People and commerce in China

It was 3:30 PM and raining in Shanghai when we arrived. My daughter and her husband met us at the Pudong Airport. Katy, my granddaughter, spotted them first and said, “Oh, my God, Mother’s gone blond!” Clare’s hair was colored dark blond. There were hugs all around.

The taxi drove at high speed through brownish mist and rain on crowded freeways past miles of high rise apartment buildings to the city streets of shanghai. The city was a beehive of activity. There was lots of traffic; cars, trucks, mopeds, bicycles, tricycles carrying huge bundles of packages or piled high with all kinds of goods, construction materials and refuse. There were throngs of people on the streets, bustling along the sidewalks carrying bags of purchases from the multitude of small shops and markets, darting across streets, dodging vehicles.  There were elegantly groomed dogs on leashes. Young women were dressed stylishly, usually wearing spike heals and short skirts or skin tight pants. It was striking to see that there were no overweight people. In China almost all, even older people, are pencil thin. I saw few children.

Clare and her husband Jason had moved into their apartment just 2 days before we arrived. They were new to Shanghai; they had been living in Guangzhou for a year and a half. The apartment was on the seventh floor of a high rise in the French Concession area where the streets are lined with trees. The apartment is bright, modern and sparsely furnished. It has 2 bedrooms and 2 bathrooms and a balcony at either end with sliding glass doors. I spent a lot of time on the balconies, watching the activity below: on one side a delivery company

The delivery company loading scooters

and on the other construction of a building terrace.

The terrace next door being cemented

The second day Katy and I went to the museum. The bronzes and ceramics were amazing. I took more pictures than I can show here. Here are a few of the objects I saw.

A bronze dog, thousands of years old

I’m sorry,

A heard of cattle on the lid of an urn

I neglected to note their title or period.

Ceramic camel with rider

An aristocratic lady -- this on is very old

A ceramic warrior

Ceramic horse -- one of many beautiful examples

I got to see more of central Shanghai with its modern architecture and tall buildings. The air was thick with smog and from time to time a light rain fell. My eyes stung. The colors of the cityscape were muted neutrals punctuated by splashes of red. Sometimes the red was the flag of China,

The flag of China

sometimes it was the laundry hung from the apartment balconies.

Laundry is hung out on balconies

The next day we all went to Zhujiajiao, an ancient water town suburb of Shanghai.


This was the only day I saw sunshine. Zhujiajiao was a pretty town on a river with houses, pagodas, tea rooms and shops along the water and many bridges and canals lined with little vendors.

People shop, dogs hunt along the crowded canals

There were gondola like boats, some for rent, some carrying goods or picking up garbage along the river and canals.

A canal boat picking up refuse

You pay an entrance fee to go into the town.

We wandered around crowded alleys of shops,

Shopping alley

walked along some of the canals and had lunch in a tea room where we had a light meal of vegetables (probably lily leaves) with chopped tofu, some delicately flavored cucumber, and stir fried lily bulbs.

Where we had lunch

That was one of the few meals I enjoyed while I was in China. In general I found the food unpleasant, and the cooking smells as we passed street food venders were not enticing.

Luncheon seranade

When we came back to the apartment Jason and I went out on the streets of Shanghai to grocery shop. As I thought, China is a dangerous place. Street crossings are risky. Bicycles and mopeds are everywhere and do not stop for traffic signs or lights or pedestrians; they shoot down the roads as fast as cars.

Note the pedestrians dodging cars and mopeds

We went to a “wet market” where we shopped for vegetables. There were many individual venders with tables piled with colorful fresh vegetables some of which I couldn’t identify. Others were selling live fish that were swimming in plastic tubs, clams, squid, crayfish, mussels, meat, bacon, eggs, a variety of beans, grains and corn, and leaves and roots that were being ground for customers to make medicinal teas.

The highlights of the rest of the trip were:

The Yuyuan Gardens in Shanghai which were astonishing.

Me at the gardens

They were a connected network of winding paths and bridges over pools filled with huge goldfish which followed the crowds hoping to be fed.

Carp and reflections of a bridge

There were multiple pagodas and ancient tea houses, very few flowers even though there was a courtyard labeled “Garden of 1000 Flowers.”

Katy in the gardens

The rooftops were decorated with animal and bird figures and military groups with horses and spears.

Roof ornament at the gardens

And on the wall surrounding the garden I found the dragon of my monotype (the one I did from a photo my mother took in China — I had no idea where).

Dragon on the wall -- original of my monotype

It was oppressively hot and, like everywhere in China, packed with people.

Hangzhou. We took the bullet train and stayed over night. It rained hot rain the whole time we were there.

