I spent a month in the People’s Republic of China in the winter of 2015-2016. Traveling along the coast in the cities of Shenzhen, Qingdao, Shanghai, and Hong Kong, a lot was to be taken in and learned. I was with a friend fluent in Chinese which was an invaluable resource as it opened doors in terms of exploring cities and not getting too lost. Quite honestly, I didn’t know what to expect before embarking on this journey. My preconceived notions of what daily life in China is like was never really directly created from anything. In the American media, a lot is said about China. The economy of China is booming, yet there is still a lot of poverty. China is more open and free than ever, yet there is still a struggle between people and government concerning human rights. That’s what made going to this country such an exciting experience.
Downtown Shenzhen was rather bleak and industrial, save for this enormous monument of a tower that watched over the city. Photographs do not do it justice. It is so large that even outside of downtown, I used it to navigate the city. I think perhaps this tower was put in place to show where Shenzhen, and China itself, aspires to be in the future. It is a symbol of the world power China looks forward to being. It all makes sense, though. The context of Shenzhen as a city is one of being right outside Hong Kong, serving as a port of where manufactured goods are created. A ton of factories are located around and outside the city, and many people come here to find jobs working in these factories to provide for their families elsewhere. I got to get a little taste of this firsthand when I went to the Shenzhen Wei LiChuang Precision Metal Co. factory to talk design and manufacturing with my friend, Suvan, the man who helped create Chime. His family is across the country to the north, yet he lives and spends 90% of his life in Shenzhen working to provide for his wife and children.
Overall, Shenzhen was a pleasant experience. One of my most memorable experiences of Shenzhen, however, was when we experienced a store centered around tea. The store sold handcrafted tea products from all over Asia, spanning different styles, time periods, and traditions. We were invited to sit down, drink traditional tea from a tea kettle that was over one thousand years old, and speak with an employee. We discussed the relevance of tea in Asian culture, and the various tea products and customs. The strongest emotion I felt while enjoying this hospitality was how tea truly does slow down time and make the discussion more heartfelt. While in the west we enjoy discussions over a beer where it can make us more social and friendly, I experienced a similar feeling here while drinking tea. It brings a warmth to your heart and soul. It was quite inspiring, and I plan on bringing this experience into future products I design.
One thing that was a stark contrast to America was the use, reuse, and even finding new uses for products until that product is destroyed and can be used no longer. Walking around the seedier parts of Shenzhen, I got my shoes repaired for a dollar. The rubber was becoming detached to the leather, and the rubber heel was frayed so much that there was a literal hole at the bottom. The man who fixed my shoes sang Christian songs in Chinese and was genuinely interested in where I came from and who I was. Not many tourists came around that part of town, much less get their shoes fixed. He seemed to be well known and respected, as everybody walking by knew who he was as they waved and acknowledged him. Through discussion, I learned that his entire life he was a repairer of goods, and goods appeared to be anything. From mechanical trinkets, such as watches, childrens toys, and shoes, he fixed it all. Recycling and reusing products, in my opinion, speaks more about a person than buying the nicest, newest gear. Obviously, at times, such as a job interview or presentation, you want to appear at your best. But in everyday life, I like to make an emotional connection to products I use everyday and try to not throw away products before they are completely expired. Many of my shirts I have been wearing since high school, the shoes I got repaired from this man are now five years old, and my current computer setup is still chugging along at six years old.
The next city I visited was my friend’s home city of Qingdao. Qingdao is a port city that was colonized by the Germans and then the Japanese. It was obvious to me that it was a German-influenced city because of the large Christian church there, and a lot of the roofs inside the old part of town were colored red and western European style. Additionally, being a port city so close to Japan and Korea, a lot of trade is done here which means there is a lot of wealth to be had.
