Zhuhai has a population of over 1.3 million and is never boring. Every day as I travel around the city it is like watching a movie of a busy, bustling, buzzing cauldron of life. People get around the expansive city by many different means. Only 10% of Chinese own a car and in Zhuhai the percentage is even smaller. However, this is changing every day, as the car becomes an increasingly attractive status symbol for the ‘nouveau riche’ Chinese. The locals are not used to cars and hate the smell of the exhaust fumes. They cover their mouths as they cross the roads. Increasingly, as the number of car owners increases, I see more and more minor car accidents. They always cause chaos because, even if no-one is injured, the rule seems to be that everything must stay as it is until the police arrive to assess the situation. In the meantime, there can be over an hour of traffic chaos whereas in the west we would quickly remove the cars to the side of the road and then deal with the problem! Despite this, generally speaking, the traffic flows very well with the most people using the amazing, well priced, public transport bus service.
There are roadworks everywhere to expand the already consideable road width, symbolising how the city is growing. With it’s closeness to Hong Kong and Macau this is a city to watch in the future. I believe it will be a vast conurbation (economic combination of cities) in the next 10 years. The buses just continue travelling over ever reducing road space while the construction workers tunnel underneath the last remaining sections of road!! It’s like tunnelling under a sand castle at the seaside! Despite the traffic situation, the bus drivers are very pragmatic. They are very friendly, particularly the lady drivers. If it is raining and they see me rushing for the bus they will sometimes stop to let me in, even though it is not a stop. On the way home, if the bus is empty – which it frequently is as I live at the terminus, they will drop me at my ‘garden’ – as they call the housing estates here. The bus drivers usually listen to music on the radio as they speed along through the city and each bus has a bamboo or some kind of plant growing in it. I think this is just to reassure everyone that the environment in the bus is good (a bit like the canary in the mine). I see the strangest things on the bus – like a live fish in a plastic bag or a woman with acupuncture needles stuck in the outer part of her left ear!! Not to mention the strange things outside the bus – like a little old woman riding on the back of a motorbike taxi. If there are no seats available on the bus, everyone jumps up as soon as a pregnant woman or elderly person gets on the bus.
The average life expectancy in China is 79 so there are not many really elderly people here – by western standards. Everyone seems to be very hard working, so if I don’t get a seat in the bus I am never bothered as I think the young manual workers deserve it more than me. They usually fall into a deep sleep within minutes of taking their seat! You can always tell the migrant workers as they are the ones carrying their rushmat bed as they move from one job to the next. Home comforts are not the norm over here. As we drive along on the bus you can see isolated gardeners tending the many areas of greenery around the city. They seem to take great pride in their ‘little garden,’ removing litter and weeds – even as they appear.
As I travel around I notice that people seem to wear the most unexpected things! Yesterday, I saw a woman on the back of a motorbike with a baby between her and the driver. The woman was wearing a bonnet (yes, an Easter Bonnet) and a blouse with ruffles! Also, it is not unusual to see a woman walking along the beach in her best dress and high heels – and what’s more amazing , managing to do so with some style! I also saw a woman on a moped wearing the typical triangular shaped Chinese rigid straw hat with her face covered up to the eyes with a muslin cloth to reduce the pollution – she looked like a Ninga! The other day I saw a man selling metal coat hangers. He was wearing bright green socks!! These street sellers are always keen to do business.
I wish I could say the same for some of the banks! The service is SO slow. They count the money 3 times with a machine and then once by hand – even if it is just £50! If a customer needs to fill out a form they do it at the window keeping everyone else waiting – apparently patiently!! There are special VIP lanes/sections for the well-off which seems a bit unfair. The other day I went in the bank and there was no-one in there. The numbers said they were seeing customer number 65, but when I pulled my number it was 90 – I think the other 25 had gone out to commit suicide because of the delay!
The Chinese now love their festivals and traditions more than ever. Only recently they had the grave sweeping ceremony where families get together to remember their ancestors and care for their grave, although nowadays, I think most people are cremated! Also, the family try to gather at the place the person died, even if it was a roadside accident, and then they set fire to some fake money as a renewed send off for the deceased! Alternatively, they like to gather around special trees. These are trees that have been planted to commemorate some event. Historically, something significant or memorable would have been buried with the roots of the tree.
Every day I try to practice my Mandarin. It’s rather easy to do so as the Chinese have a habit that, once they start talking, they are happy to speak for a long time – whether you understand them or not! Even talking to each other they do this. Sitting next to each other on the bus, for example, they will not look at each other as they speak. Sometimes one person will speak for a long time into the ether as the other listens silently. Only after several minutes will they make a response – or not! When they are not planning a long conversation, the Chinese are quite serious looking and monosyllabic but say ‘hello’ in Chinese and they break into a smile of amazement that a foreigner can speak the language! Mobile telephone conversations are loud and accessible to all, but usually staccato – e.g. ‘eh? Ah – this evening ok -ah.’ With this short exchange in Chinese, the call is ended without a ‘hello’, ‘how are you’ or a ‘goodbye’ – all considered unnecessary phrases and a waste of energy!! The Chinese near my apartment love watching TV outside together in the cool evening, while eating sunflower seeds. This TV service seems to be courtesy of the local supermarket. By the early morning, the carpet of seed husks has been removed in preparation for the following evening’s viewing feast.
