The Merest Sniff of China (1)

railway station [The photo above repays attention. Suzhou train station. Waiting. Doing what you do in contemporary China when you wait.]

Scale. I think that’s what one has to deal with in China. Scale. Novelty. Volume. Energy. Action. But scale.

Both Beijing and Shanghai have larger populations than Australia. Millions more. Millions. It just trips off the tongue; but how do you govern a city of 27 million let alone a country with more than a billion inhabitants? Fifteen years ago when I was writing about our last trip to China I included the aphorism — possibly local, possibly apocryphal — that China governs to the Second Ring Rd, which is a couple of k.s at least from the Forbidden City, the heart of the Middle Kingdom. But China does manage to build spacious and grand school buildings and, at Wujiang, our real destination, create a city of 1.5m (on mud flats, part of the delta of the Yangtze) in nine years.

Dubbo, yes Dubbo, is one of its seven sister cities, and several of the dignitaries we spoke to had been there — ‘Very clean air. Very spacious and beautiful city’ — although Mr Tsien, the Deputy Director of the Wujiang Education Bureau, had not encountered or seen any Aboriginal people on his visit there which made me wonder.

Pudong airport[This photo is Pudong airport (Shanghai) where we first arrived before going on to Beijing. This terminal (one of two) would be 500m. long and is an exemplar of light weight construction‚ cable trusses every eight or so metres braced by long but fine steel bars secured to concrete stanchions. Beautiful.]

Two weeks. A few days in Beijing, a working week in Wujiang, a few days in Shanghai, with 17 principals and teachers from the hills of eastern Melbourne, Mooroolbark to Warburton. For work. Making films about the experience of these people and their Chinese school partners in establishing a productive relationship. Beijing was orientation, some sight-seeing (the Great Wall, the Olympic precinct, in our case 798, an arts area), some professional contact with Hanban, the Chinese equivalent of the British Council, to marvel at its new educational resources — and boy were they flash— and visits to two schools.

Chips packetOne was ‘e3’, an expensive international primary school, which taught bilingually in Mandarin and English, but otherwise made most Australian primary schools look at least its equal.

The other was an experimental high, about which I can remember very little. I asked why it was ‘experimental’, but wasn’t very clear about the answer. Some schools aren’t, but these days many are. All of the primary schools in Wujiang were also ‘Experimental’.

We saw a ‘model’ lesson with heavy use (by the teacher) of slightly old-fashioned ICTs to reinforce a handful of English vocab, and some pretty funky, passionate even, role plays about turning digital devices on and off.

A suspicion floated through the group that these may have been heavily rehearsed, but why not? I think with a crowd of international critics up the back, I’d be inclined to engage in some rehearsal as well.

I talked to a quartet of the scholars. Two wanted to be engineers, one the goalie for the Chinese soccer team and one to write a book ‘to change the world for much peace’. After 8 years of English for 160-200 minutes a week the goalie was still on greetings, the engineers pretty consistently puzzled by spoken English with occasional moments of illumination, and the author happily and energetically semi-fluent.

Fifteen years ago there would not have been a digital projector, nor would there have been a role play. There were still 50 in the class.

But Beijing was food, architecture, air and art.

We had the first of many many banquets there (somewhere round 24 courses with much toasting), and uncovered the Xiang Wang Family Restaurant in a hutong not far from our hotel, tested the Peking duck, the pork ribs and other weight loss foodstuffs and found them highly satisfactory.

It is a grand and stately city with broad boulevards jammed with near stationary traffic. Fifteen years ago there were bikes; now there are none. It is also a contemporary playground for the world’s architects.

big underpants

We were staying a few hundred metres from two of the most dazzling (although hundreds were dazzling), the 90-storey tower of the Chinese World Trade Centre (where there’s a bar on the 80th floor and if you could see anything the view would be whizzo) and ‘big shorts’ (at left), the CCTV building. Not closed-circuit TV but Communist China TV which broadcasts six channels of easily recognisable content — reality shows, soaps, news, sport — scarcely distinguishable from TV here. (Note the intriguing assymetrical scoring on the building.)

I took another photo surveying the delights of Beijing architecture with clear skies but I must confess to finding it on the wall of a subway station. Maybe it can look like this.beijing ad

And then there was the air. You might remember 6000 factories were closed for three weeks before the Olympics and this apparently was helpful.

We measure air-borne particles of less than 2.5 microns because they’re the bad ones, million per cubic metre. The standard index says under 50 okay, 51-100 moderate, 101-200 crook for asthmatics or people with other problematic conditions, over 200 very unhealthy for anyone.

Shooting bird's nest[Bayden trying to find the Bird’s Nest in the Olympic precinct. It’s over there somewhere in the murk.]

The ‘e3’ school checks the US Embassy’s air monitoring several times a day. The yellow flag (over 250) was out when we were there which meant ‘windows closed and most play indoors’. 350 or over and, my memory, the school closes. This ocurred for 18 days last October. The Index was over 900 one day a few weeks before we arrived in Beijing. It hovered around 300-350 while we were there.

What’s in the air? Dust, car emissions, factory emissions, coal dust and soot, and so on. Bejing is located in a topographical saucer a long way from the coast, and the air quality would of itself stop me from living there. This isn’t fog.dirty air beijing

And I nearly forgot the art!

Myrna and I had an excursion to 798, an arts precinct developed from converted factory buildings north-east between the Fourth and Fifth Ring Roads. Excellent coffee; great art; great fun; like home on a good day. Except more interesting perhaps. And bigger scale.

Enjoy the pics. (I especially like Mao and his mate propping up the yuan.)

TO BE CONTINUED …

798 streetflat tank

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