This post is a little bit more about my personal experiences and observations of being in Zhuhai, China.
So on return to Hong Kong, to pick up four of the extremely large suitcases to be hand-transported to Zhuhai, I rested again for a couple of nights at the really rather nice, but not relatively-horrendously-expensive Royal Park Hotel. After living off noodles, egg, pak choi, seaweed snacks, and grapes for five days in Shenzen, I was craving chicken, stuffed my face with potatoes and vegetables from a really nice restaurant, then got walnuts and wonderful dried fruit at the local supermarket, and barely made it back to the hotel upright and went straight to sleep.
Two mornings later my journey to Zhuhai began, with the taxi boot jammed with three of the 25 kg suitcases, the 3D printer suit-bag being on the front seat. Ostensibly the journey was to cost $320 HKD, but on weighing the luggage at a whopping, trolley-straining 87 kg, it went along for the ride for a whopping extra $400 HKD. The ferry itself was awesome: about an hour and a half at well over 60km/h on a “Catamaran” style hull, with spray coming out the back that was longer than the actual boat. Halfway through we got bounced around, but it was a lot of fun.
Now, fascinatingly they had a “Nature Program” (with English subtitles) showing on TV on the ferry. It explained things like how there’re these unique species of crane that live in trees by the coast that have been flying out for thousands of years and the farmers basically set their watches (if they had watches) by their outward journey, to join them in the rice fields. Turns out that the cranes live off the slugs and snails that eat the rice, so it’s actually an amazing symbiotic relationship between the farmers and these cranes, something that’s extremely rare amongst humans. Then of course, along comes wheat, being more profitable, of course the farmers stop planting rice, and these beautiful and utterly unique cranes become extinct… or so everyone thought. Seven were found, the last remaining in the world, and the Chinese government stepped in to protect the forest surrounding the area (so that the cranes have somewhere to nest). The government subsidizes the village’s economy so that the farmers can continue to plant rice at a profit, and there are now over 250 of these beautiful, unique birds in the wild. The documentary explained several such stories, including one where there is now a bird spotting club in Beijing where an extremely rare species of white owl travels into the city to nest in some very specific trees unique to a one thousand-year-old Monastery. Several owls are getting hit by buses, ensnared in electrical lines along the way and so on, so the Chinese Government has established a special aviary recovery unit, helping the birds to heal, making sure they’re able to fly (special covered area for that) and then releasing them safely back in the wild.
Later in my trip I would watch a second documentary about China’s massive investment in the building trade, starting back in 2008. When every other country was mumbling about “austerity packages”, China started a programme to build 80 airports a week, six million miles of roads per year, tens of thousands of high-rise apartment blocks - the numbers just kept coming and were staggering in their ambition. They actually established a University to train tens of thousands of young people a year to operate cranes, diggers, and other heavy plant machinery, providing full 3D simulators for them. One factory was shown assembling one new digger every ten minutes.
And we think we’re the bee’s knees in the West. We have no idea. China is now exporting its expertise in skyscraper technology and construction, yet another thing for which we’re in financial debt to China.
So I’ve been getting by, by a process of smiling, pointing, drawing, miming, and a bit of “boo-ya” and “hen how”. Okay, it’s a bit more sophisticated than that, and a smartphone really helps. Which, even in Zhuhai, everybody but the really really old people seem to have. At least here in Zhuhai they don’t seem to cling to them like magic talismans like they do in Shanghai. The air’s cleaner, despite seeing only my first actual motorcycle since I arrived (apparently they’re banned in the cities, which explains why all the scooters are electric). Even the 10F bus is fully electric. There are a lot of buses, and they’re all full.
My skates help enormously. I’ve always loved them, but I can get around at speed (24km/h or so), yet I can also sit down with people, have some tea, and have my photo taken (or, video in one case) and posted to wechat (not Facebook, remember?) with some guy who’s proud of the fact that he’s met a foreigner to help him with the case of 12 beers he’s bought (and drunk seven of, already). He encouraged me to buy some chow-mein and it was awesome.
So I’m sitting 8,000 miles from most places I’ve lived, I’m sharing tea according to an ancient ritual I recognise as being critical to ensuring that people stay alive by boiling the water that they drink. I’m getting light-headed from a few sips of beer. I’m in a large town that’s effectively on the edge of a jungle, with beautiful mountains for a backdrop, the only foreigner in a concrete-infested village occupied by happy smartphone-internet-connected people, and I’m sitting there wondering what the hell I did to be so lucky to get a glimpse of these people’s lives.
After stuffing my face with the largest bowl of chow-mein that’s ever been put in front of me (approx. $1.20 USD), I went back round the corner to find that there were people playing basketball on local (concrete, again) hardcourts, with other people sitting or exercising on some of the outdoor, heavy-duty recreational gym equipment. So I skated round them for a bit, just for fun, then made my way back to the charming hostel ($10/night).
On the way I met a kid about six years old, also on skates, I waved hello and decided to double-back and see (without actually saying anything coherent in any language either of us could understand) if he wanted to learn some tricks. Turned out that he did. Everything I taught him in the first five minutes he could do easily, quickly, and first time, so I upped the challenge a bit and tried teaching him “cone S’s”. This is where you put some cones down, then put one foot in front of the other, and make the left foot snake to the right whilst the rear right foot snakes to the left, the cone goes in between your crossed-over-feet, then you reverse them for the next cone. It’s complicated and looks utterly cool when done at speed.
So we found some stones, laid them out, did figure-eights round them: I tried doing S’s, he copied, and I left him to it. Honestly I was amazed at how quickly he picked things up, and I think he may have appreciated seeing someone go by with skill and speed. It will give him something to aim for, just as happened with me when I first saw how cool (and challenging) skating really is.
All this is against the background of being here to help out Allwinner, yet also I have to find somewhere to live for the next few months. I’ve found an apartment, arranged to pay cash for an entire six months rent (I figured that would be an incentive for the owner to agree to reduce the normal rental contract duration from its usual 1 to 2 years - turns out I guessed right!). Now, six months rent for an 86 square-metre beautiful flat, in a gated community where there are palm trees, a local supermarket that has Western food, playgrounds, tennis courts, a kindergarten and an abundance of ex-pats, you would think would cost a lot: it’s RMB 2,500, around $250 a month. A smaller apartment with only one bedroom in Den Haag cost $1100 EUR (around $1,400 USD).
Basically, I’m now in a position to be extremely competitively priced when providing extensive support for Western clients, with Allwinner nearby and Shenzhen only a 90 minute ferry ride away. Ironically, as has been the case for the past fifteen years, I still will not actually be making any profit, because any money made needs to go directly and immediately into funding the EOMA68 project (including fulfilling the current batch of pledges). Still, if the surroundings are beautiful, and you’re surrounded by people who clearly enjoy living their lives, it’s like being on holiday all the time. After all these years, how the hell did I end up being so lucky?