Our Work in Shanghai

By Bob Allen

[fusion_dropcap class="fusion-content-tb-dropcap"]0[/fusion_dropcap]3/12/2011, by Bob Allen: We have once again witnessed the StoryJam magic. Even with translation errors (some quite comical), once our client engaged in the making of story, Chinese dissolved, English dissolved and there was only a room full of people creating a new reality together. This new idea-the Eco Town, will balance the land, the needs of very, very poor farmers, the needs of a huge population of too crowded urban residents, the needs of the government to be seen to be taking care of these social issues and the needs of the businesses and institutions that will create it.

As the Jam progressed, the potential for the project began to emerge from the fog as well as some of the very real challenges. The last exercise was the greatest brand essence work we have ever seen. It required everyone to pick a Chinese character or set of characters that to them presented the essence of the Eco Town. It was all about balance, relief and a better world-not just a better China or a better bottom line.

I am leaving with a sense that there are actually at least four Chinas. There is a village China soon perhaps to be gone forever along with its stories. There is an urban China brilliant as it is in Shanghai and daunting as it is in Chongqing. There is a rural China, with poor people who are, like everyone else, interested in a better, safer and more secure life. Then there is the Becoming China. This will be a fascinating place. It will be thriving, problematic, vital, complicated and successful. It will NOT be what we in the US hear that it will be-some hegemonic economic super giant. It will be a place for partnering and we laowai (foreigners) will have an important role to play as partners, as brothers.

03/10/2011, by Duncan Kennedy: Driving in China: This week we have been escorted through China by our client. This includes having a driver transport us around each location. While in the cities, the traffic is on par with any major busy metropolis, out in the country driving takes on a whole new meaning. After spending a week bracing/cowering/startling ourselves in the backseat as our drivers navigated their way along the roads of China, we are now accustomed to the thrill ride that traveling by road in China can be at times.

Drivers use their horns in a myriad of ways: as an early warning device to announce their oncoming presence to others on the road as they approach from behind; as a communicator to surrounding traffic indicating their intent or next move; as an audible indicator of speed to others ahead giving them an idea of how fast they need to move out of the way; as a means of identifying position or location on narrow roads around tight corners for any oncoming traffic; and as a command to clear the way. In other words, these drivers use their horns a good 12-15 times/minute. After a few days, we became familiar with the different durations and patterns of honking the horn to know when we should look up or be concerned. The car horn is very emblematic of the Chinese language. For every character there are 4 different tones and it can mean several different things depending on how it is pronounced and in what context it is use. So it is with the car horn here.

Sharing the road takes on a whole new meaning over here — other cars, large trucks, 3-wheelers, bicycles, scooters, pedestrians, dogs, chickens, geese, garbage, and mounds of road building supplies waiting to be used to fix the same road on which they are piled. People walk on highways and overpasses like they are pedestrian walkways – and they are! Where as in the States, life occurs away from the road or at least a safe distance from it, here in China the road is a main conduit for daily life. It certainly makes for great views out the window!

Just because you drive a car and are bigger and faster does not always mean you have the right of way. The number of bicycles and scooters on the road is like a mass of army ants having their way across the jungle floor regardless of how big an animal you are. An interesting aspect of driving in Chinese metropolitan areas is that their traffic lights include a timer that counts down the seconds until the light will change. Not sure if this is to keep people obeying the traffic laws or as a courtesy to drivers but certainly made waiting at traffic lights a more pleasant and timely experience. Also in the cities, there are designated lanes for bicycles and scooters with short fences that keep them separated from vehicular traffic. Although you better know your Chinese if you plan to drive around town. Many of the signs are strictly Chinese characters and getting lost around town would be way too easy if you are unfamiliar with the language or the rules of the road/driving habits of the local residents.

03/10/2011, by Duncan Kennedy: Today we piled into a 4×4 and headed off to the property site along the banks of the Yangtze River. We drove through the town of Jianjin on our way to meet some of the local farmers who work the land.

Along the way we passed valleys and hillsides filled with terraced agriculture. Their ability for growing food wherever possible regardless of the slope or size of the plot is only possible by the fact that all this work is done by hand. In places where commercial agriculture could never use heavy farming equipment for mass crop production, these resourceful people are growing everything in small batches that starts to add up very quickly when you see how much of the land is successfully cultivated through sweat and struggle. But therein lies the rub, 500 million farmers cultivating crops like this cannot produce enough yield to feed 1.3 billion people. Modern agriculture is needed to provide the efficiency and food production necessary. So what do you do with all these extra farmers? That’s part of the story we’re helping to create.

