China then and now: a whole new cup of tea

Wangfujing Avenue (credit: David Kuefler) Just 20 years ago, Wangfujing Avenue had no western-style stores. Today's it's the vibrant centre of Beijing's shopping district.

What a difference 20 years makes.

When I was last in China, I was a young, fresh-faced guide, escorting groups around this newly opened tourist destination. Back then, foreign tourists were a novelty in China and Westerners viewed travel there with awe and wonder. After all, China was relatively isolated at that time, and public perceptions were still shaped by the Cultural Revolution that ended in 1975 and the tentative steps at liberalization leader Deng Xiaoping started in 1978.

Landing in Beijing for the first time in 1987, I was struck by the somber, dimly lit airport, its odiferous toilets, and surly service. Conditions at most tourist sites were, at best, rudimentary and, at worst, downright prehistoric. Throughout China, we shopped at “Friendship Stores”, dingy state-run emporiums that sold the same array of handicrafts and bric-a-brac, and demanded that you pay with foreign exchange certificates (FECs), not the local Chinese currency. Tipping was discouraged so offering cigarettes became the proxy. Fashion was still largely defined by the classic styling of the Mao suit, and police and military presence was ubiquitous. It was all rather exotic and intriguing, mixed up with a certain amount of unease.

Back then, there were no interstate highways and any roads being constructed were, literally, crafted by hand. Trains were dreary and dirty, and lumbered along at “express” speeds of 60 km/hour. There was little of the haze that blocks the sun everywhere now. Modern, western-style hotels were few and far between, and they were gated to keep the locals from washing their clothes in the fountains that graced their entrances. Buses were clapped-out tin cans with all the charm of a Stalinist prison camp. Citizens generally lived in grey tenements or simple cottages. Rendezvous with locals were strongly discouraged, and sometimes blocked, under the watchful eye of police and soldiers. Sex was a taboo subject.

The signs of changes are everywhere

Contrast this situation with China today. This time, when my family landed at Beijing’s Terminal Three, we stepped into the world’s fourth largest building by floor area, replete with automatic moving sidewalks, dramatic lighting and furnishings, state-of-the art baggage systems, and world-class shops and restaurants. In every major city, we were assaulted by major brands like Chanel, Gucci, Burberry, Versace, Lamborghini, Porsche, BMW, Lexus, McDonalds, KFC and Pizza Hut. You can also find numerous up-to-now unheard of Chinese brands, all filling massive glittering, illuminated temples of retail that make our shopping centres look dowdy.

Architecture Beijing (credit: Peter ter Weeme)
Beijing is bursting with eye-catching architecture to symbolize the city's increasing international importance.

The Chinese are on the move in more ways than one. Today, China boasts 65,000 km of expressways, eclipsed only the car loving U.S.. It now sells more cars than any other country. Beijing is grappling with 20 percent more cars on the road this year than last. Luxury cars crowd the roads, bearing down on scooters, bicycles and pedestrians. Did you know that Volvo is being purchased by the Zhejiang Geely Holding Group? Watch for more acquisitions in this and other sectors soon.Modern 

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