Their mansion cellars are chock-full of the finest burgundies. Their gift cupboards, packed with luxury European goods. As they play real-life monopoly with central London property, their offspring purr around the cities in orange Lamborghinis. In this land of China, where the authorities have traditionally strived for a classless society with common property ownership, the number of US$ billionaires are growing like Jack’s beanstalk.
As much of the world suffers through their financial crises, China’s rampant economic growth continues to pump out billionaires. Between 2009 and 2010, the number of Chinese billionaires grew 45% from 130 to 189, from 2010 to 2011, 43% to 271. China’s tally is now second only to the United State’s 413 mega-wealthy.
In less than 20 days, New Zealand will be overrun with striped jerseys and empty beer vessels as the rugby world converges for the third largest sporting event on the planet, the Rugby World Cup
20 nations will be competing for rugby supremacy in the Nile River of rugby tournaments. Yet in China, the world’s most populous nation, the dedicated following of the rugby will be limited to a few smoky expat bars and a handful of committed Chinese rugby heads (most of whom will be supporting the All Blacks)
I’ve lived beside four rivers in my life. As a youngster, Wellington’s mighty Hutt River was my favourite spot for sitting in inner tubes and doing ‘bombs’ into. Then there was Dublin’s River Liffey, the resting place of more pint glasses than any other river in the world. Preparing for our paddle down the Blue Nile, I lived in Khartoum, Sudan where the Blue Nile and White Nile meet. It was there I caught the bug for the world’s longest river.
Since moving to Shanghai on banks of the Yangtze River Delta, my fascination with rivers hasn’t tempered and I’ve become curious about how two of the world’s greatest rivers compare.
Just as the Beijing Health Bureau broke the news that the Beijing rat population has increased 15% in the past year, we started hearing noises in the night. Disappearing food and rat poop confirmed that we had a resident rodent.
Now we’re no strangers to rats. Just two years ago we were stalked by our fury foe back in Wellington. Then last year we went on a pilgrimage to the rat-ridden Karni Mata Temple in Rajasthan, India. Yet no matter how many run-ins you have with the genus Rattus, you will never get used to them.
Imagine you were a young girl in a small Chinese village. One day exploring the market, you discover a tatty newspaper announcing the development of a shiny new bullet train that will eventually link Beijing to Shanghai in less than five hours. You look up to the sky and take a deep breath: some day you will work as a stewardess on that glistening train. But being partial to stuffed pork buns meant you were slightly tubby in 2011, when applications were called to work on that train. You are the smiley type, and pleasant to be around, but weighing in at 66kg meant you weren’t even considered for an interview.
Do the Chinese eat dogs? It’s one of the most popular Chinese-related searches on Google, and for 2,500 years, Chinese people have munched away on dog meat. But these days its only common in a few areas in the south … and on Chinese spacecrafts. Yep, dog meat was on the menu for the Chinese astronauts who orbited the planet in 2003. Was it served in toothpaste tubes?
In most Chinese cities you won’t see many Lassie kebabs smoking away street-side. To the contrary. There are now close to 50 organisations bursting with dog-loving Chinese dedicated to halting the culinary custom. Earlier this year dog enthusiasts blocked a highway in eastern Beijing in a bid to rescue hundreds of dogs being trucked to local restaurants. Five hours of negotiations ended when the enthusiasts bought the dogs for US$17,000. Many of the dogs were wearing collars and tags and had obviously been dog-napped.
There’s also talk of Government legislation outlawing dog for dinner, however that is likely to be as ineffective as their anti-smoking laws.
These days in China you’ll see a lot more manicured poodles than braised beagles. It seems for the growing middle class who can’t yet afford the bright orange Lamborghini, the designer pooch is the accessory of choice.
I’ve never been a fan of shopping malls, that was before I went to Yiwu China Commodity City.
Yiwu City, about two hours by fast train from Shanghai, has the largest small commodity market in the world. In laymen’s terms that’s a massive mall where you buy large quantities of all the Chinese-made stuff you see in shops and markets all over the world.
And massive it is. 4.3 million square metres of floor space containing 62,000 booths representing factories and suppliers producing everything from 2011 Rugby World Cup balls to Hello Kitty socks.
The Great Wall of China rightfully earns a place on every Top-20 must-see lists of world sites. Its scale is simply jaw-dropping, straddling jagged mountain ridges and deserts 6,259.6 kilometres (3889.5 miles) across China. What strikes me is the stark contrast of its humble design versus flashy modern Chinese bling architecture.
