Keeping up with the Sun
Qingdao, after a week of the smoggy grey of Shanghai and Nanjing, is a welcome relief. The clouds still pour in off the sea every morning – sometimes so thick we can’t see the thin land bridge connecting the emblematic harbor pagoda to the “bathing beach”, just the peak of its roofline sticking out of the water like the prow of a shipwreck. Around 11 o’clock, the sun burns through the haze and leaves clear blue sky behind with barely visible, wispy sheets of clouds. The town was a fishing village really, and not important at all until the Germans came to get their piece of China in the mid 19th century. They left a mark at lest as impressive as the French did on Shanghai, although their little concession didn’t manage to evolve quite the way her big sister down South has. They filled a warren of streets up above the old harbor with thick houses that wouldn’t be out of place in Bubenec or other bits of Prague. They laid cobblestone streets which still host a similar array of street vendors – people selling bits of this and that, mostly fish and pieces of fish. They left a handful of churches and a well-planned feeling that strongly determined the character of the town today. They also left a brewery…
We spent the first day walking, as usual, with camera in tow and Emily, our new translator/guide asking all the questions we couldn’t before. An old man who I would have taken to be starting a fight turns out to be playing a simple, if animated, game of cards with his friends. A young guy who Martin and I would have probably had to brush off with a nod and a “hello” tells us his story over a cigarette. “Tell them to guess my age,” he tells Emily, grinning. He comes from a village 600 miles inland where there is simply no work. He left his wife and young son to come and work in the city, but hopes one day to have the money to bring them to live with him. Until then, he works as a tailor in a factory that could have made the shirt I was wearing. He sends his money home to the village and goes to visit for 3 days a year. All things considered, he seemed like a pretty cheerful guy.
This sort of exodus is increasingly common and well-publicized, even though the government is trying to find ways to keep people in the villages. There used to be a system of “passports” – town registrations that would not allow people from one city to work or live long-term in another, but the system was abolished by the government a decade or so ago. Today, the Chinese are generally free to go wherever they have the money to go, and instead are enticed to stay with new schools, social programs and other incentives. Improving village conditions was one of the top priorities of the last government and will remain high on the list according to the proclamations of the 17th party congress, which was just convened. We’re going to check some of those out as soon as we get off of the busy eastern seaboard’s mega cities.
We walked through the tiny remnants of Qingdao’s dilapidated old Chinese city – a fishy smelling block or two of grey, cracked masonry and street markets. These places, according to Emily, are being quickly eradicated here and in Beijing in an effort to show the best possible face to the world during the Olympics. Although they have real character, in a way it wouldn’t be too awful to see them go, replaced by newer, less provocative, but certainly more dreary apartment blocks. Most of the places I saw looked pretty far gone and I got the feeling that rehabilitation probably wouldn’t help much anyway.
The brewery is behind one of Qingdao’s many hills, invisible from the coast, but dominating the first valley out on your way to the bus station. It was left behind by the Germans when they were chased out by the Qing and maintained as China’s premier brewery. The beer isn’t bad, but we skipped the museum tour. In the big party hall which was supposed to mark the end of the tour, we finished out the day being toasted and photographed by massive groups of Chinese tourists.