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November 23, 2004

Postcards from a future. Via MetaFilter: “Ten things the Chinese do better than we do.” Or, at least, ten details of modern life that our Han contemporaries seem to have sensibly rethought, often addressing the problem with technological elan. The article specifically excludes stuff based on their supply of cheap labor.

If your mental picture of China is still a black-and-white photo of Mao-jacketed swarms on bicycles, check it out.

Also via MeFi, this fantastic site, nothing but thousands of photos of modern cities all over the world, arranged by country. Here’s Shanghai. [12:17 PM]

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Comments on Postcards from a future.:

Claude Muncey ::: (view all by) ::: November 23, 2004, 12:57 PM:

On the news this morning I heard that for the first time the US imports as much ag products as it exports (based on value). One of the reasons is that China has becoming a net exporter of a variety of food products including corn (maize to you Brits and such). While the typical corn farm in China is small, the growers there are switching to high tech varieties that are higher quality (high protein or oil) rather than high quantity and work on a contract basis with export firms to ensure that there is a market that will reward that higher quality. The Chinese government is promoting an expanded processing industry and is raising quality standards for corn. They are also promising to import more corn -- a sure sign of which way things are tilting.

It's not barefoot peasants standing in rice paddies anymore. Songliao Plain, heart of the corn belt.

mayakda ::: (view all by) ::: November 23, 2004, 01:07 PM:

I was just thinking, yesterday, that it's time for me to bite the bullet and learn Mandarin (and make sure my kids learn it).

Ulrika O'Brien ::: (view all by) ::: November 23, 2004, 01:39 PM:

Ah, but the Canadiens still beat the Chinese in the arena of Chinese Pie

Fascinating article, tho.

JamesG ::: (view all by) ::: November 23, 2004, 01:43 PM:

One of my coworkers is teaching me Mandarin. It is amazing how intonation plays such an important role in that language. You can say the same word fourteen different ways (yes I am exagerating a bit) and have fourteen completely different meanings. Some of them possibly even naughty! So far the conversational speak has been fairly easy to pick up, but I am still struggling with sentence structure on anything more complex than pleasantries.

Stefan Jones ::: (view all by) ::: November 23, 2004, 01:52 PM:

Yeah, but our cars are way bigger.

Mr. Bill ::: (view all by) ::: November 23, 2004, 02:44 PM:

An other interesting site that gives some sense of the coming Chinese Ascendancy is http://skyscraperpage.com/ and go to 'Diagrams''then 'Buildings Under-construction', look at the Buck Rogers quality of the new crop of tall buildings, almost all in China.

Jon Meltzer ::: (view all by) ::: November 23, 2004, 04:02 PM:

Yesterday's Wall Street Journal had a story on how the pharmaceutical industry has given up hiring six-figure salary American PhDs in favor of $20K/yr/equivalent Chinese PhDs.

And after the IT industry collapsed it was said that biotech would be America's future.

Magenta ::: (view all by) ::: November 23, 2004, 04:33 PM:

"In German or English I know how to count down,
Und I'm learning Chinese!" says Wernher von Braun.
- Tom Lehrer

from (http://members.aol.com/quentncree/lehrer/vonbraun.htm)

Maybe we all need to start learning Chinese.

BSD ::: (view all by) ::: November 23, 2004, 04:38 PM:

I was thinking about this just this morning, about how the European dominance of the world back in the day, and our current sole-superpower status are both due not to China being unable to project force or control, or further behind (although they did fall behind at one point, they have now more than caught up), but that the Chinese State was, and apparently is, simply uninterested in subduing the entire planet. All it takes is China declining to turn over maturing US bonds inton new US bonds, and our financial system collapses. All it takes is a decision on the part of the state apparatus to put the PLA to use in conquest, and our options become either going to thermonuclear war or allowing the PRC to control whatever it chooses.

But hey, it's not like we're going to be under their thumb or anything. It's just another transition in world-dominance. By my count, if this opportunity is taken, this makes China country #2 to hold the spot twice (I count Italy twice, once as Rome, once as non-unified rennaisance Italy).

