Big ship up the Yangtze River – Western perception

Big ship up the Yangtze River – Western perceptions of the Dam and things Chinese –

I must say in all certainty that if you decide to take the big ship up the Yangtze, travel upstream (from say Yichang to Chongqing or further up) rather than downstream, although it does take an extra one day traveling upstream. A number of the sights are at the beginning of the trip when you travel upstream and causes your trip to be more exciting up front, allowing you to relax towards the end.

The river cruise vessel I finally found myself on was the “President I”. The company that runs “President 1” has six others but this is by far one of the better ones they have. It’s a bit older than others, but nicely refurbished, so it’s fine. A berth for one (sharing) is as low as US$280, but for a supplement charge bringing it up to US$480, you get a nice room all to yourself, which is what I did.

There must have been about 180-200 guests on board, mostly westerners, maybe 20 Chinese, and me, and another 100 crew. Passengers meet at a center somewhere in Yichang in the dark of a Friday night, and we are all taken by coach to the docks where the boat is berth very near the Three Gorges Dam itself, which we discover in the morning.

First thing in the morning, all the 180 guests are put on buses again to visit the Dam from the downstream side. The locks at the Dam are not working yet. In future, the trip would start in Wuhan and the ship would have worked its way upstream through the locks. The nice thing about this cohort of tourists is that they mostly appeared to be seasoned boat trip travellers. When you travel on a boat for several days, as I have done in the past, it helps to make friends with strangers quickly, because you are going to be seeing each other a lot and there is no point in pretending to be strangers in a constrained space. So, people started chatting on the bus and so on.

As all of us stood on the banks of the mighty Yangtze and marvelled the Dam, what was really interesting to me were the many negative comments from the mostly Western – Australians, British, Canadian, American and some European – crowd. There were a few what I would call “pseudo-engineer” types – not quite engineers, but draftsmen and engineering contractors – who just rattled away everything that was bad about the Dam, which started me thinking about negative Western perceptions of many things Chinese.

The chief comments included the belief that the engineering technique used to pour the concrete into the Dam did not include cooling down the concrete properly, apparently running water as it cooled. Hey, don’t ask me, but several of the Australians and English travelers said that not cooling the concrete properly can cause it to fracture at points. One Aussie gentleman said to me, “I sure don’t want to be standing there when the dam is finished.” Well, the Dam is finished and is collecting tons of water on the other side. Four of the turbines are already working.

Another comment was that damming the river completely cut off the upstream migration of the salmon that is unique to the Yangtze, and that it will be a matter of time before they become extinct. A third comment I heard in the time all of us were standing around the viewing periphery along the northern banks of the river was that the Chinese had not thought about the silting problem, and that unless they actually manually remove the silt from the dammed river, the silt can grow to the height of the dam itself in about a 100 years.

All of these comments were apocryphal, of course, cited by a class of lay tourists who had regular professions that would suggest some knowledge. But what amazed me was the level of negativity. I thought that to be fair to the Chinese leaders, firstly it is a wonder that there were top officials in the past 50 years who stuck their heads out for a project that was as huge as this. There are many other governments that would have rather spent money on less controversial prestige projects that brings benefits to no one. All things considered, this was motivated by a desire to tame an age old legacy – the might Yangtze.

Prior to its damming, the annual Yangtze floods have caused as much as 30,000 deaths a year. The annual floods undermined the full and predictable utilization of kilometers of land all along its 6300 kilometer banks. So, whatever the decision, it was obviously a very calculated risk management exercise – you trade off some features for others. You are talking about the world’s largest hydroelectric power plant that can generate the equivalent of 15 nuclear plants, control the centuries-old problem of devastating floods and allow navigation well into the interior. (25% of China’s ocean cargo enters the river between Shanghai and the sea.) Over and above all this, the calculations made by the Chinese are for themselves – they are fully aware that they are sacrificing numerous historical heritage

Also, I was uncomfortable that just because the Western world’s view of the benefits and destructions caused by the building of dams has changed since the Hoover Dam, it does not mean that the rest of the world should tag along with their relative morality as it evolves.

Traveling into China as often as I do, I constantly find myself tagging on the tension between Western perceptions of everything that is wrong with the country and the country’s own desire to do what it thinks is right. In the banking industry, I spend hours with as many chairmans and CEOs of banks who tell me about all the work they are doing on the operational revenue side of their business, while the foreign analysts and media keep focusing on historical non-performing loans. Yes, Chinese banks have this legacy of historical loans to deal with, but the better institutions have been working at their current businesses very well, and that story is not being told very much.

At the same time, the concerns from the Western perception of China are not without their merits. The Chinese always do things in a manner that is self preserving, they have no intention of giving anything away, they do tend to do things in a manner that is sometimes unsustainable and even unconscionable, and their standards for many things can be low. But so are the standards of many other developing countries. So, my assessment is that any conversation on China (or any other country for that matter) and its infrastructure should be an informed one. If the Chinese screw things up, then they have only themselves to blame. But insofar as they are grappling with difficult decisions and working within the constraints of their very difficult political structures, then I’d say that any major decision that is for the general good should be respected.

The saving grace of this lot of tourists, I must say, was that they were even in China. The father of one Australian family told me that he brought his three children to China because they had done the US and Europe before and it was time to learn about this fast developing country. They actually came with an open mind. Likewise the other tourists, they came packed with their own prejudices in their open minds to have them influenced. Over the next four days on the boat, I watched them enjoying Chinese food, laughing at the crew during the evening talent time sessions on the boat and making friends generally here and there.

