Monday, July 19, 2010

Harmonious Games

The 2010 Asian Games are fast approaching. Guangzhou, China is the host. Few people know much about the centuries old trade hub once known to Occidentals as Canton, despite it being home to an estimated 10 million Chinese citizens and the Canton Trade Fair. The Fair has been pivotal to China's export success and hosts over 200 trading regions and countries, 165,000 visitors and 22,000 exhibitors (almost 400 of them international) and tens of millions in trade. Even then, most people will only recognize the location: "About an 90-minutes north of Hong Kong" is how I usually describe my adopted home. Within a 2-hour radius of Guangzhou and the Pearl River Delta are responsible for some 35% of China's GDP.
The Guangdong government, the provincial parent to Guangzhou, has been hard after a successful world showing for the contest for over half a decade. The video above was uploaded to Youtube by me in 2006 and shows a near idyllic cit, rife with culture, clean air and blue waters. While I love Guangzhou, I am realistic about its landscape and applaud the video maker's post-production team for turning back environmental time a century--or two.
Guangzhou, like New York, can be called a city that never sleeps. But, its the steady cadence of pile drivers and backhoes in place of nightclub music and taxi horns are beat of the streets long past sundown and dawns barely visible through the haze of internal industrialization. There is external face-building (and saving) in the way of new buildings, subways, and a made-in-China facade of modernity everywhere you look. I am reminded of a quote by Malcom Muggeridge: "...I feel like a man playing piano in a brothel; every now and again he solaces himself by playing 'Abide with Me' in the hope of edifying both the clients and the inmates.” The local government has been playing a tune that the locals, especially the expats here, will likely not recognize when the world hears it during the opening ceremonies.
As part of the campaign to beautify Guangzhou, the  government has declared war on: Prostitution, Gambling and Drugs. Corruption, noise pollution, racial profiling, and crimes against foreigners did not make the cut.
To modernize the train station (insert prelude here) the GZ government has moved the taxi stand several hundred meters away from station entrance. Travelers, hauling heavy bags are in for a dual workout:  they must run a gauntlet of illegal taxi drivers, beggars, thieves (the east station has always been a haven for hustlers), endless rain and brutal heat.
To curb prostitution the local police, disgruntled they have to leave the comfort of the local cop shop, now run in gangs of 7-10 and make random checks of hotel rooms city wide. And don't think about bringing your common law live-in for a tour! No marriage license or proof of relational identity means you and your beloved will be sleeping on different floors of the hotel. Disobey the rules and your Chinese paramour will do 15 days of moral re-education and may be stripped of her job before she can disrobe for a night's sleep. All the while, outside your hotel men are throwing business cards into the open windows of taxis carrying foreigners and bear the pictures and phone numbers of a multinational array of VIP masseuses.  
The favorite fishing holes for the constabulary are the Muslim and African areas--often the same in GZ which has the country's oldest Mosque not burned down by Mao--and the residents there are routinely rousted and arrested if they lack a passport in their possession. A friend from Sierra Leone was beaten by police when he reached for a cell phone to call for his passport and the security bureau thought he was shooting video of the attack. The Africans will remain in stir until someone comes to show the police a valid visa. It is fast becoming an Arizona on the Pearl River and even legitimate travelers are being caught in the crossfire.
Meantime at GZ's Baiiyun airport, into which I flew in the other day, I had to literally push past several fake cabbies to get to a "legitimate" taxi stand. There, police were holding up the line inspecting the licenses of drivers in marked taxis. After 30-40 minutes I hopped in with a driver who tried to negotiate a price into town and nearly forced me out of the cab when I insisted he just use the meter. He later tried to pass me a fake 50 RMB note for change.
One the way to my counterfeit identification practice session I passed several Chinese paddy wagons (it does sound like an oxymoron) and armed police who had just shut down a night club frequented by Africans (enter chorus here) and middle eastern visitors. And no taxis were stopping to help those not hustled into the wagons, and not for fear of he armed public security forces, but because Africans ironically are regarded by area cabbies as untrustworthy.
Two weeks ago my passport, stolen in January, was used in the commission of a crime. We actually traced and identified the Chinese perpetrator who had forged a document and was dumb enough to fingerprint endorse a phony rental contract and take money for a property they did not own. I promptly reported the incident to local police who refused to take a report or give me a number the American Consulate could call to ask them to assist.  I called American Citizen services and they phoned the city heaquarters polce who dispatched a  foreign affairs officer who told the police to take a report.They took a report and left it at that: The thief is still at large. I was later told by three local expat businessmen who had had that a donation of some sort might have helped expedite my case and that I was assured no action would happen now that I had caused them consular troubles. What were those three evils again and who is going to enforce their departure? And is this the gambling they were talking about?
Yesterday Guangzhou followed Beijing's Olympic preparation lead and is only allowing cars to drive on days that corresponding to their license plates. Plates ending in odd numbers can only drive on odd days ( lately most of my days here are a bit odd, but don't count for anything) and even cars travel on even days. There is an easy fix for the illegal taxi drivers: steal a second set of plates and the "legitimate" taxi drivers are singing the Hallelujah chorus in lieu of the Asian Games theme song as the new law means they can avoid taxi stands, stay parked as though on break and extort high prices from Chinese and expats alike for ridiculously short rides. Ostensibly, this is to cut down emissions and thin traffic, but the strain on transit facilities and the ensuing crowds are already already enough to give you PTSD.
In the din and roar of our crowded metropolis--10% of the world's most populated cities are within a two hour drive of my apartment-- public transportation has been a euphemism for In-Vivo EQ testing: If you can survive a day of travel in Canton, one that includes rush hour, then you should qualify for early admission to a top MBA program, with guarantee of a CEO job upon graduation, in a less congested burg of your choice.
The sad finale to the story is the disappearance of local neighborhoods to make way for pricey high-rise apartment buildings. My old community, where on Saturdays the whole area would gather to watch a movie projected on to a tarp from the back of a van, is gone. The corner bicycle repair store and the cluttered "everything shop" that was no bigger than an upscale wardrobe closet vanished along with the proprietor who used to stock one or two items and a smile especially for me.The traffic jams and pedestrian work-arounds during the first real race of the Games--the one to make Guangzhou look more international and tourist friendly before November--has cost some confused locals their lives: One college student was decapitated by a passing truck while exiting a bus in a crowded area where the regular stop was forced to close to allow construction equipment moves.
(Photo from the Filination Blog )

