Bikes to Buicks

Posted by:  David

 First things first, the streets of China are not filled with nearly as many people riding bicycles as you’d imagine and many of those that do ride bikes have retrofitted them with electric motors.  Ten years ago the average Chinese citizen aspired for a Flying Pigeon bicycle.  Now they aspire for a Buick.

Clarence showing us the cavehouse

One of the craziest things about China is the contrast between ancient and new.  Yesterday we visited an 80-year old woman who lived outside of the city of Xi’an in a cave that her husband’s family has inhabited for hundreds of years.  It’s located a few hundred yards from the largest luxury resort development I have ever seen.  The resort will have two huge man-made lakes; several golf courses and tens of thousands of apartments and houses.  It spans about 10 square miles and more than 50,000 people were relocated to make room for this project.  The resort will be completed in a total of three years.

The elderly cave-dweller woman knows that she is about to be relocated out of her cave and into a brand new government-built apartment complete with electricity and plumbing; she is literally leaping from antiquity to modernity in real time.

The little village that she lives in knows that they are about to be relocated and the government will be giving them a new apartment as compensation.  Their new homes will be based on what they currently inhabit/own.  As a result, the people in this old village are building new buildings as quickly as they can, not to live in as they will be destroyed within a year, but so the government will provide them with a larger or even multiple apartments.  This will both raise their standard of living and possibly even allow them to live in one apartment and sell another that they are given.

On the way to visit the woman in the cave, our guide, Clarence (this is his adopted English name given to him by some British tourists.  I told him that I only knew of two other people named Clarence…..Clarence Darrow of the Scopes Monkey Trial and Clarence Clemmons of Bruce Springsteen and E Street Band) told us that there were more than 40 million Chinese living in caves like the one we saw today.  The cave was actually pretty cool as far as caves go.  It is warm in the winter and cool in the summer, there is very little in construction or maintenance costs and because there is not a toilet, shower, or sink, there’s never a need to call a plumber.  The refrigerator was a very deep pit outside of the cave with foot holes on either side making it possible to climb down into in order to retrieve food.  So on the one hand there are people living in very primitive conditions and on the other hand development and consumption are on a scale that the world has never seen.  The amount of building going on in Xi’an, Shanghai and Guilin is phenomenal (and I’m sure other places in China but these are the places we have been to so far).  I’m not talking about strip malls or residential subdivisions but large-scale high-rise apartment buildings one after the other after the other with no-end in site.  The speed of construction is astounding.  The infrastructure in terms of roads is tremendous.  We have been told in each place we go that 10 years ago there were crude, two lane roads where now very modern expressways lie.  People are still getting used to driving and what the various colors of traffic lights indicate, but overall it’s amazing to see what is happening.  China has almost exactly the same land-mass as the United States with over 4 times the population.

Clarence, our guide, was an interesting case.  He is 46 and one of five children.  He grew up in a two-room house (that’s two rooms, not two bedrooms) with his four siblings, mother and father, and maternal grandmother.  His father worked as a material-purchasing agent for an architectural firm and when Clarence was 14 the company (of course it was run by the government) gave him an apartment that had more room as well as indoor plumbing.  He came of age at the end of the Cultural Revolution. He told me that his father’s parents’ were from the country but were also land owners.  Their land was taken and they were severely persecuted.  Like many others of this time, they committed suicide. I asked him why Chairman Mao is still so revered given that so many millions of Chinese suffered and died (I have read figures that claim anywhere from 30-70 million died between during Mao’s reign) including his father whose parent’s killed themselves as a direct result of how the government treated them.  Clarence simply said that this is how it is.  One does not criticize the government, even now.

But Clarence is different.  He calls himself a taxi driver but he’s being modest.  He owns five apartment units, three that are elaborately decorated with a Terra Cotta Soldier theme to match the antiquities of which he is an expert and two decorated with a panda theme.  He rents these units for about $100 a night to tourists who come to Xi’an. His wife cleans and manages the day to day of the units.  He built a website to advertise the business and said that Trip-Advisor has been a major source of business for both his rental units and tour-guide business.  Discovery channel recently came to interview him about his apartments.

Clarence put down 50% of the cost on each unit and took 30-year mortgages at about 6% for the balance.  I don’t know how much the units cost but he said that they have increased in value five fold since he bought the first three in 2005. He also is a tour guide and has educated himself on the region and particularly on the Terra Cotta Soldiers. He taught himself English and became an expert on these ruins.  He earns about $350 for a full-day private tour.  He said that he is booked every day between May and October and then about 3-4 days a week the rest of the year.   He drives a brand new Ford van for his tour business.

In addition to all of this, he has a competing theory to that of the Chinese government about the Terra Cotta soldiers and how they were buried by the emperor over 2,200 years ago.  The official story claims that the clay soldiers were destroyed by marauders after the emperor died.  Clarence disagrees and he is bold enough to write his theory down and self-publish it in a book that he gave to us as part of the tour.  His theory is pretty compelling but when I asked him if any academics or government officials have embraced it, he laughed and said that he is merely a taxi driver.  Clarence is one of the new breed of Chinese.

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