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Gains and Losses as China changes 2000-2016, through an American eye


The following article was written by Dodie Johnston, an American Licensed Educational Psychologist, who worked in public elementary schools prior to teaching in China.


Flower boxes and creepers green the concrete on flyover supports.  Some e-scooters rush ahead of the wall of traffic behind them in defiance of street [traffic] lights. Photo by Duncan France

“Hundreds of Japanese and German cars inch along new freeways edged with trailing vines of Star Jasmine. Students attend university in record numbers but are unable to keep their eyes off their cell phones during class. Short-sleeve-shirt weather one week in January plummets into down-jacket temperatures the next week. This is not the Fuzhou I remember from when I began teaching at Hwa Nan Women’s College in 2000. But it is the Fuzhou I experienced when I returned in 2016.

Skyscraper at Chating Gongyuan, Fuzhou 2012. Photo by www.letfind.com.cn

“Gone is the old neighborhood on Nan Ti Island where the Westerners used to live in the Trade Agreement days when ports on the southeast coast of China yielded concessions to European traders [Editor: After the First Opium War ended in 1842, Fuzhou became a ‘Treaty portresulting from the the Treaty of Nanjing]. In 2000, I could stroll cobbled streets past men arguing the merits of their birds kept in bamboo cages hanging on thick stone-walls. I could watch old women playing mahjong at round tables set up in the narrow lanes meant for foot and wooden cart traffic. I could bargain with vendors of all imaginable consumables, from golden mangos to clutches of frogs with their legs bound in raffia. Now I skitter down those lanes in the shadow of towering concrete condos [apartment blocks], dodging cars and electric bikes. Hand-laundered shirts and knickers still flap on tiny balconies and a few shops remain open but the flicker of TV sets from behind condo windows has replaced a colorful street life.

“On the other hand, the Fuzhou I see today also has created a thriving tourist center resurrected out of other crumbling neighborhoods that were barely clinging to life from pre-Liberation days. ‘Three Lanes and Seven Alleys –

’ is one of these: a vibrant, busy grid of cobbled streets offering everything from Indian cuisine to trendy coffee drinks set against a background of carefully restored dwellings.   Bronze plaques and statues commemorate famous residents or common professions of the past: herbalist, scribe, or scholar. A decorative and accurate paper map guides the visitor through a maze of tiny streets where pop-up entrepreneurs sell everything from designer denim jackets to molasses lollipops, drizzled in fanciful shapes as you watch.

“Before the neighborhood was reconstructed, I used to love the visual feast of ancient, dusty courtyards behind wooden doorways and equally ancient residents, always ready to beckon me in to admire a plant or a koi pond. I would marvel at the architectural integrity that permitted the houses to sag so artistically (and sometimes perilously) and marvel at the blazing color of lantern shops set off by garlands of laundry drying on lines propped up with bamboo poles. Now that it is a new “old town”, the feast can also be gastronomic, from American hamburgers to Italian pizza. The authentic charm has been replaced with more cosmopolitan pleasures.

“Today’s Fuzhou is also putting the finishing touches on a subway to take some of the pressure off city streets and freeways. Intended to run between the old north train station and the new south train station, it was scheduled to begin operation in early 2017 [Now called Fuzhou Metro, it actually started May 18, 2016]. The daring and the curious could purchase advance tickets to become ‘preview riders’ on a trial basis. The central downtown area of Dong Jie Kuo has experienced a complete make-over during the chaos of subway construction, complicated by the unearthing of relics deemed worthy of protection. Like a woman just out of plastic surgery, the area is bruised and scarred, with empty shops and piles of concrete rubble. Rolls of wiring often unwind willy-nilly over the streets. [The Don Jie Kuo crossroads used to have a pedestrian bridge roundabout that served the sidewalks of all four main thoroughfares.  This has been replaced by underground walkways related to the Don Jie Kou  Metro [subway] station

Overhead pedestrian roundabout above Don Jie Kou crossroad, central Fuzhou (2008).  Now replaced by Metro underpasses.  Photo by Duncan France

“Still, snazzy new facades are taking shape and I expect to see the area vibrant and thriving on my next visit [2017?].  For the past decade many Chinese cities have been a patchwork of demolition and building sites thanks to economic growth and a government that creates jobs by the millions. Residents navigate the process with aplomb and acceptance, embracing the constant renewal as thrusting them forward into the modern world.

“Die-hard freeway commuters who don’t use the subway had better mind their speed and the inscrutable rules of the Chinese road. Now, on every overhead light and crossing structure, there are digital cameras, constantly recording the behavior of passing vehicles. The tapes are monitored by another marvel of job creation: the traffic controller. Points are given for each detected infraction and after 12 points a driver must pay a fine at one of the local traffic control offices, a new major employer in China. So why are people still weaving across lanes as though they didn’t exist and even driving on the sidewalk when the road becomes too clogged? It’s a mystery the Western mind cannot solve. Perhaps those things are permitted in crowded, competitive China.

Administration block at Fujian Hwa Nan Women’s College. Other University colleges rear right. Photo by Dodie Johnston

“I had an opportunity to observe a wide range of driving behavior in 2016, as my college [Fujian Hwa Nan Women’s College] is now 45 minutes out of town by bus. The Chinese government in its wisdom has relocated many of its universities to the countryside, creating “University Villages”, with students primarily composed of 18-25 year olds, on the outskirts of major cities. Fresh air, lots of space for expansion, the absence of urban distractions… seems like a good idea. The downside is that it’s a one-dimensional cultural scene when street-life is dominated by teenagers and young adults.

