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 (www.uwc.org). 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.