Social Media

Obviously, social media wasn’t much of a thing in the early 2000s, especially in developing countries.  Nevertheless, social media has had some very interesting developments over the years in China.

The culture and technology wasn’t quite there to properly utilize social media before Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube were banned in China in 2009 following the 2009 Urumqi Riots.  Smartphones were certainly far less ubiquitous than they are now, and people’s usage of the internet consisted mostly of internet forums, instant messaging, and videso games, so it was more of a hassle towards foreigners living in China when the three large social media websites were banned, rather than an affront to the netizens of China at large.

When wireless internet and more portable computers became more commonplace to the average middle-class Chinese family, there was a large, social media-shaped void that coincidentally needed to be filled.  Knockoffs of western came into play -RenRen Wang (everyone’s internet) replaced Facebook, WeiBo (microblog) replaced Twitter, and TuDou (potato) replaced YouTube.  They brought almost nothing to the table aside from carbon-copied and translated versions of these western websites.  In a turn of events (regardless of whether one might believe that they were intentional or coincidental), China had started down the road towards what was, essentially, protectionist measures to grow its own fledgling infant industry of tech companies that would, in a number of years, come to challenge the likes of Silicon Valley.

However, these initial social media sites were met with only mildly warm reception.  People, like my cousin (who I consider as a litmus test of what resonates with the young millennial population of China) would use them, but infrequently.  They were not tailored to a Chinese market that had been weaned on online message boards and sought features not necessarily valued by the designs of western tech firms.  Although they still exist to this day, by 2014, as smartphones began saturating the market of everyone across China, a new app took the Chinese social media scene by storm: WeChat.

WeChat, a cell phone app created by multimedia and telecommunications giant Tencent, was initially an app that just happened to share a very similar colour scheme, logo, and feature-set to WhatsApp.  But as more and more Chinese users began using it and their potential revenue projections for investors shot up, the app began rapidly expanding.  What was an app solely used to send chat and voice messages, now includes, in ascending order of unlikeness with western social media apps: a Facebook wall, rideshare functionality, online money transfers, group video chatting, online games, giftcard redemption, online shopping, movie theatre information and tickets, travel bookings, and direct linking of your online wallet to your utility bills.

Now a monstrous behemoth of a one-stop shop of a potpourri of various app-related functions, it’s hard to picture Chinese social media as a couple of dinky websites that barely anyone used.  WeChat has basically swallowed not only the entire Chinese social media ecosystem, but smartphone app ecosystem as well.  As I believe I’ve noted previously, a major Chinese trend seems to be towards monopolization, and the fact that few are alarmed by this intrigues me – particularly given how many possible learning experiences across the world that can be drawn from in this regard (Microsoft, anyone?).


If there’s one central theme to this blog – it’s that as people became richer and more exposed to the west, their tastes changed.

However, this is one of the few cases where I would say tastes haven’t changed all that much, at least broadly speaking.  T-shirts, jeans, hats, and shoes all had to be heavily adorned by logos to be considered fashionable when I first moved there.  Yes, it’s gotten a little less tacky – but consider the fact that this Louis Vuitton purse, covered in the letters L.V., is one of the most popular handbags in the country.
louis-vuitton-artsy-mm-handbag-1 And yes, there are outliers and trend changes in fashion, but I would still pose the argument that the sense of fashion has significantly different influences than the western world, and what is considered fashionable is a function of the times.

Modern Chinese fashion (and by this I’m referring to the outfits of the everyperson, not haute couture) doesn’t have a long and storied history of following the French aristocracy or the denim-heavy American workwear trends.  Chinese fashion seemed to draw heavily upon a very Cold War era-esque longing of western culture, glorifying big brand stores, with branded circa nineteen something something t-shirts and ripped jeans.  To me, it seemed to be that the collective fashion taste of the mass public was something they had seen in a Sears catalogue someone accidentally brought back from their trip to the West, in which the bigger the name of the brand (both in terms of name recognition and literal size of the brand logo on the clothes), the more coveted the clothes were.

There’s a kind of clothing store in China, they’re on many street corners and alleyways, that sell a huge variety of clothes from a huge variety of brands.  Some of the items seem to be genuine outlet clothes or factory extras  being sold on the side, others are blatant knockoffs (Canadian Geese Bird parkas and Abibas sneakers).  Regardless of the authenticity, however, the most noticeable aspect of all of these clothes are that they’re heavily branded.  Interestingly enough, this hasn’t changed all that much.  The styles and fabrics have gotten much nicer, but not the branding.


I recall, after spending a long morning grocery shopping with my parents, sitting down in the food court of the mall to enjoy a cheap bowl of noodles.

