Posts Tagged ‘China’

China’s Ghost Cities

Tuesday, November 5th, 2013

A few people have asked me since I’ve been back whether I saw any of China’s “ghost cities” while I was there. I have usually responded that there are indeed droves of empty condos but the existence of multitudes of “ghost cities” sounds to me like an exaggeration.

I came across this 60 Minutes feature ( on this issue, and as it turns out the city (Zhengzhou) Lesley Stahl goes to is the one I lived in during my 1st year in China. She pronounces it incorrectly – it sounds more like “(hard j) Jung Joe”, but regardless I recognize some of the sights.

Anyway, a few quick thoughts:

– When she says “there’s miles…and miles…and miles of empty apartments”, well, many of those buildings are not completely empty. It is certainly true that many are mostly empty – often to an absurd extent – but she makes it seem like they are almost just sitting there not even open for business. Not the case. In most cases these are just recently constructed and a low percentage of the condos have actually been bought, though I’m not saying that’s about to change. But yes admittedly one of those long stretches of mostly empty apartments was very near where I lived, and we (other foreign teachers and I) would joke about the uninhabited “city within the city.”

– I thought it was very misleading around the 8:00 mark to use Shanghai as the base for how many more times purchasing an apartment costs than the average resident’s annual salary. Without even checking the math on this comparison – and certainly buying a condo is way too expensive for a huge segment of the population – this is like discussing how expensive housing is for average Americans and using housing in Manhattan as the comparison. In fact it’s probably even more skewed. Shanghai is universally regarded across China as an amazing city but literally impossible to buy housing in unless you are rich. Suzhou (where I lived my 2nd year in China) is just a 30-minute train ride from Shanghai and is itself one the 50 most populated cities in the world, however housing there is much less expensive. Travel further inland and the prices continue to drop in most locales. Once again though, this is not to say that buying a condo is realistic for all the millions of construction workers, maintenance men, etc.

– I found the empty shopping mall bit amusing (and most likely true in regards to the fake signage). However, malls are everywhere in Chinese cities, and while many of them are seemingly too ornate compared to what I would guess their actual revenue to be, there are customers in most of them. Certainly there are examples of bankrupt malls, but some of the most popular malls are so flooded with customers that it is easy to see why enterprising businessmen would build yet another mall in the hopes that it becomes a new hotspot.

I’ll close with this thought: Construction is omnipresent in Chinese cities. You hear shocking statistics of how many projects are currently underway in various cities and funny trivia such as “there are more cranes in China than in any other country in the world.”

Right now, I would not buy a Chinese condo. (This line of thinking is not without its drawbacks, however, as virtually any Chinese girl’s family views ownership (or plans of ownership) of a condo as priority #1.) I think the prices are bound to drop (in these over-developed areas at least) as the reality continues to set in that the units are not going to be bought any time soon at the advertised prices.

However, consider for a minute what might happen if the government were to lift the one-child policy completely (currently one must pay a hefty fine when in violation of this decree): sure it would take a while for the effects to be realized, but there would be a hell of a lot of new Chinese babies on the way who would need a place to live 25 years down the road. I’d say it is at least plausible that the government is simply preparing for this eventual societal expansion.

I’m not sure what the point of this e-mail is, but if you’ve read this far then I guess it’s too late.

Touch down in China town

Thursday, March 3rd, 2011

Thirteen has always been a significant number for me and it has now been thirteen days and change since Grace, sitting in the front seat of the taxi-van that drove us to my apartment from the Zhengzhou airport, said “We’re here.” Grace is a very friendly, attractive Chinese native who also teaches English (she speaks quite well) at our school, and I remember getting out of the backseat in denial that we were really “here.” After all, the stairwell she was directing me toward was damp, dark, and dirty, and I wasn’t quite ready to accept that this was where I was actually going to be coming home to for an entire year.

Ah how my perspective has changed. My apartment is actually quite nice (at least by my recent standards of living), and it even has a laundry “hall” in the back with a washing machine and two clotheslines for drying. But no one cares about that (and if you do, then I suggest you come and stay with me for a bit and then you can tell me what you think of my new digs). What about China, or, more specifically, Zhengzhou?

The photo to the left, of Erqi Memorial Tower in downtown’s main square, was captured with my iPhone, which I successfully unlocked last night after days of searching for Wi-Fi hotspots until a network named “Papa John’s” popped up as I was wandering through the shopping mall that also houses the local Wal-Mart. And yes, that would be the same “Papa’s in the House” Papa John’s as exists stateside, except this location may be the only one in town, was virtually empty, offers dishes such as chicken and corn pizza, and was located on the top (5th) floor of a mall comprised almost exclusively of apparel vendors save for the two American franchises mentioned herein.

My teaching schedule at the Henan College of Finance and Taxation is as follows: Mon. 8 a.m.-noon, Weds. 8 a.m.-noon, Thurs. 2 p.m.-6 p.m., Fri. 8 a.m.-noon, and Sat. 2 p.m.-6 p.m. I have four different sections of students that I rotate between, each numbering 25-40 students, and no I have not learned all of their names yet despite being almost two weeks into the semester. But hey, I arrived late on Friday night, Feb. 18, tired as can be, only to find out I was expected to give a lecture at 8 a.m. Monday morning and nobody had a syllabus or even a textbook ready for my class as the recruiter and I had discussed, so I think my performance in the classroom has been adequate thus far. It can be quite distracting when students are talking to each other instead of listening to me while I stand and speak in front of the entire class, but given some of my antics in school as a young buck I probably deserve much worse.

The award for “most shocking difference compared to back home” that I have noticed thus far has got to go to the accepted standard (or lack thereof) of locations for urination and defecation by those three years of age and under. People driving their cars and motorbikes on the sidewalks would probably have finished a closer second had I not gotten somewhat used to it in Thailand.