We met with the farmers outside a new community being built for them adjacent to their land. The new accommodations are part of an exchange in aggregating their land for commercial crop production where possible and maintaining the aesthetic value and cultural consistency of terraced farming where not. They like this program and want many of the amenities and lifestyle conveniences of urban living that they have lacked for so long. Driving past many of these dilapidated homes, we can see why.

Many of these farmers are older. Their adult children have moved to the cities to find better paying jobs, many times leaving their own children in the care of their parents back on the farm or small town. These grandparents raising grandchildren are optimistic for a future where their adult children can return home, work the land again at a better wage for a commercial production operation or find new manufacturing or service industry jobs around their own town. Then they would be reunited with their children/families, and allow their elders to retire with a secure income and dignity. The past 20 years of rural flight to the large cities for better paying work has placed an immense burden on China and created incredible squalor in these immense urban areas. There must be a better way and we are privileged to be part of this innovative approach being developed in Chongquin.

Our hope is that they do not loose the incredible beauty and distinction that these terraced gardens provide just for the sake of mass agricultural production and crop yield. As new residential and community developments rise up on the slopes of the land, keeping the aesthetic value of the land is critical to maintaining property values and protecting the cultural authenticity of the people who live here.

So enough of the backstory, the hills here are alive with strawberries growing under long protected rows of plastic sheeting to keep them warm at night, tight lines of bulky heads of cabbage and lettuce that run off into the distance, and groves of citrus – oranges, lemons, and grapefruit – that thrive despite that heavy clay of the soil due to the backbreaking labor of the farmers. Everywhere you see terraces of rice, pole beans, and berry bushes. When you have this many hands to work the land, the manicured layout of the crops become the pervasive landscape as far as the eye can see.

03/09/2011, by Duncan Kennedy: So we are now in Chongquin, staying at what can only be described as the most opulent hotel we never knew existed. It’s called the Hengda Hotel, just outside Jianjin, and is part of a 6-star hotel chain over here. Have not seen it in the daytime since we’ve been here due to our heavy schedule, however if the interior is any indication, it must look great from the outside.

Walking into the lobby, we immediately felt like old time party members arriving for a national congress: red fabrics, gold fixtures, and plenty of polished marble. The place is one part Ritz-Carlton and one part vintage Cold War movie set. The rooms are massive. The bathroom is big enough to park a car in and the bedroom (photo below) is bigger than my living room.

But even on the other side of the world, we found some familiar friends – namely, Siemens! They have installed Siemens Building Technologies throughout including 240V wall receptacles, climate control, internet/phone jacks, and a bedside table fold out control board (that would make Dr. Evil feel at home. This thing opens the curtains and shades, operates all sorts of lights, and has presets for sleeping and daytime. Nice to see you, Mr. Bond!

The bathroom is fit for a King’s Speech including dual sound proof booths for the shower and throne that face each other like a Name That Tune sound off. Couldn’t figure out the reason for the mirror above the bathtub faucet until I noticed the remote control at the other end of the tub. Mirror, Mirror, on the wall, what’s on TV besides reruns of official party news stories or bizarre daytime TV that makes Mexico’s look Emmy-worthy? Not much … and nothing in English, not even subtitles. We are definitely deep in the interior of mainland China.

The kicker is the awesome room amenities, like 2 toothbrushes, a combo hair brush/comb, and matching his/her emergency fire hoods in the closet just in case we need to evacuate this massive testament to capitalistic decadence through searing heat and low-oxygen levels.

03/09/2011, by Bob Allen: China, at least the real China, is without question not anything like whatever your mental model is. It is aggravatingly able to satisfy even the basest of stereotypes to the T and then the next moment violate every concept you’ve ever cultivated. Today was a typical day in Chongqing with all-day fog, chilly wind and drizzle. Chongqing is spoken of as a “city” but it is really a region. More than 30 million people live here and they live in radically divergent ways. The core city of Chongqing is like an exaggerated version of a US city. It’s like Manhattan, Chicago, Detroit and St. Louis all got together and merged-squeezing out any extra room. The human density is overwhelming-not just the sense of being pushed together but also the unbelievable pure quantity of humans. The word swarm is the closest I can get.

