China Time Machine — How Much Has Changed in 20 Years

My Chinese visa, 1989

The last time I stepped foot in Mainland China was April 24, 1989. I had just spent a month in-country, seeing Guangzhou, Guilin, Kunming and Shanghai. I spent the final five days of my trip in that city. The night before I left, the evening sky was filled with the protests of students as the forces that culminated in the Tiananmen Massacre of June 5. My American host at Fudan University told me it was probably a football match.

Shanghai Bund, 1989

Regarding Shanghai, it’s hard to imagine a deeper contrast. Nanjing East Road, today a vast shopping route, was a sparsely traveled narrow road. I remember a few dozen shops open, including a dusty old bakery (one of the few in China – bakeries are not part of Chinese cuisine), a bookstore with perhaps a dozen titles, a few magazine shops and little more. Dust was everywhere.

Shanghai had been an international city, an open port since the Opium Wars in the early 1800’s. Prior to that, it was simply a sleepy fishing and weaving village of little importance. As trade came through the area, foreigners moved in. By the beginnings of the 20th Century, while there were only 20 to 30,000 westerners living there, their army of Chinese laborers had built them a full city of western buildings, paved roads and the like.

Horse Racing in Earlier Days in Shanghai

In 1989, much of this was still visibly evident. Between the concrete monstrosities of communist construction, there were numerous beautiful mansions and villas for the wealth few. In the middle of the city was the abandoned British horse racing track. A gigantic part of the inner city, it was leveled to build the People’s Square park and complex of museums.

Today, Shanghai is again a cosmopolitan center of business, finance and trade.

Modern Shanghai, Pudong District

Skyscrapers dot the skyline. Streets are littered with shops, banks and other modern delights. The remaining old villas of pre-communist China are marked by historical markers, but are otherwise not very noticeable between the modern, trendy constructions of the present.

But these were changes I was expecting. The news, after all, is full of detail on the changing face of China. But there were aspects of these changes that struck me to the core. Three things in particular that I was not expecting.

Chinese Backpackers

1) Chinese Backpackers and Tourists. When I traveled China in 1989, moving from one place to another was so enormously complicated, difficult and expensive, few Chinese people did so for pleasure. I remember talking to people in a village outside of Kunming. None of them had traveled anywhere expect to the provincial capital. And those trips were only by necessity, not to see the sights.

The Chinese backpackers were everywhere, taking pictures of everything. They look exactly like I did when I was one of the first independent travelers in China all those years ago. These people saw what we were doing, copied it, and made it theirs. The Chinese backpackers, in the swarming thousands, are my spiritual descendants.

Suzhou Redlight

2) Red Light Districts in Suzhou. Nothing prepared me for a red light district in the People’s Republic of China. Walking to a pub to meet a friend and watch World Cup Soccer one night, a Mama-san grabbed my arm and took me into her small pub to show me her girls. It simply shocked me. I’ve seen Manila, Hong Kong and the infamous Patpong District in Bangkok, but never expected anything here. There was one for foreigners (located on Shiquan Street, near the intersection with Fenghuang Street), and one that was exclusively Chinese south of the Night Market.

Suzhou Massage

A local resident told me that Shanghai had closed all of their redlight districts in preparation for the Expo, and that several of them had move to Suzhou, an hours drive to the west.

Friendly People

3) Talking to People. In 1989, Chinese people were extremely reticent to talk to foreigners traveling in their country. I don’t blame them; people with foreign connections were targets during some of the upheavals in the ’60s and ’70s.

Today is different. It really is possible to sit down and talk with people. Not everyone, but lots of people are certainly open to just talking for a period of time. Common questions when they learn I can speak Chinese: “Where are you from?” “How do you like China?” “How many kids do you have?” “Four!?!?!?!”

It’s a different place. And, very largely, for the good. Twenty years ago I thought growing up Chinese was a terrible tragedy. I’m so happy to be proven wrong.

One Response to “China Time Machine — How Much Has Changed in 20 Years”

  1. wina steussy says:

    Wow, Ed…love this whole section, your reflections upon the changes are “fascinating”.

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