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Chinese Engineering – That Will Save Us

I’m sure you’ve heard of the building in Shanghai that collapsed, as well as a bridge that partially collapsed. Today on the radio they said that the building developer’s license had been expired since 2004. This obviously does nothing to bolster the peoples’ confidence after last year’s Sichuan earthquakes where several schools collapsed (while other buildings still stood) and thousands of children were killed. This tragedy was linked to corruption in the construction and approval processes.

Also from the recent news, the Chinese government wanted special censorship software installed on all computers in their country. Called Green Dam-Youth Escort, the government eventually backed down after its citizens and PC manufacturers protested and after several vulnerabilities were discovered. But it turns out that the company hired by the government the software stole much of the code from a US software developer’s freeware version. Now that US developer is being attacked with custom written malicious code and phishing attacks, tenuously linked to Chinese sources.

When we were in China, Brian and I joked that “Chinese engineering will save us!” But that’s clearly not the case as this past week has shown us. No doubt that these are exceptions to the rule, but they are very public embarrassments for a government which tries to avoid them at all costs.

An Afternoon With Mr. Lee at the Sichuan Opera

On the day we were scheduled to leave Chengdu and the delicious Sichuan meals, we decided to head to the Renmin Park (Peoples’ Park) and hang out in one of the tea houses there. On the way, we had some delicious meat sticks and knew that it was setting the tone for a great day. When we got to the tea house, we ran into Gabriel and Til, our French and German friends from the night before, and sat down with them to drink tea and watch the world go by.

We ordered some tea with the help of a local who turned out to be the famous Mr. Lee, from several travel books. He is a quiet, unassuming man who would be easy to overlook in a crowd. But speaking with him, it quickly becomes apparent that he is certainly someone who distinguishes himself from all others. He shared his modest but compelling goals to pay off his parents’ house and visit Eastern Europe.

He spoke with us for a couple of minutes in nearly flawless English, giving us advice and answering travel questions while we sipped our tea. Then he began telling us about the Sichuan Opera that was going to be taking place that afternoon. It sounded like an interesting and educational way to spend an afternoon, so we decided to join him in going. We quickly finished our tea, got our bags from the hostel, and caught a cab to the Opera House.

The building was located on a back street by the train station and looked no different from any other building. However, up a set of steps and through a pair of doors, a theater emerged. Mr. Lee guided us to the back office where we were allowed to stow our heavy bags for the duration of the show. Then he led us backstage to see the actors preparing to go on.

He explained to us that this is the last traditional opera house in Sichuan and that this would probably be the final generation which put on shows in the style. The audience reflected this reality — we were the youngest of the roughly 150 people in the audience. Apparently the younger generation of Chinese prefer TV, movies, and computers to watching the plays.

We went to our reserved seats in the front row and enjoyed the tea provided us. Soon the show began. Mr. Lee gave us translations of each show that was being performed.

The first was about a Chinese warrior who was sent by his King to go across a mountain pass, but a beautiful maiden stood in the way. The warrior and the maiden fought, then apparently fell in love. It was slightly confusing, but very well performed.

The second story — my favorite — began with a widow praising the virtues of her son-in-law who was a fair judge. Then the judge came to visit her and told her of his bad day in court, having to put a corrupt official to death. It was a difficult thing for him to do because the man was his childhood friend, her son. She went through the understandable denial and grief, but the judge explained his case and offered his life if it would relieve her woes. In the end, she agreed that her son was responsible for the deeds and that the judge
had made the correct decision.

The third story — Brian’s and Mr. Lee’s favorite — told of a man who came to call on a former girlfriend. Her mother had asked that he come to take her back because she did not like the new man her daughter was dating. He obliged and came to visit, but the daughter was aloof and dismissive of his efforts at reconciliation. He had to leave in a rush, but accidentally dropped some important papers — ones that would lead to his death if found. The former lover found the papers and blackmailed him to get them back. In the end, she didn’t keep her part of the bargain and said that the only way he could get his papers back was to kill her. So he obliged.

The final play was a comedy with a detailed, twisting plot which does not relate well unless the visual story unfolds before you. After the show was over, we paid our gracious host; it was money well spent. Then we walked to the train station, where Mr. Lee helped Gabriel buy a train ticket and took him back to the hostel by taxi.

Meeting Mr. Lee was one of the highlights of my trip, and was very fortuitous on our part. One gets the feeling that he is a very private person who holds brief auditions for his potential customers. This is reinforced by the fact that he freely gives his card, but asks that his contact information not be divulged to those he hasn’t met. I am glad that we met him and that he chose to take us on one of his tours.

