Thursday, January 04, 2007

The tools of Christmas Eve “traditions"

As we prepare to leave Beibei, I would like to update two earlier reports. The University of Florida made our trip to China possible by granting me a semester of academic leave. The purpose of academic leave is to learn, and as these amendments demonstrate; learning continues.

Earlier I reported that I had seen no evidence of dog as food. To the contrary, people in China seem to love their dogs as pets. As we were leaving the metropolitan city of Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province, our bus passed a motorcycle (a common form of taxi and transport) that had the skinned, market-readu carcasses of three dogs on the back. So, though not common, dog is still a food to some folks in some regions.

Two weeks ago I commented on the sense of security we feel here. Last night, someone cut the chain of the gate into our apartment courtyard and then cut the chain on the doors into our apartment building. They went to the third floor where they found a door that had not been locked (such is the sense of security). Two cell phones and a pair of jeans were stolen. The wife of the couple in the apartment heard the intruders and her screams chased them off. This morning we had police all over the place. This afternoon a new, stronger door to the apartment building was installed. Fortunately, no one was hurt. Our views concerning security have changed.

A final note: Some manifestations of a good-old American style, commercial Christmas have appeared in Beibei. One of my students said that it is something that has happened in the past five years and that it is just an excuse for the merchants to sell more stuff. Since China is predominately non-Christian, the original meaning of Christmas is totally lost, giving rise to the need for local traditions. One “tradition” of this holiday is to gather on Christmas Eve in the city square and hit one another with inflatable plastic toy bats, swords, and hammers [see photo]. This, we are told, is an old American tradition. So, Americans, get your Chinese made bats at the local K-Mart and have a gay old time hitting one another on Christmas Eve.

Editor's note: Dr. Drummond has returned from Beibei and you are encouraged to ask him about his adventures, in person!!

Thursday, December 21, 2006

The local market near our apartment


Adam Smith, generally considered to be the father of economic thought, was mystified by the operation of markets. How could they be so efficient without some sort of managerial oversight? Smith concluded that markets were coordinated by the “propensity in human nature…to truck, barter, and exchange.” That is, to engage in commerce is just as much a part of the human experience as to engage in survival or reproduction.
Each Thanksgiving we celebrate the bountiful harvest of almost 500 years ago when the first successful colonists arrived in the “new” world. As I walk the streets of Beibei, I frequently wonder what it looked like five thousand years ago as the early inhabitants of this river valley pursued their “propensity…to truck, barter, and exchange.” My initial guess is that not much has changed.
Economists who work in the field of economic development have used a variety of terms to refer to levels of development. Probably the least value-laden construct is first world, second world, and third world. In the first world, most economic activity involves survival—primarily hunting, gathering, or agricultural pursuits. Most production is for self-sufficiency and there is little exchange among families. In the second world, an agricultural surplus supports the rise of non-producers such as priests, teachers, soldiers, and chiefs. Exchange between the producers and the non-producers becomes essential, and local markets develop. In the third world there is a high level of work specialization with relatively few food producers and a highly developed system of exchange. In a politically correct analysis, it is neither good nor bad to live in the first or third world—just different.
One of the fascinating things about life in Beibei is that we truck, barter, and exchange in all three worlds simultaneously. Many Chinese still live in the rural, isolated, agrarianism of the first world. These are people who will die within walking distance of where they were born. More often than not, they will die during their first few years of life from disease or hunger. The first world is rapidly vanishing in China as the infrastructure of transportation, health care, and electricity reach into the vast, isolated interior regions. In Beibei, it is not uncommon to see people who have literally walked (or floated) out of the first world into the urban milieu of the second world.
The most common interfaces of the first and second worlds are the informal produce markets that are found everywhere. Here you find merchants from the most humble to the very sophisticated. It is not uncommon to see a woman who has walked into town with one or two handfuls of surplus green onions trying to sell them for a few pennies [see photo]. She could never sell them for enough to pay for a bus fare back to the isolated spot that is home. What might she buy? Maybe some cooking oil or some cloth—things that are not easily produced in even the most self-sufficient household.
We live in an apartment complex of more than 500 units. Every morning vendors from the first world start laying out their fresh produce on the cement walkways around the central basketball court and playground. What is available follows the seasons—right now there are lots of cabbages that are as large as a basketball, peppers that will blow the roof off your head, and a type of radish that is bigger than a big carrot. Many vendors carry a crude balance beam to weigh your purchase. Women (in most cases) come down to this area in the morning to buy the day’s meals—no produce is stored at home as it is purchased and consumed the same day. By noon, the shopping is over and the vendors have started their long journey home, arriving in time to harvest another handful of green onions for tomorrow’s market.
Just around the corner from the basketball court, maybe thirty yards away, is a second world market. A row of shops along the road includes two green grocers who sell much of the same stuff as the street vendors, but with more selection, higher prices, and longer hours. There is a butcher with today’s meat proudly arranged on a wood table or hanging from a hook overhead. The meat, of course, is neither refrigerated nor covered. It is up to the buyer to get the freshest cut (caveat emptor). In addition to the fresh shops there is one small grocery store that sells rice, noodles, cooking oil, and other packaged goods such as Crest toothpaste. Between the street vendors and the small shops, the residents of our apartment complex are able to buy all of the ingredients of their day-to-day existence.
For a third world market one must go to downtown Beibei (10 minutes by bus) to a Chinese retail chain called CBEST. There one finds full lines of clothing, bedding, appliances, cosmetics, and a supermarket. In the supermarket you can buy all sorts of packaged goods like crackers, breakfast cereals, candy, paper plates, clothes pins, and cleaning products. In the fresh fish department you can select your fish from those swimming around in a tank and have it cleaned before your eyes. Last month we were able to buy the quintessential American food—peanut butter (we got Skippy crunchy).
There you have it—from the first world to the third in a matter of minutes: from a handful of green onions carried in from a nearby small farm to a plastic jar of Skippy peanut butter produced in China by Unilever, an Anglo-Dutch transnational conglomerate. The growing popularity of “farmers’ markets” in the U.S. suggests a certain nostalgia by some who live in the third world for the benefits of the first and second worlds past. Here in Beibei, we have it all—take your pick. But, be willing to truck, barter, and exchange.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Campus police in Beibei. Note what is missing.