I don’t have too much food shopping to do and I try not to buy any clothes because they are not really cheaper here. Shoes too are a little difficult to buy especially when you are size 40-41 (6-7) as I am! Just yesterday, I bought a pair of light slip-on shoes for £9. I explained to the lady, in Chinese, that my feet were a little dirty because I had been walking all day. With that, she reached into her cupboard. I thought she was going to produce one of those disposable socks – but no, she proudly gave me a clear plastic bag to put on my foot while trying on the shoe!
Although the life expectancy is shorter than some parts of the western world, the people seem to be generally quite healthy, being committed to early morning daily exercise followed by hardwork. Also, following the private health care trend of America rather than the ‘free for all’ model of the UK makes healthcare a luxury for the well off. Over here, they seem to have no concept of tonsillitis, allergies, childhood diabetes and phobias, seeing them as the consequences of high living. The children are generally delightful. Nappies are rarely used so the little babies are conditioned to go to the toilet when the adult indicates that it is time! Toddlers walk around with open back trousers so that when they crouch down the trousers automatically open! Generally speaking, the local population are quite poor, so pushchairs are not used. Instead the babies are carried on the back or the front of an adult – very often the grandmother (who is usually in her 50/60s) The grandparents are frequently the primary carers for the children as the parents continue to work.
If the older children address you, they will call another young person ‘sister/brother’ using the appropriate title for ‘little’ and ‘big’ and an older person ‘aunty/uncle’ even though this person is not a member of their family. It is a term of affection for friends and those you are familiar with. In the subtropical climate of Zhuhai, it is evening when the children come out to play in the cool air with the adults and sometimes there are open-air concerts in the plaza. Alternatively, the children will skate or play on small motorised cars. Meanwhile, all around the city, elaborate ceremonies are taking place, as proud and hard working University students don cap and gown for their graduation ceremonies. Equally proud parents take photos of their young adults in front of the University and families present them with large bouquets of flowers. Many will opt to continue their studies abroad. Once, in work, the Chinese seem to change their job frequently in order to find that better position to provide their families with the living and ‘luxury’ items that are becoming more popular.
Food items are another thing that never cease to surprise me. In the supermarket you can buy ‘cigar biscuits’ and ‘ugly’ face cream. Sounds interesting! I love to go to the Noodle Cafes (as I call them) for fresh homemade noodles and soup. There are Noodle Cafes all over the city and most of the good ones are run by friendly Muslims from the north of China who have come to settle in the wealthier South. They are increasingly competing with McDonalds, KFC and most recently Starbucks, as the American giants move into a rapidly growing city. However, at 60 pence a time, the food at the Noodle Cafe is hot, fresh, cheap and delicious. When talking to each other, the staff frequently slip into their Northern language or singing style which is straight from the movie ‘Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’. The men and boys wear tank tops in the chilly 25 degrees (!) and pill box hats to denote their
As my apartment is on the coastal (east) side of the city, the sea is another constant source of interest. My coastal view changes every day as the city develops more and more. For example, there used to be a big fish restaurant just by the sea near my apartment. Now, it has been reduced to rubble and they are transforming the area into a sea viewing area. Within a month it will be completed, with fully grown trees, benches, walkways and an inadequately small car park. The Chinese will work around the clock to finish a job. They take great pride in their achievements. It’s not usual to see one of the workers having a early morning wash in the less than clean sea water, while at the same time, washing his clothes. Within minutes of coming out of the sea, the clothes are dry, with a combination of the heat and sea breeze. Every morning at dawn, you can see the fishermen heading out in their small boats. In order to get to the rowing boat, which is anchored just a little off shore, they walk out to sea in a raft made from two polystyrene boxes tied together with some wood! Once they arrive at the rowing boat, the polystyrene raft is anchored and off they go out to the oyster beds. In order to row, they have this unusual technique of rowing while standing, a little like the gondola in Venice or the punt in Cambridge! It doesn’t look quite as efficient as sitting down, but I suppose it leaves more room in the boat for their catch. (They haven’t realised it could be a tourist attraction – yet!) Whenever the bigger boats head out for a longer sea voyage, they set off firecrackers attached to the boat as they leave the harbour. This is to ask the sea gods to protect them and bring them home safe to their families. All along the coast in the early morning you can hear the snap of the fans, as the fan dancing ladies do their exercise and, on the breeze, the sound of the Chinese whistle being played plaintively in yet another new park overlooking the sea. The Chinese Whistle looks like the Irish Tin Whistle. only it is made of bamboo, not tin, and has what appears to be a goitre half way down the small tube!! In the evening, as I wait for the bus, Enya (the Irish group) is played on the big open air television screen showing the plans for the rapidly developing Zhuhai.
Zhuhai is a city of change, a city of beauty and a city of wonderful people. I like it here. It reminds me of Ireland in the 1960s! I hope to return soon….