14 million plus 4 million immigrants, but may be as many as 30 million, and that within 2 hours of the city are 150 million people — half the population of the entire US.

I’d believe it. The construction boom is unstoppable: through the night workers with headlamps are sodering steel frames on buildings, and that’s during the Labor Day holiday (ironic eh? apparently they don’t get overtime or don’t have a real choice to opt out).

My dad and I had lunch on the 87th floor of the Jin Mao tower, now the tallest building in Shanghai. But nipping at our heals just out the window were the three cranes pulling up the 101 story Shanghai World Financial Center that will soon be the city’s tallest.

The JW Marriott looks like a diamond about to launch into space; the Radisson’s revolving rooftop reminds one of a UFO touching down; the pink and purple Pearl Tower, Shanghai’s answer to the Eiffel Tower, twinkles hypnotically throughout the night…. Even our Howard Johnson hotel lit up for the show. Each building is unique and the steel is still warm out of the foundry.

This city is an architect’s dream come true. Actually, many architects dreams come true.

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1.3 billion people. Everywhere I went in my first two months here, I heard Chinese people refer to this number to explain away every policy in China:

“We need the One Child policy. We have 1.3 billion people!”

“It’s hard to find a job after graduation, which means a lot of students keep studying to get additional degrees. But you can understand why it’s so hard to find a job: there are 1.3 billion people here, looking for work!”

“Of course it’s hard for China to pick up the pieces of social services, with 1.3 billion here.”

“Sure wages are low; we have so many people. 1.3 billion people!”

“Of course the government owns and controls the land here. How else can it be distributed well among the 1.3 billion people?”

“You say that per capita growth is falling short of other countries with lower levels of headline growth. Of course it is, but we’re doing our best. You take any thing great and divide it by 1.3 billion and it doesn’t look good anymore.”

“You can see why Shanghai needs to have a central plan for its expansion: 1.3 billion people!”

The last one was by my dad, and that’s when I realized “1.3 Billionism” wasn’t just due to embedded propaganda. My dad made this remark after we had visited an exhibit I call Futurama, which lays our in 3-D scaled model the city of Shanghai as foreseen in 2020. One exhibit laid out the city plan of Chongming city, with this caption: “Chongming: one of the eleven new cities to be built in accordance with general urban planning of Shanghai… a garden city of pastoral life.”

I thought it was odd that Shanghai was planning its cities down to their character. And its not just new cities. The government is undertaking a face lift program throughout older Shanghai, called the “flat-roof” project: take ugly dirty Soviet-style grey blocks with flat-roofs and laundry hanging out the window, slap on some California-style slanted red tile roofs, add a couple of enclosed balconies to hide the laundry, and cover the unattractive grey stucco with vinyl siding. Voila! You’ll look 30 years younger!

And I have to say, these facelifts and the planned parks do make the city look better. “Better City, Better Life,” as the motto goes here.

What Shanghai would like without urban planning? Would the green parks would be swallowed up? Would subways would get built? Would tenements would surge? Would housing be more or less affordable? I don’t know. Your thoughts are welcome.

But I guess I just look at New York, and the trouble it’s had with the democractic and free-market approach to urban planning. It’s been 5 years since 9/11 and New York still has a big hole in the ground, with so many voices squabbling and budgets exploding. They’ve been talking about building a much-needed 2nd Ave Subway for two generations. Boston’s Big Dig has been a headache for decades. And gentrification is happening in Brooklyn and elsewhere, it’s just yuppy driven rather than central government driven. Neighborhoods are getting nicers and safer … and (more) unafforable.

But despite the complaints, New York is still the greatest city in the world (objectively). We had time to grow slowly and organically.

But I’m not sure Shanghai or other Chinese cities can follow the same sluggish democratic process of development. So many people, so little time…

1.3 billion people!

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In the 1840s, the British cracked open China to get to its pearl. The Opium Wars, as they are called, did two major things, as the Shanghai Municipal History Museum put it: deeply embarrassed China which became a “semi-colony”, and significantly helped to modernize the country. I’m not going to pretend to know the history well enough to pontificate here, but I’m learning it because I think it’s critical to understanding China today: these guys want foreign experience and know-how, but they don’t want to be told what to do or to be taken advantage of. Again.

In Shanghai before the revolution, Chinese were second class citizens (“No dogs or Chinese allowed.”) Some Chinese business folks made a lot of money, but not as much as the foreign traders (esp. the opium dealers).

So is it any surprise now that they want to limit foreign ownership of Chinese banks to a 25%, or make it difficult for foreign companies to get in to other franchises?

Look at KFC, ubiquitous in China. Apparently they partnered with the Chinese Tourist Bureau a decade or two ago, ensuring that the Chinese profited from their franchises as well. And KFC dominates the market, with McDonald’s, Starbucks, Haagen Dazs and Pizza Hut closely behind. But good luck finding a Burger King or Wendy’s here — guess they didn’t play their cards right.

Moral of the story: If you want to do business in China, do business with China.

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More to write but this is long enough…

Your pengyou, Liz / An Ke Xin


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