Security And Honesty In Beibei And Beyond


A frequent question that is asked of us as we live in Beibei is “are you safe and secure?” Travel to and living in a new, different place always involves a certain element of insecurity. The unknown is inherently insecure, and being plunked down in the middle of Beibei certainly involved a lot of unknowns several months ago. By now, most of those unknowns are knowns and most of the initial feelings of insecurity have turned to feelings of security and familiarity.
My wife and I have traveled a lot, and as we do we like to venture off the beaten path followed by most tourists. Our behavior in China has been no different. Both in Beibei and elsewhere, we have usually shopped where the local people shop, traveled on the same buses they travel on, and eaten in the same restaurants they eat in. In so doing, we have developed a pretty good sense of what individual security is like in Beibei and other cities we have visited.
My wife and I walk around town and campus freely at any reasonable hour with absolutely no concerns. In Beibei, many streets and parts of campus are irregularly illuminated at night. We walk alone, and even when we venture into previously unexplored territory we have never felt threatened. We have been approached by the curious (and avoided by the fearful) but never in a malicious fashion. I have no concern at all about my wife walking alone on our local streets at night.
Our apartment is on the ground floor, hence there are bars on all of the windows—this is standard for most dwellings. We are a little special in that we are in a compound with a gate that is locked at 11pm and we have a night watchman (who probably sleeps more soundly than I do). Also, right out of our back window is a police sub-station. At night, the four or five city block apartment complex that we are in is patrolled by two police officers with a dog. The front door to our apartment, when locked, could be opened by any 7-year old with a Jack of Spades. Nonetheless, we have never had a known robbery attempt and usually leave the door unlocked. We certainly do not feel, nor have we had reason to feel, threatened.
On campus, things look a lot like a U.S. campus. There are guards at the gates to the campus [see photo]. They seem to let anything in, but check vehicles leaving. I presume this is to prevent the faculty, etc, from confiscating University property. On campus there are uniformed police who deal with bike accidents and other important issues. There are also plain clothes police. I like these guys—they are very friendly with the students and usually have a very visible ID around their neck that says something in Chinese characters and then “Police” in English. They pop up all over campus in a very unobtrusive way. When you think about it, it is really nice to have police around when you don’t need them; and, the fact that they are around is probably why you don’t need them. In police work, a good defense always trumps a good offence.
One of the real surprises here has been the absence of firearms on police, bank guards, and other uniformed civil servants. Most carry a night stick and that is it. In addition, I have not seen a single citizen with a firearm. Perhaps if neither side has them, neither side needs them in normal day to day police work.
We have found that when we are lost a good place to ask directions is at a bank because there is frequently someone there who speaks a little bit of English and they usually know their neighborhood. One day we went into a bank and asked for directions to the post office. The lone bank guard led us out of the bank, down the street for about a block, waited until the proper bus came along and then put us on the bus with instructions to the driver. Nice of him, but all of the time he was being kind to us the bank was left unguarded. One has to conclude that to him leaving the bank unguarded was less of a threat than having some poor lost Americans running wild in the community.