Randolph Fritz ::: (view all by) ::: November 23, 2004, 05:22 PM:

skyscraperpage.com lists some 386 towers under construction in China. I am struck, though, by how much most of them resemble modernized New York deco towers or mid-century US modern. Two of the most striking exceptions are the Shanghai World Financial Center, designed by the New York firm Kohn Peterson Fox, and the China Central Television (CCTV) building, designed by Rem Koolhaas.

I do think it's striking and sad that there seem to be few specifically Chinese elements in these buildings; ironically, the KPF Financial Center incorporates some Chinese elements.

In other news, China is advising the USA to set its financial house in order.

Claude Muncey ::: (view all by) ::: November 23, 2004, 05:48 PM:

Interesting buildings. I do like the various kinds of modern, but all I could think of looking at the World Financial Center is "Now, let's get Claes Oldenburg to create a huge inflated longneck beer bottle for this to open".

CHip ::: (view all by) ::: November 23, 2004, 06:38 PM:

BSD: All it takes is China declining to turn over maturing US bonds inton new US bonds, and our financial system collapses.

Does China really have that large a share? I was under the impression that oil exporters, especially Saudi Arabia, held much larger quantities, as they can't spend the money that quickly (although they're more likely to buy imports, where I understand the Chinese are likely to demand a share of the tech and start building knockoffs).

wrt the original post: I wonder how many of these conveniences are universal? I note that some of them are in fact appearing in this country; e.g., as of 3 years ago BWI airport had a sensor over every single space in the main parking garage, with a summary board at the front to show empty floors and a marker for each aisle to show whether it had empty spaces.

I also wonder whether China will be able to sustain such neat ideas against rising expectations of liberty. I get the impression many of these advantages come from something like self-sacrifice for the greater good; is this sustained by common spirit or just by peer pressure and its even-darker sides (e.g. block spies)?

hkreader ::: (view all by) ::: November 23, 2004, 09:18 PM:

I think that some of the the things listed in the article are by no means universal, although the electronic film theater booking has been operating in HK since the early 1990's.

There are parts of China still so poor that villagers live by selling their blood and there is massive HIV infection

There are many places in China where people are still extremely poor - very little food, problems w/ adequate clean water, no electricity for lights. School fees can cause problems for families, inequality is growing.

Diseases like schistosomiasis have come back in places like Jiangxi and Sichuan

Of course, in the big cities on the Coast (Shanghai, Guangzhou) or in Beijing, the things the article's author writes are true - enormous use of public transportation, stored value cards for paying for the bus or MTR (in HK they are called "Octopus" and you can use them for buses, minibuses, ferries, trains, in convenience stores like 7-11, and in some university libraries to operate the photocopy machines).

Throughout China, the levels of inequality are growing, and there are lots of problems for workers trying to establish independent trade unions. Visit http://www.china-labour.org.hk/iso/ to learn more.

I recently attended a conference on Chinese women and the internet, and one of the participants had had trouble w/ her job (threatened firing) because she ran a BBS that discussed sex in an open way.

In the newspaper yesterday I read a report that a man who was imprisoned for LIFE for throwing red paint on the portrait of Mao Zedong in Tian An Men was tortured in prison and has now lost his mind

Pollution - massive pollution is a problem in China almost everywhere, plus drought.

Don't get me wrong. I love living in Hong Kong and in many ways things *are* better in China than thay were in the past, especially for educated people who live in big cities. I think in the mid 1990's, 1/3 of Shanghai residents still had to use chamberpots (or maybe more). Now it's more universal.

Public toilets (at least we do have them) in China are often really gross - this one isn't too bad compared to some I've used.
And there too, things have gotten better over the years.

When I stayed at a friend's in Harbin, there was a toilet in the flat, but to shower I had to go to a public bath-house.

So - 21st century in electronic consumer goods, early 20th century in plumbing.

