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.