China brings back so much memories.
In 1998, Melvin had just been working for about a year with the company when big news broke. The company he worked for was slimming down its Singapore regional office and moving most of its operations to Shanghai. The revenue streams from markets in southeast Asia had collapsed after the 1997 Asian Finance crisis. He had a choice, move to China or be retrenched. If you were Melvin, what would your choice had been? You would probably had moved to China!
And this is what Melvin did as well.
Initially for a period of 18 months on “assignment”, it was extended repeatedly till four years had elapsed. This was the background to how it all begun. Prior to this event, Mel & Suan had never been to China! Well, only once and because it was free. We had won a trip for two in a lucky draw earlier in the year (1998 that is). All the signs pointed in the direction of Cathay, home for four years:
You only live once
As a young man, this was the ultimate adventure. Actually come to think of it, this could have been Melvin’s own YOLO moment. Travel around the world (well China anyway) and being paid for it. Isn’t this what you would want? Delving deeper into this, it is also true that Melvin did drop everything and took off (well not the girlfriend who became the wife/accountant/boss/buddy). However he had nothing much in the way of possessions to sell at the ‘tender’ age of 27. Without skipping a heartbeat, this young lad who had barely just started out working for a few years would go on for seven years outside of his home country, working and traveling.
Actually during that four years we did little travel within China. We did the Silk road journey with a group which was really enjoyable. What a way to be introduced to the country! It was like we stepped back in time. Suan did not live in China with Melvin and shuttled between. Talk about long distance romance! Living alone and working can be hard on your psychology. And we had a wedding and house to save up for…
While in China, Melvin had the opportunity to travel to places well off the beaten track, actually to locations that literally DO NOT have a track of road. City names like Kashgar, Aksu etc sound so exotic and it is unbelievable that it is actually in China!
It is also during this period of time that Melvin witnessed the truly monumental changes that were occurring in China. Take Shanghai for instance. In a space of four years, the city transformed large tracts of once communist built low rises into towering skyscraper offices and swanky shopping malls. Never mind that there were not many shoppers or companies to lease the offices. And Pudong (浦东), that sleepy estuary delta of the Huangpu (黄浦) river was built over so much that pre 2000 photographs will probably be collectible antiques.
Victims of a gilded age
Sounds familiar even now? Some things do not change easily. It’s the same all over the country. Now progress – as a bringer of better life, is a good thing. But from the breathtaking change it is clear the country has lost quite a bit of cultural relics that could be worth preserving. And the people, their lives transformed so much that it is barely recognizable. We know of a lot of wealthy Shanghainese property owners, all bought at the low prices of the late 90s and early 2000s.
With the new found wealth, many more began to travel at first domestically, but eventually morphing into the juggernaut of a international tourist exporter that China is today.
At the end of four years, we left for Europe (to continue our YOLO life), this time for Melvin with a companion and partner. Over the years we journeyed to China sporadically, including the UNESCO heritage site at Zhang Jia Jie (张家界). At the risk of repeating ourselves to death, Europe’s our most traveled continent. Yes we needed to say this even on the China page.
There are a number places in China that reside on our bucket list. As a continental sized country, there is so much diversity in geography, culture and cuisine that you would not be in want for lack of options. The challenge remains for the country’s infrastructure and human ‘software’ to be in sync.
We read of how the high speed rail network is now connecting far flung locations within China. You are suppose to be able to purchase tickets online. Well, try doing that and you’ll probably find out as this couple did (read here) that the country’s got quite some way to make real progress. Perhaps that’s why many folks are frustrated if they try to travel on their own in China without local help (in the form of guides, friends etc).
China is still at a stage like Japan was, perhaps 15 years ago. Alluring but not quite easy for travelers to make the journey easily on their own. In time, we hope to see this change for better.
“If you love life, don’t waste time, for time is what life is made up of.