Buddha laughing in the rain

We cooled off on a river boat trip to an island on the lake there where there were pagodas, water lilies, fast food venders and souvenir stalls and little bridges.

We crossed the lake on one like this

It was packed with people.

blowing bubbles on the island

We also went to the silk museum, where I was struck by the fact that fashion in China was pretty much the same over thousands of years until the 20th Century and western influence.

The west influences fashion

The circus. This was an acrobatic show where people did all sorts of balancing and jumping tricks and stunts with mopeds. There was a bit of aerial display, but less than I had expected. That was not really my sort of thing, but Katy, who had taken lessons in gymnastics and tumbling, enjoyed it. I found the music far too loud for comfort, but then, I am almost 80.

What was my overall impression of the trip? I was glad to be with my family, and to see that my daughter had coped well with a difficult place. I enjoyed traveling again with my granddaughter. There were places and things in China of great beauty.

But I found China close to my idea of what the end of humanity will be like. It was crowded; packed with people everywhere. It was polluted and hot. The water is dangerously undrinkable. My daughter warned me not to brush my teeth with it, and to be sure to keep my mouth closed when washing my hair. The internet is unusable because of government bans on almost everything — news, blogs (all of them) social networking of any kind. Police and the police state are ever-present. Though traffic is chaotic and noisy — drivers blow their horns constantly — there is a feeling of regimentation in the crowds.

A pre work pep-talk, a common practice in China

China has a superficial overlay of western style consumerism; capitalism has been embraced with oppressive enthusiasm, but, from conversations with my daughter, I believe that conformity to a rigid social order and a tradition of obedience to authority (both to rulers and in family structure) is the core of the Chinese culture.

Jerry met me at the airport with a pink rose. We drove home to Lummi where the air was clear, the trees and fields green, the ocean sparkling. I got in the shower and stayed for a long time, washing China away.

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25 Responses to China

  1. Marja-Leena says:

    Good that you had family there to make the experience a relatively good one. I’d love to mostly see the evidences of their ancient art and culture but the reports of crowds and heat and pollution keep me uninterested. Good for you on taking it on and thanks for sharing your many photos.

  2. Darlene says:

    I’m glad that you are safely back home and sorry the heat was oppressive. It must have been nice to see your daughter and to visit ancient places. I would love to see the old China, but will never do so now. Therefore, your excellent photos were most welcome.

    Your Katy is very pretty. Now you can both catch up and relax after your tiring trip.

  3. Ernestine says:

    Thank you for sharing and so happy you are safely home
    You have memories and was nice to visit you daughter and take
    your granddaughter – she is beautiful.
    Take care
    I am forwarding this to my son who lives part of the year in Thailand and
    is planning a trip to China soon.

  4. Jan says:

    Excellent post, fascinating country. It also confirms my beliefs that I would rather read about it than do it. Your experiences are very like my friends who have visited there, except one couple who were among the early visitors in the early 80’s. They were stared at wherever they went because westerners were so rare at that time.
    Interesting observation that this is what the end of humanity will be like.

  5. dale says:

    glad to have you back!

    I grieve for China, which I always think of as the real heartland of civilization. I don’t know how it will ever recover from having so many people in it — I don’t think it will. And you’re right, it’s the future staring us in the face.

  6. Betty says:

    Your photos are beautiful as always. Their art is wonderful. You had the place nailed before you got on the plane. Glad you survived it and you sure don’t look like you are almost 80! and to have a guy greet you with a rose, Hey! that’s living!
    take care,

  7. This is a WONDERFUL post. Thankyou. I loved your photos and appreciated the text as much. And yes, too many people, heat, pollution and noise are a kind of hell for me too.

  8. Rain says:

    That was very interesting. My interest in spending time in big cities is pretty sparse but once in awhile I do it and always feel as you described– relieved to get back to more space even though our cities are not nearly as crowded. We were in the Chinese garden in Portland recently and it had (in a one block space), a lot of that same feel from your garden photos, but then they said expert Chinese gardeners had created it.

  9. Duchess says:

    I love the pictures, but some of them are not loading properly for me… I don’t know if anyone else is having that problem. I’d really like to see the original of the dragon print, but that is one of the ones that isn’t working.

  10. Loved reading this. My FIL has been to China several times and his observations are very similar to yours. I would love the photography adventures though ….

  11. Hattie says:

    One way people deal with living with Asian congestion is by confining their movements to very small areas. They may live within a very short distance of their homes in apartments provided by their employers. They socialize mostly with family and school or work associates and more or less ignore the existence of others. A friend of mine who spent a year in a Buddhist retreat in Japan said she never ventured out beyond a short walking distance of where she lived.
    A friend of mine who was in Thailand and Cambodia recently remarked on the hideous air pollution, which extends far into rural areas, to which was added widespread poverty in parts of Thailand and Cambodia. And just about everyone was small and thin, no doubt due to lack of nutrients for optimum growth in childhood. It is sad and the fate of most.
    Well, as my mother once put it, all those people had all those children!
    Anyway, I am glad you are back and OK. I will take a hit of pure Hawaiian air now and wish the world were a cleaner and less crowded place.

