China Journal: Contrasts between old and new

Blog entry and photos by Mike Foley (containing excerpts from my previously published China journal, July 2009]:

When our BYU-Hawaii study group was there in July 2006, Shanghai — and I understand many of the other major urban areas of China — were (and presumably still are) undergoing a tremendous building boom. There were immense construction projects underway everywhere, some in time for the 2008 Olympics in Beijing and others for the World Expo, which is scheduled to take place in Shanghai in 2010. All of this makes for some interesting contrasts.

For example, within blocks of where we were staying at the Fudan University Guest House, there were at least a dozen ‘humongous’ buildings going up. It made me wonder: 1) Who would occupy all that space? 2) How much weight can bamboo scaffolding bear? (Anyhow, some of it’s bamboo.)

But in between all these super projects, there were little lanes and street markets crowded with common people and construction workers stopping off on their way home to buy such things as a broken water melon — melons in season are extremely popular — for a couple of RMB (think about 8 RMB = $1 US). Move down another half-block and there’s a McDonald’s where a “meal” cost about 24 RMB at the time. Next to that was a very popular, upscale karaoke restaurant with a line of BMW’s and other flash cars parked outside. Contrast this with the Fudan University cafeteria where we would occasionally eat lunch for 3RMB, which bought a big scoop of rice and a chicken-peanut-chilli dish (very ono).

Indeed, Chinese food was on the menu every day, almost every meal. Good, because I really enjoy Chinese food, and what a selection there was: Within a few feet of our hotel there were several Chinese restaurants, several Korean ones, and a 24-hour convenience store. A half-block away, in addition to the university’s immense cafeteria, there was a pizza place (pass!) and a Mongolian barbecue restaurant. My roommate and I found the teriyaki-like pork to be excellent and the hot pots very spicy, but we passed on the dog meat dishes listed on the menu.

Travel by taxi was another bargain, as long as you got someone to write down the Chinese characters of your destination. Shanghai streets, however, are incredibly busy and it’s amazing how everyone on the road — trucks, buses, cars, two-wheelers and pedestrians — could come within inches of each other.

One of the places we cabbed to was a mall that included a store similar to a super-Wal-Mart: It was huge, and they had everything in there, including sales people passing out samples like at Costco and Sam’s Club. The food section was particularly fascinating from a cultural perspective, with an especially rich offering of various seafoods, but I have to admit the smell of the durian (if you’re not sure what this is, you’ve never smelled it) made me a little queazy. I’m also not sure I understand the dynamic, but the longest line there was people waiting for fresh eggs which they purchased by a specified quantity — say, two… or four, ann all brown — that they carefully carried away in plastic bags, not cartons.


  1. Fran Corcoran says:

    Thanks Mike, I probably will never travel to China but seeing it through your eyes is great. Makes the people and country seem real instead of picture book perfect. Fran

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