With the exception of some aspects of the tourist industry, tipping is not practiced in China. In fact, we have been told that it is something of an insult. Early on, I left a little tip on a restaurant table only to have the owner chase me down the street and return my “forgotten” money.
Several days ago we were on an intercity bus. As we got off a nice passenger noted that I had left a piece of money on my seat (a $0.12 bill). He got it and gave it to my wife as we got off the bus. Again, and again, we see little things like this that reflect a very fundamental value of honesty. And we see fairness. All classes (this is not a “classless” society) treat one another fairly—we all wait in line and we are polite to one another (unfortunately, there are rare exceptions).
When you are in a country of 1.3 billion people, you are always living elbow-to-elbow, even out here in Beibei. One consequence of this is that wherever you are, there are 5, 10 or 15 other people. In this environment, everything seems to be participatory. On several occasions, merchants have tried to over-charge us only to have one or more local resident intervene on our behalf and talk the merchant down. It is evident that they don’t like to see anyone cheated—even “rich” Americans.
Is this a modern dream world? No way. Last week as we got off a bus in Chongqing a woman ostensibly tried to stuff an advertisement into my wife’s pocket—obviously a pickpocket. I got off the bus about three or four passengers later and the same woman tried to rip an umbrella from my backpack. She has a sore arm today. As this happened, a total stranger in the crowd saw her, grabbed her, chewed her out, and sent her on her way. Ordinary people here just don’t like to see ordinary people (even Americans, who obviously are not ordinary) treated unfairly. This is the only time we have been physically attacked while here, and it came to naught.
We have had an occasional cab driver try to rip us off (200 for a trip we know costs 50) and that sort of thing. As an obvious foreigner you expect that. But we have had twenty honest cab drivers who have bent over backwards to understand us and to help us along our way for every one that has tried to rip us off. I bet you can’t get those odds in New York City.
Speaking of which—my observations are based on our daily life in Beibei and brief visits to several large cities. It is my hope that Chinese visitors in Gainesville are treated with as much courtesy, honesty, and humility as we have received here. I am confident that life in Shanghai, Beijing, and other large cities is probably just as “rough” as life in Miami or New York City. Please help our visitors to Gainesville return to their countries with pleasant memories of the U.S. and its people, as we will return to the U.S. with pleasant memories of China and its people.

