Hello Memories

Alfred was kind enough to send along some of the pictures that Mr. Zhou took at the factory and around Tianjin City.

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Zaijian New Friends, Tianjin and China


Friday morning Alfred picked me up from the hotel about 7:15 to take me into Beijing to catch the plane home.    He showed up with very nice gifts for me and my family from Ann Lee which was completely unexpected.  I hope I was able to convey how deeply touched I was by the gesture.

With the traffic cross town in Tianjin to get to the toll road and the traffic on the outer (5th) ring road in Beijing it took almost 3 hours.  This is for distance of about 70 miles.  Yes that is the fifth ring or outer loop as we might call it with four more inside.  If the traffic was that bad on the outer ring I don’t even want to think about what it must be like on the inner ring road.

Much of the area between Tianjin and Beijing is open country side with farm fields.  With the population concentrated in high-rise apartment buildings the cities are not spread out as they are in the US.  Tianjin a city of more than ten million is as best I could tell not as big as Austin.  On the drive to the airport Alfred and I discussed many things and I obtained a much clearer view of the structure of Xiandai and some insight into the people who work there.   I come away from Xiandai with a deep respect for the people and the company culture they seem to be creating.  I come away proud to consider them friends and partners.

My lasting impression of China is that it is a place that works often against all odds.  It works often in spite of its government, it works in spite of the crowding and the traffic and in spite of economic decisions and circumstances that are completely out of the control of the average person there.

Saying goodbye to the last of my new friends I started my long journey home.  My flight was at 12:00 noon on Friday and after 17 hours of travel I landed in Austin at 4:00 PM the same day.

In answer to a couple of questions that were posted on this blog but never addressed in my posts:

1) The tee shirts I purchased on Wednesday at the local mall had Chinese characters and said a variety of things including “Hero”and “Pretty girl”

2) My girlfriends are not at the Daughters of the American Revolution but rather at the Daughters of the Texas Revolution.

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Hello Tianjin, More Surprises

To understand what I saw Thursday afternoon I had to learn at least a bit of Chinese history.  It seems that in the early 1800’s the British sought to fix their balance of trade issues with China by exporting Southeast Asian opium to China.  When the Chinese objected for obvious reasons war broke out between the British aided by the French and the Chinese.  The Opium Wars between 1839 and 1860 resulted in the eventual establishment of foreign colonies in several of the port cities of China.  Tianjin became the site of 9 such colonies including a US colony.  These colonies were sovereign territories of the foreign powers.  Each of these foreign nations built small cities inside of what is now Tianjin with their on military and police.  Chinese citizens were required to have the permission of the foreign government to travel into these enclaves.

Modern Chinese seem to have very mixed feelings about these former colonies.  These events are perceived as no more than a foot note in history by westerners but are still important to the Chinese and very much color their attitudes about the west.  While being upset and angered by the way the foreigners treated their ancestors they are also quite proud of the buildings left behind.

It is against that backdrop of history then that my companions and I visited several historical sites around the city.  We drove through the English colony which was somewhat unimpressive, being mostly a collection of sad old English style houses.  The exceptions were a couple of Greek revival structures of some note.  We did not stop to take pictures.

We moved on to Tianjin Old Town which is the center of the city founded in about 600 AD.  At the center of Old Town is a bell tower/fort that sits on the site of the original tower built when the city was founded.  The tower which has been rebuilt several times is similar in appearance to the original.  It turns out that Mr. Zhou is a photography fanatic and when not taking still shots with an extremely nice Sony SLR was either shooting video or directing his assistant Miss Du to shoot video or still shots of the rest of the group.  Miss Du having started the day being a bit shy about being photographed soon warmed to the role and Mr. Zhou would pose her in different spots around the city, showing her exactly where and how he wanted her to stand.




From there we went to the south entrance to the Ancient culture street which I had visited earlier in the week.  We went along to the center of this area and visited a temple that had numerous shrines to a large number of Deities.  The more important of which had individual buildings for their worshipers to visit while the less important shared a spot with others.  Many worshipers were present burning incense, making offerings and praying at the shrines.  I took the lead of Mr. Zhou who although did not seem to be among the devote did not photograph any of the shrines.  He shot a few outside shots of our group but never of the inside of the shrines or of the statues.  Alfred seemed to have a very complete understanding of each of the gods, including their origins, history and significance.  Whether that made him a believer was not at all clear.  Like so many things much is lost in translation even with someone who speaks English as well as Alfred.


The streets were filled with tourists but I never saw another westerner.  I was told on weekends there would be more foreigners and that Chinese tourists from other parts of the country took advantage of travel bargains offered mid-week by hotels etc.  The weather was nice, warm and clear.  People shopped for trinkets, posed for pictures, laughed and enjoyed the day much like people everywhere do on holiday.

At the South entrance to Ancient Culture street we stopped to look at a center pivot draw bridge built by the Germans in the 19th century.  Across the river serving as a backdrop is Austrian town, another of the foreign colonies.  The featured photo at the top of this page is the view of the bridge with Austrian Town in the background.

