Cathy in Asia

News from China #1 - September, 1999

Dalian, "Hong Kong of the North", is a port city on the end of a peninsula which sticks into the Yellow Sea, between Beijing and Pyongyang, North Korea. It's a modern city of about 4,000,000, and is known in China for being the fashion capital of the world. To my surprise, I actually bought a gorgeous winter dress on my first visit downtown. "Goodbye Norma Jean" and "Country Roads" blared out of store speakers onto the shopping street as we explored a capitalist roader's dream come true.

I wanted to tell you about where I am living now, however, and that is about 30 km north of downtown, about an hour away by minibus (5 yuan, about $1) or 20 minutes by kamikaze taxi (80 yuan), on a well-maintained toll highway. Our area is called the Dalian Economic Development Zone (Kai Fa Qu), a.k.a., "The Zone." This is a rapidly developing area of new buildings and, apparently, lots of money. The best viewpoint of the area is on a hill where there is a small park. Walking past the signs that admonish "no intruding into the lawn," you come to a lookout. From there, you can look over our apartment complex to the sea. There are many big, modern hotels and bank buildings on this side, as well as the campus of Dalian Nationalities University, where I work. On the other side of the hill is a valley filled with factories, hundreds of square buildings with square windows. Behind them is Big Black Mountain, with a lookout or a temple on top that I plan to climb soon.


The Vault

My apartment is in the 31st building in Hong Mei Xiao Qu, a residential area of forty some squat six story buildings, lined up like a solemn company of soldiers. It reminds me of the HDB flats in Singapore, clusters of characterless buildings, all the same; people with different lives in them nevertheless, mine one of them. This area belongs to the Nationalities (Minorities) University, with which Capilano College has made its partnership, so all foreign faculty live here, as do Chinese faculty and staff.

I live in what I have come to know affectionately as "The Vault." This is because on approaching my apartment all you see is a flat dark gray metal door set into a crudely plastered wall. It is unencumbered with a handle. Instead, it has two keyholes, for two separate keys. On opening the middle lock there is a metallic "clang" as its bolt moves back into the door from its place in the door frame above; in the lock closer the door there is a "click, click, click" as one bolt moves out three times, and a final "clack" for another bolt. The first time I entered through this door I half expected to find myself surrounded by safety deposit boxes or perhaps frozen sides of beef hanging from the ceiling. However, what you step into is in fact the sitting room, the middle of three rooms side by side, with windows at either end.

At one end, overlooking the construction site of the newest apartment building, is an enclosed porch. Most people use the porch for cooking, and when I look out my bedroom in the morning I can see people making breakfast in their porches across the way. Next to the porch is the kitchen, which has a utility sink with a cold water tap, a huge canister of propane attached to a single burner, a small, brand new fridge, a small brand new wringer washer, and a grand glass table with green and brass legs and matching chairs. Mr. Tian, a professor of Dalian Nationalities University, proudly told me he spent six times his budget on that table. I inwardly wished he had spent the money on a few other essentials, like plates, cups, cooking utensils, a few chopsticks. However, I am gradually acquiring these things with each successive shopping trip to Chang Lin shopping centre. I have also bought a drinking water dispenser with two taps, one labeled "hot" and the other "warm". Apparently drinking cold water is not healthy. I couldn't help thinking of this as an interesting cross-cultural business issue. Imagine trying to sell "warm" water in North America.

The kitchen and the sitting room are divided by a glass wall. I haven't figured out the purpose of the glass wall, but I've only walked into it a couple of times. This middle room is filled with a huge, brand new couch upholstered in brown and blue plaid, and a large new TV. Until a few nights ago, there was nothing to watch as I was not hooked up to cable. However, Mr. T brought over a friend whom he introduced as "very talented" and who ably broke into the cable box in the dark stairwell and connected some wires. Unfortunately I am accomplice to the crime as I provided the head lamp and Swiss Army knife to do the deed. So now I have a lot of Chinese stations I can watch. I'm already hooked to a program about a boy who seems to get into all sorts of trouble, although darned if I know what his trouble is.

When you sit on the couch (which fortunately I do rarely) you look straight into the bathroom, essentially a shower stall just big enough for a sink and toilet. The room is perpetually wet, and there is often a roll of toilet paper sitting out to dry on a chair in my sitting room. Strangely, the previous occupant had thought a green velour toilet seat cover a nice accessory, but I didn't enjoy the feeling of cold wet velour and soon hacked it off, again with the help of my trusty Swiss Army knife. The shower head swivels if you let go of it, and points the water directly into the electrical outlet for the hot water heater. So far I havenít been electrocuted.

The bedroom is at the opposite end of the apartment to the kitchen, with a window looking straight at the next apartment building. There is a large rock hard bed with a long, hard pillow and synthetic blankets, also all new. I've bought a military issue cotton quilt to provide padding for my poor thin body, since I was going numb the first few nights, and now I sleep very well. The room also has a desk, and a wardrobe for my clothes which is essentially a big zippered plastic bag with a Mediterranean seaside scene painted on it, on a frame. It's a delicate structure and has already collapsed into the room with a terrific crash.

Days start early here; seven days a week outside noises are filtering into my consciousness by 5:30 a.m. Our soundscape includes the tinny tapping and clinking of hammers on the construction site (luckily so far no heavy machines); the occasional car horn (come on, I'm here, let's go!), the calling of fruit vendors and cardboard collectors. They walk or bicycle around, pulling a cart, and as they go they call out and bang on a saucepan. Also, occasionally a donkey and cart go by, and the clop clop of hooves on the pavement can be heard. A less quaint but typical sound is that of massive hawking, a thorough clearing out of the respiratory tract with as much noise and vigour as can be mustered--an art I'm sure. Also, occasionally it sounds like a war has broken out as booming firecrackers go off to herald the opening of a new business or a new building.

So that's home for now. And what goes on outside the apartment? I'll have to go do some field research and then fill you in on some aspects of life in China, from my perspective. But before I go out, let me just make double, triple sure I have those keys for the vault door, because once the door bangs shut with its echoing "clang!" there is no getting back in without those keys.

To be continued; next time, what am I doing here?