The simplicity of the Great Wall, like much of China’s ancient and medieveal architecture, is representative of the endearing humbleness of Chinese culture. Similar periods of architecture from other parts of world are much more ornate and grandiose. But as China rediscovers itself, it’s creating the most showy, shiny and shameless buildings on the planet. Some are simply beautiful examples of how far engineering has come such as the Bird’s Nest Stadium, Opera House and modern-day cryptic Arche de Triomphe CCTV buildings in Beijing, the Shanghai Financial Centre and under-construction Shanghai Tower, but there are also many shiny, pillared, faux gold monstrosities and countless constructions straight from a Jetsons cartoon. It makes for interesting cityscapes.
The fascinating metamorphosis of Chinese architecture had me wondering just how the Great Wall of China might look if it was constructed in 2011.
The first sections of China’s Great Wall date back to the fifth century BC, with various dynasties adding to and maintaining it until the 16th century. Over that time, tens of millons of workers moved 240 million cubic metres (8.5 billion cubic feet) of compacted rocks and soil, then bricks and stone slabs, mostly by the Chinese-invented wheel barrow. Much of The Wall was held together by mortar made from rice flour, and some say, the bones of some of the million workers estimated to have died building it.
In days gone by, talk of China would conjure up sepia images of streets crowded with men on bicycles. Times have changed.
During the swinging 60’s and 70’s, the must-have items for a marriage in China were a wrist watch, sewing machine and bicycle. Now there are cheap rip-off watches everywhere, someone else does the sewing and almost everyone wants an automobile. Yes, the monarchy of the ‘Kingdom of Bicycles’ has been overthrown.
Back in 1949 when The People’s Republic of China was formed, the party in Beijing opted for the bicycle as the people’s vehicle and started a massive production drive, making two wheels and a chain a big part of their first Five-Year plan. Pedal power took off.
Who could possibly like green tea flavoured toothpaste? The Chinese it seems. On more than one occasion I have been wooed with different shades minty green and slogans such as “fresh blast” and “nature burst” only to discover my molars overrun with the bitter sensation of guey dried leaves.
How does pea-flavoured icecream sound?
I enjoy sipping a cup of green tea or a few peas with my mash, but I have to admit in my closed-minded western opinion, there’s a time and a place.
I cannot think of a time or a place anywhere in the world where I have found tastes more contradictory to my culinary instincts than in China.
Every year it comes with blasts of gunpowder, steamed dumplings and red envelopes. Chinese New Year or Chūn Jié (Spring Festival) as it is known in China is The celebration on the Chinese calendar. Think Christmas, New Years Eve and Thanks Giving all mashed into 15 days of festivities. Fireworks bang, red oval lanterns hang and red cut-outs are plastered everywhere; symbolic of happiness, longevity and wealth.
During the Chinese New Year Festival it’s obligatory to be with your nearest and dearest, so every year sees hundreds of millions of Chinese return to their hometowns and villages. It’s when the city folk really appreciate the migrant workers doing menial jobs to keep the cities ticking over, because things slow right down once they’re gone. They’ll leave by train, bus, car, motorbike, boat, bike, horse, plane, whatever. It is the largest human migration on the planet, by far.
Over the festival, around 2.6 billion trips are made. That stretches China’s extensive transport networks to breaking point. For most Chinese, train travel is the mode of choice – it’s safer than planes and the roads are congested and less comfortable. But the finite capacity means only about 12% of trips during the festival period are on tracks.
When I was a youngster, China really scared me. I’d been told if everyone in China all jumped at the same time, the whole world would wobble. Although there hasn’t been a coordinated hop, China is without doubt, shaking up the balance of the world.
Curiosity has drawn Ellen and me to get in amongst China during this fascinating time in history. I was lucky enough to be working for an Internet company in North America during the dot-com boom, Ireland when the Celtic Tiger was roaring and New Zealand when microwave ovens were introduced, but nowhere has the rate of change been more apparent than in the Middle Kingdom. This is the biggest boom in history.
The rate of change for almost everything in China is staggering; incomes (almost 300% since 2000), car sales (32% last year), the market for art (25% last year), number of billionaires (57% last year). Even more impressive is the scale of it all – the rates are measured across 1.3 billion people! And although developing countries have a low starting point to measure growth from, significant tracts of China are long past the ‘developing’ stage. Shanghai, for example, now has a higher average GDP than parts of southern Europe.