The Wild East
The snow which fell a week or so back has yet to melt completely and the winds are still bitter in Qingdao.
This ultra-wealthy city where two-wheels are banned and all the cars are brand new is a Party town.
Not that kind of party unfortunately.
Thus, the new Year of the Metal or White or Golden Tiger came in with but a few muted fireworks.
The changes that have been wrought on this formerly quiet German concession seaside town are pole-axing.
In less than 20 years its population has grown from under a million to nearly nine million. It’s rich and gleaming. There aren’t any beggars and it seems everyone has a brand new building to live in. Yet there’s no one about. You rarely see more than a handful of people at a bus stop and down by the freezing ocean but a few retired high officials stroll in pairs doing their exercises along the empty shore.
What you see mostly are big black shiny cars, brand-new 4X4 Cadillacs, Porsches and Lexi.
For this seaside town, legendary for pre-revolutionary decadence, where Noel Coward would snort off hangovers with Chiang Kai-shek and the Soong girls at the Granite Mansion overlooking the pines and rocks of Beach Number 2, is rumored to be the playground of the highest of the high. The ocean resort where “xiao tai-tai”, ( “little wives” – a euphemism for take a guess), are kept pampered and secreted away in former German villas under avenues of cherry blossom.
Qingdao is discreet. Sometimes it feels a little too discreet. There is a strange absence of life. It becomes apparent after six months that nothing here is actually very real. It is a display city, silently controlled and full of deserted mammoth civic and residential construction projects: arenas, stadia, museums, academies, high rises.
Yet where are the multitudes, the “ren shan ren hai” – people mountain people sea?
The answer given is they come in the Summer.
But the contrast is too abrupt between jammed July and silent winter.
A possible explanation lies in its meteoric rise from smallish city (by Chinese standards) to metropolis with a skyline to match Shanghai’s Pudong-side.
The city was the site of the Olympic sailing events and was massively overbuilt and over-roaded in order to showcase the de luxe achievements of the Chinese capitalist revolution.
It appears that the Olympics rolled into the spanking new town and then after a mere three weeks moved on. The infrastructure investment worked and the citizens who thronged in on social engineering orders have all been housed in pleasant high-rise condos. But the international element has gone, the restaurants along the concrete ocean walkway and the Olympic marina are boarded up; the hotels are mostly empty and discarded plastic bags blow in the silent wind.
For that’s another odd thing about the city. Brave the biting wind and stand on the magnificent marina breakwater where Hooters and other bars seem on the wintry day as quiet as graves and breathe in the ocean air. It is odorless.
Where’s the briny, where are the seagulls’ cries and fishing boats?
The Yellow Sea around here is dead. Dead as the ultra-modern city skyline behind you.
Only distant gargantuan container vessels inch across the ocean horizon.
With the dawning of the New Year of the Tiger the feeling of ancient Chinese connectivity, so vibrant in Taiwan and the other mighty overseas Chinese diaspora cities, is absent.
The golf course on low hills between this desk and the ocean is empty and the snow lies around the forlorn fluttering flags. The wedge of sea visible beyond is grey and shrouded despite the winds.
Perhaps everyone left to return to their ancestral homes. No doubt the small towns of provincial China are rocking this Tiger dawn.
Yes, there is something very peaceful in this metropolis bereft of folk.
Besides, come summer, the place will be crawling with the richest members of the new China – for this is a Party town.