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Wednesday, April 24, 2013

A tale of two cities: Shanghai and Jingdezhen

Carl and Joan
It's many years now since I went to China, and I know the changes are breathtakingly rapid and spectacular. I suspect that many people have the impression that life is little more than a vast array of factories in which people spend their lives eking out a living making consumer products that westerners snap up.

That's partly true, but it ignores other truths that make China what it is today.

Last night I received an email from our good friends Joan and Carl, who are in China gaining new skills and experiences in the arts that are their occupation. It was a quite long letter, and I found myself immersed in it, and thought I'd share a few of these observations, mostly made by Carl; just tiny snippets from the letter about life in two cities. I'm ignoring for now their comments about what they're learning in terms of their art and craft from this ancient porcelain specialty area.

It's a look out the window and on to the street. Joan introduced it with a few words and handed over to Carl, but she'll have much to say later on!

Source in Jingdezhen is very good. The food is far too good and fattening, and the street life reminds one of the guests of India, so for those of you who've been to India, you get the picture.

Lots going on on the street, and the usual traffic chaos and broken pavement, food smells, and other not so appetising odours.

Shanghai proved to be an experience that I believe will linger for many years...Shaun Tan's The Arrival will give you an excellent indication of what it is like to find oneself in a totally foreign place. Turkey, Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand were about 5 on a scale of 1 to 10. Our first days in Shanghai were about 75.

Shanghai is like something out of Blade Runner...only a lot cleaner. Obsessive cleaning of streets keeps a huge complex system of bamboo broom makers, bicycle wheeled cart manufacturers, stainless steel garbage bin producers and blue uniform makers along with modern street scrubbers and water spraying equipment continually employed. I even saw one assiduously polishing the stainless steel with steel wool.

They haven't achieved the same success with air cleanliness and I can appreciate why so many people wear face masks.

The other startling thing about Shanghai is the number of expensive new cars on the road, parked on footpaths and up slum-like side alleys. There are new Audis, Bentleys, Porches, Buicks, Cadillacs and luxury models of Toyotas, VWs, Nissans, et al, that I've never seen in OZ. Probably also owned by developers.

The public transport system in contrast to Sydney is amazing. It's analogous to the communications explosion that has seen many Asian countries bipass copper wire and jump straight into fibre. The train service and infrastructure is an engineering marvel, fast, efficient and ultra modern, showing where you are at every stage of the journey. beard is still something of a conversation piece in this city of 23 million beardless souls. [NOTE: if you look at the picture of Carl at the top of this posting you will see why it might attract attention!] 

Food is interesting, ranging from McDonalds and Kentucky Fried to a vast variety of cooked animals, unusual vegetables, tofu, noodles and rice along with strange fruits served from hundreds of street stalls to very expensive restaurants.

Jingdezhen is something else.

Traditional artist-craftsman
'The Pottery Workshop - Sculpture Factory' is a huge complex of studios, shops, artists residences and craftspeople catering for every aspect of traditional Chinese and contemporary porcelain. Our accommodation is luxurious by Chinese standards and most comfortable by ours....

We work at our own bench in a well equipped and air-conditioned second floor studio with views of mountains that one sees in traditional Chinese paintings, across traditionally tiled Chinese roof-lines.

Surprisingly, half of the residents here are from Australia, three from America and latest arrival is Canadian....

Last night (Sunday) we went out with the American couple and for the first time in our lives we sat down to order a meal and discovered there was no menu. Fortunately the waitress had three or four words of English as we had none of Chinese which made it interesting to see what arrived. It turned out well and we dined on fish, beef, noodles and steamed dumpling - her vocabulary. The meals here - lunch and dinner served Monday to Saturday (Sunday we forage) are excellent and copious.
Cherryblossom teacup set
There is a coffee shop (9am/9pm) below our digs which besides real coffee also serves good red and white wines at affordable prices - 120 yuan (around $20 a bottle) and Tsing Tao beer at 20 yuan ($3.50) for 600ml.

A few quick impressions of China before I finish up until next time...The young people are confident, fashionable, smart and healthy. I believe they're the new vanguard that's going to make enormous changes by using communications technology. Most of the older people are ferocious smokers and that along with the abysmal pollution in the bigger cities will reduce their life expectancy and China's population.

The huge apartment blocks we saw from the air are often half empty, built to create employment - many in Jingdezhen are empty and there is a paucity of real jobs here apart from more huge apartment tower construction. As one of the master ceramicists here advised as he pulled up beside me on his electric bike. "Don't try to make sense of it, just expect the unexpected". Interesting times indeed... That's it from Carl for now.

Oh yes, Denis, I am unable to access your blog or facebook. [Yes, we know why, Carl!] ..., so please keep in touch via email.
Much love to you all, Joan & Carl

Thanks to you both, Carl and Joan.


  1. Oh, you didn't put in the bit about "fans of The Beard" and how traffic accidents almost occur every time Carl walks along the street and people want to have their photo taken with him!! It made me really smile. It happens to us in India, as Michael wears Indian 'whites' and does it really well -Indians are so impressed and delighted and want to take his photo -I feel as Joan would, an adjunct, a totally secondary and inferior being (well women are, aren't they!)Unless blonde, Tracey:)

    On another note, I saw a woman in the supermarket recently wearing the most beautiful burqa (full Islamic covering). I told her I found it beautiful, (the elegance ,the material ,the subtle embroidery) and her eyes smiled:)

    Don't we love difference! I do.

    A great, insightful description from Carl. Does it take you back in memory, Denis?

    Julie M xx

    1. You're right. It is a good part of the story and only got a brief mention above, but I was conscious of length. I did particularly want to have Carl's picture there to demonstrate how impressive it is so I'm glad I got it there up at the top.

      For anyone interested, here is the bit I omitted.

      "However, I created some unexpected diversions when I turned my beard in their direction and caused great consternation. As Joan remarked, my beard is still something of a conversation piece in this city of 23 million beardless souls and quite a few availed themselves of a combination of jet lag and my extreme good humour as we strolled along the Bund, allowing the citizens of Shanghai to have their portrait memorialised with the white-bearded barbarian."

      Tracey would go well in Bangladesh, standing taller that most Bengalis and yes, with that blonde hair. A friend of mine had long flaming red hair and caused accidents just by walking down the street in Delhi. That was long ago.

      I think China has changed so much since I was there I wonder how much it would actually bring back. It's a new world there since the 90s. Shanghai as I remember it was the most westernised city in China even then - but there are deep historical reasons for that.

  2. Thank you for sharing this superb taste of China. More please! (Thank you, Carl and Joan - even though you can't read this.)

  3. Regarding the huge empty apartment blocks Carl mentions,Patrick Holland, an Australian languages student travelling in China wrote (in his wonderful book called "Riding the Trains in Japan')that he saw whole uninhabited new towns in China. He feared that this artificial investment would lead to China having a similar collapse to that in the US (though of course China does not have the sort of debt the US had).

    Julie M

  4. Jingdezhen is one of my favorite place, which known as the "porcelain city" since the Song dynasty, it has a long history of over 1700 years of porcelain making. Thank you for sharing your story about the city.


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