Then, just about 30 KM from the center of this unreal hive of humanity is Zhongshan Village. It is the other side. It is the storybook China of your mind. Perched on a rising canyon wall of the Yangtze River it faces Southeast-proper Feng Shui so that the river can bring prosperity. The village is a single long market street with open, tiny shop-fronts selling everything from fresh (live) eels to marbles, from delicious smoked tofu with spicy Sichuan peppers to hand-made crossbows. It is this wooden, close, charcoal-scented warren that houses the Faces. It is the Faces of this place that leave you breathless, in love, and warmed and also haunted, forlorn and pierced by a kind of purity and honesty that is agonizing to even try to live up to. Zhongshan is present. It is in this moment but it has unspeakably deep roots in time. Grandfathers smoking long pipes of local tobacco and fresh toddlers wearing Nikes. River clams the size of dinner plates for sale fresh from the water and TV sets tuned to the morning talk shows. The “caught between times” quality of this one long winding street breaks you open, makes you pay attention and for us, tempered every story we heard or told this afternoon.

We spent the rest of the day with farmers, government officials and other consultants and executives of our client, beginning to build the story for the next great land reform in China. One that began in 1949 with Mao Zhedong, continued in 1978 with Deng Shaoping and is evolving now with its epicenter on 6,500 acres of beautiful terraced hillside farms and 6 miles of river front just a few miles South of Zhongshan Village. That is part of the story and the epic of what will sweep this place over the next decade. What happens on the market street in Zhongshan though, is forever.

03/08/2011, by Duncan Kennedy: Spent the morning of Day 2 flying from Shanghai to Chongquin on China Eastern Airlines. The fact that none of us speak Chinese did not hinder our ability to get checked in, make in through their version of TSA (much more polite and faster), and find our gate. However, the similarities with previous flying experiences took a slight detour with the boarding process. After the shuttle bus dropped us off at the plane (the terminal is 2 stories; upper story gates use jet-ways, lower story gates use buses to ferry passengers out to the mass of planes in the adjacent tarmac to double the volume of flights that Pu Dong can handle), we crowded around the base of the mobile stairwell to have the gate agent take our second boarding pass before we walked up the stairs and onto the plane (see photo below, Bob Allen on right side of photo). The 3 hour flight on an Airbus 320 was non-eventful except for some kind of dried mystery meat that remained in its protective wrapper amid the rest of our mid-morning snack.

Once in Chongquin, we met up with our escorts for this part of the trip and took a looping tour through the city to get some lunch and visit the Urban Planning Center. It was very apparent that this was a different kind of China than Shanghai. Chongquin is a large urban development district about the size of South Carolina with a population of 31+ million (about the same as Iraq) and it is growing so fast that there is rubble everywhere; from new construction, from old construction being torn down, and from new construction that has stopped while they wait their turn for what they need to finish.

At the Urban Planning Center, we walked out onto a balcony overlooking that largest diorama we’ve ever seen – easily bigger than an Olympic swimming pool. It was a layout of the entire metropolitan area with no trickery or mirrors to make it look bigger. If the building was there or plans had been approved for it, there was a scale model of it there on the floor. This city will be China’s new metropolis and stop people from moving East. They are expanding their airport (similar terminal size/layout to Charlotte, NC) by plopping OIA’s dual terminals on the other side of the runways. They are also building a massive hi-speed rail network, sports stadium complex, several ATL-scale Peachtree financial centers, a cluster of art/culture/science museums, and something called the World Theater of Circus.

We’re pretty well-heeled with the whole scope of China thing by now, but in Chongquin they are planning and building on a scale that makes the Hoover Dam look like a weekend project in the back yard.

Tomorrow we go out to the site and see the property for the first time along the Yangtze. Will also find out if all the spicy Szechuan food we’ve had for lunch and dinner today will have any consequences. Can’t wait.

03/08/2011, by Bob Allen: Today was a day of striking contrast. We flew the 900 miles from Shanghai to Chongqing (not a typo-there often isn’t a “u” after a “q” in Chinese). Chongqing is a huge (32M people) city-of-cities. It has a surreal quality and is unbelievably busy and crowded. It has actually been the capital of China twice in history. Located at the confluence of two large and navigable rivers (one of them the Yangtze), it is a major industrial center. Chongqing is also illustrative of why our clients are developing the project about 30 miles away- the Chinese middle class needs an alternative to inner-city or purely rural livelihood. The project we are working on will be a new kind of town for China blending sustainable agriculture, eco-centric design, agri-tourism and ultimately a healthcare center, a major western university and multiple resorts, all interconnected with permanent residences.