Daning River—a tributary of the Yangtze in the Three Gorges region

Three Gorges

One of the most popular tourist destinations in China is the Three Gorges on the Yangtze River. Since this adventure is practically in our back yard, we decided we had better do it before we left China. The usual tour is a three night voyage down the Yangtze on a river boat that passes through some spectacular scenery including three narrow gorges where the river passes through majestic canyons. While this is a leisurely trip thousands of tourists have taken for the sheer beauty of the journey, today it is an excursion that has an additional dimension—the Three Gorges Project.
In the 1920’s one of the poorest regions of the U.S. was the Southeast. Most of the population there were isolated, poor farmers who lived in conditions that we associate with the third world today. Most had no electricity, no indoor plumbing, and no access to markets, schools, or jobs. In the center of the region is the Tennessee River basin. The Tennessee River begins in northwestern Tennessee and flows south, parallel to the Appalachians, to Chattanooga in southeast Tennessee. From there the river turns west through northern Alabama to the Mississippi border where it turns north for a final run through western Tennessee and Kentucky, reaching the Ohio River just before it spills into the Mississippi River. On a map, the Tennessee River looks like a U with a larger, longer left side.
In addition to the poverty of the region, the Tennessee River was known for its floods. Seasonal rains brought devastating floods to the region killing thousands and stripping what little topsoil there was off the precarious fields and denuded forests of the hilly landscape. This was the home of the Tennessee hillbilly—poor, isolated, and uneducated. Beyond subsistence farming, the main industries in the region were revivals and moonshine—often serving the same clientele.
In 1933 President Roosevelt proposed creating a federal agency to develop the impoverished Tennessee River valley. The congressional champion of the project was, of all people, Senator George Norris of Nebraska. The result was the creation of the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA). This regional development project featured the construction of a series of dams on the river to provide flood control, power generation, and navigation. Programs of erosion control and reforestation were mixed in with the massive building programs. In time, the region became a source of plentiful, cheap electricity that attracted industry and provided jobs.
Today the Tennessee River valley is a prosperous industrial region with beautiful lakes providing recreation including some of the best bass fishing in the world. In the academic field of regional development, the TVA is a textbook example of a successful, large scale, integrated project.
Several years ago, following a flood that killed thousands, China announced the initiation of the Three Gorges Project (TGP) to place a flood control hydroelectric dam across the Yangtze river—the third longest river in the world. The size and scope of the TGP is of record setting proportions; and, the controversies associated with the project are many. It is by all accounts the largest civil engineering project ever undertaken. Upon completion in 2009, the dam will provide about one-ninth of China’s electric power, most of which is currently produced by burning coal--a major factor in the horrible air pollution problem that much of China faces.
The dam will also provide flood control and navigation from Shanghai to Chongqing. Ocean freighters will steam through the world’s largest locks on the way to the industrial markets of Chongqing—1,500 miles from the sea. Two aspects of the TGP are of particular interest.
First, there is the environmental issue. Will a project of this magnitude change the environment? Will species that have lived in the river survive in a lake? Will silting at the dam site soon fill the reservoir behind the dam reducing the effectiveness of flood control? Will the industrial and municipal waste that is currently dumped into the river to be flushed out to the sea now begin to accumulate in the lake creating a mammoth cesspool?
Second, there is the relocation issue. As we motored down the 400 miles of river from Chongqing to the dam we passed numerous signs that marked the eventual high water level of the dam at 176 meters above sea level. Much of the construction of the dam has already been completed (locks and hydroelectric generators are still under construction) and the lake has been filled up to 159 meters. In 2009 the lake level will rise to the final level of 176 meters. Anything that was previously on the river is now underwater or will soon be so. The government estimates that 1.5 million people will have to be relocated. Homes that have been occupied and fields that have been harvested for five centuries are being lost to the waters of the TGP. Burial sites and religious shrines will be lost.
The government provides those who have lost their houses with new apartments that are certainly more modern that what is being lost, but who wants to give up the family farm for a new city apartment? Many of the displaced are leaving the land permanently and moving to large industrial centers like Chongqing. The fact that all land is owned by the state makes the relocation process a little easier than it would be in the U.S., but it is still a human challenge of monumental proportions. It was my unscientific observation that a lot of the housing that has been built to relocate the affected families remains unoccupied. Some towns are currently a curious mixture of old dwellings near the shore and new buildings higher up. Land that will soon be inundated is currently being farmed as it has been for centuries.
Life for the residents of the Yangtze valley will certainly change as a result of the TGP, just as life changed in the Tennessee valley as a result of the TVA. Let’s hope the change is for the better.
As for the scenery, it is as beautiful and spectacular as ever. The TGP can’t change that. However, the partial filling of the lake has made travel up some the tributaries of the Yangtze possible. The gorges on the one tributary we went up were even more beautiful than the famous three gorges of the Yangtze. Sometimes change is beneficial.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Giant pandas eating bamboo


For a little weekend adventure my wife and I packed up and headed off to Chengdu—the capital of Sichuan province to the west of Beibei. There were two primary reasons we wanted to make this trip: we had never been there before; and, we wanted to see the giant pandas.

Our visit to Chengdu confirmed one generalization about China: “Don’t make generalizations about China.” Perhaps more so than in the U.S., each major Chinese city we have visited seems to have its own character--the subtle little things that a casual drop-in visitor might not perceive. The differences, no doubt, are the curious consequences of historical, cultural, and geographical forces. Our friends in Beibei talk about Chengdu as a quaint, garden city dotted with classic teahouses where one can enjoy artistic performances while enjoying the finest tea in China. With more than 2,500 years of recorded history, Chengdu is an old city of commercial and literary note. It is located on the rich Chengdu plateau—the agricultural center of the Sichuan region.

Chengdu is about 220 miles to the west of Beibei, also located on one of the major tributaries of the Yangtze River. If you are able to find it on a map, you will note that it is about as far west as you can go without leaving the comforts of modern transportation. To the north are heavily forested and sparsely populated mountains. To the west is a vast stretch of desolate, arid land that is largely unpopulated. To the south is Tibet. In fact, one of the major tourist attractions of Chengdu seems to be that it is the jumping off place for those seeking the adventures of Tibet. From Chengdu there are bus, air, and a new super-train to Lhasa—the capital of Tibet. Travel to Tibet is restricted and a special visa is required for Western travelers, so that is a trip for another day for us. Although it is an ancient capital, Chengdu feels like a frontier city. The population is currently about 9 million and it is growing very rapidly. The federal government is pouring development money into all of the southwestern part of China because this is a relatively poor region of the country. Chengdu is the consequence of a dramatic demographic shift in this part of the world from rural villages to major urban areas. In Chengdu one notices the absence of older people—almost no one is “from” Chengdu, instead they all have moved there from some little rural village where their grandparents cling to a rural, simple way of life. The young people want jobs, not subsistence. They want TV, stores, neon, congestion, and opportunities rather than the peaceful contemplation of a rural, self-sufficient lifestyle. As a result, as you walk the streets of Chengdu, you see very few elders. In Beibei, every toddler has at least one grandparent in tow; in Chengdu every toddler has parents in tow. The few older folks who are to be seen in Chengdu are usually quite regal and obviously quite well off.