I made friends easily as well. Being alone, I was able to move between groups. There were these two couples from Canada, of Chinese but South African origins. They spoke with such an earthy tone, they could have been my neighbours in Malaysia or Singapore. In fact one of the gentlemen, Robert, reminded me of my very good friend Bill Chua of UOB in every way.

I should also mention that the two young fresh-out-of-university “hosts” that the ship hired to provide all the announcements and guided commentaries were themselves very pleasant young people. Although both grew up only in Wuhan and never traveled abroad, they spoke English and understood western nuances very well. The boy was called xxx and the very pretty girl was called Zou Ting (trust me not to remember the guys name!). It always amazes me that young Chinese are far more comfortable with English as a language then I can ever hope to be in the Chinese language. many of the guests found it easy to converse with them, and when they are good as these two were, these young people provide that link between China as it really is today and the rest of the world. We have to understand the country in their terms.

The shore excursion on the second full day up the “Lesser Three Gorges” was very nice except for a couple of interesting observations. Much of the tributaries that used to be only 2-10m deep are now already 40m deep. So, a fairly large river boat can go right up to where only the sampans used to ply before. There is a part at the end of this tributary where we get to experience a tribe that used to have fully naked men dragging flat bottom river sampans up-stream with ropes pulled from the banks. The men these days are not naked anymore, although all of them suspiciously wear the same dark blue coloured underwear (standard issue, must be). The river has filled up so much that you can’t help but sympathize that their culture is now completely rendered unnecessary as there is nothing that they do that a simple out-board motor can’t do. So, all the hunk and the muscles and the tremendous hard work appear so wasted.

In any case, just to remind us that such a culture exists, the government has obviously organised a Han Chinese owned tour company (as opposed to a “minority” race owned company – I notice that many of the licenced tour companies around China are owned by Han Chinese, even in areas where we are going in to see specific “minority races” as the Chinese call them – it may also be a case of the Han Chinese being more organised than the “minority races”) to provide the experience. It is quite hilarious because you see all these half naked men dragging the sampans, and right there in plain view of all the casually dressed tourists, is the “laoban” (boss), dressed in…. a full suit with necktie and dark sun glassed by the bushes along the river bank. Almost taken out of a Mafia movie. Just so that nobody misses the point that he is the one who owns the hard earned government licence to run this tourism experience and all the locals there work for him and all us tourists should pay homage to him.

Then as if that is not enough, you see a local man wading around in the water at neck level, as if he were a fisherman, as the boat is being dragged upstream. He slowly wades towards the boat, throws up his water proof bag onto the sampan, hauls himself up onto the boat and ….. tries to sell postcards!!! Talk about misplaced enterprise!

I did not go on the shore exercise to Shibaozhai Pagoda or the “Ghost City” (Fengdu) land tours on Monday because it was a working day for me. I make these side trips over the weekends and on Monday I have to work. So, I was in my room in the boat, grateful for the comfort, but fighting with my mobile phone for reception quality to be able to send emails out. But the evenings were fun. Zou Ting and her friend, yes his name is Kevin (gosh!), a pleasent Irish guy called Peter (?I wrote it down somewhere) who was migrating to New Zealand and I karaoked loudly the second nite and then we did a short performance on the third nite. I must record that I did my first ever public and international rendition of “Yue Liang Dai Biao Wo De Xin” (the only Chinese song I have memorized so far) during the talent show on the last nite – to great applause, I might add. It was really fun. The Americans came out in one whole huge group and sang two inane songs. An English guy sang some old rhymes etc. Good fun.

One other thing that is etched in my mind about the cruise was sailing quietly into the huge city of Chongqing at nite. From the darkness all around the ship, the huge neon lights, large city skylines and concrete banks weaved into the windows such that anybody inside the ship recognised that we had arrived into the city straight away. We did not disembark until the next day, so we had the whole night to sit on the deck and chat as we watched the city’s night skyline.

I just took in the sight of this huge city of 35 million people, one of the largest in the world, right in the heart of China. It just made me feel so good that there was something much larger than the tiny island of Singapore where much of my own livelihood originates. I was drawn to this largeness. I was happy that if I really thought about it, I could move out of Singapore and became part of something much larger. So many of the little things that I seem to sometimes get caught up relating to government officials and mindset issues in Singapore suddenly appeared so very petty compared to what a man could achieve in a world that was visibly so much larger. There it was, right in front of me.

I think that one of the reasons I am drawn to this country is its largeness and complexity. Yes, there is trouble and lousiness about every country and everything in life. But why be caught up with the trouble and lousiness of a small arrogant pigeon hole in history, when there is this invitation to be part of a larger and generous canvas. My big gripe about the small city of Singapore is that they will not let you be yourself. The nice thing about large cities, and I am sure in most complex countries around the world, is that you unique contribution is precisely and absolutely because you are yourself, otherwise you will be irrelevant. That freedom of intellecutal and social opportunity draws me deeply. Yes, there are good guys and bad guys everywhere. But that is where you weave through the uncertainties and craft your own opportunities, your own tale. The fact that this country allows me as a foreigner, who does not even speak its language well, to be part of it, I find very gratifying. A man has one lifetime to make his mark. I feel welcome in China. I feel useful here.

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