Tonight we’re staying at what I’d call a 5.5 star hotel neat Jiangjang. Tomorrow, we travel out to the site to talk with some farmers and government officials.

Duncan, Kelly and our guide, Lucky Huang at the waterfront in Shanghai with the famous Shanghai TV tower behind them.

03/07/2011, by Duncan Kennedy: Everyone landed on time and traveled as well as could be expected considering the 14+ hours flights. Made it through the gauntlet of hundreds of Chinese escorts waiting on the other side of Customs to find our hosts. Spent a rainy Sunday night in the hotel restaurant before crashing and starting the process of resetting our clocks. We are 12 hours ahead of Orlando. Bob’s daughter is still coming to grips with her Dad living in the “future” and experiencing days that have not yet started for her back at home. My firm-fixed pattern of 6 hours of sleep a night is killing me here. Have seen 2am and 3am so far as the starts of my day, but at least it lets me catch up with work/email. Internet access here is instantaneous and ubiquitous. Skyping has a better image quality/bandwidth from halfway around the world than using Time-Warner at home.

Monday was a whirlwind tour of Shanghai. They are not kidding when they say 20 million people. This place has 30-story apartment buildings like Orlando has single family homes. We are staying in a hotel near the Bund. That’s the bend in the river where the European’s set up shop a few centuries back. Nice mix of tight Old World continental streets with Asian bodegas amid neon signs. Night time here is as bright as Downtown Disney, but the illuminated buildings are some of the tallest in the world. One busy intersection has the Jin Mao Tower (88 stories with unique Asian facets), the Shanghai World Financial Center (101 stories with the hole at the top), and the early pilings for a new one that will be 150 stories! The architecture here is incredible. Not a single stretched cube anywhere. Everything as a a curve, a bend, a wild top, an outcrop – Feng Shui rules here and it is quite a stunning skyline.

We met with a top economics professor at the China Europe International Business School (one of the top’s in the world) to get the skinny on where China is headed and some of the challenges they are facing like having 500 million farmers (way more than the population of the entire US), but still need to import food to feed everyone since their agricultural practices here are still quite antiquated. That’s part of what we’re here for – a new story about farming in China for the 21st Century and beyond. Anyway, this guy was brilliant and a Florida Gator! He got his PhD there from ’94-98, but when he came back to Shanghai, he said he didn’t even recognize the place after being away for only 4 years. The pace of growth here is so incredible that the local population has trouble keeping up with it on a daily basis.

Had a nice dinner last night with the client at a local place that had a memorable “fish lips in soup” speciality (see picture below) that we passed on but lots of tasty veggies and some slow cooked pork that was delicious. Shanghai food is more sweet and the sauces are thicker. Today we fly domestic to Chongquin (30 million people) a large municipal district in the center of the country in Szechuan Province – bring on the heat!!!

People here talk frankly about the government and daily life, just like we do. But as we deal with the vitriol in the media and ineptness/inaction by our elected officials to do what’s needed, they live their lives along side the constant omnipresence of state control. It just the way it is right now. That said, there is an amazing sense of entrepreneurial spirit here in Shanghai (less elsewhere) and people are living their lives with gusto and enthusiasm just like everywhere else. Last night on the walk back to the hotel from the restaurant, the streets were filled with young people enjoying a Monday night as big as Vegas could ever dream of on a weekend.

03/06/2011, by Bob Allen: The IDEAS Experience Design Team arrived in Shanghai today. It was drizzling and cold but the rest of the week bodes well weather wise. Tomorrow, we begin the process of collecting the component of the story for our client’s at CHIC. This will be the story of a new, world-class next generation city in China on the banks of the Yangtze River, about 40 km from the city of Chongqing. Tomorrow is a Shanghai familiarization day. More later!

March 12, 2011|Archive|

About the Author: Bob Allen

Bob spent 25 years with the Walt Disney Company before founding IDEAS back in 2001. He is a nationally recognized speaker, avid bike rider, and Zen teacher/practitioner.

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