In my last post, Chopsticks, Fans, and Bunny Ears, I talked about my experience working in China at the end of April. But that wasn’t all I did on my visit. In the spirit of my ‘new life’, I took a few days there to visit some more tourist-type places, as well as some time wandering to get a feel for what life in Shenzhen might be like.
Starbucks and Carrefour
One thing I was a bit surprised by was the huge preponderance of international brands in the city. This included many Starbucks, and everything from the Japanese Muji to the French Carrefour (though I’m sure they don’t sell as many kinds of loose tea as I saw in the Chinese Carrefour in their French branches!), and the ubiquitous McDonalds.
One evening after work I had trouble getting a taxi, so decided just to wander for a bit and kill time until after the cut-throat rush hour (Chinese commuters take no prisoners). I came upon a huge shopping mall a short distance from the offices, and spent a bit of time looking at the shops. It felt much like ‘any-mall, any-place’. Asking locals, they say it’s part of being a shopping destination for people in Hong Kong (which is very close).
I did spend a bit of time, working, in the Starbucks round the corner from my hotel, and found it mostly full of students. What most amused me was the girl who I saw twice there, who basically spent the time recharging her phone and sleeping. Not sure if she actually drank any coffee. The Chinese take a different approach to sleeping in public from those of us in the west, and I saw people asleep in all kinds of places!
Traces of traditional China
The only other experience I had visiting China, this time as a tourist, was a few years ago. That trip was focused on rural places and the more traditional China. It was harder to find this in Shenzhen, although of course, I was in a hotel and office in the business district so who knows what I missed.
The evenings are full of life outside. It was warm weather, mid twenties most of the time – which felt pleasantly cool after Thailand’s early 30s. I headed down one backstreet and came on a thriving marketplace, doing great business even at 9pm at night.
Around another corner I found a public park that had a light show going on, with loud music and lasers. This had attracted a lot of attention. Further in the park (which was mostly paved), I found several groups of (mostly older) Chinese women doing some kind of graceful traditional dance. It was pretty complicated, but they all seemed in time and to know the steps. I wondered if they did this every night. There were plenty of people of all ages in the park, including groups of older men playing cards.
I quickly noticed the lack of scooters on the roads – so used to seeing them everywhere as the main form of transport in Thailand. There were quite a lot of prosperous looking cars however. The replacement for the scooter, for those who are less prosperous, is the electric bike. These all looked very similar in size and shape, and wove silently around the cars.
I found the driving in Shenzhen very aggressive – lots of beeping and pulling out in front of each other, without much patience or the more organic ‘flow’ that Thailand’s-seemingly-crazy traffic has. Oh, and I didn’t see a single helmet on any electric or push bike riders. Not one.
Determined to be a proper tourist, I’d consulted friends and, of course, google, to see what the hot spots were in Shenzhen before I came. I was attracted to two in particular: Window of the World where I could see ‘every corner of the world in one day’ via scaled down versions of famous places and monuments; and Splendid China and the China Folk Cultural Village, which has miniatures of Chinese monuments and a village of representations of the 56 or so minority peoples recognized in China. The latter was pretty much mandatory anyway, because according to the blurb: ‘The China Folk Cultural Village attracts every tourist from the whole world’. Ahem.
The Window of the World was fascinating. A blend of modern, tacky, kitsch and confident precision engineering, it certainly came with a flavour of China as a country. The park itself wasn’t all that amazing, but it was fascinating to watch the Chinese tourists loving it. I’m lucky in that I’d seen quite a few of the places they represented in real life (Angkor Wat, the Pyramids, New York, etc), but China is so huge that the majority of tourists there are domestic tourists – so why go abroad when you have such variety in climate, geography and apparently peoples in your own country after all? And possibly other reasons I won’t comment on here. In fact, there weren’t so many non-Chinese tourists in the park at all, I saw probably fewer than 10.
I think the pictures of Window of the World tell the story, so here we go…
At the other end of the week, I visited Splendid China and the China Folk Cultural Village. This was another huge park in the city, packed with domestic tourists having a great time gawking at their own ethnic minorities. Well, something like that. Perhaps it was a valiant attempt to retain individual dying cultures. You decide.
Either way, I enjoyed the miniatures of Chinese monuments better (what is it with the Chinese miniaturising everything btw?).
This last day in China was also my birthday, and I had a flight in the afternoon, so I was really trying to squish as much in as possible. It was good fun, and I even had my silhouette done, which apparently is a dying art – though I think £5 is a lot to pay just for confirmation you have a double chin…
So, overall reflections on China? I had a really interesting time, and I loved meeting people who actually live and work there as in last week’s post, rather than just visiting. But it was fun to be a tourist and make the most of my trip too, rather than just flying in and out as I have done in the past on work trips.
It feels like a hard culture when people are strangers – there’s no shortage of people ready to (literally) push in front of you (that happened to me loads of times!), drivers beep and swerve in front of each other all the time, and there’s a sense of pushing from the direct and seemingly aggressive eye contact. Especially if you are Western looking – in this city, even though it likely has more visitors from outside China than most, I really didn’t see many non-Chinese. A few Thai people on the plane with me from Bangkok, and a handful of Westerners at some kind of medical equipment convention halfway through the week, and another handful at the tourist spots, and that was it. There are a LOT more Chinese tourists in Chiang Mai for example…
But when you’re a known guest, or friend, the hospitality is amazing. I was treated so well by the company I was working for, and the people there, that it was really touching.
I felt confused by these two perspectives, and I was offered reasons by another outsider who knows the country well. She said it was because the cities are so full – people live in towering apartment blocks, which throng the city as far as you can see. Because of this, people have developed a pushy sense of space, pretending others don’t exist in order to pretend, subconsciously at least, that they have more space than they do.
China has four cities in the world’s 26 ‘Megacities’ (urban areas with populations of 10million+). The US has two (LA and New York), and the UK doesn’t make it.
I’ll leave you with some interesting population density stats:
Shenzhen: 6800 people per square km (although I saw an unofficial article suggest this could be more like 10,000)
Beijing: 5000 people per square km
Shenghai: 6000 people per square km
New York: 1800 people per square km
London: 5177 people per square km (more than TEN TIMES that of any other region in the UK)
Scotland: 62.2 people per square km
Canada: 3.4 people per square km
Bangladesh: 44,400 per square km (I kid you not, this is the highest population density in the world. I can’t imagine.)
I’m well aware that in a week or so, one can barely scratch the surface of a new country. Have you travelled in China? How did you find the experience? Let me know in the comments below.