Lanzhou: Left behind but content(?)

enjoying Chinese opera at the park

enjoying Chinese opera at the park

Recently, I went to Lanzhou, the provincial capital in Gansu, to take care of some bureaucratic paperwork and to visit my family. Walking around the city, I was struck by how different the city “felt” from other places I have visited in China.

The pace was noticeably slower than Shanghai or Beijing. I also noticed a lot of people seemed to have a lot of free time on their hands. Parks were filled with the elderly. People still took 2.5 hours off for lunch. A lot of people still worked in “danwei”, or state owned enterprises that are now rare in coastal towns. To get anything done, expect to wait twice as long.

Lanzhou people have always been more laid back. Given its geographic location, surrounded by arid mountains and the Gobi desert, and the starch-based diet, it’s no surprise that Lanzhou people are less intense than Chinese elsewhere. At the same time, the sheer lack of opportunities hasn’t helped.

Much of the economic progress and development taking place in many places around China has mostly excluded northwest China. Not surprisingly, most of the Danwei’s are not doing well. To ensure social stability, however, they are kept operational, but employees have little to do. In fact, many of my relatives were forced to retire early, as early as 45 and 50, for women and men respectively.

Since Lanzhou is a provincial capital, it also attracts a lot of migrant workers from even less developed parts of northwest China. As a result, for each job opening, there are countless applicants. My cousin just graduated from college with a degree in teaching. To actually get a job, however, she has to go through a set of hurdles where the acceptance rate is only 30%. Luckily, she passed. Even still, her salary is only $200/month, which is 50% lower than college graduates in more developed cities. Her parents are not doing much better. My uncle was laid off in the late 80’s and never found another full-time job.  My aunt has been an elementary teacher for early 35 years but still only makes $250/month.

While the conditions are also hard and competitive in the rest of China, but opportunities are available in coastal towns and even villages. My cousins in rural Jiangsu, for instance, can find jobs much more easily, and their pay is as high as $15k/month (a couple of very successful salesmen).

Is it really that hard to develop northwest China? Yes, Gansu faces many challenges, but I believe China is politically motivated to keep northwest China less developed and less open. Bordering Xinjiang, Gansu has always been China’s military stronghold in western China. You cant walk around Lanzhou without bumping into the military. The recent troops sent to Xinjiang have all been from Lanzhou.

In this part of China, the government is not willing to loosen its control on the local industries and state owned companies. Many of the state owned enterprises also have national interests, such as natural energy, oil refinement, chemical processing plants. 

Regardless of their current situation or the future, Lanzhou people seem to be taking it all in stride. The general sentiment is, why stress about it if there’s nothing you can do? They are rather resigned to their situation. Anyone who can’t put up with it tries their hardest to leave (like my dad did in 1982). For those left behind, they will go about their way, moving forward slowly, and cautiously enjoying life as much as they are allowed.

poker, a favorite pastime

poker, a favorite pastime


August 25, 2009 at 7:32 am Leave a comment

Shanghai Weekend for Jet-Setters

A couple of friends visited Shanghai over Memorial Weekend. They were motivated by a frequent flyer special and flew non-stop from Chicago to stay only for the weekend. The idea of flying all the way around the world just for a weekend seemed incredulous to me, but they pulled it off. So, this blog is dedicated to them and other like-minded jetsetters who have no qualms about taking 11 hour flights for a weekend in Shanghai.

Please note these recommendations are not for everyone. They are for the well-traveled business class regulars who prefer 5-star hotels over hostels, incredible interior design over a hole-in-the-wall, and a rare find over a tourist spot.

Day 0:

  • You traveled so far for only two nights, you might as well treat yourself to the best bed in town. If spetacular view is your thing, go w/ the Grand Hyatt. If you want to be next to the nightlife and can stand the noise, try Xintiandi’s boutique hotel, 88 Xintiandi. If conservative comfort is more your thing, try JW Marriott.

Day 1:

  • Brunch is best served French. If you are able to get out of bed at a reasonable hour, take a cab over the French Concession for the best bread/butter/cheese in town at Franck. While it doesnt serve traditional brunch food, Franck’s entrees and salads more than make up for it. The location is also perfect for getting a taste of life in the French Concession (for very well-to-do expats).
  • Trinkets that you wont find in Chinatown. Shanghai would not be Shanghai without a healthy dose of shopping. Its also nice to buy gifts for the poor blokes back home who weren’t able to fly to a different continent for the weekend. My favorites are Spin for beautiful ceramics, and Taikanglu (Tian Zi Fang) for everything from cashmere scarves to tibetan jewelry. Be warned, everything is over-priced, but then you are paying for the most charming atmosphere in Shanghai.
  • Dinner theater, Shanghai style. Get a taste of Shanghainese food along with a favorite Shanghainese pastime activity, listening to Chinese opera. Check out Xian Qiang Fang for all of the above and beautiful decore (restored art deco building filled with chinese antiques). Remember to bring your camera and sneak a few pictures during the performance (dont ask for permission).
  • If you are still able to stand, check out the local jazz scene at  JZ Club for great local and international jazz.

