China

North-East of Inner Mongolia

When I was a child, anything coming close to Vladivostok, was at the end of the world. Today, I know that the main difference between the far Northern East and the extreme American North, Alaska, is the narration I received. Alaska was told to me by people like Jack London. They were stories of gold rush and adventure. The stories of the far Northern East, were told by my grandfather. They told about displacement, gulag, starvation and insane dictators (responding to our own insane dictator). Last week we flew into Hailar and made it to Shiwei, then up the Chinese-Russian border close to the most Northern Chinese tip. It is a region, which was been signed over by Heilongjiang to Inner Mongolia. It is the end of summer. And it is beautiful.

Inner Mongolian Grassland, North of Hailar (People's Republic of China).

Inner Mongolian Grassland, North of Hailar (People's Republic of China).

Inner Mongolia is for me the synonym of endless grasslands, but heading North these very soon change into a birch forest vegetation and then into the Greater Khingan Forest. The border to Russia is perhaps the best protection of the Yalu River, as it is fenced by barbed wire and marks the National Border just in the middle of the stream. There is trade of building material, wood and stones between the countries, but not much of an interaction, except the exchange of money against goods part. The few towns are like Jack London's gold digger towns. Just, that there is no gold. 

Shiwei centre - A Chinese border city to Russia

Shiwei centre - A Chinese border city to Russia

Heading for a peak, to get a good view over the forest, suddenly Jack London came much closer than expected. We walked up a steep slope, with bushes to our right. Feibai was sick of the height and was wondering how to get down again. I was wondering what was following us in the cover of the dense forest and saw with suspicion grass pressed down by some really big creatures lingering there. Kind of naively, I asked: "Any wolves reported here?"

Forest view in the most Northern region of China.

Forest view in the most Northern region of China.

It did not take much longer, until I saw who was looking over the hill ahead, ready to block our way: at least two bears. Shit! I have never seen bears in wilderness, and they were obviously more than our size. I wanted to turn back over the rocks, staying at distance of any bush providing them cover. But I was also aware that they would not really need to hide from us two little creatures. I requested Feibai, please to walk like a healthy animal in the eyes of a bear, and I was not sure whether she got the message what that means. At least she was not afraid of the height any more. We still had to cross a dense forest band, back to the "road" and were completely venerable to meeting the bears. There are no firearms allowed in China, so there is no, what so ever, chance to survive the attack of bears. But they did not attack. Don't know, whether is was our "supreme tactics", moving in the forest, or whether we were just really, really lucky.

There is another thing about Mongolia, which I nearly forgot: the Mongolians. They make only about 10% of the local population in Inner Mongolia, and have their own language and writing. They are nice. But actually, everybody up here is nice, no matter which ethnic. When winter drops down to -50 Degrees Celsius and summer is short, you better treat your fellows well.

The far North-East is a "no bullshit country". And there are not many left of it. They had no Jack London, but I think they deserve one. Even there is no gold. There was also not much in Alaska, lets face it. 

Mongolian grasslands and swamps.

Mongolian grasslands and swamps.

Taiwan

Taiwan is often seen as a place where Chinese Culture is still alive versus the Chinese Mainland where in the Mao Era most of it was destroyed and now rebuilt. In 1949 the government of the Republic of China had to relocate to Taiwan, after its troops were defeated by the Communists. Consequently the Communist Party of China declared the Founding of The People’s Republic of China, which sees Taiwan as a Province of China.

Taiwan is an interesting place, not just by a very beautiful nature, but mainly by its people. On the Chinese Mainland, as well as in Taiwan, I find it easy to connect to people and they are open and friendly. But in Taiwan the general character is quite mild and the behavior very polite - which you find on the Mainland also, but in more educated circles. Of course it also makes me think for reasons why the culture is so distinct from the other two “special regions”, which are Hong Kong and Macao and perhaps it can be partly explained by the kind of immigrants and the reasons they immigrated.

If you had a reason to leave the Chinese Mainland in 1949 or shortly after, Taiwan was for many the first option. For example they might have been a supporter of the Kuomintang, headed by Chiang Kai-Shek, or might have been among the retreating troops. Also members of the retreating government likely relocated to Taiwan and a lot of the educated elite. Business people, for example from Shanghai, were not in the first wave of immigrants, because many still tried to stay with their businesses until it was clear that the country will develop into a repressive communist state under Mao Zedong. If it was not too late, they could still relocate to Taiwan, but some also choose Hong Kong. Even the historical Kuomintang were running a corrupted regime before 1949, which made many people welcome the Communists at first, still they represented the elite of the country which was then choosing to leave. They were the ones building up Taiwan and refining its culture, while The Peoples Republic of China dropped into a form of Communism which was mainly (mis-) used by Mao to secure his own power. The enormous modernization of China, dragging hundreds of million of people out of bare poverty, only started in 1979 with Deng Xiaoping. 