The good news is that the inconvenience and xenophobic appearance of enforced changes has brought a taste of much needed, environmentally friendlier infrastructure additions. Guangzhou, especially the New City area, is looking more like upscale Shanghai and Beijing daily. And the transportation, while not perfect is actually a bit better. The new BRT now handles a world record 800,000+ riders a day and is more eco-friendly than before (48 cars worth of carbon emissions less--hey, it's something!) and viewed as such a success that the local transportation director was promoted to Party Secretary of Guangzhou.

If you are coming to Guangzhou during the games:

  • Bring copies of your passport and store them in multiple places in your personal effects
  • Hire a guide or translator (30-40 bucks a day) to help you navigate and to assist in case of an emergency-- I will publish a guide to services soon
  • Carry your Embassy's phone number at all times
  • Carry relevant medical information in both Chinese and English 
  • Pay with small bills and keep your money in the bank or in safe keeping at your hotel along with other valuables
  • Never hire a service, taxis especially, no matter what your rush
  • Bring plenty of medication if you suffer from medical issues and especially respiratory ones. Do not drink the tap water
  • Stay in 4-5 star hotels. Really. They are cheap (50-140 bucks a night) compared to comparable western digs and will have trained concierge services happy to assist you
  • Do not let this article deter you from coming to Canton. It is a large city with the problems inherent in urban areas. The people of Guangzhou are honest, friendly and thrilled about the coming games. Away from the tourist zones you will find amazing deals, souvenirs and memories to last a lifetime
  • Subscribe to a VPN before you come (I recommend Witopia or Strong) if you hope to access any of your social media sites, Google special services or favorite blogs back home
  • Read a more enjoyable ten essential things to bring here:

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