China, the Way I Saw It – Episode V – The Xiamen Facade

Surprises and unexpected sights continued to be prevalent as our small group traveled to the province of Fujian and the seaport city of Xiamen (pronounced Sha-men). With a population of 1.2 million, and located in the south, the weather was just slightly cooler than that of Hong Kong. Even though it was only late March, the temperature was near 90 the day we arrived.

Of the four cities where we were to visit factories, Xiamen was one of two that had airports, Harbin being the other. As we were flying around the city in route to our landing, I noticed what appeared to be several modern high-rise apartment buildings, surrounded by an inviting looking golf course.    

“Charles,” I said to our interpreter, “look at that!” I pointed out the window, my eyes wide with disbelief.

Charles smiled. “Tomorrow, I will show you up close. I’m sure you will find it interesting.”

“Yeah… after Harbin, I never expected to see anything like that!”

“Xiamen is a designated SEZ. You will see a little more modern China, here.”

“What is a SEZ?”

“Special Economic Zone. They are trying to attract foreign investors here, so Xiamen gets a lot of government money. They even have a nice hotel for us. A joint venture with an Australian hotel chain. I’m looking forward to buying you a drink in the bar. The hotel has been opened only one month.”

“That sounds great. Vodka on the rocks… no more mao-tai.”

Charles hired a van to take us to the hotel. The breeze was warm and fresh, the absence of coal smoke a welcome breath. The streets were as busy as Beijing as bicycles came and went from every direction. We came to a sudden halt as a man dressed in rags and missing his legs crossed the street on a small board with casters. The bicyclers shouted curses and shook fists at the man as they manipulated their way around him. I could only shake my head in disgust. Where was their compassion for one less fortunate?

The hotel was fantastic… although it appeared to have been built in the middle of a war zone. Charles explained that several older buildings had to be torn down to make room for the hotel. Only the twisted and broken remnants of them still remained where they had been shoved aside to make room for the new structure. No one seemed to be concerned except my fellow American and myself.

And, then… we met Edith.

As were getting out of the van, a beautiful, willowy blond lady dressed in white slacks and white sweater floated towards us. She was breathtaking!

“Ah, my Americans have finally arrived,” she purred, her Australian accent adding to her charm. “I’ve had nobody to talk to for months now. I’m Edith, the manager of the Waterfront (I’m told the hotel was sold in 1993 and is now the Miramar). Welcome.” She held out a slim hand. “Since you are my first American guests, we must go directly to the bar and have a glass. My treat! Was the trip long? Are your tired… ?” The questions continued as she chatted all the way to the lounge.

“What a pleasant surprise,” I remarked to Charles.

“I may never leave here,” he replied.

The afternoon and evening passed quickly. The drinks were excellent and a duet of violin playing girls accompanied our dinner. Edith proved to be a great host.

The next morning, we were met by two representatives from Xiamen Machines Limited, both whom could speak English. The youngest introduced himself as John Chen and informed me that he would be the lead interpreter for the Chinese factory. They had brought a brand new Russian made van with a driver and we were informed that the van and driver were at our disposal for the entire time we were to be in Xiamen. If only we had some place to go.

John Chen made it a point to sit next to me for the drive to the factory so he could explain the sights we were seeing. Suddenly, we turned off the main street and were in the middle of a golf course… only it wasn’t a real golf course. The greens were areas of concrete painted to look like close mown grass. The fairways were overgrown with weeds and covered with rocks. There were no cups nor flag pins. There were no tee boxes and there was no club house. It was all fake.

Then came the high-rise buildings and I knew this was the area I could see from the plane. I’m sure the look on my face prompted John and Charles to try and explain.

“These are for show only,” Chen remarked.

“As I said yesterday, I knew you would find this interesting,” Charles added.

“There’s no glass in the windows… there’s no floors… the buildings are only shells!” I said in awe.

“Yes, they are designed to look good for arriving airplanes…to show that Xiamen is a modern and growing city. To attract foreign money,” Chen informed me. “We will build real buildings as the need arises.”

“What do the visitors say when they see this is a hoax?” I still couldn’t believe my eyes.

“Visitors are not allowed in this part of the city. We come here only because it is the only way to get to the factory.”

“Well, I’ll give you an A for effort. This is amazing.” I shook my head. “You fellows ever hear of the phrase ‘Chinese fire drill’?”

The factory was only marginally better than Harbin. Same product, same quality problems.The big difference which I noticed right away… they were willing to spend some money to modernize. The reason… they had money, Harbin didn’t. It was a pleasant two days with Edith providing us with a tour of the harbor, good food for dinner, and the best FREE cocktails in all of China. As we were preparing to check out, Edith whispered to me, “Send me pictures of your homes in America. I may want to apply for a job there next.” I promised her I would.