Plastic benches would be lined with people, lit by industrial fluorescent bulbs overhead, chatting loudly and eating from a delictable selection of noodles, noodles, and noodles from four different vendors.  Don’t get me wrong – the noodles were great, but there wasn’t an awful lot of selection, particularly for a kid who had grown up eating lasagna and subway sandwiches.

On our way home, we’d pass by hawkers selling a potpourri of odorous food from foodcarts by the side of the street, parked out front of open-air restaurants with printed styrofoam banners offering various Chinese cuisines.

The concept that China was a country that had been closed off from the world for decades and had newly opened up to capitalism was evident, just from our restaurants.  Dozens of restaurants opened and closed by the day just along my street, offering the same greasy food as their neighbour with similarly uncreative names.

In my parent’s time, during the hey-day of communist China, restaurant-goers were looked down upon – unable to cook for themselves, they had to rely on the capitalist system to fulfill a basic human need.  As a result, the few restaurants that did exist in the 70’s enjoyed a rather dreadful reputation as a place for ne’er-do-wells.  But fast-forward to the year 2000, and it seemed that these same undecorated, cement floor restaurants had continued to exist, but in much greater quantity.

As with most things, it did not take long for restauranteurs to realize they had to get more creative, opening restaurants with fancier adornment, international cuisine, or other gimmicks .  Naturally, this came hand in hand with the increase in disposable income of the ever-expanding middle class that populated cities such as my city of Guangzhou.  Today, you have to travel into the hinterlands of the city to find anything remotely similar.  Pork buns you could once enjoy for less than 50 cents for two, are now dressed up as tiny little pigs, and half the restaurants downtown are classy dine-in experiences any reasonable person would reserve only for paycheque-day.


I find the evolution of restaurants interesting as a microcosm of Chinese economic development.  Everything became a little cleaner, a little more globalized, a little more franchised, but lost some of what made it distinctly Chinese.  But whether or not the loss of cultural and historical character for the sake of progress is something worth crying over is a conversation perhaps not suited for a blog post called “Restaurants”.


P.S. One of my fondest memories was visiting the only McDonalds in my part of the city, getting the food to go, and just literally hovering over people as they ate, in order to stake claim to their table after they finished their meal.  It’s a little cringeworthy to think of now, but that was just how it was done.

Ghost Cities

I recall reading some article online similar to this, about how entire cities were being built in China, and then left to rot as the demand did not turn out to quite match the supply in that particular regard.  I thought I could provide some insight to this, as I used to be pass by one of these ghost cities on my way to school every morning.

In 2005, we first started hearing about this new up-and-coming city-within-a-city not far from my house, that was to be built atop a recently demolished slum.  It was a matter of months before towering skyscrapers loomed in the distance, with lights visible through the facade.  Upon closer inspection, it was easily to tell that none of these buildings, office or residential, had any occupants whatsoever.  Rows and rows of glass towers and tiled condos dotted the landscape as the months went on, until this pre-planned city was completed.  The roads had all been laid but there was nobody to use these roads, aside from the occasional passerby.  Shortly after, a subway line was built to accommodate the several tens of people that lived there.

We would joke about how much of a waste all of it would be, and the folly of centrally planning an entire city.  But seemingly overnight, around 2009, offices began moving their operations to the empty towers, lured in by the low rent and transit accessibility.  Surely enough, with the offices, residents and commercial storefronts followed.  As with many things in the ever-developing and rapidly urbanizing China, the same street corner was completely unrecognizable from what it had been a mere months before.

In my mind, organic, Western-styled city planning was the model for how to create good cities.  But this seemed to have been proven wrong, as the city planners ended up getting almost everything right.  What we think of as a more pragmatic, piecemeal approach to building cities in North America and Europe – that is, to build a house when all the ones next door are full, or construct a street when the others are too crowded, tends to lead to poorly planned cities.  We end up the winding and twisting Dundas Street, or the ever-traffic-ridden King Street in Toronto.  But as seen in this particular example, with China’s rapidly growing urban population, the age old adage of “if you build it, they will come” seems to resonate a great deal.

This is not to say that all of these supposed ghost cities are successes – of the ones that I know of, roughly only half ever really became inhabited.  Of the inhabited ones, they are almost always extensions of existing cities, rather than stand-alone metropolises built from the ground up in the middle of nowhere.  There are many examples of towering cities built in what was previously farmland, miles away from any other urban centre, that simply never reach any sustainable population level.  Many of these “popup cities” are built by rich developers, essentially bankrolling an entire city in the hopes that they’ll become real-estate moguls in a city of their own design.