Immigrants to Hong Kong, who were not retreating business people from the Mainland, were often farmers escaping the famine in the 50s. Hong Kong has more the character and culture of a refugee camp. Those who were able to, did not stay for long and then immigrated overseas. A few of them who stayed took opportunities of the “gateway to China” and built amazing business empires in just one generation. Teaching at the University of Hong Kong (HKU) I always have to remind myself, that many local students actually are in the first generation of their families which receive any education. Perhaps this is why I was feeling so comfortable that in Taiwan many people have an exited sparkle in their eyes - in Hong Kong you only see this effect, when you point a flashlight into their ear. 

Political relations between The People’s Republic of China and The Republic of China (Taiwan) are getting less ideological and much more practical today. It seems to be on a good way and sometimes it is better to accept and develop a new reality and then try to find an appropriate name for it later. This is one of the many strengths of Chinese people, that they can accept for a long time names which do not really represent the reality, but everybody knows what they mean.

Asia’s World City: Shanghai

In the months before you make a move, you start doing things the last time. The first such “last time” for me now was bringing MBA students on a field tour to Shanghai. I did this for 4 years regularly and the course, which is called “Doing Business in China” (DBC), is a combination of lectures and a field study. It became a very popular elective for MBAs and its abbreviation DBC was recently rephrased by students to “Drinking Beer in China”. Well, this indicates that business relations here are sometimes sealed with the extensive consumption of cheerful beverages, and alumni relations for sure as well.

I enjoyed teaching this course, and also the challenges on the road - specially as we try to also explore things off the beaten tracks. But I also think it is coming somehow to the end of the life cycle in the current format. Shanghai changed and developed so much in recent years, that it does not serve to represent “Doing Business in China” any more, but better “Doing Business in Shanghai”. If I had to re-design the course, I would probably change the destination of the trip to Changchun, Harbin or Chengdu. Shanghai has become international business city, which is outstanding in China, but not representative for its economy and business environment.

And being outstanding, Shanghai does not just in terms of economic development. When I moved there in 2003, I would for example never have imagined that the city would be able to develop an autochtone cultural life in less than two generations. But it happened in only 8 years. It is not yet very sophisticated, but attracts a lot of talent from all over China and abroad. One of the districts where arts and creative industries are settling is the region along the Suzhou Creek. For example 50 Moganshan Lu is situated close to the Suzhou river in Shanghai and is one of the former industrial compounds, where factory halls and warehouses were converted into galleries and studios. The site is now named the “M50 Creative Park”. One of the first galleries you see, is also one of the best: 99 Degrees Art Centre (www.99dac.com), which currently holds and exhibition of the painters Gerard Altmann, Igor Bitman and the sculpturist Livio Benedetti. Also the Fine Arts College of Shanghai University has an exhibition space in the compound, which is an interesting showcase. Then there are other outstanding developments like the converted former Slaughterhouse 1933, the Red City or the restored Jing’an Villas at 2015 Nanjing Xi Lu, which develop all kinds of activities in a traditional Shanghai environment without a massive masterplan.

I also thought in the past that the Pudong skyline is a bit artificial and does not fit into the contrast of the Bund on the other side of the Huangpu river. But specially with what happened behind the Bund in terms of refurbishment and rebuilding, suddenly there are axis of views where even a structure like the Pearl Tower fits into the picture, a bit like the Eiffel Tower in Paris. Another thing which struck me, was when I had a look at the Subway map of Shanghai and the first thought shooting though my mind was: “Wow, how did they do that in such a short time?” Then I looked at it for a while and my last thought still was: “Wow, how did they do that in such a short time?”. The list of things which impress me in Shanghai is very long, and last but not least, it is that Shanghai really recovers its elegant flair which reminds of the old Shanghai in modern times. 

Last but not least, the term “Field Trip” is really not appropriate any more when coming to Shanghai, which I would say really deserves the claim of being Asia’s World City. 

Fujian Tulou (China)

From Xiamen it is about a 2-3 hour bus ride to the West of Fujian Province to come to the area of round or rectangular shaped clay buildings which reach back to 14th Century, called Fujian Tulou. The most famous one, is the cluster of dwellings called Chuxi Tulou which is a UNESCO World Heritage site (1113-001). The center rotunda building is called Jiqinglou and is a four storey building from the Ming Dynasty, built in 1419. It is amazing that these constructions are so stable, because the main structure is a 1-6.m meter clay wall. But the round structure seems so stable that even large cracks close again by the pressure. The later built rectangular Tulous are said to be less stable. The inner courtyard of the Tulous mostly has a temple and other central functions, like the well, which serve as a centre point for a whole clan living in such a structure.