Chengdu and Sichuan

Chengdu is the capital city of the Sichuan province in China. Sichuan is well known for its delicious spicy food, as well as for its Panda breeding research.
We arrived on the train at about 3pm and ran into someone from our hostel who was picking up some other guests, so we were able to tag along. While we were waiting for the other guests, we were approached by 2 other people from other hostels asking if we needed a room. We decided to stay with our first choice, called The Loft. But when we got to the hostel, they informed us that an electrical transformer had just exploded next door and had taken out the power for several buildings, including the hostel. This would be restored in 2-3 days. Luckily, they had a sister hostel down the road and so we went to a place called the Dragon Town Hostel.
The hostel is located down a road that they say is the oldest in all of Chengdu. However, it is currently being rebuilt. It appears that almost nothing survived of the old road, and that it is an entirely new alleyway constructed to look old. It is still under construction and was being worked on from dawn to dusk, and even later where they had spotlights. The concrete was being mixed (in wheelbarrows and on the street), spread, and leveled while we were there, but most of the way was dirt. If we hadn’t known exactly where the place was, we never would have found it.
They have a ping-pong table and a couple of picnic tables outside, a couple of computers and a TV inside, and a pet Golden Retriever named “Tiger” who likes to play with an old soccer ball. The rooms have heaters which don’t work, but it didn’t get as cold at night as it did in Kunming.
We met a few people that night and decided to go to see the Giant Panda Breeding and Research Center, the world’s only such place. We ended up waking up 45 minutes late the next morning (the alarm didn’t go off) and barely caught the “bus” — a car driven by someone at the hostel. The GPBaRC is pretty nice, there are several different areas for the different ages of Pandas, nursing, sub-adult, and adult. They also have some Red Pandas, which look like red racoons. It was the coldest that it had been yet, reaching 3.5C (a little under 40F).
We got back from the GPBaRC at around noon and went out to buy our train ticket and find someplace to use the Internet — the service at the hostel was out. We walked around and didn’t find any Internet cafes, so we went into a Sheriton hotel. They had Internet available, but it was 160 Yuan per hour, or over $20! Typically prices vary from 5 to 10 Yuan per hour. They recommended another place that was less expensive and wrote it down so that we could instruct the taxi where to take us. It seemed to be difficult to find someplace to use the Internet, contrary to what the Lonely Planet says.
The Internet cafe we were directed to was on the top floor of a building in a shopping district. It was very nice and we recognized immediately that it was probably not the place to get a coffee and use the Internet we were looking for. But we decided to give it a shot anyway. They presented us with a menu and described the choices as best they could in English. There was a section of drinks which, as they explained to us, had free refills. We explained that we just wanted coffee and the waiter suggested one that we heard as “best color.” However, when it arrived, it became clear that he was, in fact, saying “best cola.” We had a couple of refils of the small cup, but the computers were slow and the mouse would sometimes stop working, so we decided to go somewhere else. The misadventure cost us 56 Yuan total, or about $4 each.
We caught a taxi to the train station and got our ticket easily, though due to a misprint, we had to figure out that we really wanted the K6 train at 19:42, not the K61 train at 9:42. With that behind us, we headed back to the hostel for a bit. We ran into the girl who’d given us a ride from the train station to our hostel the day before — her name is Joyce — and asked her about places to eat. Her English was excellent and her local knowledge was very good, and she was able to direct us to a fantastic eatery right around the corner. They didn’t speak English there and she had to leave, but we managed to order some of our favorites (which we have written in English, pinyin, and Mandarin characters).
Then we went to The Loft hostel again to hang out in their cafe/bar (which was running on generator power) for a while. We had a few beers and talked some more with Joyce about Chengdu, Sichuan, Xi’an (our next stop), and China in general. After a couple of beers and a cappuccino, we decided it was time to call it a night and walked back over to the Dragon Town.
The alley was alive with weekend sounds, sights, and smells. It seemed that most of the workers had stayed around to eat, drink, and talk. Though it was already past 10pm, many people were still out enjoying themselves. In front of our hostel, we ran into one of our fellow travelers who was from Germany and a new one who was from just outside Paris. We sat down and joined them, ordering more beers. Both of them speak Mandarin well, which was handy. But all that was required was to hold up a number of fingers corresponding to the number of beers desired and to say “Tsing Tao.” We had a great time sitting and chatting, then we went off to bed.