An Immigrant Returns: How to Preserve the Past?

Shanghai skyline (Photo by Andreas Pamminger, Creative Commons license)

Shanghai skyline (Photo by Andreas Pamminger, Creative Commons license)

This is the last of three articles written for Voices of NY by Rong Xiaoqing, a reporter with Sing Tao Daily in New York.

When I first came to the U.S. as an international student, an American classmate mentioned Home Depot in a class discussion. “Home Depot?” I remembered repeating the words in my mind and flipping the dictionary to look for the “phrase.” I knew what “home” meant, and I knew what “depot” meant. But I didn’t know what “Home Depot” meant.

NYIEThat was in 2000, when American chain stores and fast food outlets had just started to enter China. McDonald’s and KFC were already in major cities. But Home Depot wouldn’t arrive until six years later.

That’s why when I went back to China this past summer, the atmosphere felt a little surreal. Home Depot had tried and failed there. But you can find pretty much any other American chain brand in China. And the indigenous chain stores such as Da Niang Dumpling, and the breakfast chain Yonghe King, seem to be growing even faster than the foreign ones. (At least one such chain, Hai Di Lao, a hotpot brand that boasts of high quality services, has opened a branch in L.A.).

Reporter Rong Xiaoqing in Chinatown, NY (Photo by Julius Motal for Voices of NY)

Reporter Rong Xiaoqing in Chinatown, NY (Photo by Julius Motal for Voices of NY)

Travel the ultra-efficient subways and high-speed train links that look identical in just about every major city, emerge in a familiar urban landscape, and you might be forgiven for not being sure just what city you are in.

One day I had coffee and breakfast in Beijing, traveled more than 1,300 kilometers on a high-speed train, and arrived in Hangzhou in the afternoon. The presence of the same coffee shops and restaurants I had just left behind in Beijing confused me for a moment and I wondered whether I had just dreamed up the trip.

I often have this sensation when I travel in the U.S. The sameness of shopping malls and strip malls and fast food restaurants make some streets in say, West Palm Beach in Florida and Las Vegas, Nevada, look like twins. As a New Yorker, I crave the unique urban neighborhoods and side streets that tell a story. Working and reporting in Chinatown, I see a lot of change, but also a lot of history, still being maintained.

A Daniang dumpling outlet (Photo by Bo ("call me Daniel") Gao, Creative Commons license)

A Daniang dumpling outlet (Photo by Bo “Daniel” Gao, Creative Commons license)

But visiting China recently it seemed to me that urban landscapes repeat themselves, just as strip malls do in America.

To be sure, China had its own version of sameness decades ago. When I was born, two years before the end of the Cultural Revolution, the Chinese still dressed mainly in blue and gray. My mom, like most women her age, had her hair cut short. And the movie theaters around the country had nothing more than the “eight model plays” showing on the big screen.  (During the Cultural Revolution, Mao’s wife Jiang Qing handpicked eight dramas and made them basically the only ones that could be seen by the public. The dramas were adapted into various formats including ballet, opera, stage plays, and films.)

Still, there were clear distinctions between cities. I remember how excited I was every time my dad came back from a business trip. The specialties he brought back, such as White Rabbit milk candies from Shanghai and preserved fruits from Beijing, were such a treat because they were not available in my home city of Shijiazhuang.

There was a time, before the modernization process started in the 1980s, when Chinese cities maintained their individual appeal. In those days, you could recognize Beijing by its shabby but cozy hutongs (alleys of courtyard houses), and Shanghai by the attics on the top of almost every house.

In the decades since Deng Xiaoping launched his “Open Door Policy” in 1978, modernization and commercialization have taken off in China’s cities.

Across China, old city walls and shabby courtyard flats were replaced by skyscrapers. Traditional crafts gave way to mass-produced goods. Small local shops were swallowed by big chains. Everything was subsumed into the most efficient modern management and operating system. As a result, Chinese cities not only look like one another, they even look more and more like cities in the U.S.

Maybe in all countries that experience modernization, people begin to feel a nostalgia for the old ways and the appearance of things as they once were. It’s happening in China, but probably a little late. Many things that should have been preserved, such as Beijing’s unique old city walls, are gone for good.

Now, some eager businessmen have devised a solution for those who hanker for the past. Almost every Chinese city now boasts ancient-style pedestrian streets, lined with pagodas or old-style courtyard homes that host vendors selling what are supposed to be traditional crafts. There is definitely a contrast with the glistening modern metropolis surrounding these streets, and such districts are attractive to nostalgic Chinese visitors as well as foreign tourists looking for an “authentic” Chinese atmosphere.

But there’s a sameness here too: I visited such streets in five different cities within three weeks and found the same cool-looking stores like “Carpenter Tan” and “Shanghai Lady,” traditional snacks like the “dragon beard floss candy” and “roasted flour soup,” and craftsmen and women blowing caramel or making figurines out of flour. China’s quaint urban past has been cloned in cities across the nation.

I don’t blame people living in China for trading uniqueness for sameness, and embracing wholeheartedly big brand names and the formidable market forces behind them. In the delicate balance between development and preservation, the outcome an outsider is looking for may not be the same as what an insider favors.

Nom Wah Tea Parlor on Doyers St. in New York's Chinatown (Photo by Julius Motal for Voices of NY)

Nom Wah Tea Parlor on Doyers Street in New York’s Chinatown (Photo by Julius Motal for Voices of NY)

Perhaps, however, I can offer an interesting and worthwhile lesson from New York’s Chinatown, which I am more familiar with now than I am with China. The oldest shop there, Nom Wah Tea Parlor, opened on Doyers Street in the 1920s, and has hardly been renovated at all over many decades. The dilapidated appearance inside and out and the unchanged menu of dim sum dishes have attracted many tourists and movie crews over the years. But it had been losing customers living in Chinatown to the newly opened, more comfortable and trendier competitors.

The restaurant has gone through some major upgrades after the current owner Wilson Tang took it over at the end of 2010. The appliances in the kitchen were replaced with modern ones, a stereo system was installed to blare music from iPods, and Nom Wah acquired a liquor license that makes it more appealing to young people.

But Tang, who holds an MBA and has worked for major banks, kept the traditional setting in the dining hall and the historic awning outside. Judging by the crowds of Chinese and non-Chinese he is attracting, Tang might have found a good balance between the old and the new.

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