Contrasts and Complications in China

San Francisco Travel Blog

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Sitting in my friend's bedroom in San Fransisco, I seem very far away from China though I arrived here only yesterday. I actually travelled in time to get here; I left Hong Kong airport at 2:10 PM on May 16th and arrived in San Fransisco at 11 AM May 16th.  It is the only day I have ever lived where I had 6 meals, stayed up for over 24 hours, and arrived at my destination before I left my origin.   Though I am in the states, I wanted to write more about China because of the contrasts and complications I observed in the last three cities I visited:  Yanshuo, Macau, and Hong Kong.

Yangshuo: The town is small but filled with Chinese and foreign tourists who have come to observe Yangshuo's amazing scenery, ride bicycles, and take a river cruise.  The tourists wonder down the streets lined with shops selling silk, silver, jade, and bric-a-brac next to bars and restaurants.  However, it is an easy town to escape from, unlike Bejing or the other large cities in China, so one morning I call Dan, an Irishman who is living and working in China, and ask him if he would like to rent a bike and go into the countryside.  Almost as soon as we leave the city, we are on a dirt path with the rice paddies on our right and the river on our left and green, steep mountains all around. I had never seen a rice paddy before getting to China, but I never imagined that they would be as wet as they are. They are more aptly described as pools rather than fields.  The pools are shallow and small clumps of green, spikey grass pierce their waters.  They are square and separated into a grid pattern by raised dirt.  Men and women with the traditional conical straw hats roll up their pant legs and wade into the pools to cultivate and pick the rice. Soon we stop by the river and observe a woman washing clothes and a man who is taking his water buffalo for a swim.  The buffalo quite enjoys himself, snorting and grunting in the water, but when we get close enough to take a picture he is agitated and stomps out of the water to ward us off.  We pass through villages where the children scream "Hallooooo!" and the grown-ups simply stare or go about their business.  Men sit in doorways playing chinese cards and an unknown game of small round pieces with Chinese characters on them and fox-like dogs run about.  The villagers are so different from the sophisticated, pushy Bejing-ren and the surroundings so different from the shiny Bejing buildings that suddently I feel that I am in a different country. 

Macau:  In order to enter Macau, I took at 14 hour bus from Yangshuo to Zhuhai, took a bus to the Macau border and then waited in line for 2 1/2 hours to cross.  According to a Macau resident I met in line, 80,000 people, most of them Chinese, wait in line at the border each day to cross and work or gamble in Macau's casinos.  However, Macau is not  technically separate from China.  It was a Portuguese colony until 8 years ago when China brokered a deal with the Portuguese to takeover. In every other way than this technicality, however, Macau seems separate from China.  First of all, Macau is the only place, technically in China, where gambling is legal.  Before the Chinese takeover, Macau had only once major casino, the Lisboa, whose tacky, shiny facade sticks out of its skyline.  However, gambling brings so much money to China that the casinos have multiplied in recent years, bringing not only Chinese immigrants to work but also Filipino and Thai immigrants. Because of mix of cultures, Macau has an interesting appearance and feel. Its central square is paved with cobblestones surrounded by Latin buildings with archways house high end clothing stores, starbucks coffee, and Chinese restaruants.  Large Catholic churches are popular and numerous but more numerous are the small, red buddhist temples at every street corner where people can burn incense. The "Macanese" food is a mixture as well between the Portuguese and Chinese and includes great seafood and an incredible egg tart. (I had about 5 while I was there). Macau avoided the communist regime and it seems that they have also avoided the authoritarian restrictions on free press.  I was incredibly surprised when I picked up the Wall Street Journal Asia and read an article about the problems of Tibet that did not defend China. However, despite its advantages, a Macanese woman I spoke with criticized China for allowing so many casinos, which have caused the city to develop from a small, charming city to a gambling mecca.

Hong Kong:  Hong Kong has much the same status as Macau and is only an hour's ferry ride across the bay, but it has a much different feel than Macau.  As a disclaimer, I can only speak of the part of Hong Kong that I saw, which was the main island on both the Hong Kong side and Kowloon side. If I had traveled further afield, I think that I would have discovered the outlying islands of Hong Kong which are known for their wildlife and charming villages.  The part where I stayed, however, felt like one large shopping mall. There were tons of shops, signs, advertisements, sky scrapers and people. Shiny walkways connected the shiny malls to shiny malls to shiny financial buildings. Business men and women dressed sharply in their suits hurried from one walkway to the next and hurried on the subway and on the ferry.  To escape the working and buying frenzy, I decided to take a cable car to Victoria Peak, what I thought to be the top of the mountain.  Instead, I stepped out of the cable car into a shopping mall where I had to go up several escalators and pay to get up to the viewing tower where I finally had a view....of the shopping malls.
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