In fact, the 4th World Toilet Summit met recently in Beijing

Randolph Fritz ::: (view all by) ::: November 24, 2004, 01:25 AM:

hkreader, one thing you may not realize is that the USA and Europe also have their poor spots. Due to government intervention (public health, public schools, rural electrification, and so on) these are not as bad in China, but they are still there. It's strange; the whole idea of a "developed" country is really very new, historically; 150 years ago Europe and the USA were developing. And now we find this has become the goal of the whole world.

Sam Dodsworth ::: (view all by) ::: November 24, 2004, 08:23 AM:

China Mountain Xiang seemed a little far-fetched to me when I first read it, but rather less so now.

Yoon Ha Lee ::: (view all by) ::: November 24, 2004, 09:23 AM:

Not that I imagine South Korea is nearly as cool as China *grin*, but I've seen some informative stop lights (#2) in Seoul, the transit debit cards (#3) seemed fairly well phased-in when I was last there (the token system used by the Boston T makes me cringe--I'm sorry, but it does), and the adult/other playgrounds (#4) were here-and-there in Korea, especially along mini-hiking-trails, when I was a child there.

I can't speak to the cellphones because I hate the things and have yet to use one more than passingly (usually because an in-law insists on loaning one to me for something-or-other). On the other hand, the umbrella-bags are quite nice, although my über-prepared mom simply carried extra plastic bags (and umbrellas) everywhere.

I have been working on learning Mandarin on-and-off using Dover's Modern Chinese: A Basic Course by the Faculty of Peking University, with cassettes. It also comes with CDs, if one prefers. What I'd really love to do is take a course, since I don't expect to retain anything but a basic orientation with self-study, especially with no conversation partners. Still, better'n nothing. And tones are so cool!

Okay, shutting up now...

Chris Quinones ::: (view all by) ::: November 24, 2004, 11:05 AM:

Yoon Ha, I have that course too, bought a few years ago when I worked for a Chinese-owned company. I never got far into speaking; my party phrase is...lemme check for spelling...Wo bu hui zhongwen. Qing shuo yingwen.

Enough suspense, it means "I don't know Chinese. Please speak English."

I can recognize some ideographs, like those for certain numerals and year, month, day, and a few others. America is Meiguo, which makes me a meiguoren from Niu Yue.

I'd be game to help you practice, but I'm in Brooklyn, so it's probably not feasible, alas.

JimC ::: (view all by) ::: November 24, 2004, 12:30 PM:

This article is from a special Saturday edition of The Globe and Mail (Toronto's National Newspaper) which they published last month devoted to China, including the pollution, HIV infections, massive amounts of cheap labour, and so on. Jan Wong also wrote about Chinese package bus tours of Toronto, Kingston, Montreal and Quebec City. Unfortunately the G&M has decided to withdraw from the internet, so the articles aren't freely available.

Jan Wong was one of the paper's China bureau chiefs (and one of their best writers), but started her career in China as a student from Montreal in 1972. Her memoir "Red China Blues" is a really interesting book.

Yoon Ha Lee ::: (view all by) ::: November 24, 2004, 01:03 PM:

Chris Quinones: Yeah--Brooklyn is a bit far from WA. Alas. I think those phrases are ones I should learn, though. I figure knowing how to say "I'm sorry, I don't speak [insert language here]" or variant thereof is useful. :-)

fidelio ::: (view all by) ::: November 24, 2004, 01:32 PM:

We've started using a electronic system in Nashville for bus fares--we haven't got the light rail up and running quite yet, but I suspect they'll tie it into that as well. You can buy tickets by the week or month (unlimited rides), tickets worth X number of rides, or just feed a large bill into the farebox and get your change back in the form of a card you can use until the money's gone. Transfers are handled the same way. It's not a card-only system yet, and they haven't expanded it over to the taxis yet, but so far it's working well. I think Kansas City is also using a similar system, although I don't know if it's just on buses at this time. It certainly beats groping for exact change.

Nancy Lebovitz ::: (view all by) ::: November 24, 2004, 01:36 PM:

I've seen countdown traffic lights in California--at ConJose, I think.

When they said "playgrounds for adults", I was hoping they were for actual play. It seems odd to me that adults (well, at least some adults) put a fair amount of effort into getting in shape, and then, what they do is more exercise.

