Monday, September 10, 2012

Qing Dao City Overview

During the 1800’s China was a divided country. Russia, Germany, Great Britain, France and America, among others all came over, first as opportunists, next as missionaries and finally educators to settle and civilize what they considered a nation of natural riches, unfortunately full of heathens and savages. I believe they didn’t quite realize who or what they were reckoning with.

After years (Centuries!) of exploitation and occupation, the Chinese had enough of all these strangers impressing their way of life and enslaving their people. There ensued a rebellion, The Boxer Rebellion, during which the Chinese forcefully evicted all foreigners. After this nearly completely successful expulsion, China closed her borders and didn’t let any foreigners in for the next eighty years. Of course, she had her own power struggles within, culminating in the birth of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, ruled by Mao Ze Dong and governed by the Communist Party as we know it today.

Prior to the Boxer Rebellion, Germany had taken over a large part of coastal lands and established itself in the religious development of the country, as well as forming a Naval force and in the shipping industry. The German stronghold was the coastal city of Qing Dao (pronounced Tsing Tao) and radiated out from there.

I originally became interested in Qing Dao because of a movie I watched called The Floating Landscape, situated in that city. Not only is the story gripping and real but the backdrop to the story, the old part of Qing Dao haunted me. I wanted to walk those very streets. While watching the movie, still in the States, I vowed I would make it to Qing Dao one day.

And, there’s another reason: architecture is not the only thing the Germans left behind. Their monks had taught the Chinese how to brew beer and now Tsing Tao beer is famous worldwide. You can buy it in select stores in the States. I was introduced to it when I came to China the first time in 2008, with the International Scholar Laureate Program, a delegation of students interested in archeology and anthropology.

That trip/group is where I met Debbie, the one I wrote about in the Looking Back entry, posted November 2011. She and I are still friends, of course. By the way: she just graduated from law school: Congrats, Debbie! Or, could I say, tongue in cheek: Contracts, Debbie!!! LOL (Yes, she does read this blog).

In our sporadic communication over the years, Debbie has often said she would thirst for a Tsing Tao beer. I thought I would pay tribute to her and visit the brewery. You already read about that, 3 posts back.

Qing Dao is divided into 3 distinct parts: Old Town, City Center and New Developments. I focused my explorations mainly in Old Town. There was so much to see and do there! I only ventured to New Development once, by accident (I’ll tell you about that next post), and City Center twice: for Snack Street (see previous post) and for the May 4th Square. I’ll get to that in a post or two. 

Qing Dao Old Town is pleasantly walkable, reminiscent of San Francisco, only less steeply hilly. The streets are laid out randomly, as opposed to the grid patterns one is used to seeing in established municipalities. Green abounds everywhere; indeed the name Qing Dao means ‘Lush Island (or Green Island)’.  There is certainly a feel of Germany in Old Town, as its skyline is dominated by the twin spires of its Catholic cathedral, set upon a hill. The train station, the city’s transportation hub, is only about 100 meters from the beach. From there radiate buses that crawl all over town. Of course I made ample use of those buses.

Everywhere I walked and everywhere I rode showed something else of interest. I do believe I hit the highlights during the 5 days I was there but I’m certain there are things I missed. It would not hurt my feelings to go back.

Could I live there? Only 2 problems: food, and possibly the weather. Qing Dao’s culinary specialties being mostly seafood, the very smell of which sickens me would make it hard for me to stay longer than a few days, or to enjoy dining excursions. And remember: I was there during the height of summer, when the weather was fine and people were out en masse. What about in the dead of winter, when that cold ocean wind blows in from the coast? It might be a completely different town: no festive lanterns hanging, no gaily colored vendor umbrellas, no relaxed pace or resort like feeling.   

I was pondering the ‘Could I Live There’ question while walking down a shady street past the Christian church, under the watchful domes of the Old Observatory set on a hill and headed toward the mansion of the former German Governor when, to my right a quiet voice piped up: “Excuse me: do you speak English?”

My normal inclination is to respond to the negative. I would have done so, until I looked at my interlocutor: a petite woman with red hair and a pink blouse, a large camera slung around her neck. She seemed harmless enough so I did aver that speaking English is within my repertoire. We stood in the road talking for maybe twenty minutes before I invited her to have a sit down and a cup of tea somewhere close. I had been walking all morning and the temps were climbing, as was the humidity. It seemed like a good time to take a break.

We found a nearby tea shop, decorated in Victorian style all but for that telltale plastic tub with turtles swimming in it, indicating we were still in China. We spent the rest of the afternoon chatting like old friends. Nan was bitten by the China bug some twenty years ago, when she came here with her husband and son. Having recently laid both of them to rest, Nan continues her love affair with China, albeit on yearly rotations. She is no longer able to obtain a worker’s visa so she buys a tourist visa and stays till it runs out.

What tales she has! This woman is fascinating! She was here in the time when China and the Chinese were not necessarily as kind and open to foreigners as now. Nor was it as capitalist a country as it is now. She told me of her trials and travails, and gave me opportunity to share my experiences with her as well. While we swapped stories, enjoyed tea and nibbled cookies the afternoon gave way to evening.

Come time to part company I offered to pay the bill. I had gathered the idea that my companion was on a fixed budget and besides, I had invited her, no? Unfortunately that charming tea house became the scene of our rape: we were charged 65Yuan for two cups of tea and a small plate of cookies! Even my complaining and bartering efforts would not reduce the price. And here I was, wondering how the place managed to stay afloat with no other customers all afternoon besides us. While Nan visited the restroom I returned to our table and took the remaining 4 cookies, stowing them in my bag. I had paid enough for them, why leave them behind?  

You can visit Nan’s website at You can see a picture of us here.

And, if you get a chance to, please watch that movie: The Floating Landscape. It is about a young woman who seeks a landscape her lover painted just before he died. So in love were they that she was seeking every connection to him she could find, even after his death. She traveled to his hometown, Qing Dao, and boarded with his Aunt while trying to find the panorama of his dreams. She meets and keeps running into Lit, a postman and aspiring artist, who helps her navigate the city and ultimately meets her at the site of her past lover’s dream. Destiny? Serendipity? Who knows… but the movie does irrevocably indicate that Fate played a guiding hand in bringing Lit and Maan, the female protagonist, together.

A beautiful story for a beautiful city. Let’s keep exploring it, shall we?        

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