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Where’s everyone going to park?

February 27, 2012

One of the benefits of China’s newly-empowered consumer class is its mobility, and specifically, its ability to purchase cars for personal use. That notion is such a given in America that we scarcely even think of it, but in China, it wasn’t very long ago that a car was the possession of only a government flunky, or a super-rich/well-connected/politically powerful individual.

Now, anyone may buy a car – as long as he or she is prepared to deal with the exceptionally high import taxes, artificially high gas costs, and, most potentially prohibitive of all, a complete lack of sufficient space in which to park such cars, at least in the cities.

For the time being, things can go along largely as they have in the past, but what’s happened with increasing frequency is that once-clear sidewalks and promenades have been redeployed as parking lots, often with private attendants managing traffic and collecting fees.

It’s a huge boon to be able to jump in a vehicle and drive in any direction one wants to, but the implications for pedestrians are forbidding – take a look at a formerly-ordinary portion of a normal sidewalk – multiply this effect by thousands throughout the city, and the implications will come into focus:


This is one immediate example, but look on the right side of the picture, across the street, and you can see another batch of parked cars occupying what used to be the sidewalk. Once every block in the city takes on this nature, what’s left?

But let the reader be assured that we at Americhinaca will not indulge some lamentation of China’s descent into a purported social and environmental purgatory; we couldn’t be happier with the emergence of China’s middle class, and it’s a success story of amazing proportions – but as always, there are costs, and it’s difficult to avoid wondering where this lack of parking space is going to lead as more and more Chinese acquire vehicles of their very own. 

Will there be more mega-sky rises, this time around for cars? Or massive underground parking complexes? In cities like Dalian, where the bed rock isn’t quite as solid as would be desirable for such projects, there’s nowhere to build but up – or out: could cities in the sea be the next futuristic project? Don’t put it past them: Mencken said that no one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public; an updated version might tell us that no one has gone broke overestimating the industriousness of the Chinese public.

Who was the winner of the prize for “Wacky English in a Chinese business name”?

February 19, 2012

It is, of course, not fair to poke fun at those who don’t know any better – except for when it’s really funny!

Since no one can really resist such humor, let’s take a look at the most amusing English names for businesses seen on our recent trip to Dalian, China. We’ve added notes where some context or explanation of the business function is warranted, since it’s often far from clear what the store or business is producing!

(The names are presented in chronological order.)

-“Baby Impact”

-“Giraffe Flooring”

-“Green Organic Food Monopoly”

-“In the Crystal Barbecue”

-“Daily Mega Holiday Hotel”

-“The Village of Fictitious Land of Peace” (Restaurant, I think, although it could have been a hotel)

-“Swish Hotel”

-“Special Taste City Life Shop” (Coffee shop, of some sort)

-“Art Cake Well-Known Shop” (Same as above; there’s a trend these days.)

-“Soap Opera” – soap store; this one really doesn’t deserve to be on the “Wacky” list, since the name is just plain brilliant, but I’m giving them a plug here, anyway.

-Finally, the one wacky business name we managed to get a picture of; we sincerely *hope* it’s a restaurant! Sorry for the shaky image, but the relevant part is discernible, and worth the slight annoyance of making it out; Look just above the taxi roof:

So, what’s your vote for the winner of the contest? We’re drawn to “Art Cake Well-Known Shop”, but our inner gambler likes the “Daily Mega Holiday Hotel”. The best name from a socio-economic perspective, however, is probably the “Green Organic Food Monopoly”.

Your votes are welcome.

“So, how do I know that it’s Spring Festival?”

February 13, 2012

As we described elsewhere, the proliferation of fireworks peddlers is a major clue, especially when Spring Festival begins, and there are fireworks to wake you up every morning, and to send you off to sleep at night.

But there are other developments; for example, the mass transport of humans across China leading up to Spring Festival makes America’s day before Thanksgiving look like Sunday-morning traffic: everyone in the country who has ever moved away from his or her hometown must now trundle back, sending the nation’s travel infrastructure into a battered state of back-breaking proportions.

