Category Archives: Impressions

Demolished shops

The New Normal (in China)

Demolition and change. The new normal in China.

In over 25 years of traveling to China I have become used to demolition. For the first several years I loved walking to Xinjiekou, the center of Nanjing, weaving through packed sidewalks of dark blue and grey clad citizens, past the money buyers trying to pry dollars from the few foreigners and into the department store where you had to wake up the clerks if you wanted to buy something.

But then excavation began—and demolition of those familiar sites. Round the clock, higher buildings went up. Subway digging began. Some of the beautiful plane trees, pruned into shapes that made leafy, cool tunnels in summer, were cut down, and Xinjiekou became unrecognizable.

I didn’t get back there for several years, and when I returned it was as if to a foreign land.  IMG_4111 The Jinling Hotel, the tallest in Nanjing, providing a view of Purple Mountain and the rest of the city, had become a lowly tenant amid shiny, high rise giants. In all directions twenty story commercial buildings rose, high-priced department stores in their lower floors. Tunnels burrowed under the Xinjiekou intersection, forcing me and all walkers to make long underground hikes and to surface at a corner we hoped was the one we were aiming for.

IMG_4118By 2000 or so, subway construction reeked havoc beyond the city center, and the blue sky seemed to have permanently disappeared because of dust and pollution. The Internet became a protest tool, sending out photos of tree-lined streets being demolished. But areas of the city had stabilized, and although demolition and construction continued, enough buildings stayed put so citizens and this foreigner could identify their locations.

Then last year, I headed for the shops near Nanjing Normal University where I knew I could get just the write pens and writing pads. I left the ATM at the Bank of China on Beijing Road and ambled along Ninghai Road, taking in the pedestrians, peering through the ivy-clad fence of a preschool I had once visited, and resisting the urge to explore a side street that climbed up a hill. Watching for unruly traffic, I stepped off the curb and looked across the street at the little stores frequented by students and neighborhood residents. And stared. Beyond the swish of motorbikes, taxis, and vans stood a half block pile of rubble. Two bright orange steam shovels gnawed at its edges. I stood there, stunned. “My” stationary store and that street of little shops had become heaps of concrete and broken timbers. The demolition pulled at my heart.

Demolished shops


I walked a few steps. Memories moved in slow motion across my consciousness. The small clothing shop where Huang Rensong, my feisty research partner, had dragged me so we could both have the same style silk shirt. The day I ran into Yue Meiyun who had no idea I was in China. We sat on the window ledge of a shop in the autumn sun trading family news, delighting in the idea that though from opposite ends of the earth we had run across each other unexpectedly in the midst of a crowded Nanjing street.

I wandered on, past the half-crushed magazine and newspaper kiosk where the owner’s shaggy white dog once sat viewing the street scenes, bowl of water and food carefully placed beside it. It would have been better if it were just rubble. A three-story house at the end of the block had been sliced in two–the steamed dumpling shop flattened where once, day or night students lined up for snacks. A lone survivor, a tabby cat, crawled across its roof, crouched cautiously and peered over the edge.

Crushed shops

I had watched from a hotel room in one city as apartment residents across the street packed all their belongings into trucks, obviously being removed to another location so their building could be torn down. This has been the new normal in China for years now. Some of the places I’ve seen demolished, like the old 1920s houses on the edge of the French Concession in Shanghai, were horrible inside. Rotten walls, impossibly old, leaky plumbing and probably structurally unsound.

Even so, with demolition go memories and living patterns that are woven into people’s lives. Being wrenched into a new, shiny modernity is sometimes difficult even for a foreigner.





A Raucous Dinner

Between a conference in Hong Kong and meetings in Nanjing, I realized I could head for Guangzhou. In two decades of traveling to China, I’ve never been there, partially I suspect because of its intimidating culinary reputation that sits large in the world. Snakes and other unsavory critters are standard fare. Pick out a snake in the window and have it cooked for you. Yeah, well I didn’t see one in Guangzhou. I’m sure there are some, but they aren’t the main item of everyday cooking. What is it about us westerners—or at least North Americans—that needs to stress the bizarre?

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Street in Nanjing

Back Streets, Hot Sweet Potatoes, and Finding China

Street in NanjingEvery trip to China I try to steal time to walk the streets and alleys. I plot the area to wander in, often not far from my lodging, and head out, a map tucked in my bag and a hotel name card in my pocket. Both are essential.

I often turn down the nearest small street, trying to gauge its direction. Running at haphazard angles to main streets, they lead me into neighborhoods veined with networks of smaller lanes and alleys, all begging to be explored. Recently in Nanjing I wandered down tree-lined streets, past a pocket park with yellow and Continue reading

Winter in China, 1990

The Los Angeles temperature hit 32 last night, and although, for many of you, that’s hardly chilly, for us spoiled Californians, it is cold—partially because we don’t own coats. But it also reminded me of my first trip to China and this letter I sent home.

January 13, 1990. We were warned that it would be cold in China—especially inside—but little did we know what that meant. Not even a year in Scotland in a drafty flat with no central heating prepared me for this. But tonight I was better prepared for the dinner we went to. Continue reading

Map of China

A 60-Year-Old Insight

Written after the devastation of World War II, the young women graduating from The Dominican College of San Rafael in California devoted energy and imagination to creating Map of Chinaa book dedicated to understanding China. Over 60 years ago, they introduced their work with the following words, still relevant today:

 Never again can we feel secure within the boundaries of our two oceans. It is a small world and the peoples in it will and must learn to know each other better, to understand each other better than they have in the past. We Americans do not possess the only way of Continue reading

The Rhythm of China

At my recent book launch, I was asked what, after all these years of traveling to China, do I first notice when I arrive there. That stopped me for a bit. But then it became clear to me. As soon as I’ve checked into my lodging, I head for the streets–whether in Beijing, Nanjing, Shanghai, Xi’an, or farther flung places. Day or night, I walk for blocks and blocks.

Beijingers enjoying a sunny day

Adjusting my pace to China’s, I slow my quick, tense American stride. I move with the flow of pedestrians, look in shop windows, navigate intersections, and listen. Stores selling CDs and DVDs pipe loud music into the streets—sounding to me like romantic modern pop. Vendors peddle by calling their ancient cries of services rendered.

In late evening, my favorite time, pedestrians gather around sidewalk grills and small restaurants for meat on skewers or noodles salted with red-hot sauce, squinting through the smoke of the grill or squatting at the edge of the sidewalk relishing the noodles and chatting. But most of all, I soak up the sound of thousands of people talking to each other in Chinese. As I walk, the river of sound, rising and falling in cadences so different from English or Spanish, captivates me and carries me along. It pulls me away from the long flight and hectic trip preparations and draws me into China.

Finally saturated, I head back to my room to hook up my computer, call friends and colleagues to let them know I’ve arrived, and get ready for days of meetings, interviews, and classroom visits. But those first hours of walking have gotten me ready.