China heads to the beach

This is part of an exclusive, copyrighted series by British novelist Jonathan Chandler, “Lowdown on the Middle Kingdom.” For permission to publish elsewhere, contact the author at jonathan at jagchandler dot com.

I took an exploratory trip to Qingdao, (my new home for the next two years), a staggeringly huge beach side mega-city (China doesn’t do small much) with its world-famed brewery and its German Concession Port history, sprawling along the Yellow Sea on the southern side of the Shandong Peninsula opposite Korea.

It is a massive space-age Fort Lauderdale, Bournemouth or Monte Carlo.
It is shockingly wealthy with brand new fancy condominiums stretching as far as the eye can see and for 50 kilometers cars can crawl along the built-up coastline.

Thirty years ago, it was a forgotten sidebar of colonial history.
Now, like beach sites all over the world it is completely developed.
But this city is rich, very rich. Built for private automobiles whose owners employ staff to do the chores, there are, eerily, no conveniences stores or shops of any description outside downtown – just endless ranks of hotels, serviced apartments and private houses.

On a broiling hot Sunday in late July as I glimpse the ocean excitedly, I am puzzled. Where’s the sparkling azure blue, the golden sands, the bouncing beach balls, the surfers? All I can see is a dark shroud over the area from about thirty meters out in the shallow tidal flat and streaks of snow-pale skin; it is China at the beach on Sunday.

Ren shan ren hai – the Chinese have a word for this kind of mass human assembly – “people mountain people sea.”

Well the latter part was definitely on the nailgun. The uniform black-mopped heads atop ivory torsos stretch from way out in the motionless ocean (where they stood en mobbe halfway immersed – no room for swimming here), back across the invisible sand to spill all over the road. Bathing-suited families (very Un-Confucian with regard to maidenly modesty) lap against the never-ending stream of spanking new Porsche Cayennes, Lexux SUVs, Range Rovers, Cadillac 4WD’s. jamming the coastal strip.

The faces are uniformly joyful, ecstatic with the freedom that Ma Ocean always brings: families, jaw-breaking smiles and big cars.
This was Summer hols for the Chinese, and they are loving it.

I should like to have beamed over some World Bank economists and Wall Street guys from their Hamptons Summer houses, or from their villas in Toscana – their Gucci and Armani man-thongs would be getting all a-twist at this scene, which does not compute with their still prevailing ideas of a China toiling away in sweatshops, building their fat bonuses.

But here — here the sheer pleasure of these folks is infectiously palpable; and why not? The diligent, hard-working Chinese certainly deserve it after all their effort.

This is the Chinese Dream. I have found the source. And they are just like the rest of us – they work very, very hard all year, have Summer hols with their kids at the beach, and drive half-naked back to the rented condo in discombobulatingly expensive and gigantic luxury gas-guzzlers (The Chinese do seem to like their cars large…something compensatory).

China never fails to shock and awe.

This is high beach livin’ — plenty of Japanese and Korean tourists, too, flocking over for what once were cheap vacations across the Yellow Sea in Costa Del Tao. And no longer is it with the RMB tangoing up the currency ratings. I spotted foreign invested hotels — Hilton, Sheraton, Holiday Inn, Intercontinetal, Shangri-la, Regency even Best Westerns.

Saturday evening drinks were quaffed at sunset at the Qingdao International Sailing Club. Established since 1953, it is reputedly the “oldest yacht club in China,” assuming that means the new China — well not the new one, but the old new one — the revolutionary people’s one of 1949. There you can see Kiwi and Oz type surfing instructors, with frothy moustaches and sun-streaked hair, alongside stunning beauties in Jimmy Choos and Armani. The drinks were fresh-brewed Tsingdao beer and the atmosphere international beach town.

But modern-day China is full of contradictions. These days we hear nothing about socialism or capitalism with a Chinese face. What we hear now is that the PRC is actually a re-incarnated, re-tooled, renovated 3,000-year-old Confucian-Taoist society that will prevail globally throughout the 21st century, and be the model for the developing and undeveloped world.

The Tao – “The Way that can be named is not the Eternal Way. The Name that can be named is not the eternal Name.”

This is the mutability, ever-yielding, adapting reality that Lao Tsu posited in his Tao De Ching. But recent darker-than-the-blackest-of-moonless-night headlines indicate the Tao might be a slippage in the time-space multiverses.

Reports of mentally-disabled people — retarded or autistic, anyway –misunderstood, uncared for, rejected; some very young, being herded up and sold to work as slaves in brick kiln factories nearby in Qingdao’s Shandong Province. The poor souls were kept in sub-human conditions, fed scraps, whipped and used till they dropped and were discarded. After Shandong closed them down, they moved to Hubei and other poorer provinces.

Modern China is on the stratospheric rise to global superiority, but it has a few wrinkles to iron out on the way.

© 2009

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