29 Aug 2018

No Tea in China...

My family and I were lucky enough to spend June in China visiting my wife's family. We spent a week in Hong Kong, and then crossed the border to spend the next 3 weeks in and around Shenzhen. I thought I post a few random thoughts and observations from my trip...

Hong Kong

I found Hong Kong to be a very friendly city, and I enjoyed the opportunity to use my very rudimentary Cantonese. Despite being a incredibly busy city of some 7 million people, it is a great place to visit as a family with a young child (though we passed on visiting the Peak – the tram didn't look pram friendly). Unfortunately, we spent most of our time organising visas for China, so we didn't see as much of Hong Kong as I hoped. My main impressions were the simply fantastic food (we had our best meal in a little local canteen that most tourists wouldn't look twice at), the excellent metro service (the Octopus card used widely in Hong Kong instead of cash), and a futuristic and incredibly efficient airport. 

https://sites.google.com/site/andyparkhill/home/blog-post-images/MeiAndMatthewinHK.jpg at a public park in Hong Kong


We spent most of our time in Shenzhen, a city in Guangdong Province, just to the north of Hong Kong. Most of my wife’s family live here, and we spent a lot of our time visiting her relatives and introducing them to our son Matthew for the first time.

Shenzhen is a massive city of over 16 million inhabitants that has sprung up in just 30 years from what was originally a small fishing town. The city is full of skyscrapers (residents are very proud of having the second tallest building in China) and appears to be continually rebuilding itself every few years. People revisiting the city after a few years often get lost, as the cityscape is unrecognisable from the last time they visited.

Shenzhen skyline at Night

Some random thoughts:

  • Rental bikes are absolutely everywhere, littering the streets, but relatively few people seem to be using them. A lot more people appear to be using battery powered bikes.
  • Unsurprisingly in this new city, there is still a significant wealth disparity, with large numbers of migrant workers from the rural China coming to the city for work.
  • Related to the above, you’ll more commonly speak Mandarin than Cantonese – the people you interact day to day with in Shenzhen (in taxis, in the supermarket) will typically be migrant workers and will not speak Cantonese.
  • Like Hong Kong, Shenzhen has a very efficient public transport system (both the local bus network and the growing metro system). The public transport makes up for the traffic in Shenzhen, which is insane.
  • Living costs in Shenzhen seem to be relatively low (for a Westerner), but high relative to the rest of China.

Whilst in Shenzhen, we paid a visit to the Huaqiangbei, the world famous electronics market. It was an interesting place to visit, but speaking to some of Mei’s family, the market seems to be in decline and employs fewer people than in the past.

As I’m currently working in a UK university, we visited a local university campus in Shenzhen. There are a number of different universities in Shenzhen, notably the Southern University of Science and Technology (see also this article). We visited the campus of the Peking University HSBC Business School, which is an international graduate business school, but we also passed by some of the other universities during our travels. It is striking how large the university campuses are, and how much building is going on at them. Higher education is a major focus of the Chinese government, and it is spending a lot of money to turn them into world class institutions. UK universities will not be able to compete on shiny new buildings alone, something which the UK VCs don’t seem to understand. The only way to compete with Chinese universities will be by delivering world class teaching and research – something that UK VCs are actively harming by treating staff as a hindrance rather than an asset. I expect a lot more Chinese students to opt to study in China in the future as the word standing of their universities continue to increase, along with increasing numbers of foreign students.

Enterance to a Hakka Village near Shenzhen

We also got a chance to visit the nearby smaller cities of Pingshan and Dayawan, as well as spending a couple of nights at a local holiday resort.

Other random thoughts:

  • I noticed a lot more use of people and manual labour (in construction and retail) than would be the case in Europe.
  • There is still significant inequality between the city and rural area. This is unsurprising for a country that has changed, and continues to change, so quickly in recent years..
  • There is a very real exercise and fitness culture in China. There were daily dance and Tai Chi sessions in all the local parks that we visited. The parks were filled in the evenings with people exercising (walking and jogging, playing badminton, attending dance classes) after work.

Exercising in an outdoor gym

  • Driving in China (and particularly Shenzhen) is insane. Defensive driving is essential, as drivers will drive very closely in traffic and will change lanes rapidly without indicating. Whilst the Chinese government is promoting self driving cars, they are a long way from ever appearing on China’s roads.  But given that road accidents kill 700 people a day in China, there will be a greater acceptance of self driven cars in China than in Europe or the US.
  • China is a tough place to visit as a foreigner. If you don’t speak or read the language, there is very little allowance given for you, unlike other countries in Asia. Shenzhen was significantly easier for a foreigner than the smaller cities, but still tough. The major street signs in Shenzhen were in both Chinese and English, which was a life saver. I knew a little Cantonese and very little Mandarin, and couldn’t read any Chinese characters. I’m already looking at learning more Mandarin and learning to read Chinese characters in preparation for my next visit.
  • WeChat is an essential app if you’re visiting China, as well as using a VPN to access websites outside of the Great Firewall of China.
  • Despite trying every coffee and tea shop I came across, I was unable to find a decent cup of black tea with milk. If I hadn’t packed my own teabags, I doubt if I would have survived the whole trip.

China is huge country, and I only spent a brief time there. But I really enjoyed our stay, and I came away impressed with the scale of the country’s ambition and the people I met there. I’m looking forward to our next visit to China already.

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