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20 years – China Through the Lens

shanghai skyline

Aim2D: real time, 24/7 #ChinaBusinessMarketing, Tech and Social Media News Portal of The Bicaverse based in sunny Shunyi, North east Beijing. Tuesdays we look at business, marketing, tech or social news in and around China. Friday is image gallery where we examine a place, topic or subject giving you greater insight, background to life in China, and of course, your Chinese consumer. If hard, practical, realistic China consumer marketing support is what you need, do drop into our sister site: Unegager. Finally, in a sign of the times, we can assure you that our content is 100% loving created and hand crafted by a fellow human. No AI chatter bots here.

For our last post for this February we are taking a trip back in time to Shanghai, end of the 90’s and early 2000.

TheBic arrived in China 2001 from Korea having given up the opportunity for a career as a lecturer at a local university. In those days “foreign” lecturer with an honourary, title of “Professor” was a sweet job. But having watched the opening of China for 2 yeas, he knew that it was a land of future opportunities.

What he didn’t know, couldn’t know was it was also going to be an experience of time travel for him.

His first taste of China was Siping, a small (by China standards) rural community in Jilin Province, North East China. Colloquially known as Dong Bei – aka the rust belt. The North East of China had once been the driving engine during China’s “planned economy ” years. But now, much of the machinery and factories lay idle- hence the term rust belt. To TheBic it was reminiscent in many ways of North England, those dark Satanic mills.

But the region was reinventing itself. Visits to Siping, the regions main city often became one of find the whatever. Streets, building that were here last week, were not gone. We often had to take a wide detour, or pick our way over what looked like a bomb site. The below scene was probably being re-enacted all over china.

Suzhou Creek, Shngahi. March 1994. Xu Haifeng for Sixth Tone

More to the point, Siping and the surrounding village he was based at, were a trip back in time. Some 20 years to his youth, growing up in NZ. Also a “developing” country at that time. The 21st century malls and supermarkets he left behind in Auckland were replaced by small owner run stores. Creaky wooden floors. Pork carcasses hanging on hooks whilst the butcher chopped up customers orders on a a huge tree stump.

Village people would gather in small groups in the streets Usually the elderly, grandparents, coming or going for their daily meat and veggies. Often shopkeepers would join in. It was very much a pleasant, friendly relaxed environment. Meat freshly cut in front of you, carrots, potatoes, still with soil. A long, long, way from the homogenized, prepacked ‘styrene and cellophane world he had left behind.

Photo taken in May 1994. Xu Haifeng for Sixth Tone

Along the main street were dotted little industries – a woman with a table and sewing machine, would repair or alter your clothing. Further along a man would sharpen knives, or a cobbler at another table.
A knight in shining armour would not have been out of place here.

Siping was a grain growing area, in summer the air was thick with lady birds. Night times were dark, really dark, as night should be. No neon light pollution to obscure the moon or the stars. Winters were cold.. Really, really cold. Breathe in deeply and your nostrils froze together. Yet strangely enough, even at – 20*C and below, it never really seemed as cold as a wet, miserable +5 degree winter’s Auckland day.

Even a short holiday in Beijing was a step back in time.
Cobbled roads and pavements, clearly never designed for the mass of traffic, potholed, uneven, small puddles during the summer rains.
Instead of streets thronged with motor cars – bikes!
Bikes by the hundreds. Policemen on daises, white gloved and a whistle, doing his best to keep an orderly flow.

Chinese passengers on 1990’s bus: Xu Haifeng for Sixth Tone

Here and there a black Audi, Gvt officials, threaded their way thru the maze of cyclists. Private cars were still a rarity in China. The domain of rich or Gvt officials. Public transport was via Xiaoli taxis ( a remake of the old Citroen) or tired, uncomfortable and invariably crowded buses. Back then, Beijing’s now sprawling, almost 2 dozen subway lines consisted of just 2 lines. If busses were crowded, sardines best covers the subway riders.

please press in image to see more

To use the vernacular: That was then, this is now.
Today, 2023 and China is light years beyond that. China, especially the major cities is a land of technology and very savvy people. In many ways, China has not just caught up with the west, but eclipsed it. Sadly however, some of this has been at the expense of China’s culture and history as, in Beijing at least, many treasured Hutongs or allyways were razed to give birth to modern, steel and glass skyscrapers.
Fortunately, after a public outcry, sanity prevailed.

Photo taken in March 2005. Xu Haifeng for Sixth Tone

Back, pre Covid, TheBic found a German couple, tourists, lost in a 7/11 store. Unable to access the cabinets, find a sales assistant, check out operator. He explained it was a fully automated store. One needed to scan the QR codes to access goods. Payment was auto deducted from one’s E-wallet. They left looking confused. Probably wondering if they had somehow stumbled decades into the future

For TheBic, looking back, it’s been a journey from the 14th to 24th century in just 20 short years.

Images in this article are courtesy of our friends at Sixth Tone. More pictures and photographer’s account of those times can be found at:

Remembering a Golden Age: Shanghai at the Turn of the Century

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