Monday, August 10, 2015

Something Thoughtful

Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts, or just life in general. You are free to agree or disagree with him.


I hardly know Asia. When I was a child, the ship my family was travelling on made short stops at Colombo and Singapore, but I can barely remember the one day of sightseeing we had in each of those cities. On ‘plane journeys to and from Europe, I have sometimes found myself waiting for a few hours in an Asian airport before making a connection. But an airport is an airport, and worthy of the description Raymond Chandler gave to Los Angeles – “having all the personality of a paper cup”. I remember once having to wait for a connection, groggy and headachy after hours of flight, in the airport of Hong Kong, looking out the lounge windows at the neighbouring mountains, and reflecting that this would probably be as near as I would ever come to visiting China.
Returning from a recent trip to Europe, however, my wife and I made a two-night stopover in Shanghai. A practical and well-organised person (better organised than I am), my wife calculated that a flight straight through from Europe, punctuated by a short wait for a connection, would be altogether too exhausting. Twelve hours from Amsterdam to Shanghai. Twelve hours from Shanghai to Auckland. Result? Utter fatigue and sheer crankiness before we each had to return to work.
So a two-night stopover in Shanghai we had, and a very refreshing thing it was too.
I am not such a prat as to think this very brief tourist experience makes me some sort of expert on China. Very brief visits give superficial impressions only. (See the posting Unlaid Ghosts, with my careful caveats against drawing big conclusions after a three-day visit to Hamburg last year.) Besides, even before we made our brief visit, New Zealand-Chinese acquaintances (my GP; my dentist) solemnly informed me that Shanghai “isn’t really China”. Apparently Chinese see central Shanghai as a big showplace which is nothing like the way the huge majority of Chinese live. China’s third-largest city (a mere 24 million inhabitants) is nothing like most of China’s provincial villages and towns.
Taking all this on board, we did the expected tourist things on our brief stopover.
We took a night-cruise on the river, admiring the huge neon decorations on the sides of all the new skyscrapers. My wife laughed during the cruise as I was five times crowded by giggly teenage girls, children and some young couples wanting to have their photograph taken with me. Apparently my beard, my panama hat and my black corduroy jacket made me their stereotypical image of an old-time European, as picturesque as a silk-clad mandarin would be to us.
We did a morning walk along the promenade by the old Bund, where office blocks from the 1920s and 1930s were once owned by European colonial “concessions”. They now all fly the Chinese flag as an ostentatious declaration of who today’s masters are. Our guide told us, in the new narrative that Chinese are now taught, that they were never owned or controlled by Europeans, only “rented”. She also told the familiar story that in the days of European concessions, the park near the Bund had a sign saying “No dogs or Chinese allowed”. We were photographed by our guide, on a typically sea-foggy Shanghai morning, with the skyscrapers across the river as a backdrop.
We visited a silk factory (our tour being prologue to a sales pitch for Chinese silk garments). There was an enlarged photograph on the wall, obviously taken in the early 20th century, of a stately Chinese woman wearing a silk dress. Our factory guide told me it was the wife of Sun Yat-sen. “Wasn’t her sister married to Chiang Kai-shek?” I asked. “You know Chinese history ”, said the guide, surprised. I glowed with the self-righteous smugness of one who knows enough to bullshit his way in history.
We visited the preserved “old town”, crowded with hawkers and traders targeting tourists; and the beautiful preserved mansion built by a prosperous imperial official late in the Ming dynasty, 400 years ago, with its garden and artificial mountains and artificial pools stocked with big goldfish.
All this was done in the company of an amiable guide, and was very much the standard tour.
On our own, we spent part of two evenings wandering along Shanghai’s mall-ified main drag, the Nanjing (formerly “Nanking”) Road – flashy, neon-lit, lined with outlets for Starbuck’s coffee and Pizza Hut and the like, and thronging with Chinese, presumably from the provinces or out-of-town, who were as wide-mouthed and gawking as we were. On our own, we also wandered, on our second afternoon, around the streets adjoining our hotel. We were surprised to find that “massage parlours” in Shanghai clearly mean what they mean in New Zealand – whorehouses with a euphemised name. Disregarding the fact that I was walking arm-in-arm with my wife, a tired-looking woman in a red dress, and with too much make-up, gave me the eye from the doorway of one such establishment. As we were walking back the same way, one of her colleagues gave me an inviting “Hell-ooo”.
Again – Cor!
So much crammed into a mere 36 waking hours.
But all this is beside the main point of my tale.
While on the night-time river cruise, our young male guide was diligently pointing out to us what all the glowing, colourful neon-lit skyscrapers were – a bank here; a trading house there; a communications company over yonder. Finally, I said to him “China is a communist country, but what you are pointing out to me are all the signs of thriving capitalism”.
Yes,” he said cheerfully, “China has its own form of communism.”
We already understood this, of course. I was being just a little cheeky in making my statement. But the uniqueness of China’s economic life was reinforced for us the following afternoon when, in company with a woman guide, we visited the city’s free, non-state-controlled, garment and clothing market. It is housed in a large rambling building with dozens of tailors and traders each renting a little booth.
Before we left Auckland, my wife had been told of one tailor there who made excellent bespoke clothes at high-speed and at low prices.
We headed for him.
He measured me. He measured my wife. We arranged for him to make a formal suit (with two pairs of trousers) and a shirt for me, two shirts for one of our sons, and four tops for my wife. The deal was that he and his team would make the garments that very afternoon, and that he would be paid in full when he delivered them to our hotel room the following morning, before we flew out.
Thus it came to pass, with us trying on our made-to-measure garments before paying, finding them of excellent quality, paying, and then dashing off to catch our plane home.
And what did all this cost? At the tailor’s booth, we had hoped that our guide would help us with the expected bargaining, but her English proved too inadequate for the task of conveying my wife’s instructions. My wife ended up doing the bargaining via the tailor’s computer, bidding with him on screen.
Total final cost for bespoke suit, shirts and tops (labour and nearly all materials included)? 2020 Yuan. The equivalent of between $NZ400 and $NZ500. From our point of view, an incredible bargain, bearing in mind that such work, undertaken in New Zealand, would cost at least ten times that price.
Which now raises the awkward question: in making such a deal (as thousands of tourists do) were we being heartless exploiters of people in another economy? Were we making a “bargain” to the disadvantage of somebody who had no option but to agree to our price?
I thought long and hard about this, but in the end, I think not. Among other things, out guide was surprised that we paid so much. (She seems to have thought that we should have bargained harder.)
More to the point, considering the price in terms of the exchange rate (1 Yuan equals approximately 26 NZ cents) does not really consider the real purchasing power of the price paid. Clearly the tailor was happy with the price and also clearly, in China, 2020 Yuan could buy much more than $NZ400 or $NZ500 dollars could buy in New Zealand.
You can see the whole deal still jangles in my mind a little – but I think I can clear myself of the charge of being a capitalist exploiter. Apart from the fact that our tailor was also a practising capitalist, I would argue that if I really were a capitalist exploiter, I would be much richer than I am.

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