As for the colonies they had saved the best for last.  Italian Town is an area of several blocks squared filled with completely restored 19th century Italian buildings.  Within the last 10 years the local government decided that these old buildings, which at the time were in use as tenements, were an untapped tourist attraction gold mine .  The government bought out the tenets and restored the buildings, streets etc. to their former glory.  The buildings now house restaurants bars etc.  I was surprised to say the least to see this little bit of old Italy in the middle of this modern Chinese city.



When my companions dropped me off at the hotel I was sad to say ziajian.

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Hello Chi Fan (food)

Leaving the factory, with the business of the day completed, we headed back into Tianjin.  We eat lunch outside the city center in an area they refer to as a suburb but which is indistinguishable from the city in that it is solid buildings many of which are high-rise.  The restaurant was Gobuli a famous local chain of fast food establishments known for the steamed dumplings, a Tianjin specialty.  The original which is downtown would have been impossible to get into at lunch because of the tourists.  Pictures of the menu were posted earlier in “Seen Around Town”.  For the four of us four plates of dumplings, a plate of cold roast beef, plates of fresh sliced vegetables, and a bowl of red skinned peanuts in a cold soy based sauce was ordered.  The later seemed to accompany all meals and I really had not tasted them before because I did not trust my skill with the sticks to pick them up.  By this meal my skills had improved to the point that I could pick up the individual peanuts from the bowl.  It is amazing how fast you can learn new things when your ability to eat is at stake.  Mr. Zhou and I had beer (Bud light), Alfred being the driver and Miss Du either out of respect for some convention that I did not understand or out of personal preference had Sprite.

The photos show only the first two plates of dumplings as room on the table was limited.  Each day we went out for lunch eating was never hurried.  There always seemed to be too much food but at the end all the food would be eaten.  Once everyone else was full there seemed to be someone who was quite willing to polish off the rest.  Alfred unexpectedly given his slight build can pack in the groceries.

On the subject of food I have to say that yes they eat Chinese food in China and that you do not want to eat the food that is not Chinese.  All the lunches I eat with my hosts were great but I have to say when it comes to western style food you never know what you might get.  At the hotel a large breakfast buffet was available every morning.  The hotel, catering to a variety of travelers both western and Chinese, included baked goods, cereals, traditional American breakfast dishes and Chinese breakfast dishes on the buffet.  I did not have any appetite at breakfast for steamed vegetables, salad, and dumplings in a beef congee so I opted for the American style choices.  The eggs were cooked with an oil that gave them an odd taste, the bacon was baked, looked kind of like bacon but tasted more like ham, and the sausage was beef.  One night I had a Caesar salad that was made with romaine lettuce but tasted much like cole slaw.  Another night I had a baked lasagna that  between the noodles that were as tough as leather and meat that may have been beef or ? the dish was completely inedible.  This was at a four star western owned hotel.  No telling what you might get if you were to go elsewhere.  The best advice is to stick with the Chinese food.

Additionally on the topic of food one must remember that China is a very large and diverse country.  Just as in the US what may be common in one area may not be common elsewhere.  Nothing I was served was all that exotic.  This I am sure is partly because my hosts ordered for me and stayed away from the unusual but it is also because tastes in the North where I was tend to run toward the more conventional at least by Western standards.  Rice was never served and wheat based baked goods were common.  As a way of illustrating the regional differences Alfred told me that there is a saying that the Cantonese eat everything that lives with only the exception of each other.

A common misconception among Americas is that China is a country with a large and homogenous population.  Nothing could be farther from the truth.  Even before the recent economic boom which  has brought people to the big cities from other areas there has always been a large ethnic population in the Tianjin area.  There is maybe one half to one million Moslems in Tianjin and mosques are a fairly common sight.  These are descendents of people from the far north and north-east who have been in the area for many hundreds of years.  There is also a large ethnic Korean population who came to the area as much as one thousand years ago.  Whether in reference to the diversity of the Chinese population or in reference to people around the world it is always best to remember what Confucius said “People are the same everywhere only their habits are different”

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Hello Xiandai Aluminum and Plastics Factory

Thursday started late.  Apparently the group that was picking me up was delayed waiting for something to take with them to the factory.  When Alfred arrived he was accompanied by Mr. Zhou and Miss Du.  The trip from the hotel to the factory was more than one hour, much of that spent in traffic in the city. 

Once out into the country we made good time on decent secondary highways.  We passed miles of farms that consisted of greenhouses made of sheet plastic held up by wooden bows.  Being fairly far north this area depends heavily on these greenhouses to extend the growing season for vegetables.  There were also many fruit trees, mainly apple and pear and some grape vines.  We also passed a huge auto assembly plant where a local brand of economical small car is assembled using Japanese technology from Toyota.  There were many other factories along the way.  Some giant steel mills and some no more than a garage size assembly area for some unknown product.