Here’s an image of the Dalian railway station, though this is before the peak of the mass exodus out of town:

Dalian Railway Station

 The station is on the right; most of what you’re seeing in the middle is the station’s parking lot. At several positions around the station, buses line up to take the long-distance arrivals to their local suburban or rural hometowns.

What other clues tell the traveler that Spring Festival is imminent? The color red is a pretty good indication, especially when combined with street decorations:

Ordinary sidewalks get a change of clothes for Spring Festival.

The spaces inside the decorations were later used as stalls for a street fair in which the peddling of books was the central attraction. Of course, one might think that the multitude of nearby department stores and malls would provide sufficient shopping choices, but in China, there’s always room for more!

For further clues, one might take a look at the ornate display at Dalian’s Renmin Square (formerly “Stalin Square”; funny how those names are quietly changed over time):

Spring Festival Decorations at Dalian’s Renmin Square

(Bear in mind that red was the color of China’s vision of good luck long before the communists adopted it as the official party color.)

Finally, there’s one clue that never fails to tell you if it’s Spring Festival at the present moment: take a 360-degree look at your surroundings, and if all the shops are closed, it’s definitely SPRING FESTIVAL!

In China, closed shops means “Open Spring Festival”

Why does the “Familiar” look “Different” in China?

February 9, 2012

When an American first visits China, he is usually struck by how different so many things are, as is to be expected. Many things are very, very different.

But some things are about the same as they are back at home, and for this reason, they stand out.

Take this example: A highway rest stop. There couldn’t be anything more ordinary in America than the good ol’ highway rest stop. A parking lot, a gas station, a fast-food restaurant or two, possibly more – it’s a very simple formula, and it’s visible in thousands of places on America’s road system.

By contrast, China hasn’t really had highways as we know them until recently. There were plenty of roads, of course, and one shouldn’t foolishly assume they’re mostly unpaved, or some such thing: major thoroughfares in the big cities – Beijing, Shanghai – rival any boulevards to be found in Europe, for example.

So when industrial-strength, up-to-speed highways started appearing over the last twenty years or so (very rough estimate, don’t bill me for errors), the newly empowered driving class in China started getting the same kind of treatment that we Americans have come t0 expect.

This was visible during our Road trip to North Korea, posted previously, which focused on the view of North Korea from across the river – but at this point, we’d like to point out some of the highlights that got us to that view of North Korea.

Check out the highway rest stop on Liaoning Province’s G11, a brand-spankin’ new toll road:

Rest Stop on Liaoning's G11 highway

 Yep, just what you’d expect to see anywhere in America – so because of that level of familiarity, it just seems odd to observe it in China!

One important note, before we continue: for an explanation of why these supposedly-ordinary facilities are completely deserted, please recall that this was right at Spring Festival-time, so nationwide, the travel frenzy was well over by the time we ventured on this outing.

Have a look at the adjoining gas station:

Gas Station at a Road Side Rest Stop on Highway G11

 I couldn’t get good pictures, but the highway also has standard-issue highway signs, as in “Such-and-such city, 218 KM”, which are dull enough; the really amusing ones are the exhortations against “Driving Sleepily”, discarding trash along the highway, and drunken driving (which carries harsher penalties in China than in the U.S.) – I’ll have to capture those images for you next time.

In Summary, things are different on a Chinese highway, except when they’re the same. How’s that for an inconclusive conclusion?

Major difference: Expensive tolls – for our six-hour roundtrip, we paid about fifty dollars U.S. – add in the cost of filling the tank, which is a good deal more pricey in China – and the total bill for the trip was about a hundred dollars U.S., not exactly a bargain.

Major similarity: There’s almost nothing on the highway except other cars. This is a big difference from Chinese roads that are not flashy new highways – on those routes, you can still expect a hair-raising series of near-collisions with the usual tour buses, other cars, funky little tractor-motorcycle hybrids, donkey-drawn carts, bicyclists, pedestrians, and roadside vendors. That won’t be changing anytime soon.