Today, Chengdu is a modern city that has been re-developed for the automotive age. The main streets are broad boulevards with 8-10 lanes of traffic and wide sidewalks. Most roads are “spokes” into the central hub, but there are also two circular beltways around the city that make it possible to go from north to south without passing through the congestion of the center of the city. Chengdu, unlike Beibei or Chongqing, is flat. As a result, bicycles and motorbikes are everywhere. We were struck by the sheer number of electric bikes and scooters in Chengdu. They are everywhere including on the sidewalks which makes walking a little dangerous as they silently weave in and out among the pedestrians. Large sidewalk “parking lots” have electric bikes for short-term rental. They are everywhere. It is not uncommon to see a family of three all precariously perched on a single electric bike as it moves quickly and quietly along its way.

If not continuing on to Tibet, why would anyone go to Chengdu? The answer is quite simple—giant pandas. Chengdu is the home of the Panda Breeding Research Center and its adjacent Panda Eco-Park. The mountains to the north and west of Chengdu are the native habitat of the Giant Panda (literally translated in Chinese as “big bear cat”). The giant panda diet is based exclusively on the leaves of several species of bamboo; hence, giant pandas are found only in natural bamboo forests. The giant panda is a relic of the Pleistocene period that has survived into the present. They are solitary, nocturnal creatures that are going extinct because their reproductive instincts seem to be rather subdued. In an effort to solve this species threatening problem, the Panda Breeding Research Center was created. According to the educational materials at the Center, female giant pandas have one to two days per annual breeding season when they can conceive. Giant pandas in captivity don’t seem to be interested in the other sex at all and those in the wild don’t seem to be in the right place at the right time which is a combination that spells extinction.

The giant panda is the familiar black and white creature that is about the size of a black bear at maturity. There is also a lesser or red panda that is also rare but not as close to extinction. The red panda looks like and is about the size of a cross between a raccoon and a fox. The panda park has a large collection of both varieties and is dedicated to the preservation of the pandas through research and breeding programs. The park, on the outskirts of Chengdu is about 250 acres of land that has been developed into an eco-park with large walled enclosures for the pandas. There are several separate enclosures for the adults, the sub-adults, and the ever popular nursery where we saw three panda cubs on display. The giant pandas are large, slow moving creatures whose life seems to be taken up in lounging around while eating bamboo and sleeping. To assist in the latter activity, the giant pandas have private rooms with blinds for light control and to keep them away from people noises during their rest periods. During their bamboo eating periods, they don’t seem to mind the chatter and flashes of curious humans.

The Panda Eco-Park is an example of eco-tourism well done. It has been recognized by the United Nations Environmental Program as one of the “Global 500” conservation programs. The park is an effective combination of research, preservation, and education. The grounds are extensive relative to the panda enclosures so you never get the congested, caged feeling of a zoo—it is more of a stroll in the park kind of feeling. The pandas, giant and red, are well quartered and obviously well cared for by a professional staff. The nursery, which is the primary mission of the park, is very nice. The babies are on display behind a glass barrier with guards on either side to prevent tourists from creating blinding flashes of light in their eagerness to take a picture. A nurse with a face-mask is in constant attendance.

When our children were very young we lived for a year in the Washington, D.C. area. I recall one Sunday we visited the National Zoo to view the two pandas that had been sent to the U.S. as a temporary gift of the Chinese government as a part of the normalized diplomatic relations President Nixon had initiated. With throngs of people elbow to elbow we saw two pandas in glass cages trying to take a nap. I came away thrilled at having seen these rare, unusual creatures, but a little sad at the plight of the two Chinese visitors. It is the same, empty feeling one gets from seeing a lion in a two-ring circus. At the beautiful Chengdu eco-park we came away with none of that feeling. It is a case study of eco-tourism done properly—research, conservation, and education for a very worthy cause. It was easily worth the 4.5 hour bus ride to Chengdu and the 6 hour return trip.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Skyline of downtown Singapore

View of highways, rail line, and apartments in the New Territories, Hong Kong


New Places, New Adventures

This past week my wife and I had the opportunity to visit two schools in the United World College system ( These are outstanding secondary schools that teach the IB curriculum to selected students from all over the world. Each school is a mini-United Nations with an emphasis on international cooperation and understanding. The schools we visited are in Hong Kong and Singapore.