But yeah, so…the marshmallow babies: this nickname arises from their uniformly rotund appearance, which is actually quite cute, given that they are not so much fat as decked out in multiple layers (which results in very round figures waddling about), until you find yourself behind one and you do a double-take when you think you notice an ass-crack where the seat of the pants should be. Your second inspection confirms that there is indeed a massive rip right down the center of the garment despite the fact that it is chilly enough to otherwise warrant multiple layers. Why subject one’s offspring to gusts of cold air right up the tailpipe?

Because who wants to deal with dirty diapers, silly? When baby has to go, he just stops, squats, and takes care of business on the sidewalk. It is truly a sight to behold the first time you witness it happening in front of you. Oh, and watch your step.

Last Friday my “boss” invited me and the other foreign teacher (a young woman from Florida named Alicia) out to dinner, and my American colleague warned me ahead of time that this evening would probably revolve more around boozing than eating. She had the scoop on this function because, while it was essentially a “welcome dinner” for me, it was her second rodeo since she had arrived at the start of the fall semester last October. While there certainly was some delicious food that adorned the “lazy susan” at which about nine of us dined, her warning was not unwarranted. My “boss” is a man who speaks no English (except for “Alicia, drink!”, which he learned at her initial welcome dinner in a blatant attempt to get the Caucasian female drunk, and she said she even ended up puking in the bathroom before the dinner was over that night), and every time he wanted to propose a toast to me or anyone else, he would just rattle off some Chinese and then either Grace or the other bilingual native teacher would translate. He toasted to my “health,” and my “wealth,” and my “good luck,” and, well you get the point. By the way, these were shots of a 56% alcohol substance named “baijiu.” While I never had to make intimate contact with the porcelain gods, we were good and drunk by the time we left the restaurant. Bossman was apparently unconcerned with the prospect that we both had class the next day (and at 8 a.m. in Alicia’s case).

Seeing as how I didn’t have to get up nearly as early, I wandered across the street to a “pool hall” named “Free Balls.” In spite of the strange moniker, the mere presence of English letters on the sign instead of Chinese characters had me abuzz at the prospect that there might be some other English-speakers inside. I descended two flights of stairs only to enter a smoky room with one empty pool table in view. As I navigated the fumes, I saw two large rectangular bar-style tables with Chinese people seated around them and I tried to go lean against a wall to avoid attracting the inevitable attention that comes with being the only white person in the room. I did not make it that far.

Soon I was being challenged to beer-chugging contests by many of the males (I dominated), and then the emcee pulled me up on stage to dance to the Chinese music they were listening to. Oddly enough all of the males were sitting at one of the two tables and all of the females were sitting at the other one. We were soon playing a game, even though I did not know it at the time, in which a cup is passed around each table and the male who has the cup when the emcee cuts off the music has to come up to the stage and carry around on his shoulder whichever female ended up with the other cup. In what I’m sure was a stroke of pure chance, the music stopped when the cup was in my hands and I was dragged up to the stage by several excited onlookers. Before lifting the girl over my right shoulder I made a feeble attempt to point to the splint on my left forearm, but it was already settled and away we twirled.

Despite the fact that I was unable to make any real conversation with anyone once the novelty of my presence had worn off, the hospitality was truly remarkable and they wouldn’t even let me pay for my drinks when I finally decided to stumble home. I guess the Chinese often try to pay for your “first time” when you are in their country, because I ate lunch with one of my students today and he also refused to let me pay “just for the first time.”

Saturday night’s encore was equally raucous. After my classes were finished at 6 p.m., we started pre-gaming with some store-bought baijiu and drinking games. The wrecking crew for the evening included Alicia and I, her friend who is staying with her for two months, another foreign teacher we had met who works at our college’s other campus, another teacher she knew, and a young college-aged Chinese guy who speaks English and had approached us on the street one day. We headed first to V8 Club for a couple of drinks and some people-watching, but before long we were in a pair of taxis and headed to some other pulsating nightclub. It was here that members of our party started taking shots with random Chinese people who wanted to meet Americans, getting drunk, and dancing on tables before wandering home at various hours in the 3:30-6:00 a.m. range. At 11:30 on Sunday, Alicia, her friend, and I were scheduled to eat lunch with (and in my case, meet) the lady who signs our checks. I’m holding out hope that I mostly made sense in conversation over that hangover-zapping meal.

I mentioned the splint on my wrist in that little recap. For anyone who doesn’t know, I did shatter my wrist in a scooter accident (I was run over by a drunk driver on Jan. 29) and I had surgery on February 3. It is recovering well and obviously I am just thankful and very lucky that my injuries were not drastically worse. Rehab can be frustrating – I still don’t have very much range of motion in terms of bending my wrist downwards (or “flexion” as the doctors say) – but I am being diligent in my rehab so hopefully it will continue to improve.

That’s about all I’ve got for today. I’ve been too busy so far to really put any serious thought into learning Chinese, but I’ve got “hello, thank you, no, 0, 1, 2,” and a couple of other basics down. While this city may not be as “happening” or attuned to English speakers as Beijing or even Bangkok, I am nonetheless optimistic about the potential ways I can spend my time here over the course of this year improving my health financially, physically, mentally, and otherwise. I can’t promise any frequency of writing; after all I’ve never prepared a course syllabus for 125 students before, but this will be the place I post any “travelogues” or similar pieces. I hope we can all stay in touch with e-mail, Skype, and the rest. Seeing as how the Chinese New Year celebrations were coming to a close right as I arrived, I wish you all good fortune in the Year of the Rabbit!

Signing off,