When I arrived in Wuhan, China this May, a few things were different. I was used to visiting in July and August, during which Wuhan was quite literally a sauna — a 100-degree humidity that clogged every opening of your body. Of course, like every normal human, I used to hate it. I would gasp for air until the nearest taxi came and bemoan the particular driver’s affinity for saving gas by rolling down the windows. At last, I would duck into our apartment or a restaurant or a hotel and demand that the AC be turned on immediately. Then I would face another sort of problem. I’ve discovered a flaw in the Celsius system. Sure, it’s neat that water freezes at 0° and boils at 100°. Cool story, bro. But let me tell you this: it’s impossible to get the AC at the perfect temperature because 27° is a smidgeon too hot and 26° a smidgeon too cold. I’m always switching between the two.
This time, though, I arrived in mid-May, which meant that it was still on the chilly side. Surprisingly, I found myself a tad nostalgic for the sauna days.
The second thing I noticed was that my father was actually working. Well, my father has always worked hard. After all, he’s one of the most successful people in his field and is taking over the Chinese tech world. Currently, he has a primary company working on femtosecond lasers that are a fraction of the cost and much more powerful than what’s available today. This company is now housed in a much nicer complex, which he uses completely free of charge, courtesy of the Chinese government. In the same building is his second company, which does something I don’t quite know. Then there are third and fourth institutions that we’ll get to later. In short, when I’d visited previously, my dad could always take off work whenever he wanted. But now, he was working 9-5 five days a week.
The third change was the fact that the Chinese government was all over my dad. The first man I met was a very strange top official in the Huangshi municipal government. Huangshi, an hour away from Wuhan, is where my dad was born and is sponsoring many of his projects. Anyway, I had a preconception in my mind that all Chinese officials were power-hungry, materialistic, corrupt, chain-smoking, drinking dudes. This guy was, from what I could see, only the latter two. I asked my dad and he agreed that yes, he was one of the good guys. Our first meeting was at a restaurant that resembled a botanical gardens and, of course, the official footed the bill. I played a lot of Temple Run and inhaled a lot of secondhand smoke that day.
For our next meeting, we drove out to Huangshi to meet the whole gang. We were seated in a fancy conference room in a five-star hotel and I was told that the important-looking man was the mayor of Huangshi. Instead of trying to follow the difficult conversation (which probably involved a lot of ass-kissing), I hammered away on my laptop, bringing my novel closer to completion. Then, we entered a private dining room. These are the newest big thing in China — you get your own waitstaff and a separate restroom and you’re served a 10-course meal. I was surprised to see my name card on the table.
In the middle of lunch, the mayor had to leave to attend his second and third lunches of the day. What a busy man. After we’d finished eating, everyone scattered, but we had to stay at the hotel for another meeting. Seeing that I was tired, just like that, one of the officials opened a hotel room for me and I was free to use it for the time being. I took a nice nap, and then we were headed back to Wuhan. Before we move on, let me tell you about Huangshi. In the past, I’d always thought of it as the poorer, smaller version of its cousin, Wuhan. Though all my relatives lived in Huangshi, I much preferred Wuhan for its nice department stores and relatively cleaner streets. This time, though, I was utterly shocked by Huangshi. I didn’t recognize anything except for my grandparent’s apartment. My dad told me that the apartment’s worth had skyrocketed tenfold since he purchased it years ago. The development that had occurred was incredible — it was as if someone had cheated at Roller Coaster Tycoon, had billions of dollars stashed away, and built whatever he pleased. Technically, this someone was the Chinese government.
Within months, a new five-star hotel arched over the lake water. With a snap of the fingers, a beautiful ancient-style restaurant was erected by the shore.
When we dined at this place one sunny afternoon, we were the only guests. As I continued to type furiously on my laptop while trying to escape the secondhand smoke, one of the officials kept chasing me. I don’t really like my ass being kissed, but I was grateful for the gifts I received. A very expensive bracelet I don’t know when I’ll ever get a chance to wear and an awesome water bottle I later gave to Phineas. My dad also got a soccer ball signed by the entire Chinese national team, but he doesn’t even watch soccer and, as far as I know, the Chinese team isn’t very good…
Our next voyage to Huangshi contrasted greatly with the lunch with the mayor. It ended up being one of the most incredible experiences and I will remember it forever. We were escorted into a strange-looking complex guarded by a stern man in uniform. The rows of buildings appeared old and unused, and I wondered why anyone would need to protect this place. It seemed like something out of a James Bond flick, where the next action sequence would take place. I whispered to my dad, “I thought we were going to lunch. Is this some secret government hideout?” My questions wouldn’t be answered for awhile, since my father had no clue either.
We pulled up to this warehouse and I walked in to find graffiti on the walls and random statues scattered about. On the other side of the warehouse was an open space shaded by a roof made of vines. A man came out to greet us and began to pour us tea at a mosaic table. I felt like I’d just traveled back in time. A few men came out of a kitchen to speak to the tea guy and he gave them orders. I was thoroughly confused. When we were served a lavish, home-cooked meal that was better than any of the restaurant dishes, I had lost my patience. What the hell was this place? Laughing, the men began to explain to me. One of them was the odd official whom I’d met first. Apparently, we were in what used to be a Communist storage warehouse. The area we were currently in was their old barracks. Looking up, I saw a portrait of Mao on the wall.
As I spoke briefly of Mao with these officials who, many would say, are still Communists, it was absolutely surreal. None of them began to chant a Communist hymn or whisper a prayer to their deceased leader. They just mentioned Mao matter-of-factly and continued to explain that this complex would soon be torn down to make room for something new. Nowadays in China, everything newer was better. I told them that I would be sad to see this place go, however. No matter what had happened here in the past (executions? Torture? Brainwashing?), it was a piece of history and I’m a sucker for old things. To immortalize this Communist warehouse, I took a few photos.
Not only did the officials not mind, the funny dude insisted that I take his portrait. Voilà:
During this day, I was reminded again that I love China for its history. While I’m amazed by the speed of development that is happening there every second, I am also saddened that places like this will be eternally lost. China is enamored with change, but I hope that it one day learns to appreciate its past as much as its future. But then again, it’s hard to preserve historical sites other than to turn them into tourist havens who will be both annoying and destructive. When I was in Rome, I was shocked to see ruins everywhere, fenced off from construction sites as if they were mere weeds.
To those who haven’t yet seen China, I encourage you: please visit before pollution and tourism ruin its exquisite scenery and before development and business turn the big cities into scenes from a sci-fi film.
For more about companies #3 and #4 and our business trip to Guangzhou, stick around for Part Three!