Mr. Bill ::: (view all by) ::: November 24, 2004, 02:21 PM:

I keep hoping Atlanta will be graced (if that's the word) by a 70+ story tower for Coca-Cola in green glass and red neon in the shape of a giant Coke Bottle...
And it coud sit on a one story 'plinth' who's roof would be painted to resemble a 1940's 'Drink Coca-Cola' tray.

NelC ::: (view all by) ::: November 24, 2004, 03:56 PM:

And here I am learning Japanese. Ah, well, at least the kanji will be useful in the Chinese-dominated future.

I, for one, say "ni hao" to our future chinese overlords.

Marilee ::: (view all by) ::: November 24, 2004, 07:24 PM:

We have countdown pedestrian signals in Old Town Manassas to try to keep the tourists from killing themselves.

CHip ::: (view all by) ::: November 24, 2004, 08:10 PM:

Yoon Ha Lee says (the token system used by the Boston T makes me cringe--I'm sorry, but it does)
It's dying out -- just took longer due to politics, wait-and-see, union noise, and any other cause you may care to suggest. The replacement is named "Charlie" after the song; unfortunately the first time I saw it I thought of one of the \other/ definitions.

hkreader ::: (view all by) ::: November 24, 2004, 08:42 PM:


What you wrote is "I can't Chinese [written], please speak English [written]. You left out the verb (jiang=speak] The ending "wen" usually refers to the wriiten language.

It would be better to say "Wo bu hui jiang Putonghua" or "Wo bu hui jiang Hanyu" - jiang meaning speak and "Putonghua" meaning The Common Language (Mandarin] and "Hanyu" meaning "the language of the Han people". But, people WOULD understand your meaning, which is the main point :)

Ooops, now just discussed the issue w/ some friends. One said he had heard Taiwanese people use the term "Zhongwen" for the spoken language and that it can mean any Chinese dialect and covers both written and spoken. Another friend dosagreed (it was a group conversation), and said she thought it would be odd to hear Chinese people call it Zhongwen, and that in her mind it refers to written only.

Just to add to the confusion, here in HK people use the Cantonese term "Zhongmen" to refer to Cantonese and "Putonghua" to refer to Mandarin and so you'll have people saying things that translate like "I can't speak Mandarin, I speak Chinese".

Also good that you distinguished between "hui" (have the ability to, know how to") and "neng" (to be able to do something or not do even if you DO know how to do).

This site Learning Chinese online might be helpful to you and anyone else who thinks about studying Chinese.

Yoon Ha, good point. I think Primo Levi wrote in The Reawakening that the first phrase one usually learns in a foreign language is how to say "I don't know how to speak x".

The Midlevels escalator is rather futuristic, if a bit old - kind of like the moving sidewalks in the Jetson's cartoon.
image 1
image 2

image 3
image 4

Having very tall apartment towers in the midst of greenery is also very typical of Hong Kong.

When I first moved here (over 12 years ago) when I would go downtown, I thought "This is what visually inspired the set of "Blade Runner", especially at night, in the rain.

Harry Connolly ::: (view all by) ::: November 25, 2004, 10:24 PM:

I like this image of Shanghai. It looks like the cover of a paperback I'd buy.

Randolph Fritz ::: (view all by) ::: November 26, 2004, 05:50 AM:

I also commend to the attention the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank, designed by Lord Norman Foster.

Chris Quinones ::: (view all by) ::: November 27, 2004, 09:46 PM:

hkreader, what I wrote was exactly what one of my Chinese coworkers (most of whom came from around Beijing and Shanghai) taught me, with spelling double-checked online. There were no adverse consequences in practice. If they were mindscrewing me, I can only salute them.

Jeff ::: (view all by) ::: January 05, 2005, 05:56 PM:

A friend of mine is writing a book about his year in China. I have read parts of it, and I must say it doesn't fulfill my romantic ideal of Chinese culture. In fact, from his descriptions, things were downright horrible in many places he visited. Maybe they have automated billboards on their parking garages, but he still had to squat over a hole in the urine-slick floor of a moving train just to take a much-needed dump.