What I’m trying to say is that in the context of China’s rural population immigrating in droves to the cities, these overnight popup cities work well, far better than the piecemeal approach we tend to take here in terms of city-building.  However, as with most things in life, a certain degree of nuance is required, something which seems to be lost on some of these land developers, which leaves us with ghost cities of sprawling metropolises: glass skyscrapers with vines and wild grass growing along the girders; walk-lights operating for nonexistent pedestrians, and store fronts filled with construction waste instead of restaurants and electronics stores.


I remember taking the bus in Guangzhou as a kid.  Despite the fact that it was circa 2002, there was no airconditioning on said bus.  Nor was seating the way one would expect it to be: there were simply rows of wooden, shoddily-varnished park benches bolted into the floor of the bus.  People would pack onto the black-fume spewing bus, paying what would amount to be 25 cents here.

However, if I had to pick one word to describe the theme of this blog, it would be change.  Or maybe upheaval.

Taxis, in the same order as they were in the West but fast-forwarded, went from being a scarce luxury resource, to flooding every street, alley, and corner, to being priced out by Uber in the span of just 15 years.

The subway line expanded from one line taking you from where the people lived, to where they shopped and worked, to 10 lines, comprising of more than 180 stations, connecting with the subway system of a neighbouring city (think a connected subway line between Toronto and Burlington).

I’ve always believed that the most effective of solving many social issues, such as unemployment, housing (un)affordability, or commute times, is to increase public transit infrastructure.  Imagine my disappointment when I moved to Toronto, and I learned that I could not get from most parts of the city to other parts of the city without transferring several times and facing multiple delays.  Understandably, issues such as population density, taxation, and not having a government in Canada that can unitarily make decisions on transit infrastructure investments without fear of elections or consultation, will get in the way of making Toronto’s TTC more similar to the subway systems of Asia’s mega-cities.

On a side-note, when I returned over Christmas, I was surprised to learn that bicycles could be checked in and out by a cell phone app that unlocks a bike after scanning a sensor on the bike, and could be parked literally anywhere in the city with no repercussions.  If only our city-bikes were this convenient!



Public Hygiene

When our family moved from the squeaky-clean neighbourhood of Sunshine Hills in the Greater Vancouver Area back to China in the early 2000’s, one of the first major differences I noticed, language and weather aside, was how little attention people in China seemed to pay to public hygiene.

Garbage cans were infrequently seen and even with that in mind, drastically underused; people would spit while they were walking, and children older than me would unabashedly use bus stations as open-air urinals.  All of this, combined with the seemingly perpetual film of dust and grime kicked up by the massive amounts of skyscraper construction sites around us, left a foul taste in my mouth (figuratively, not literally).

I had difficulty believing that people were so unfazed by dirtying the environment around them, in what I interpreted to be self-harm on a macro scale.  This behaviour was seemingly unexplainable, aside from the simple excuse of “cultural differences”.  If China had always been this way, wouldn’t folks have died of plagues centuries ago?

In the 1970’s, China underwent a period of massive social unrest called the “Cultural Revolution”, wherein the proletariat would purge those accused of being counter-revolutionaries.  Historiography aside, and whether or not this actually achieved its primary purpose – this phenomenon certainly had an affect on the way society collectively carried itself.  Many urbanites and upper-class folks were re-educated or otherwise banished, leaving a great deal of room on the social ladder for those who hailed from rural areas and those with less education.   Unsurprisingly, removing everyone who we would consider, by virtue of their social standing or socioeconomic position, to have manners, does not do wonders for public hygiene.  I mean it in no slight to those who live in rural areas, but people that live in areas that are less population-dense tend to have more leeway in terms of littering and spitting around them.

Thus, when the generation of rural 70’s kids came of age and became the backbone of Chinese cities in the late 90’s and early 2000’s, one could imagine standards of public hygiene would be lower, both on a government enforcement front in addition to the every-man/woman’s standards.  This was the China that I witnessed.

Nevertheless, it would be unfair to say the image I first saw was the same as it is today.  The Chinese government has taken upon itself to improve public hygiene through massive public education campaigns and stricter laws regarding sanitation.  Although smaller cities and less popular streets still tend to be well-worn with hocked loogies, I wouldn’t hesitate to say that the street my parents live on is cleaner than any street in downtown Toronto.

It is the conflicting image of yesterday’s China with tomorrow’s that interests me so much.  Facts of life that I had taken for granted growing up there are simply no longer the same, and I feel like I wasn’t there to see this change myself.  Strangely enough, after returning last Christmas, the way I would describe the grimey, garbage-ridden street that I grew up on in Guangzhou today would be… Sterile.