(originally published in The Outreach Connection in March 2008)
We were lucky enough to spend two weeks in China last year. I could fill twelve columns telling you about it (literally – I wrote a 13,000 word diary) but I’ll condense it into a few lines. Beijing was a marvel, if a rather depressing one – the construction and the traffic and the energy speak to amazing momentum, but the air is not good, the ambiance often oppressive, and you wonder what this collective achievement can possibly mean for most individuals. We ended the trip in spectacular Hong Kong, but in between took the train to the small city of Chengde, far from most standard Western itineraries (our first full day in Chengde was the first I’ve spent in my life without seeing another white face, my wife aside).
The city has some scenic marvels, some of them seemingly barely visited, and the city has a fairly cosmopolitan looking section, but we spent most of our time in areas that no average tourist would ever choose to go to. I don’t mean they were bad or dangerous – just that they were areas where people do no more than live and work. Which means an amazing aggregation of often meager activity – in China, it seems, no economic opportunity goes untapped, however slight. If there’s a faint chance that you might earn the equivalent of 50 cents a day by setting up a melon stall halfway along a remote and strenuous walking trail, someone will do it.
Even by the standards of most countries, purchasing power fluctuated widely. In Beijing (or, that is, the fast Westernizing areas of it we retreated to at night), prices barely seemed any different than they are here, but in Chengde we could get ourselves a feast for under $10. After one such occasion, I gave the waitress what amounted to a $3 tip and almost made her cry with joy. We’d been told that Western visitors are huge objects of attention, that we’d be harassed to appear in photographs and even to hold babies. But except in the tourist traps (our visit to the Great Wall was almost ruined by non-stop, albeit understandable, harassment) it never happened (maybe, it’s just us). In Chengde, people mostly ignored us, regardless that – as we learned from that waitress – we could have doubled their entire day’s takings (Jeez, maybe their entire week’s) by handing across what to us was pocket change. But sometimes I wonder if I really did her a favour, ultimately.
Chengde isn’t at the frontline of the Chinese “economic miracle.” It isn’t a factory town, and the air seemed generally good (although there’s a mostly dried up and rancid looking river running through the city – we never learned if that was a seasonal drought or something more fundamental). The upheaval of the Three Gorges project lies far to the South. People seemed happy, or at least resigned – you get the sense of a lot of sitting and waiting, and it’s appealing to read that as a partly philosophical pursuit, but I suppose it’s much more basic than that. Our sense of ourselves, our expectations for contentment and personal space and whatnot, seemed overwhelmingly decadent. Time and again we’d see five or ten people assigned to a job that in Canada would be done by just one person (if at all). Building sites, restaurants, hotels – they’re all jammed with people. This means that service, as we think of it, is generally great, and of course that’s how Beijing can build major Olympic venues probably in the time it would take our local apparatus to sign off on the planning, but it’s all a function of life being cheap.
Up the Yangtze
A couple of years ago we went to a South African township – a million or so people in incredible claustrophobic squalour. It ought to have been a more sobering illustration in deprivation, and it wasn’t good, but at least there’s the acknowledgment that the townships are generally “bad,” that they embody what has to change. In a way, China is more permanently disquieting, because there’s plainly no hope the miracle can ever reach down far enough, nor of any meaningful widespread activism. Of course one can over-extrapolate wildly from a few days’ observation, but it feels like a place where you’re born, you take the path that’s there before you, and that’s it. There are cell phones everywhere, but maybe they speak to the consolidation of the locality as much to an explosion of mobility.
China is one of the world’s great subjects now for writers and reporters and filmmakers, and two recent films explored this evolution in the Three Gorges region. I wrote last week about Jia Zhang-ke’s Still Life (notionally a fiction film, but seriously blurring the line with documentary), which has already been and gone. The other is actually a Canadian film, Chang Yung’s Up the Yangtze. This is a documentary (although unfolding as a narrative) about a 16-year-old who leaves her dirt-poor family, just about to be relocated from their riverbank shack, to go and work on one of the huge cruise ships that travel the Yangtze. The film’s key opposition of course is between the Western tourists, who look like a wretched bunch (is there any way for tourists to look good on screen?) and the bottom-rung Chinese marshaled for their service, or exploitation, the two being much the same. The girl barely knows how to function amid all this; she’s contrasted with another new employee, a 19-year-old guy who sees the whole thing much more cynically.
Chang’s film is a great eye-opener if you’re not familiar with these matters, and a resonant reminder if you are. He and his distributors are self-releasing the film, and it deserves great support (they must be doing something right – I couldn’t believe how busy it was on the afternoon I went). I feel obliged to say though that Still Life, if you can find it, is by some distance the better of the two, because Jia is just a more refined and probing artist. Up the Yangtze is burdened with some clichéd “great documentary” trappings (such as the director’s voice-over reminiscences about his grandfather) and doesn’t always seem to focus on the right things (Jia, one feels, would have better communicated the geography and ambiance of the ship and the actual feeling of living there, which only comes across vaguely here). And Still Life is more beautiful – although it’s a terrible beauty - more ghostly. But this is only to say you should seek out both films.
Because, you know, it may be a different world, but it’s not a separate one. Economically, environmentally, existentially: our interdependency– currently still regarded mostly as an abstraction – bring us, perhaps, some short-term opportunities but massive long-term risks. After visiting China I have to admit I wondered how the planet could possibly bear all of us. For all the alerts, we are not thinking enough about this, for if we were, I’m not sure how we could ever think of anything else.