Road Trip to North Korea

February 7, 2012

Time for the big report: our road trip to North Korea. Now, this title is, I acknowledge, a bit misleading – we did not actually enter North Korea, but we were close enough to see it – this is accomplished from a border city by the name of Dandong, where it’s possible to walk along the riverside promenade, and gaze directly into North Korea, which is a mere few hundred feet away.

The proximity of such a place provides a dramatic spectacle; while China has been busy upgrading and expanding itself over the last few decades, very little of the same type of change has taken place in North Korea, primarily due to its desire to retain an inward focus and attempt to get by with minimal interaction with the outside world.

While this may not be the stated purpose of those who are running the country, that is the overall effect  – a near-complete state of insulation has been put into place, and the populace neither sees nor encounters much of anything that didn’t originate from within North Korea’s borders.

The situation is rather different for North Korea’s best friend, ( if such a term can even be applied, which it scarcely can anymore) – China. You see, it is China that provides an interface and connection between North Korea and the rest of the world, which goes back to the days when the two countries were brothers-at-arms, solidifying the communist party’s reach, while resisting (alleged) Western Imperialism, and such.

But at this point in time, one gets the sense that China is basically tired of carrying along this sickly half-cousin; while China’s economic expansion and international profile has experienced tremendous growth pains, such growth has at least taken place – in North Korea, at least by what can be derived from existing documentation, growth is taken to mean whatever level is above “absolute bare minimum”. Sure, the official news channel will issue a steady stream of accomplishments, but such news, at least on the internet, doesn’t even come from servers located in North Korea; the “Official News Agency” runs off a domain hosted in Japan.

The background is long and depressing, but the photos are fascinating; so let’s get to them: here’s views from across the Yalu River bridge – take careful note of how the buildings and such look:

View of North Korea

 One can sense, merely by looking, the feel of an infrastructure whose condition has remained largely unchanged since the 1960’s. Its countenance bespeaks an entire nation’s ability to endure a truly closed-door society. North Korea’s philosophy of Juche, translated as “Self-reliance”, has allowed it to remain in a kind of nether world somewhere between the industrial age and Orwell’s 1984 – except that it’s now 2012, and the country’s only major development has been the death of its 2nd leader, Kim Jong-Il, the son of Kim Il-Sung who led the North Koreans to “Victory” against the U.S., at least purportedly.

Sarcasm notwithstanding, North Korea’s relationship to the rest of the world is, shall we say, delicate. The Chinese delight in their having “beaten” the U.S. in the Korean war, and it’s not hard to see why one’s countrymen might take pride in such a David-vs.-Goliath matchup – but there were no “winners” in the aftermath of this cataclysm, and truly, the “Loser” was the people of North Korea. One look across the Yalu river tells you why.

View of the bridge connecting North Korea and China

  Note the ferris wheel that denotes some sort of amusement park on North Korea’s border town – one gets the sense that the purpose was to demonstrate North Korea’s capacity for the trappings of the good life, at least in appearance. Vegas odds would probably bet for that thing being out of service 98% of the time.

The bridge is another matter, as it is one of the few actual ports of entry from North Korea into China, and vice versa. Apparently, trains trundle over these tracks once or twice a week, and most likely carry little more than the most crucial diplomats and crates of raw goods, as well as the usual liquor, cigarettes, and sweets or whatnot to fuel the never-to-be-escaped process of insider influence, bribery, and other forays into corruption – these are legendary throughout North Korea, and it should put no one to shame to point this out.

Of course, the natural retort is, “Hey, the U.S. has corruption, too!”, which is all well and good a point to make, but there is the little matter of scale – an actual, centralized, communist-party run country inwhich the government is the sole provider of everything, has a much darker strain of human nature running through it, and it manifests itself in the way such things have done throughout history – by massive internal infrastructures that are little economies of scale, trading in whatever black-market goods might help one into a better job, a much-needed surgery, or what have you – and alcohol and tobacco remain the preferred grease in this wheel.

One really wonders what that train trip is like; that will have to be a trip for some other day, because I’m pretty sure that as an American, I’m not even allowed to visit North Korea, at least not unless it’s a diplomatic or food-giveaway mission of some sort.

