A Very Sorry Marvel
On the outskirts of Chengdu is the “New Century Global Centre”. We came across it online when we were researching for this trip, and decided it was a “must-see” – an architectural marvel, with an artificial indoor beach, a “Mediterranean village” – that was intriguing – 2 five-star hotels, shops, an entertainment complex and a business centre. Said the publicity.
Architectural marvel it is – as are many of the new Chinese structures, with lovely flowing lines that still have echoes of the traditional pagoda style. And inside it’s a wonder of marble floors and gilt surfaces: I stood inside the entrance and just watched people come in, one after another, and go “Woh!” (is that how you spell the sound you make when you are so completely knocked-out – surprised by something that you just stand for a moment with your mouth open and your eyes wide?). I too had gone “Woh!”. This truly appeared to be a centre that merited international status, although it soon struck us that all the visitors, apart from ourselves, appeared to be very much local in origin, rather than global.
What we had come to do was sit with a laptop on the artificial beach and catch up on some work. The charge for entry was much steeper than we expected – about £20.00 each- so we decided to put it on a visa card rather than use up most of the cash we were carrying at the time. (For everyday expenses, £40 normally goes a long way here.) This is where things started to go wrong. The card terminal system at Chengdu’s supposedly iconic New Century Global centre only accepts Chinese credit cards. Very sorry, very sorry – global image, but only local support. We were then taken to the ATM, so we could pay for our entry in cash. Very sorry again, but the cash machine was empty. Apart from one other group of three Westerners that we saw getting tickets a bit later, we were probably the only global visitors at the global centre – and we couldn’t get into the main attraction.
We began to realise that the Global Centre was not so much about selling China to the West, but selling the West to China. There was even a Toys r Us on the lower ground floor. H and M were by the entrance. Although many of the luxury fashion brands (Burberry, Tommy Hilfinger, Dior, Lancome and others) that had outlets in the city centre were missing (apparently they weren’t interested because it was too far out) most of the stores in the central shopping area were international names.
Everything we have liked about China has been intrinsically Chinese. This has been particularly true of the people themselves, especially their open friendliness and hospitality. We spent a few days in the city of Leshan, which is by one of China’s minor rivers (that is still about as wide as the Severn at Avonmouth) and were walking back to the hotel along the riverside pavement, when we came across a group of men with fishing rods cast out in the water, sitting around a table eating and drinking. What they were enjoying was actually one of the fish that they had caught, which they had cooked at their table with a gas burner. I made a show of counting all the rods (there were about three times as many rods as men); the next thing I knew I was being offered the last choice morsel of the fish and having a drink with them. I wondered how often that would happen in England. (Never mind the conviviality or otherwise– there would probably be a byelaw against setting up a picnic table on the pavement, and the cooker would not have a chance against health and safety regs…).This is Sechuan province, so my mouth was still glowing from the spices quarter of an hour later, but it remains one of the special moments of the trip.
Field of Dreams
There is an advertising billboard for a fashion brand at the Global Centre that is written entirely in English. It reminded me of the movie, Field of Dreams: “If you build it, they will come”. Clearly, they haven’t come yet. A hoarding in Chinese in any of our cities would be understood by a much larger percentage of people than that one in Chengdu. Chinese women wear very little jewellery – or none at all, not even wedding rings – but the city centre is full of adverts for expensive jewellery and shop windows full of diamonds. Many stores and businesses carry English translations of their names, and even their marketing tags – but the average Chinese person knows so little English (outside of “Hello”) that our taxi driver the other day didn’t even recognise the name of one of their main central hotels – until we called one of our Chinese friends and asked her to explain our destination to him over the phone.
So here we are, in the biggest country in the world, with the oldest civilisation in the world and responsible for some of the world’s most important discoveries, be it for war – gunpowder – or peace – printing, and we see them on the brink of digging up the field of their roots in pursuit of a dream of Westernisation. We were walking down one of the main streets last night, and it was almost entirely lined with jewellery stores, mostly with three or four shop assistants and no customers. Anne said, “Why does China have to sell out to the West?” We listened to the music coming out of the shops and came to inevitable conclusions about the globalising influence of the media, powerfully at work to create the aspirations needed to maintain a growing economy. I wonder though – do the whole world’s aspirations really have to come out of one single mould?
There is hope
There is hope, though. The Western way isn’t always preferred. I don’t need to go into great detail to describe the difference in the plumbing arrangements of WC cubicles between “squatters” and “sitters”. Many hotels and more sophisticated public places offer a choice, and there are one or two “sitters” on offer in the row. Sometimes they even put a little symbol on the door so you know in advance what comforts await you. Well, I know what my choice will always be, and I suspect that most readers would open the same door as me. But from what I’ve seen, and from what I’ve heard from Anne, the Chinese people will always go through the other door.
And there is hope for the dyslexic, too. Even now, our education systems only really offer a single mould for success. If you don’t fit the mould – if your processing isn’t up to speed; if the printed page can look as meaningless as that poster to the passers-by in the Global Centre – the label “failure” is never far away. So it’s important to keep believing in who you are. Don’t let your field be destroyed by a dream that isn’t yours. Keep your own door open. China may toil to ape the West, but the West can never be Chinese. You may have to work harder and go through more mental hoops than the person next to you, to achieve the same results as them when it comes to conforming to the mould of educational success – but however hard they work and however many hoops they go through, they will never achieve the same results as you in the field of your roots.
Chengdu August 27 2013.