  12. Brighid says:

    As ever your take on China was interesting, and the pictures informative. I don’t do well in cities, too many people, too much smog…etc. I hated my last trip to a big city, it was noisy, dirty, and you couldn’t open a window in the top of the Hard Rock. Not for me. Glad your home safe and sound.

  13. Lucy says:

    Excellent post. You probably got a clearer view of things staying with family who were living there than if you’d gone on an organised tour.

    The museum pieces are interesting; the urn lid with the cattle on it is specially striking, very fresh and alive.

    Katy looks lovely – I like the idea of grandparents and grandchildren travelling together. What are your daughter and son-in-law doing in China? I expect you’ve said somewhere but I’ve missed it.

  14. Tabor says:

    China is due for some major changes because the people are capitalistic by nature. The country has poverty problems and environmental problems and this will reach a climax at some time as the country cannot keep a lid on these dynamic people. Surprised that you did not see the plethora of little fat boys (the single child) that my husband saw in restaurants when he was there. Great photos for such a short trip. Your comment on stinging eyes reminded me of how the air hurt my eyes on my trip years ago to Taiwan and the layer of dirt on my collar at the end of every day.

  15. Gorgeous photos, but I’m thinking I may be too crowd-averse to go to China.

  16. annie says:

    What a great post. Is Honk Kong like that too?

  17. IslandCAT2u says:

    Anne – thank you so much for the pictures and taking the time to share your observations about China with us. I felt like I was almost there! How amazing that you found your Mother’s dragon!! When I saw your painting, I didn’t realize that it was from an old photo. I think I would have enjoyed the gardens and museums – disappointed to hear about the food (I trust you on this.)

    I tend to get quite claustrophobic, so China moves to the end of “my list!”

  18. maria says:

    Great to hear you are back home, in the clear, so to speak. I felt a sense of claustrophobia in your account of China, confirming much of the reasons I would never want to go visit just for fun there. I loved your observation about how this place confirms your vision of “the end of humanity,” because in my imagination that is what I liken it to.

  19. wisewebwoman says:

    Lovely post and pics, Anne, you have such a great eye and great story telling. I had the opp to go to China once and refused as crowds make me ill and the air there would have had me huffing and coughing so badly, plus I would have had to travel around teaching software. My sense of adventure died when confronted with China.
    I agree with you, this is the future of our planet and of course China owns all our a***s.

  20. zuleme says:

    a great post, thank you for all the photos. I have no wish to go to China, and I am afraid you are right about it being the future of humanity. Kind of like Bladerunner.

  21. pauline says:

    Like Jan there are some places I’d rather read about than visit though it sounds as though you found some things of interest there. Reading here is close to experiencing – thanks for the journey!

  22. Mage B says:

    I’m so glad you went, glad you took us with you, and so sad about the food and press of people. Thank you for the photographs even without the dynasties.

  23. Freda says:

    It all looks fascinating, and btw you look great in the picture on the balcony/terrace. It all takes such a lot of energy so it must be good to be back home and able to unwind. Thanks for sharing.

  24. Jean says:

    I’ve been thinking a lot about what you wrote here. You obviously saw all the same places in and around Shanghai that I saw two years ago and your reaction is very much what I thought mine would be – but it wasn’t; I surprised myself by being a lot less appalled than I expected.

    I wonder why? I can think of a couple of possible reasons: I’d been working for a couple of years with the Chinese people who were my hosts in Shanghai and had spent time with them in London, so my experience of the place was filtered through both their efforts to take some of the strain of strangeness and my consolidated and largely positive feelings about them. Also, I live in London, which is pretty crowded, crazy and polluted, though much less so than Shanghai – not on a clean, green island. So much less of a shock to the system.

    As so often, the immediacy and honesty with which you share your impressions made reading them a very rich experience. I hope you’re feeling rested and spacious after some time at home.

  25. Shell a Black says:

    Anne, you are a marvel. I felt like I was right there with you in the crowded, hot
    Rain, smelling the sea smells rank and earthy, taking in fowl air, yet fascinated,
    Capturing a moment here and there that might bring relief, grateful for the experience yet longing for home. So want to visit you in Bellingham. Trying. I know it was good to get home where life is good and where there is love and freedom. So much we take for granted, yes? I believe we will see each other soon. I send you A hug.

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