Number 2 Market

For the last 10 days we have declared chemical war on the cockroaches. We have abandoned the academic approach to killing them with books and have turned, instead, to products called RAID. The RAID aerosol is particularly satisfying as one sniff of its noxious white foam turns the roaches on their backs with their legs waving in the air. But best of all are the RAID Roach Motels. We are told that these are promoted in the USA with the strapline, ‘You check ‘em in, we check ‘em out.’ They are certainly equally popular in China, as Metro had sold out and we had to get Alice to order our supply online from Taobao. Although online ordering is still a bit beyond me, I did at least learn the Mandarin for cockroach, and can have a limited conversation about them in Chinese.

A roach motel is a small black plastic rectangle, with a raised centre pierced with several openings. Imagine a small, sinister version of Tracey Island. The roach is tempted inside by the delicious smell of the poisonous bait and then returns to its nest, where its loved ones eat it and then die. It has the advantage over the spray in that in theory you don’t have to dispose of the bodies, although we still seem to find quite a few – admittedly much smaller – roaches lying around on our kitchen and bathroom floor. But in principle I think we have solved the problem.

Yesterday I went with the friend who had recommended the motel solution, to explore Ningbo Number 2 market. This is a somewhat ramshackle affair on the outskirts of the city centre, near a huge hospital. It is essentially a big warehouse full of a dizzying array of cheap stuff – mostly made of plastic. You can find here very souvenir and trinket you have ever seen in any place in the world – from Eiffel Tower key rings to stuffed giant teddy bears. Piles of hair slides and false nails jostle with novelties and toys. I found it very depressing. It was evidence of how China has been lured into ruining its environment to make junk products – mostly for the west, but also to stimulate its own consumer market.

There were chinks of light. In contrast to the more useless items, was a whole alley of stalls selling bulk quantities of unwrapped teas – green , chrysanthemum, jasmine and so on –with teapots and cups. There was another section dedicated to calligraphic materials, and there you could buy calligraphy brushes, pencils and inks of every conceivable size and colour.

It was lunchtime when we arrived and I was heartened by the sight of the Chinese vendors who mostly ignored us because they were busy gathering in little groups around rice steamers and small stoves to prepare fresh crab and stir-fried vegetables. As I’ve so often noticed, generally the authenticity and quality of food is rarely compromised.

Leaving the market, I walked on into the city centre to meet a representative of a group of children’s arts clubs who wanted to talk to me about my experience of arts education and arts accreditation. It was a somewhat surreal experience to be discussing the importance of self-expression and the need for children to explore the creative process, after the experience of the market. On the other hand, nothing could better epitomise two sides of China and the desire of some people to move to a culture of ‘created in China’ away from the current default position of simply ‘made in China’.


Progress? Towards consumerism

I’m back in Ningbo, starting on my third and final year in China. How fast the time has gone! Only 10 months remain before we must dismantle our life here and vacate our flat. On my return everything seems much as it was, although entrance areas to the compound are now decorated with red lanterns to celebrate the mid-autumn festival this week.

The weather is grey and sullen, with storms threatening, very high humidity and temperatures around 30 degrees. Such conditions make the jet lag even more difficult to deal with, as do the cockroaches which seem to have taken hold. About two inches long, they squat unafraid in the middle of the floor when I wander into the sitting room, sleepless in the small hours. Fintan has developed a unique academic’s method of killing them. He drops a book from a great height on to the unsuspecting roach, which squashes it. Unfortunately it leaves a streak of blood on the back of the book, but in the tropics sacrifices have to be made.

The contrasts between rich and poor, old and new always strike me when I come back into China, because they are so extreme. They are exemplified by life outside two gates of our compound. On my first morning back I walked out of the east gate to the market and was relieved to find it still thriving, despite the inconvenience of crossing the now very busy new dual carriageway. Even Bicycle Man was still working away at his pitch on the corner of the new crossroads. Peasants squatted on the roadside selling fruit and vegetables, and there was the usual array of fish in bowls, freshly slaughtered pork or soon-to-be slaughtered chickens.

The view outside the south gate is very different. This is where there are two huge construction sites that epitomise new China. They are both surrounded by giant billboards which screen off the building works and cover up the temporary accommodation for the migrants who work on the sites. One site, opposite the gate is going to be another residential compound. The architects’ plan on display shows there will be three 20 storey blocks, one of which has begun to emerge from the foundations. Straplines in Chinglish and Mandarin in gold writing on the brown bill boards promote the delights of what will be ‘Kingsplace’, where you will be ‘leaving a mansion to live in the palace’. This seems to be an attempt to suggest that the new compound will have something of Versailles about it. Perhaps an odd aspiration for the People’s Republic of China, but urban chic in China is about emulating French history and fashion. Often advertisements for luxury goods carry images of the Eiffel Tower and France is the foreign country Chinese people would most like to visit.

On the other side of the road, the second site is still at the foundations stage and no superstructures have emerged as yet. Its façade of white billboards is a series of advertisements for clothing, as usual using western models. Chinese women almost never feature in fashion ads. The translations of the advertising copy are bizarre: ‘I wish my hug would be the warmest one among your various clothes’ is a typical example. It seems that the presence of English language and the western models are enough to sell the commercial concept of the ‘Smart Plaza’ as it will be called.

I don’t think we will be here long enough to see the completed delights of Kingsplace or Smart Plaza, but will have to make do with ‘In City’, the shopping mall which opened in December 2012, just 100 metres away. We went back there yesterday and it is fascinating to see how the mall is being used. The food outlets are still the most popular, but the fashion retailers and household stores such as Muji and Zara Home are attracting more customers, although very few seem to actually buy anything in the store. The outlets are shop windows which give new Chinese consumers the experience of unfamiliar products. They then go home and order stuff cheaply on line. The flotation of Alibaba, the online platform for e-commerce in China, is set to be the biggest stock market flotation in history. Outside the south gate we watch how aspiration is sparked, to oil the wheels of global capitalism. Meanwhile, outside the east gate, traditional rural exchange and food distribution through a low income economy continues much as it must have done for decades.