Friday, March 10, 2006

Things change so fast here





This is a picture of some typical migrant housing. They throw this up at any big constructions site and the workers live there. They all come from far-away, rural, poor places.




It’s really remarkable how fast things change here. We’ve only been here six months and I already see t e landscape around our compound changing radically. It’s funny how you take for granted that whatever is there when you arrive is how it has always been, which is, of course, ridiculous. For one thing, it’s a highly subjective and ever-changing concept.

For instance, I am sitting right now in Starbucks in Pinnacle Plaza, a little strip mall a few miles from our house and right around the corner from River Garden, where we lived the first month of our arrival. In fact, I am sitting at the every table where I spent hours in our early weeks and wrote most of my early blog entries and feeling a little sentimental.

Last week, on the way to the Australian ball, I was speaking with this woman Kathy, who works for the IMF and has been here for three and half years. She said, “Man, it was so exciting when Pinnacle Plaza opened. The first year we were here it was such a tease. We kept driving by this construction site with a ‘Starbucks coming soon’ sign and waiting and waiting.”

Really, nothing about this place (the whole mall, not Starbucks specifically) seems brand new. I figured it had been here 8-10 years, like River Garden and Riviera, two of the older compounds.

Out here, it is a mix of compounds and a few Western-oriented places like this and cornfields and many little dusty Chinese shops and some light industrial places. You can still see flocks of sheep walking down the side of the very busy Jing shun Lu, but the cornfields are becoming less and less prevalent, right in front of our eyee. There are huge developments going up on both sides of the corner of the street where you turn off to come here, off of Jing shun Lu. On one side, they are building a few luxury high-rise apartment buildings. On the other, I’m told, a convention center and hotel is going up.

Just slightly North on Jing shun Lu to the left, several high rise buildings are rising. I don’t know what they are. Back down near our place, right around the corner from Riviera, a huge new, Chinese courtyard-style compound called Cathay View has gone up mostly since we arrived. The first stage was finished just as we got here (that is where I played softball, actually), but now the whole thing is done. It is a huge compound. It used to be all farmland.

The road that runs alongside the compound was a little dusty thing when we got here. There was a metal gate thing at one end and you had to squeeze through it to drive down the road. Our Jeep just made it. So no trucks or large vehicles could pass. It felt like a country road, filled mostly with bikes and people walking. It is an important connector road for us, going down to Jenny Lou’s the Western-style supermarket (which has only been there about 2 years though life without it seems unthinkable) and Annie’s a pizza restaurant that is a family favorite, and also is less than two. Months ago, while we were still at River Garden, we took a cab over to Annie’s one night. We got there and the road was closed. Blocked off with sheet metal… we figured out how to go around the long way.

When we moved into Riviera, it was still like that. I could still ride my bike down there, to softball and the grocery store and I did so quite often. One day, I went zipping down there and suddenly fell six inches, landing on some bumpy, rocky ground – the road was gone. I didn’t fall and pushed on, proceeding carefully.

Over the next couple of weeks, I watched the road be widened and turned into a real road… I watched them dig a huge ditch alongside it, pushing into the field.. it was maybe 10-15 feet deep and 10 feet across.. it was dug by hand… I saw them lay pipe in there and put bricks over it and fill it back in. I saw huge piles of bricks lined up and wondered what they were doing.. I rode my bike by and watched armies of migrant workers making a brick wall…

I watched the wall rise and rise, then get covered in stucco and have ornamental posts put up until it looked really quite nice – and quite old. Someone who moved in the next day would never have guessed the wall was brand new or the road used to be country lane. My frame of reference happened to just predate these developments. All of that was done for Cathay View, which opened shortly after. Before long, the road was reopened, now as a real road. And do it goes around here. Amazing to see.

Another major project that suddenly popped up is a light rail system going in alongside the Airport Expressway that we take into town. It is supposed to connect the city to the airport in time for the Olympics.

I had heard they were going to build it, and then all of a sudden one day I saw temporary migrant housing pop up right near our exit. I knew something big was coming and then over the next few days, armies of workers appeared on the median running into town. That is moving along.

All this is just in our little suburban neck of the woods. It’s the same thing downtown, where buildings are being razed and replaced by skyscrapers at a dizzying rate. One time, we were walking into this exhibition downtown and Jacob and I were looking at all the cranes. We stopped and counted 23 within our view. That was not unusual.

It’s especially remarkable when you compare all this rapid activity to home, where Vaux Hall Road was closed for a year when the mafia-connected construction company screwed up the bridge prompting a huge fight between Essex and Union counties and months of delays and detours.

Back to china… what happens to the displaced farmers is a sad tale of woe. Basically, they don’t own the land – the “people” do. The developers come in and make a deal with the local party leader or mayor or whatever and take it. Sometimes, the guys are not too corrupt and everyone in the village gets a nice little monthly payment… often times, they just pocket the money, the farmers get kicked off and try to find something else to do. Maybe they get hired as security guards at the new villa compounds.

Somehow, it feels morally superior to be living in a place where this happened a decade ago instead of last month. It is a tenuous distinction to be sure. We did go over to a friend’s house at Yosemite, the latest and greatest compound (and hilariously called YOH-SEM-ITE by Europeans), which is about a mile down the back road from River Garden. It is right on the edge of farmland and the guards there look like they really might have been farmers a few months ago, though they probably are just off the train from a distant and impossibly poor rural area hundreds of miles away.

Our friends’ home is spectacular, more so because of their impeccable taste and her incredible drive for perfection than the actual house, but it really does feel weird and exposed being on the frontier of this relentless expansion. I don’t think I would enjoy living there.

**

Word is, we are going to get our first sandstorm in the coming days. I will keep you posted. Supposedly, they get pretty nasty at times. The weather has been really, really nice… exceptionally mild and the pollution not too bad. Along with the winds and sand, there is supposed to be another temp drop coming so in that regard March here may not be that different than March in New Jersey.