Saturday, April 16, 2005

China: Old and New

Sinoway Towers at HongBo
Originally uploaded by billmcgonigle.
I'm currently reading a book called "Mr. China," (as well as "A Tale of Two Cities" and "Myths to Live By" by Joseph Campbell) graciously shipped to Harbin in a care package organized by loving Mama McGonigle. Many thanks, Mom.

The book is fascinating, I'm burning right through it. It has inspired a number of questions to my Chinese staff, many questions to which they have no answer. I don't know if thats because the book holds such a strong Western view, or that the messier details of the book warrant national or individual censorship, or that they just honestly don't know. Either way, I'm spending more and more time now trying to analyze how China really works.

The best evidence is all that stands around me. Harbin, as mentioned, has been targeted for a major phase of development. And having been here only 8 years ago, this is quite obvious. There is a ridiculous number of buildings, if not entire districts (kinda like a burrough) that did not exist here in 1997.

I live in the center of the town, an area known as "NanGong," which means "South somethingorother." Right up the street, about 5 blocks away, one will find the very university I studied at during my previous trip. Small world.

A little bit further away, but still walking distance, is the heart of the town, HongBo Circle. In the middle of the circle is a massive glass pyramid that, due to the grime, comes off as more of an eyesore than a monument. The view I find more intriguing is the one you'll find in the picture.

You'll find elemements from three different periods in China's history in this picture. First look at the low-level building with the red dome. This stands as one of the older structures in Harbin, built by the Russians as the town first hit the maps circa 1900. The architectural style is disticntly NOT Chinese, and on top of that, it was built of such quality that it still stands today. Unlike most Chinese construction projects, which I believe are designed to crumble after a decade to keep 1.3 billion employed. More on that another time.

Next to that shop building, you can see the HongBo monument, a monument to the Socialist worker, one hand on the gun, the other proudly hoisting the star of the state. I don't think I need to explain the significance of this piece.

Finally, look towards the towers. Probably the first bit that caught your eye. This is the Sinoway Hotel, two massive spires that hold not only the glitziest accomadations in Harbin, but also offices for some of China's largest corporations, China Construction Bank and some car company. And while you'll find many empty rooms in the floors above, the basement below packs X-ed out ravers and horny businessmen into one corner, a geriatric-friendly swimming pool into another, and finally a bowling alley where the lanes are so lacqued that your ball holds no traction, can carry no english or spin, and frequently yells of "OVER THE LINE!" ring out as hopeless rollers slip across the floor on their overworn lane shoes.

This is the New China. Make sense of it.


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