Hong Kong

Hong Kong is an island-city inside one of the finest natural harbors in the world. Just across the harbor on the mainland is the large, equally congested city of Kowloon. Bridges, tunnels, and ferries connect these two metropolitan areas. Britain was awarded Hong Kong at the conclusion of the First Opium War in 1842. Britain wanted Hong Kong in order to secure its maritime supremacy in East Asia and to enhance its commercial interests there. China is a country rich in coal resources, so the China coast was a natural refueling station for the newly emerging coal-fired steamships of that era. In 1860 Kowloon was added to the British colony. Somewhat later, Portugal created a colony at Macao and Germany acquired Tsingtao for the same reasons. As the colony of Hong Kong grew, the British needed more space so in 1898 they signed a 99-year lease for the mainland surrounding the harbor which became known as the “New Territories”. Under British rule, the New Territories were occupied with small fishing villages and local agricultural enterprises serving the large, concentrated urban populations of Hong Kong and Kowloon.
In 1997 the lease on the New Territories expired. At that time Britain decided to return not only the New Territories but also Hong Kong and Kowloon to the government of China. On July 1, 1997, the Union Jack was lowered at Government House for the last time, bringing to an end more than 150 years of British colonial rule.
The government of China has followed a policy of “one country, two systems” in an effort to integrate Hong Kong into greater China over a fifty year time span. The result of this policy is that Hong Kong has continued to prosper and expand as one of the great international free ports of the world. Since 1997 China has made substantial infrastructure investments in Hong Kong in an effort to create a model, international city in China. They have built a futuristic light rail transportation system, a new, large international airport, and a Disneyland entertainment complex. An explicit part of the government’s policy has been to push the population pressure out of Hong Kong and Kowloon into the New Territories.
Key policies to stimulate growth in the New Territories have included an expansion of highways and light rail transportation into the New Territories and the construction of “new cities” at each of the train stops in New Territories. At the same time, the government has set aside large tracts of land as natural reserves that are protected from development.
The school we visited is adjacent to one of these new cities. Perhaps the best way to describe the place is to say it looks like something out of the old cartoon show The Jetsons [see photo]. These new cities are integrated communities that have been constructed in a centrally planned, coordinated fashion that would make any urban planner salivate. A modern, very clean rail station is integrated with a local bus terminal to carry people to outlying areas. Within walking distance of the rail station are some twenty or thirty high-rise apartment buildings, each 30 stories high. A modern super-highway carries high speed traffic under the elevated rail station.
At a nearby rail stop, commercial space is integrated into the rail station. As you depart the train you can take an air conditioned skywalk over the freeway into a three story mall as modern as any you can find in the states. On the other side of the station is another mall. Included in the malls are large, modern supermarkets, food courts, and every specialty store you would find at any modern mall—including, alas a McDonald’s. It is, compared to Beibei, another world.


After the culture-shock of the New Territories, we did not know what to expect at Singapore. It is a former British colony on an island that is strategically located at the mouth of the Malacca Straits--one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world. The British gave up control of Singapore in 1965 and it has been a democratic, self-governed city-state ever since.
In the early days, Singapore was administered by the East India Company which brought many Indians to Singapore to run the colony. Many descendents of the early British and Indians are still in Singapore. Today, a majority of the population is ethnic Chinese who have immigrated to this island of promise. Local Malays and a large contingent of Europeans make up the rest of the population. It is the biggest melting pot I have ever seen. As with many large cities, there is a part of Singapore called Chinatown where we ate one evening (a busman’s holiday), and another part called Little India where we also ate (very good).
Singapore among economists is frequently cited as an example of how an enlightened central government can manage an economy to the benefit of its citizens. The city streets are wide and there is no traffic congestion [see photo]. Public transportation is widely available and it works efficiently. But, Singapore is also known for government regulation of individual behavior. There is a substantial fine for spitting, for not flushing the toilet, and even for chewing gum. Street vendors are not allowed. They have been replaced with government sponsored “stall” plazas that are tightly regulated. The city is as clean as I have ever seen in a metropolitan setting, and English is the first language.
We enjoyed our visits to the New Territories and Singapore, but it was nice to get back to the comfort of our own, but temporary, home in Beibei.