Conversation turned to family; Mr. Zhou has one daughter born in 1978 who is as yet unmarried so he has no grandchildren.  Everyone I spoke to was an only child and had no more than one child.  This is typical of city folks but apparently in the country people continue to have children until they have at least one son.  I showed them a picture of Bryce on my phone and explained the circumstances of his birth.  They were all very impressed by his obvious turn around.  Mr. Zhou said something which made everyone laugh.  Alfred said that he had said that in China the son of your daughter is called “Wolf”.  I was able to get no more of an explanation.  Like so many things something was lost in the translation.

I also showed them a picture I had of our house taken in the snow storm we had last winter.  When I explained that I had built it myself Mr. Zhou repeated a compliment he had given me a couple of days earlier.  He said in English” You are a very good engineer”.  I consider this very high praise indeed considering the source and I tried to be humble as it is the custom in China when you are complimented to deny the compliment.

We arrived at the factory a bit before mid day.  It is located on the equivalent of a farm road in Texas.  Mostly fields all around but on the outskirts of a village which is in turn on the outskirts of a city.  The city for which I did not get the name is known as the “Castle Town” of this area having been literally a castle in ancient times.  Everyone spoke of it dismissively the whole of the time I was there so I had expected some hole in the wall at the back of beyond.  Turns out to be a city with roughly the population of Austin with a major downtown business district with high-rise buildings.  Compared to Tianjin or Beijing it may not be much but by our standards it is a real city.

Being prepared for the worst I was surprised to find the factory if not modern as it is named (Xiandai means modern) at least decent.  Working conditions appeared to be no worse than one might find in a similar operation here.  The buildings were a bit worse for the wear and much of the facilities seemed unused having obviously been inherited from some previous unknown operation.  The workers were mostly young but obviously adults and more than 50% women.   They are mostly farmers and farmer’s wifes who live in the village close by.  While we were there they all left to go home for lunch.

They have quite a lot of foreign-made machinery mostly Japanese of which they are quite proud.  By asking questions I discovered several things that are important to issues we have had with the product.  I had to press some points to be sure there was a real understanding of my concern and I noticed that universal tendency to pass the buck.  When I continued to pursue these subjects I was met by all the usual excuses including “That is not my department” or “I am not in charge of purchasing”.   I made sure that they at least understood what the problems are so that when I bring it up to the bosses I can point to someone who understands.

On the way back we discussed many things including broader economic conditions and how people there may be affected by policies a half a world away.  There is a local steel industry around Tianjin that has  been hurt by changes in our import rules concerning steel.  Many people are out of work and I do not pretend to know who may be right or wrong or if there is such a thing but the bottom line is that things here do affect real people there.  I also found that Alfred had spent his whole career until the last 3 years working in the cereal grain export industry.  China had been a net exporter of grains until recently.  China now imports grains from the US, Canada and Australia.  While we have concerns about China as a trading partner including the balance of trade issues and currency issues they must be a bit concerned about being dependent on us for food.  While we might do with out the things we import from them it is hard to do without food.   Again I don’t know about right or wrong but as usual there are two sides to every story.


Main Building

Shop Floor

Plastic Mold Shop

Fabric cutting machine (upper) and fabric drilling machine (lower)

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Hello Tianjin City Revisited

Wednesday evening I decided to walk to the temple that is around the block from the hotel.  The temple was closed but there were maybe a hundred shops near by and some were still open.  I walked around but soon realized they all sell the exact same stuff which is things related to the temple; small statues of gods or incense to burn.

From the temple I walked East a few blocks and then maybe a mile or two down the major street that runs North.  It is a commercial street lined with stores and other businesses and runs deep into residential neighborhoods.  I was swept along by the traffic and as I walked I realized that the only place I see any westerners is at the hotel.  Otherwise it seems that it is just me and 10 million Chinese. 

Actually I have heard estimates that the local population may be as high as 14 million.  In all my walking around I have never felt any threat or for that matter any hostility.  I get some disinterest but mainly I am greeted by a friendly ni hao or at least a smile or nod.  The most unfriendly people I met were the store clerks at WuMart but given the similarity to that American store it is hardly surprising.  People seem generally happy.  It isn’t uncommon to see someone riding down the street on their bicycle singing a song.

I turned around and walked back and across the river into the alleys where all the food vendors are to purchase more bottled water.  As I walked the experiences of the last few days both on the street and at work made me think about the meaning of the word harmony.  You always hear how the Chinese are all about harmony but at first I thought that is not true.  We as westerners tend to think about harmony as akin to peaceful, quiet and relaxed.  But harmony is really about more than one note working together to produce a pleasing sound.  Nothing in that says it can’t be loud or forceful and that is how China is.  Loud, forceful, energetic and in constant motion. 

At the office that means even though they may have strong opinions about what is being discussed and they may get loud and animated everyone is heard.  Even the least senior person Miss Du the assistant to Mr. Zhou gets to express a view.  In the end a true consensus is found and harmony is maintained.  On the streets it is loud and seems like absolute chaos but  everyone from pedestrians and dogs to trucks and buses manage  to use the very limited resource of the road in harmony.

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Seen Around Town

I was going to say that these need no explanation but I realize that they cry out for an explanation.  I just don’t have one.

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