“Puppet shows, small children doing homework on stools outside sagging doorways and night movies shown on sheets hung on walls made of baked Min River mud are no longer part of my evening rambles as they were around the old Hwa Nan College. The University Village is more like a student factory than a neighborhood. Now, online shopping delivery trucks disgorge their Ali Baba cargo on assigned street corners to squeals of their delighted buyers. Cadres of students slurp bubble teas, eyes glued to individual cell phones. E-bikes (motor scooters that run on battery power) dart silently to and from the nearest mall or coffee shop.

“Advertising the joys of ‘country living’, Fuzhou developers are gobbling up the last of the farmland between downtown and the University Village. Tall condo clusters, where apartments sell for astonishing prices outside the reach of the average buyer, march steadily up the Min River corridor. These over-built, stacked units, many of which lie empty, are punctuated by glittering malls, flashing like Las Vegas nightclubs. Clever merchandisers provide kiddies’ play areas and stages on which neighborhood line dancers and precocious children can perform. Public transport brings in busloads of eager shoppers for hours of entertainment. International food courts and jumble sales add to the sense of unlimited possibilities. I can now hop on a climate-controlled transit van at the nearby ‘Lifestyle Mall’ and be at the newly modernized Fuzhou’s Changle airport in a little over an hour.

Magazines for sale at Fuzhou Changle airport.  Photo by Dodie Johnston

“Once there I can enjoy a hamburger at MacDonald’s or a veggie stir-fry at the Star Hope Café, or indulge my consumer lust by shopping for Sketchers or Rolex watches. I can try my hand at brush calligraphy or sample the pungent local teas. Where before there were none, the airport now supports several book and magazine stands with a large selection to satisfy any taste in reading material: The Harvard Business Review, Golf Digest, or ‘The Art of the Deal’ (by Donald Trump], all translated into Chinese. Free-standing fish tanks distract little ones from the disappointment of a delayed flight, while their elders perch under papier-mache palm trees, scowling into their cell phones.

“I recently hosted friends from Fuzhou in California and they were appalled at how dark and shabby the San Francisco airport and freeways are. They expected everything in the U.S. to be bigger, newer, cleaner than in China. Not so, it was clearly seen, as we drove around the City. I tried to explain that our urban centers had been built and then aged throughout the 20th century while theirs had sprung up, shiny and new, in the last decade, using modern architectural designs and materials. They exchanged pitying glances. They weren’t interested in historical excuses; they wanted to see the new, the big and the rich.

“And why not? Fuzhou has been marching with unified resolve in the direction of ‘Big’, ‘New’ and ‘Rich’ since it was declared a Special Economic Zone in 1984.  As the writer Andrew Solomon so aptly put it in his travel collection ‘Far and Away’, ‘It is hard to understand how the Chinese have retained some semblance of sanity in a country so utterly transformed.  The China of today is as dissimilar to the China I first visited as Oz is to Kansas…. one now finds a level of efficiency and sophistication in the cities that leaves me feeling that New York is quite nearly a provincial backwater.’  Mao’s famous quote, ‘Serve the people’ was replaced in the 1980s by the declaration attributed to Deng Xiao Ping, ‘To be rich is glorious!’ – with spectacular results.

“Glorious riches and the changes they have brought to Fuzhou (and all of China) have come at the cost of sacrifice and hard work. Old people recall a time when they tilled exhausted rice paddies in tattered jackets and ate field greens from cracked bowls. The next generation toiled in sweaty factories or worked around the clock to start a family business in the new economy. Now young people flock to colleges, shop for stylish clothing and the latest electronics. Their motto seems to be ‘It’s time to have some fun!’ And with those words, ‘fun’ has become a business opportunity, too!

“What kind of fun? A new appetite for baked goods inspired DIY baking shops to spring up around town where a shopper can buy the ingredients for cookies and bake them right on the premises (most Chinese kitchens do not have ovens). Too much trouble? Just pick up a bag of croissants and bagels at the bakery down the street. Fujian province is famous for its teas but trendy coffee shops now dot city street corners.

Solo at a Drum Club, Fuzhou.  Photo by Dodie Johnston

Artistic creativity is within reach of the hip, affluent young person, too.  Is it possible to have garage bands where there are no garages? Yes, because entrepreneurs have set up padded studios where wannabee rock stars can bang away on their instruments without disturbing the neighbors.  One such venue combined with a drop-in art studio and Japanese restaurant presents an inviting complex for the creative soul with discretionary income.  For those more comfortable outdoors than in stuffy studios, a hiking trail is being laid over the foothills edging Fuzhou, and a summer retreat on Gu Mountain, once only for rich Europeans, is now restored and open to the public.

“It is an exciting time, full of both loss and gain. What has not changed in Fuzhou culture is the primacy of the family, the warm hospitality extended to friends, foreign or local, and an enviable lack of interest in political or world affairs. I asked a Chinese acquaintance what people thought about the U.S. elections or climate change and was told that none of these was a concern for the average person. “We just want to mind our own business, get ahead financially and give our children a better life,” he said. “That is enough for us to think about.”

Dodie Johnston

The author after enjoying mountains of Jiao zi at her favorite dumpling restaurant, ‘New Year Every Day’, Fuzhou

Dodie has written articles for local newspapers and magazines wherever she has lived, as well as endless psycho-educational reports.  She lives in the Sierra Nevada foothills of northern California where she is a member of Sierra Writers.  

Also see:

Our article about Dodie’s e-mails about her teaching in Hwa Nan Women’s College

Our review of Dodie’s book ‘How was China?’