Friday, November 03, 2006

Faithful companion of our green grocer

Editor's note: I am always a fan of dog photos and this one is very cute!

the Philippines, dogs, and other Week 10 thoughts

When I was a young lad of eleven, my father took a one-year position as a visiting professor at the University of the Philippines in Manila. It was quite an experience for an impressionable young mind. Some of the things I saw, smelled, and heard probably led me down a path of international involvement that is currently terminating in the big city of Beibei, China. Who would have thought it would all come to this?
While in the Philippines we took several trips to the northern mountains of Luzon Island—the large island on which Manila is located. The region was one of indigenous people not far removed from the late Stone Age. The landscape is famous for its spectacular rice terraces that have been harvested continuously for thousands of years. The natural beauty of the region hangs in my memory as does a visit to the local market one day.
Local markets are always interesting. In this market we passed through the usual butcher shops with hunks of beef and pork hanging in the open air, usually covered with a swarm of flies. Then this eleven year old boy got hit with a visual image that burned into the memory. Among the chunks of meat hanging for sale was the carcass of a dog.
When we left for the Philippines, I had to leave behind my beloved pet, Pal. She was a mutt who followed me every morning and evening as I delivered the Nashville Tennessean and the Nashville Banner to my subscribers. During some lonely days at our residence in Manila, I used to think about Pal and how nice it would be to have her in my arms. And then, suddenly I was looking at a dog carcass hanging for sale in the market.
With time and maturity, I came to realize that in most of Asia dog is a common dish, as is duck, eel, snail, snake, rabbit, rat, turtle, and just about anything else that has meat on it. Prior to leaving, I noted that my Berlitz Mandarin Chinese Phrase Book and Dictionary© gave a translation for dog in the food section just after beef and pork and before lamb and chicken. Some fifty years later, I was going to have to confront dog as a dish again. My wife and I are pretty good sports about being in a different culture, but this was one experience neither of us really wanted to confront.
After several months in Beibei, I can happily report that we have not found any evidence of dog eating. As best we can tell, it is not on any of the menus in our favorite restaurants. At hot pots, where it is common to eat a variety of non-traditional fare, we have not encountered any dog, at least none that we have been told about. To the contrary, we have found that dogs in Beibei are much beloved pets that are well cared for and well fed. With one exception we have not seen what appears to be a homeless dog.
Most of the dogs in Beibei are small variations of the Pekinese breed. This makes sense since the breed name comes from Peking which is the old spelling of the Chinese capital of Beijing. These dogs have pug noses, a protruding lower jaw, and a curled bushy tail. They tend to stay very close to their masters or to the stores that they often “guard”. They tend to be very territorial, but they won’t mess with you if you don’t mess with them and/or their master. Most are white or of a light color and most are immaculately clean.
As we leave our apartment in the search of food we pass by our green grocer who sells bananas, tangerines, apples, and anything else we may want. He usually is sitting just inside the store next to his electronic scale with his dog on the front step standing (or lying) guard [see photo]. In the afternoon or evening, the boss will sit on a small stool on the sidewalk in front of the store. The dog is always stationed at his feet, or for a special treat in the boss’ lap. We suppose that on those rare occasions when we pass the store and the dog is not there that he must be taking a nap on the sofa in front of the TV set.
There is a small stall of a shop that we frequently pass that seems to offer numerous items and sell few of them. Most often the owners are playing cards on the small counter at the front of the stall. Invariably their dog is perched on top of the counter engrossed in the finer points of the game. This dog is quite distinctive in that it has been sheared bald except for his head and his tail which has been dyed bright pink. There is another dog with a similar “hair-do” that guards a local barbershop/beauty salon (they are one and same here). He stands out front of the shop as an advertisement for what stylish magic can be performed in the shop.
The local Beibei Sunday market, like that in the Philippines of my youth, has a dog section that is very popular with the local population. The main difference is that at this market what is for sale are live puppies by local breeders who have found dog raising to be a lucrative “farm crop”. It is not at all uncommon to get on a bus and see someone with a small puppy in a box or a bag.
Last Sunday at the market there was also a mature German Sheppard for sale in a large, sturdy bamboo cage. This dog was obviously for sale not as a companion dog, but as a guard dog. There are a few around town. A restaurant that we pass every night has a sleep-in night watchman and his German Sheppard. The dog always seems to be very docile (and quite well fed with kitchen leftovers), but I don’t want to try out the other side of his behavior. We also have two policemen who walk a beat around our apartment each night. They are unarmed (as are most police) except for a short billy club and a large dog on leash. As best I can tell, nobody messes with these policemen.
My wife is currently teaching a large class of juniors at SWU. In order to stimulate some discussion she began the class with a student questionnaire. One of the questions was “what do you miss most of all while away from home at SWU?” As expected, there were a variety of responses including boy friends, sisters, and parents. But by far, the most common response was “my dog”. I am pleased to conclude that the role and status of dogs in urban China today is quite different from what I remember in the mountainous villages of the Philippines fifty years ago.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Matt, Peace Corps volunteer, as a geriatric Superman for Beibei Halloween and other great costumes in Beibei

