Monday, February 19, 2018


When I was self-employed between 2005 to 2008, most of my students were learning English, but incredibly three were with me to learn Mandarin Chinese. When the possibility of teaching them first was proposed by one of my clients, it seemed rather bizarre. My Chinese, though useful, wasn't anywhere close to fluent. But I had teaching technique, a firm understanding of the basics and nothing better to do with my time (and I fancied giving it a lash). Two were marketing people who had to go to China or Taiwan, while the other, an older gentleman, went to China on occasion but I believe he took the lessons as a benefit of his job to help him fight the ageing process, rather than for work. He wanted to learn to read and write which were the most difficult skills of all.

Two of them had had a long connection with China, both having visited in the 80's. I remember being jealous of them and that they had really gotten to see the speed of development by visiting at different times since. China, to be clear, has been one of the fastest developing societies in the history of the world. At that stage I'd been to the Mainland twice, in 2000 and 2003 and would be going in 2007 and felt I had only a snapshot of this change. One of my students had gone to China exactly in 1980 just a few years after China re-opened its economy. Now I'm the one with a bit of scope especially with my access to the back stories and better understanding of official and unofficial history. My association with the Mainland is almost 18 years old. It does spin the head to reflect on the changes.

Guangzhou was one of the greatest point of references in that. It was my first steps into China from Taiwan in August 2000. Back then, there were no direct flights between Taiwan and the Mainland. We had to fly to Hong Kong to apply for a visa and then cross the border. We disembarked in a dusty, unattractive area. A dirty child approached me with a flower, which I assumed was a "gimmick" for beggars and moved quickly away from her. It didn't really appeal at all as a city. Jump forward ten years and I was living happily in it.

Qingyuan, just 70km up the road, is also developing at breakneck speed. It was a backwater to the metropolis of Guangzhou but is surging, now a third tier city. (China categorises its cities in tiers.) I spent time here in 2015 before we left and had a brief visit in 2016, and now in 2018. In these few years there is a noticeable change. I almost fell over as cars gave way to pedestrians on a huge crossing in the central city. (It was written in big letters but the fact that they actually stopped confused and then moved me.) Bus stops now have detailed information. The bus announcements come in English as well as Mandarin and Cantonese. All priority seats on the bus were filled by priority people (e.g. the elderly, children or the unwell). There are road signs that are helpful in finding places you want to go to. There is another bridge is crossing the Bei River. The dimsum we ate yesterday was almost at Guangzhou's standard. The traffic just felt a little less chaotic. (I almost would feel comfortable driving here.) Some of the small "feeling" changes are the most significant because it reflects an improvement in attitudes and habits.

The villages are where there is the littlest change. The villages themselves get moved around by development after all. My in-laws home, the only home I have known them in is about 10 years old. The previous home, which was apparently much more basic, was moved by a motorway development (which makes getting here all the so much easier). We visited my brother-in-law's abandoned old village which still has most of its buildings still remaining despite all the residents moved to the "new village". The homes are beautiful. But due to a dam project which would make the ground water undrinkable they were moved about 500 metres and rebuild the homes, but in a much more modern way. 

These new homes may be moved too. Two new modern roads have been built either side of the "block" of land that my parents-in-law live in and when the urban area expands again, they'll be moved, either into apartments or have the village move over one more time. That's why things don't change. Why improve the infrastructure to a constantly moving or disappearing village system which mainly is where they old people stay to keep the home fires burning (a bit like ahi kaa). I hope my grandfather-in-law will never have to move again and can keep feeding the chickens till the day he doesn't.

As a result in the villages, the rubbish is still collectively dumped. Roads are narrow and concrete. And the water and power can be iffy. But as nostalgic as we can be about it, it's not the most comfortable place to live for modern people. It's a way of life that might have done it's dash.

I remember watching the movie Dragon Boat which had villagers in Guangzhou being moved out of their villages to make way for the High Education Megacentre (aka University Island). The elderly even when moved to the comfort of air conditioned apartments were often sadder and depressed. It uprooted them from their purpose, habits and rituals.

I hope my in-laws when the day comes can adjust to a new life. I feel lucky to have been able to see and experience it.

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