The Tulous have been built by Hakka people who migrated from the Yellow River region as a result of civil wars in China. They settled in remote areas in Fujian and the Tulous also had a function of defense against robbers and smaller clans. It seems amazing that the clay walls really were a suitable protection against an attack, but it must have been only smaller conflicts and no serious warfare. Also it seems amazing that the wooden structures inside the Tulous, which are actually the homes of the individual families, only rarely caught fire. It is said, that because the living conditions inside are so dens, a fire will be discovered and put out on the spot. If not, I can imagine being trapped in a round high wall with only one exit, must be quite dangerous. The functions in a Tulou are structured vertically. On the ground floor there is a workshop and kitchen, bedroom on the first floor and sometimes also on the 2nd and then another workshop and storage floor. 

Still today, beside the upcoming tourism, the main economy is based on agriculture and the highest margin crop is tea. What makes the Tulous specially interesting, is that they are not just a form of settlement, but are deeply integrated into the form of life and culture of clans. Of course, these cultures are very enclosed. Even without understanding the spoken word, you can already feel that the people’s character from Tulou to Tulou is different. With the development of tourism, the buildings also become economically attractive again and many families which abandoned the Tulous and live in a township or village, now return and re-claim ownership. Recently this is causing in some clans a lot of conflict. 

Another thing, which surprised me at first, is that there are not just a few of these buildings, but that they are still today a dominant form of settlement spreading over a large region. I hope the tourism here will be developed wisely, to avert possible negative changes, because the Fujian Tulou are really a “World Cultural Heritage” in the true sense of the meaning.

Macao - washing it white

The Historical Centre of Macao is classified as UNESCO World Heritage since 2005. When reading the UNECO justification for inscription, there is a lot said about Macao’s role in the cultural exchange between China and Portugal and its unique history. Today Macao does not show much of its heritage any more. There are still remains of the old fortress with the Museo de Macao on top, but the small and crowded territory does not leave much space for preservation and the major development focus on the Cotai Strip Casinos and the South of the island also seems to leave no interest for the heritage of the city. Beside the few landmark buildings, most sites in the older part of the city are in bad condition and it seems strange that they are not developed into an attractive little old part of the town with cafes and restaurants. There are good restaurants in Macao, hidden in some side streets. But there is no nice cluster of them, even the potential looks good to upgrade a whole quarter following the Shanghai Xintiandi-Model. Perhaps it is also better that it does not happen now, because many recent attempts to develop places with cultural heritage, simply failed because of any a lack of experience how to proceed. Sometimes with the result that they are lost forever. It might take a few generations first to rebuilt the cultural understanding and technical skills to conserve the city and up to then we can be lucky when nobody spends the money to tear most of it down and turn it into Shopping Malls. Today, it is still a nice stroll around the little streets and also to go down to Coloane, where there can be still found a little bit of fishing village charm and Portuguese past residential grandness. 

The new casino and entertainment developments of Macao are mainly catering into tourists from Mainland China and Hong Kong: big, glamorous and really low taste. The typical luxury brands are all there to catch their cheap clientele which mainly recruits from Chinese new rich and other shady individuals. Not that you imagine anything like 007 class characters. It is more about obese, unwashed creatures that somehow made enough money to fart into luxury hotel pillows. The exchange of culture, praised by UNESCO, has been mainly taken over by the exchange of body liquids with adequate female counterparts. But also here, don’t imagine any “The World of Suzie Wong”-Romance, but more a robust biological process fueled by an extra large glass of Moutai. In case of company outings by Hong Kong bankers celebrating their newest achievements and contributions to the world economy, it is Champaign of course and slightly less agricultural. 

 

In the photo album on the left you find some recent pictures taken in Macao. It is interesting to see the mix of Chinese and Portuguese, not just in the building remains, but also in the local people and their habits. Even it is fading, there is still some flair of it left. Traditional Macao still feels a bit Iberian to me, even it is so far away and the connections between Macao and Portugal were not as strong as the one between Hong Kong and the United Kingdom. Macao is not Hong Kong in many ways. Only on the North part of Taipa Island you find high rise buildings Hong Kong style. Over most other areas Macao still has a nice skyline. 

For some Hong Kong Tycoons Macao has been a back yard of their businesses for many years. An interesting and well researched  book on how Oligarchy developed in Asia, is Joe Studwell’s “Asian Godfathers - Money and Power in Hong Kong and South East Asia”.

In some corner shops, I even heard some Fado played. Quite a surprise, actually in these noisy corners. 

Sure, the “past glory” of Macao must have been much less glorious than it could look like. Just thinking of the time when the city was a last refuge from  Japanese terror and crowded with starving refugees after the invasion of Hong Kong. And later having nearly no physical buffer to Communist China, but a small river to Zhuhai. Today the two cities seem to be growing together in a similar model as Hong Kong and Shenzhen, just on a smaller scale. Zhuhai is actually a very nice and green place, which is trying to keep up successfully with the South Chinese peer cities, with non-polluting industries.