The other day, I was speaking to my mother (Julee) about my soon to be wife (Coco) coming to the UK. She had been asking around on facebook, how to get someone from Zhengzhou (Coco actually comes from Kaifeng, Qixian, but that’s a little too much to ask a laymen to know) a visa to come to the UK. Among the respondents on the Beijing Group's message board was a foreigner working in Beijing (whose VPN is clearly better than mine, hence the two month delay in publishing this article). He told Julee that folks from Zhengzhou would find it hard to get UK visas because, the UK authorities consider Zhengzhou to be a backwards, poor, hole, devoid of any culture whose inhabitants are constantly trying to cheat each other. He said that even among Chinese citizens, Zhengzhou, and the whole of Henan Province have an awful reputation for being cheats.
|Zhengzhou's CBD from the East|
Now, I am usually the staunchest of critics when it comes to Zhengzhou, but when I read his critique of Henan's people, I welled up with anger. “Who does he think he is, to criticize a whole province of people like that?”, I thought to myself. Lets get things straight, Zhengzhou is not backwards, it is a major world metropolis whose inhabitants are incredibly friendly, open minded and forward thinking. The majority of people who live here a truly intelligent, hard working people. Zhengzhou is a city of immigrants, which is not what an outsider would expect to hear from an inland Chinese city standing tall above the central plains, but it is. Ninety percent of its inhabitants are first or second generation immigrants who have moved here to escape the poverty of the smaller towns of Henan and the backbreaking life of the country peasant. They come to Zhengzhou to work hard and earn money for their families, they are often enterprising, industrious, and motivated.
|The Henan Agricultural University in Zhengzhou, in the photo you can see an illuminated love heart, one of the boys and his friends were making an overly romantic display of love to one of the girls living in the dorm opposite.|
The people of Zhengzhou also have an insatiable lust for education and self improvement, not only do they take schooling incredibly seriously, but they also strive for the best for their children, paying thousands to train them in music, art, dance, literature and languages (usually English). The Zhengzhou Ren that I've met also long to better themselves, going to incredible lengths to go back to school and learn new skills.
|Zhengzhou at Sunrise|
When visitors come to Zhengzhou, they often complain about the poor quality of products and services when compared with other top world cities such as London, New York or Hong Kong as well as lack of professionalism. True, standards are no doubt lower, but lets look at things objectively. Where was Zhengzhou, say, 30 years ago. I've been doing my research and here is a photo I've found of Zhengzhou from 1983:
|Zhengzhou in 1983. When I showed my students this photo, most didn’t recognise it as Zhengzhou, despite the iconic Erqi Tower in the centre.|
Lets compare this with a photo of Zhengzhou from today:
|A recent photo of Erqi Square, this photo however is missing the new Zhengzhou subway and a group of new skyscrapers which have since been built.|
Zhengzhou's transformation has been phenomenally quick and dramatic. The only structure which seems to have survives the makeover is Zhengzhou's now famous Erqi Tower.
The people have changed too.
Thirty years ago, Zhengzhou would have been a poor, simple community with only the basics for daily life. Poverty would have been the reality for the majority of its residents. Real Poverty. Not “Relative Poverty”*, where you might not have enough to eat, where you don't have your own toilet, but you have to share a hole with 100 others. During the cultural revolution, people in Henan would eat grass ans tree bark just to survive.
Thirty years ago, Zhengzhou had almost no interaction with the world outside, and, coupled with decades of Maoist repression of education, the people only had a basic knowledge, educational traditions would have been destroyed by the cultural revolution and the people of Zhengzhou would have had to start from scratch after Deng Xiao Ping seized power.
|A thunderstorm in Zhengzhou. I'm proud to say that this is a photo I took on a compact out my bedroom window. The sky in Zhengzhou rarely looks so dramatic!|
In the last thirty years, Zhengzhou, along with the rest of China has developed at a speed so fast, it is unprecedented in human history, but catching up with the developed world takes a long time. The people have come along way, but high standards of education, professionalism and work ethic still elude Henan's capital, but I cant imagine it will be too long before the Chinese catch up with the rest of the world in this respect. You only have to look at Hong Kong to see China's potential.
As for Zhengzhou being devoid of culture, it may not be a hub like London or Paris, but it isn't for lack of trying. A few months ago, the Henan Museum held an Exhibition of British artworks. These artworks were borrowed from a moribund gallery in the North of England, perhaps, Bolton? The people of this city have no interest in the works and the gallery, struggling to make ends meet, loans out the art to the enthusiastic art lovers in Zhengzhou who don't take such collections for granted. The exhibition was a great success. The residents of Zhengzhou are all too aware that Cultural forays may be few and far between so they make the most of them whenever they come along. Classical music concerts are always sold out, with the people seemingly trying to catch up after years of cultural isolation.
|A fun little gold bubble building in the CBD of Zhengzhou, Henan.|
Cheating happens all over the world, especially in the vicinity of train stations, airports and terminus' of all kinds.
And then, after writing an impassioned defence of the people of Zhengzhou and Henan at large, I'm sitting in a restaurant, a very small, dirty one where the food is cheap. I over hear some punk mouthing off about foreigners, clearly aimed it me. “Foreigners are bad people”, “The only reason they come here is because they cant get work in their own country”, “they should all go back to wherever they came from”. He glared at me, and I glared back. He knew I understood and that made his day. I poured my eggplant and rice over his face, in my imagination anyway, but I was hungry, and besides, it would just make that blockhead even more of a obstinate ignoramus than he already was. Blacks, Whites and Indians already suffer enough racism in China, there's no point in making it any worse. Every time something like this happens (and it happens a lot), it makes me think, only this guy is saying it, but how many others are thinking it? Why should I even bother defending this place?
|An artists impression of the new Zhengzhou East Railway station, apparently the biggest railway station in Asia. I don't think I believe that.|
*Note for foreigners living in Zhengzhou, a month after writing this article, a group of middle aged women from the UK were beaten up by a thirty strong nun chuck gang, for no reason other than their appearance. Zhengzhou has become a dangerous place for foreigners, especially those who hang out at Target, Tao and Song Song. I know many Zhengzhou Ex-pats read my blog so here is my advice to you, don't exacerbate the problem by acting aggressive, you're an advert for all foreigners in this city, remember everything you do has reverberations.