teaching in China

One of the compulsory elements of education in China, at both the secondary and post-secondary levels, is the study of English. Two consequences of this policy are of interest. First, if we are lost during our travels and need assistance we just look for some college students and ask for assistance with the knowledge that one or more of them will have English abilities far superior to our meager Chinese abilities. Second, there is an acute shortage of English teachers in China at all levels. Several strategies are being employed in an effort to bridge this English teacher gap.
One approach is to train more English teachers. Southwest University (SWU) has a substantial program for English majors. Unfortunately, given the Chinese system of university admission, many English majors really don’t want to be English majors but that was the only major they could declare that would gain them admission to the University. In addition, based on a show of hands in my wife’s English class, few of these reluctant English majors eventually want to be English teachers. So the local approach to filling the teacher gap is not sufficient.
An alternative approach is to employ expatriates (i.e., Americans and other English speaking foreigners) to teach English. At the present time, this appears to be the preferred, stop-gap measure. As a consequence, China is awash with young American teachers of English at private academies, universities, and other venues. Southwest University has about twelve hired American teachers on its staff. Some teach at the University and others teach at high schools that are affiliated with SWU. The American teachers of English at SWU are hired on an academic year (ten month) contract that provides free housing, partial travel, a monthly stipend, and free Chinese language courses. Most of these teachers are recent graduates of St. John’s College in Minnesota and have no prior language teaching experience. In fact, their only qualification to teach English is that they are native speakers, you know. Many of them live in the apartment complex where we live, so we have gotten to know them during our stay here. They are very sincere, dedicated young people working in a very difficult environment. Their teaching loads are outlandish; such as 700 high school students per day in one case. [A word of warning: there are lots of reports of English teacher employees making offers to prospective English teachers and then changing the terms of the offer once the teachers arrive in China. From an economist’s point of view this is an object lesson in bargaining power.]
Another stop-gap solution to the English teacher gap is the Peace Corps. The government of China accepts Peace Corps volunteers only if they are English teachers—no other Peace Corps projects exist in China. In Beibei we have two Peace Corps Volunteers who are part of the SWU English program. So far as Peace Corps assignments go, this is a pretty good assignment. SWU provides housing and the Peace Corps pays a monthly stipend while in China along with a $6,000 adjustment payment upon completion of the two-year commitment. In addition, volunteers receive full transportation and excellent health care support.
Last night, we attended an all-American Halloween party hosted by one of the Peace Corps volunteers here in town. The host, Matt, was dressed as an elderly Superman (see photos) who had developed a significant paunch and who could no longer leap over anything taller than grass. We were the only “oldsters” at the party which was a lot of fun. Our Chinese neighbors got quite a kick out of seeing young Americans dressed up in outlandish outfits, including one creative teacher who went as a steamed bun. Some things that are uniquely American are very difficult to explain.
On a slightly different topic, this week I was invited to address a meeting of the Finance Students Club. The assigned topic was “National (i.e., Chinese) Brands in a Multi-national World”. The topic is of immediate importance because China became a part of the World Trade Organization (WTO) in December, 2001. As part of the agreement, China was given a five-year adjustment period to come into full compliance with the free trade doctrines of the WTO. So, next month, China will be open to international competition and multinationals will be free to enter the Chinese market. In light of the changing environment it is no coincidence that Wal-Mart announced this month that it has purchased a local chain store called Trust-Mart for more than $1 billion. Wal-Mart currently has 66 stores in China and Trust-Mart has about 160, so under the new trading environment of the WTO, Wal-Mart is buying its way into the world’s fourth largest consumer market. The Club meeting was attended by about 120 students and resulted in a lively two-hour discussion with a very interested audience. The meeting was concluded by one of the Club officers giving a short presentation on why he thinks continued protectionism is essential for the orderly development of the Chinese economy.
The weather has turned to fall and the air pollution continues unabated. Such is life in Beibei.