Finally, as the country attempts to shake off its collective grief over the recent death of North Korea’s second “Leader”, it’s worth wondering how that twenty-something-year old guy is going to work out. You see, despite the proliferation of North Korea literature that tells us in great detail how the governing philosophy of Juche means that the people rely on themselves, they are in fact led by a family dynasty – on whom they are expected to rely fully – even to the point of being singled out if your tears didn’t flow sufficiently at the recent death of Kim Jong-Il.

The family dynasty element of North Korea’s leadership would appear to conflict directly with its proclaimed communist leadership, but that’s a debate you can’t get into, mainly because there’s no North Koreans around to debate with. You see, they’re not even allowed to visit the outside world, much less emigrate to it. Those who defect are ensured that every member of their family back in North Korea, up to and including distant relatives (depending on how high up the chain the defector is, it can be reasonably conjectured) will be taken away and put into prison. This is how such emigration is “discouraged”.

So the challenges for the new leader are quite apparent, and first of all, what’s he going to be called? Kim Il-Sung, who “Liberated” the country into its present yoke, was known as the “Great Leader”, and the national literature hails him as such. When he died, and his son took over the leadership, we were told that the son’s title would be the “Dear Leader”, apparently since “greatness” couldn’t be honestly bestowed on this fellow, who admittedly hadn’t brought about an amazing military victory the way his father had.

Thus we are left with the puzzle of what this new guy (Kim Jong-Un) will be called; as the third down the line, with the communist party struggling more than ever to retain its face of legitimacy – especially in the light of its supporting such a clearly anti-communist principle as a family lineage of succession to power – our suggestion is that he be known as the “Kinda Cool Leader”, or the “Decent Guy Leader”, or maybe even the “Not-so-bad Leader”.

Your votes for alternate titles are welcome.

Take a peek – at Peking Opera!

February 5, 2012

Peking Opera has not yet been replaced by nightclubs; the venerable art form still pushes on.

Here’s raw, uncut video taken from the front row of Dalian’s remaining Peking Opera house:

YouKu user? No YouTube in your location? CLICK HERE! , or HERE! or even HERE 

I should add that prior to taking these videos, I kept waiting for some sort of instruction regarding video, audio, and photography, as in “DON’T”, but none such emerged, and various members of the audience were taking pictures and video recordings unabashedly.

In these circumstances, it seemed reasonable to record as much as I liked, and I couldn’t help wondering if the theater had decided that resisting the digital age was pointless, and that their efforts in the name of Peking Opera would be better served by encouraging a kind of audience-based promotion system.

One can only applaud their work, both literally and figuratively.

Time for Spring Festival, again…

February 4, 2012
What event is bigger than Christmas? That’s right, it’s SPRING FESTIVAL, otherwise known as “Chinese New Year” to those who don’t know the proper name. “Lunar New Year” is also an acceptable name, which shows that you know one of the fancier names – anyone who says “Chinese New Year” is clearly an outsider. 

How is Spring Festival “Bigger than Christmas”? Well, we’re quibbling, but since Christmas in America is technically a celebration by Christians,  the sheer number of Chinese who celebrate Spring Festival makes America’s winter holiday look like a block party, or possibly a parking-lot festival.

Besides, in America, tremendous efforts have been made to remove the “Christ” part of Christmas from the holiday, and it seems to have been largely successful – ask an average American what his participation level is in the core theme of Christmas, and he’ll probably look around the room, trying to find an exit from the conversation.

By contrast, look at the participation level of Spring Festival in China, and you will see a moment of complete national unity throughout the populace. It’s just that big!

So to prepare for Spring Festival, you’ll need supplies, and one of the central components is fireworks. Tons and tons and tons of fireworks, and these are not the little popping-crackers that Americans are only grudgingly allowed to purchase and ignite; we are talking about weapons-grade explosives that could probably kill a man who got too close.

Take a look at a standard vendor, offering dozens of different types of fireworks to satisfy your every combustible urge. Everything you are seeing for sale is an explosive of some sort.