A Christmas Story

Zhengzhou Railway Station

This city of Zhengzhou is show­ing me new faces at every turn. There are vast pres­tige com­plex­es and broad tree lined avenues along­side scenes that come straight from Hogarth’s Eng­land. As the sea­sons change you can move from balmy autumn walks by the river­side to bleak canyons and cul­verts of mouldy con­crete where street sell­ers try to eke out a liv­ing.

Yes­ter­day I walked up past the rail­way sta­tion which is always a tumult of des­per­ate­ly poor peo­ple surg­ing in crowds, cling­ing to bro­ken suit­cas­es and parcels tied up with twine. Two stu­dents led me through a cloth­ing dis­trict, clut­tered with street sell­ers try­ing to flog trousers and coats for about $6. There was a bit­ter­ly cold wind, and road work­ers were strug­gling to sleep on the pave­ment in their rags while Sun­day crowds of fac­to­ry work­ers stepped around them. A cav­al­cade of mon­u­men­tal build­ings, like Syd­ney CBD in a bombed out hor­ror flick, had gap­ing, semi-lit inte­ri­ors full of more end­less shod­dy cloth­ing stalls.

Grad­u­al­ly, I’m notic­ing curi­ous pat­terns in these sur­re­al land­scapes. Every street seems to have many shops to sell huge­ly expen­sive for­mal gifts like fake import­ed liquor in gold box­es. The gift giv­ing cycle is relent­less, and a basic sur­vival strat­e­gy, as well as the biggest pres­tige mark­er in this cul­ture. There is more to it than that though. Peo­ple the world over love to show gen­eros­i­ty. Gift giv­ing and ban­quet­ing cus­toms give Chi­nese folk the excuse they need to show their best face.

There are count­less restau­rants with grandiose mar­ble facades — anoth­er part of the one upman­ship game, as well as the sit-down-and-enjoy-life game. I have yet to fig­ure out where ordi­nary Chi­nese peo­ple relax with their friends to just watch the world go by, unless it is part of splash­ing out in some restau­rant. You will look in vain for a hum­ble cof­fee shop or tea shop or milk­bar. As a tourist or busi­ness­man you may be led to a hand­ful of clip joints called “tea shops” or “cof­fee shops”. These are lux­u­ry estab­lish­ments with girls in slinky red slit dress­es to greet, and prices to match. Not your aver­age cup of cha.

The oth­er major retail indus­try is hun­dreds of mobile phone shops. The only way any par­tic­u­lar shop might get cus­tomer would be through friends of friends and more care­ful gift giv­ing. So when I asked the waiban — the foreigner’s dogs­body in my col­lege — where I could get a phone like his, of course he led me to a friend of a friend. It hap­pened to be about the biggest Chi­na Mobile shop in the the city, and there­fore had some claims to respectabil­i­ty.

With­out bat­ting an eye­lid, the phone sales per­son asked me at once whether I want­ed a legal or an ille­gal phone. It turns out that ille­gal phones are in the major­i­ty. They are not nec­es­sar­i­ly stolen, although that must sure­ly be a major enter­prise in a city as des­per­ate as this one. No, every Nokia, Sony-Eric­s­son or Sam­sung phone has its shad­ow, copied down to the last blob of sweat stained sol­der, in name­less grub­by back­street fac­to­ries. These elec­tron­ic hand­i­crafts are then mar­ket­ed in the swanki­est and the most hum­ble shops across Chi­na. They explained the game to me. The gen­uine, only-for-suck­ers ver­sion I had my eye on came in at about $300 in Aus­tralian dol­lars. It dou­bled as a PDA and would do every­thing but brew cof­fee. Of course, such items cost more in Oz, though you can guess where the cheap eBay mod­els come trom. The ille­gal ver­sion would cost about $100 less, and of course would come with no guar­an­tee. I took the legit’ ver­sion, but a receipt cost anoth­er $6. Well, they told me it was gen­uine. How would I know? The moth­er­board on the thing last­ed a month, then dropped dead. Lucky I had that $6 receipt.

Christmas crowds in Zhengzhou

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