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. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-china-29119121 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.