This statue is a remembrance and celebration to the May Fourth Movement of 1919, where students all over China protested the colonization of their land by the Europeans and Japanese. The weak Republic of China government was in a bad situation to fight the colonization, as they were not quite industrialized yet and the people of China were so divided. The movement led to a lot of positive changes for China, as modern education finally became a priority, and many different radical ideas were spread throughout. The current People’s Republic has it’s roots in the May Fourth Movement, and this magnificent statue is a testament to that.
One of the more interesting experiences I had in Qingdao was when I toured outside of the city. I saw a lot of buildings and structures of the early Mao era, and I could only imagine the people and activities that happened to be there so long ago. As an American looking from the outside, The early Mao period is such an interesting one. It was a time of great struggle for the people of China at the time, and yet there was so much change to a culture and mindset that was left largely unchanged for thousands of years. I feel that while China did not actually progress during this time, it did lay the framework for a revolution that continues today as China has become an increasingly powerful nation.
The next city I got to visit was Shanghai. Many people refer to this city as the “San Francisco of China” as a lot of young entrepreneurs come here to make a name for themselves. I did indeed notice the similarity when it came to the energy in the air. Another similarity I noticed was how concerned with creating fashion statements the young people in both places are. Shanghai could be characterized as high energy, exciting, and fun.
A strong difference I noticed between America and China was how the Chinese viewed animals, at least upfront. Even though I am not a vegetarian by any means, I felt as though the Chinese objectified animals more so than we do. Whereas I feel the idea of watching animals get slaughtered or mishandled would distress many Americans, and I’m absolutely sure it does happen here, this was a regular sighting in China. Markets would have animals, especially fish, be kept barely alive to have the meat stay fresher for longer. Pet markets had animals live in deplorable conditions until they were purchased. Many unwanted dogs and cats roamed the streets. It made me quite sad to see these things.
At the pet markets, crickets are the most popular. Men will get a cricket, tickle it with a feather to give it stats, such as aggressiveness… size… energy level… the qualities that make a cricket a good fighter increase the price. They will then raise that cricket on a special diet and train it to fight, and then gamble on which cricket will come out victorious in a battle to the death. It reminded me a lot of Pokemon, a game I enjoyed as a child.
Another interesting quip of Shanghai is the stark contrasts of cultures there. For a long time, Shanghai was forcibly opened up to the western powers, such as France, Germany, Britain, Italy, and the Netherlands. These western powers used Shanghai as a base for trade and installed a lot of magnificent architecture there. The closer you are to the waters, the more the buildings are westernized. The farther you go towards the mainland, the more traditional the buildings appear.
On my way out of China, I exited through Hong Kong and spent a few days there. I am glad I did, as Hong Kong was definitely a worthwhile experience. Some of the best food I’ve ever eaten was there. The first things I noticed were how much vegetation was throughout the city, and the endless elevation changes. You could not simple just navigate the city by thinking in terms of straight, left or right, but you had to also consciously think about going up or down as well.
Delicious street food and endless knockoff products everywhere was what made up the pure chaos of the famous Temple Street area. It was a lot of fun, and despite a lot of the crazy activities happening, I never once felt unsafe or threatened. Hong Kong definitely had a different feeling from China, which could be easily explained by the very recent history of it and the exchange of Hong Kong from being a longtime territory of Britain to a trading zone of China. Western influence has made Hong Kong into an entirely different culture and atmosphere from mainland China, and despite clashes between the People’s Republic government and the people of Hong Kong, it has maintained a distinct identity.
My visit to China taught me a few things. The first is a finer appreciation for the people and culture of China and how truly welcoming they were of me. The culture is one made up of respect. Additionally, the struggles and various crossroads that are facing China as a country from the fast progress it has experienced since the 1980’s is apparent. While many aspects of the country are modernized, a lot of the areas in the various cities I experienced were not. It will be incredibly exciting to see the progress of this nation and culture.
I want to thank the Ma family of Shanghai, the Zhou family of Qingdao, and Shenzhen Wei LiChuang Precision Metal Co. for the hospitality and memories that were given to me throughout my travel to this wonderful country.