Author's Note: As China is becoming increasingly important internationally, with a rise in its economic and political power, in some foreign eyes China has also become synonymous with an ambiguous monolithic bloc. However, China’s rise consists of many different elements and behind each of these elements is a story. This series tries to narrate experiences in different, contrasting places along a single journey in China. It will start in Chongqing and follow the Yangtze River down to the coastal cities of Shanghai and Hangzhou.
Shanghai Photo: Matt Hackler
The final destination of this guided Yangtze trip was the city of Yichang in Hubei province. Like many other important trading cities during the end of the Qing era, Yichang was opened for foreign trade in 1870s by the British. Nowadays, Yichang is most famous for the Three Gorges Dam, which is a one-hour car ride from the city centre. The city is the final destination for most of the tourist ships coming from Chongqing.
When I finally arrived at the huge train station of Yichang, I had to prepare myself again for a long ride. In fact, I was surprised that it would only take me around eight hours to get to Shanghai, after all Shanghai is roughly 1200 kilometers away.
China’s train system is now vastly developed and very modern. They are so good (cost-effective) that they have become an important item on many countries shopping list.
Although China’s modern railroad system is expanding very fast, China’s railroads don't just run modern bullet trains. Compared to those, the slower trains normally need more than double the time to reach a destination. Between the very slow models and the very fast ones, there are the so-called dongche, which travel on intermediate speed.
Travelling down to Shanghai can be summarized as another experience of China’s vast dimensions. While sitting in the train, I passed all important Yangtze river cities. Wuhan, Nanjing, Yangzhou and Wuxi. The last one is known as one of China’s most important economic boom towns.
After arriving at the Shanghai Hongqiao train station, I felt a pleasant feeling of welcome. I now have been living in Beijing for several years, but the southern region of Shanghai and Zhejiang still bring back good memories for me.
China’s local differences became amazingly sharp at that short moment. The Beijing accent is very similar to the standardized mandarin or putonghua, but people in Shanghai are not understandable by outsiders, when they talk in their native tongue. Even when people in the south talk putonghua, they have a different swing in their voice than people in Beijing. I lived some time in Zhejiang province and after all these years, I have much appreciation for this southern swing.
It became late when I arrived at the central business and tourist location, and probably the most well-known street in Shanghai – the famous as well as infamous Nanjing Road. I met an old friend, a Hunan native, who had found a job in a Japanese company in Shanghai.
Enjoying dinner at a small side street close to the Huangpu river, he told me that although the sometimes not very harmonious relations between Japan and China, the Japanese diaspora in China is one of the biggest in the world. He goes on to state that Shanghai hosts the biggest expat Japanese group in China. Although the numbers recently declined, the city is still home to about 50,000 Japanese – more than in New York City.
One reason for that is of course business. Many Japanese companies have their China headquarters based in Shanghai and of these companies send their branch workers to Shanghai, while providing benefits for the workers family.
Another reason is the so called “Shanghai Dream”, which means that the Japanese come to Shanghai to learn Chinese as a second language, which is an important job qualification. Once they mastered the language they usually return to Japan. However, some stay in Shanghai and pursue their own businesses - many of them open restaurants.
After only one day’s stay over in Shanghai, I departed for Hangzhou, the capital city of China’s eastern Zhejiang province.
A friend of mine, Edison, picked me up at the train station. Six years ago he came to Zhejiang province. We met while studying Chinese at the same school in Ningbo. Some three years later he finally settled in the capital of the coastal province. Leaving the Netherlands for China was not an easy decision, he said, but the business opportunities in China are just great. He started his Zhejiang business career with selling locally produced commodities to Europe.
Many small and medium sized businesses are located in Zhejiang, it is one of the main manufacturing hubs for cheap commodities. The most visible, but maybe underrated example for Zhejiang’s export power were the notorious Vuvuzelas, famously used during the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. 90% of it came from China and many of them were produced in the cities of Yiwu or Ninghai in Zhejiang.
Zhejiang’s other business flagship is the Alibaba Empire founded by the Hangzhou native Jack Ma in 1999. The Alibaba Group mostly provides consumer-to-consumer services, among it the most profitable is the online shopping website Taobao. In 2014, Alibaba made headlines with the biggest initial public offering in the US history.
Edison’s initial business was so successful that he proceeded with his next step – opening a fusion restaurant at the southern shore of the Qiantang river, just several hundred meters next to the Alibaba headquarters. In this new developmental area start up businesses are flourishing, and Edison’s restaurant is serving their employees.
Now married to a Chinese woman, he doesn’t think of returning to his home country. “Why should I?” he quipped. “My restaurant is one of the best in this area and everything I need I can find here.”
On the way back to Beijing, I thought about the Japanese who have a Shanghai Dream. I don’t know if Edison ever heard about it, but, in a way, he has now realized his Hangzhou Dream.