Day 2:

  • Its all about the dumplings! You cannot come to Shanghai without eating at least one XiaoLongBao (aka xlb’s), or 20, which is what usually happens. These legendary dumplings are best experienced at DinTaiFung at XinTianDi.
  • Time for the Bund! Traditionally, the best time to check out the Bund is at night, but I actually prefer the day. Start out on the West side of the Bund. Several buildings have great views. My personal favorite is the historic and unpretentious Peace Hotel. After you explore the West side, take a cab to the Pudong side. If you are not staying at the Grand Hyatt, you have to check out the hotel atrium. Grab a cup of coffee and admire the amazing architecture, not to mention the view.
  • Time for some R&R. All that food, shopping, and walking can be exhausting. Time for a traditional Chinese foot massage! 90 Minutes seem like a long time for a foot massage, but you wont feel that way after. The most popular is still Taipan on Dagu Lu.
  • Upscale Chinese food that needs to be franchised globally. Check out the famous South Beauty franchise, not only for its great food (not necessarily by local standards), and jaw-dropping decor (not always a good thing), but also to check out why this is one of the most profitable business franchises in China. The owner has demonstrated that street food can be turned into gourmet under the right design and lighting.
  • Sleep is for the flight back. You cant come to Shanghai and leave without experiencing its famous (or infamouse depending on where you go) night scene. The conventional options are XinTianDi, Hengshan Lu and Fuxing Park. If you want a taste of where local expats like to go, check out Muse.

After your whirlwind tour, you will come away an even stronger believer that anything is possible (in China).

August 24, 2009 at 5:25 am Leave a comment

Hangzhou Food Guide

When I first came to Shanghai, I was surprised by how sweet, oily and heavy the local Shanghainese food tasted. Shanghainese food is a close cousin to Hangzhou food, which is sweet but very light and delicate. Most restaurants I have tried in Hangzhou outshine those in Shanghai, and my favorite restaurant in China is also located in Hangzhou. Here are some of the most famous Hangzhou dishes, and some recommendations for where to try them.

Dongpo Pork: Named after a famous poet who was also appointed governor of Hangzhou twice, Dongpo pork is a very fatty piece of pork that is slowly cooked with wine and lots of sugar. While this dish might not look appetizing, a square of very fatty pork served with the pork fat and the skin in tact, this dish is so delicate and tender that you won’t have too much time to fixate on its presentation. Also, all of my local girlfriends proclaim that it’s good for their skin, which makes ordering pork fat easier to justify.

Beggar’s Chicken: This dish will not win any prizes for presentation either. It is typically served still encased in a layer of dried mud. Contrary to how it might look, the chicken is actually very juicy because it is soaked in Shaoxing wine (a sweet rice wine), baked with fried pork, and wrapped with lotus leaves. When served, the clay is smashed on your table for effect, which will release a very strong fragrance of lotus leaves and ginger. Be warned though, don’t order this dish for two people, even though every server in Hangzhou will try to sell it to you. There’s just no way you can finish it.

Sweet and Sour Carp: Probably the simplest dish, but also one of the tastiest, this is traditionally prepared with a West Lake grass carp. The fish is simply boiled for three minutes, and then a sugar and vinegar sauce is poured over it. The fish tastes so delicate that it tastes similar to crabmeat. Just be cautious of the bones that can accompany this and most fish dishes in China.

Shrimp with Dragon Well Tea: Aside from great fresh-water seafood, Hangzhou is also famous for its Dragon Well tea. For this dish, shelled fresh-water shrimp and Dragon Well tea leaves are cooked together. The aroma of the green tea serves as a great balance to the gaminess of the shrimp. The color contrast is also beautiful.

West Lake Water Shield Soup: this is the only dish that that I don’t “love” in Hangzhou. Although very unique and distinctive in its lack of taste, the soup is, well, not very tasty. However, it is very light, and a very healthy balance to rich Hangzhou meals. The soup is prepared with the West Lake Water Shield (a plant that grows in West Lake) and minced chicken slices. This is one dish that you can only find in Hangzhou, and it is quite refreshing. When not cooked properly, though it can taste a little slimy.

Restaurant Recommendations:
Crystal Garden: My all-time favorite. The food there is always fresh, delicate and perfectly balanced. Every dish is perfect, but I highly recommend its house specials, which are arguably better than the Hangzhou classics.

Louwailou: To taste the classics, you can’t go wrong with this restaurant nestled inside the West Lake grounds. Albeit the service can be testy, its well-known for a reason.

August 24, 2009 at 4:04 am 1 comment

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