The Powerful Poseurs of Shandong

Written by Sep 21, 2005 10:09
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The Open Door

I'm a traditional traveller. I like seeing the back streets, eating local food and carrying around just one bag. When travelling, I take the train rather than an aeroplane, I wear one strong pair of shoes that are inevitably dirty, spend little and live large. I figure that if I control the way I travel I'll get far more satisfaction from it than if I were to follow a group of 40 miserable tourists from souvenir shop to inauthentic restaurant and back again.

Occasionally, however, one has the chance to see things from the other side. When I had the opportunity to visit Jinan city as a representative for a New Zealand business school with all expenses paid, I took it immediately. I'd never seen the capital of Shandong province before and figured it was as good a chance as any to see somewhere new. Besides, I thought that there should be ample opportunities to sneak away from business and escape into the city for some private exploration.

A friend once told me that a foreigner in China who can speak Mandarin, sing well, and hold his drink can go very far. It's true: anyone with a foreign face can karaoke along through China and make a fortune from it using just these three abilities. My business opportunity was something of this kind. The manager of the school explained before we left that I was not actually required to say or do anything in any of the meetings I'd be attending. I was to pretend that I was the assistant manager of the school, to give the false appearance that the school was partly managed by local New Zealanders overseas. It was a dubious deal, but being the kind of man who can never resist seeing what's behind an open door, I accepted.

I was to stay in Jinan for two days, and we took a mid-morning train from Beijing that was to take about four hours. The manager had incongruously booked soft sleeper tickets, and I found myself in a room alone lying wide awake on an impossibly puffed-up mattress that was no more comfortable than the hard sleeper bunks. On a touchscreen TV set in the wall I found I could choose any movie from a long list of DVD files on the train's network. I decided to watch one as it was difficult to see out the window – what I normally do when riding on a Chinese train – stopping only to use the private bathroom installed into the cubicle. I imagined the hearty chatter and laughter in the hard seat carriages and started to feel more than a little out of place. It was a feeling that was to remain throughout my introduction to high-powered Chinese business.

I was looking forward to seeing Jinan. Known as the 'Spring City' after the plentiful springwater sources found there, Jinan has a venerable history going back more than a thousand years, and has been said to rival Hangzhou in that it is set on a large beautiful lake, Da Ming Hu, surrounded by willows and ancient towers. It's also famous for its 'Mountain of a Thousand Buddhas' – Qianfo Shan. I'd read that long ago it was known only as the site where the legendary Emperor Shun farmed the land before coming to power - but its current name was bestowed about 1400 years ago when devotees began to carve images of the Buddha on its rock faces. I lay on the bunk planning a private itinerary for myself of all the places I would see when I had free time.

Shandong Meat

We soon arrived at Jinan and I was escorted by taxi to our hotel – the Shandong Hotel, an enormous five-star affair in the South of the city. For a guy who normally stays in the kind of cheap travellers' hostels he's not even technically allowed to spend the night in, the Shandong Dasha was right at the other end of the scale. I walked into the foyer and stared straight up, amazed. The hotel is in the shape of a closed half circle constructed around a central well into which all the levels open over a tiered balcony. At the bottom, a smart grand piano on a raised platform is set amongst quiet ponds on tiled wooden floors.. Pillars are everywhere, and the design is so attractive that the same glass elevators usually built on the outside of a tower for seeing the scenery outdoors were placed in the centre of the hotel for seeing the beauty inside. I remembered the woman I'd seen that morning outside the Beijing railway station wearing grubby rural clothes who was too scared to get on the escalator down to the subway – right then, looking at the formidably posh hotel, I understood how she must have felt.

I took the lift to my room, which was enormous. Chocolates and a rose had been laid on my pillow. I ate the chocolates as quickly as possible and gave the rose to the service girl outside who giggled shyly in response and put it back on the big pile of roses under her trolley.

It was late afternoon, and from my window I could see the famous Qianfo Shan in the golden sunlight. I had to admit that under the surprisingly thick smog, Jinan looked plain and gritty – but I lost no enthusiasm for the sights I planned to see, and I anticipated being able to get out in the evening after my first business dinner.

The manager of the school had particularly impressive guanxi – business relations – with some high-ranking officials in Shandong, and we were scheduled to meet with one such high-flyer for a meal. I put on my suit hesitantly and met the manager at the hotel gate, where a bellboy signalled for a taxi. He looked towards me respectfully and bowed his head – "Good Evening Sir", he said in a strong but clear Shandong accent. I smiled awkwardly – this was the first person who'd called me 'sir' in a long time.

The taxi took us to one of Jinan's most expensive restaurants. Winding our way between the separated halls, through gardens of fish ponds with traditional wooden bridges and marble walkways, we arrived at a brightly decorated room with rich burgundy walls. Several immaculately dressed businesspeople and officials were already seated around a large, circular table. I shook a few hands and sat down.

The host took the menu and began to order all the most impressively expensive looking and tasteless dishes he could find; gobs of cold meat swallowed in jelly, great fish with bulging eyes sprinkled with furry powders, smoky pots of tofu ruined with grease and odoriferous oils. I had told the host that I was a vegetarian, but his only response was to turn to the manager of the school and say, 'your representative can speak Chinese!' which initiated a discussion about the increasing number of foreigners in China studying Mandarin and I was hitherto ignored.

I began to pick at a salad. Before long, the host noticed I wasn't eating and insisted that I try some of the dishes, and I mentioned again that I didn't eat meat. He spent a good ten minutes trying to convince me that vegetarianism was foolish before giving in and handing me the menu. I'm usually not bad at ordering food, but looking through the unusual names for the dishes, I had absolutely no idea what anything was and felt like I was back in the early days of having just arrived in China all over again. I timidly asked if the restaurant had my favourite – fried eggplant – and the whole table rocked with laughter.

The evening was miserable. Four hours of trivial conversation between increasingly intoxicated powerful people later, I was taken away from the group with several of the businessmen to continue the disaster at a karaoke venue. From the window of the taxi, I watched longingly as the fascinating side streets of Jinan passed me by. Jinan's a strange mixture of a city, a place where the old beauty has been closeted away from the more progressive areas, new towers that look twenty years old right after they're finished. It had the dusty look of a town that's trying to modernise too quickly, the beautiful, lonely air of rushing crowds in old clothes filling up newly concreted streets. For a moment, I caught a distant glimpse of Qianfo Shan – a gigantic gold Buddha now sits at the bottom of the mountain smiling peacefully, and a little helplessly, over the city.

I've been to Karaoke before, and was used to the little rooms and fake vibrato thinly disguising mispitched ballads. This was nothing like what I'd experienced before. We entered a room full of smoke and rich men, each accompanied by a thin, grotesquely made-up girl of around 20. I was asked to choose a girl from a queue of bored vixens with cellphones conspicuously tucked into their miniskirts – I refused, out of thorough embarrassment, and a girl was chosen for me, a waif with brightly dyed red hair and green contact lenses. She sat next to me, put one leg over my knee and kicked her pointed high-heel agitatedly, and plucked out her cellphone to send a text message. I froze uncomfortably and we didn't exchange a word. The wealthy business owner on my right, however, was grabbing improperly at the scrawny girl he'd selected, and when he finally had her still, licked at her face like some kind of bloated puppy. I looked around the room incredulously and wondered just how much of China's business is conducted in this manner.

A Circle Around the Lake

My second day in Jinan wasn't much better. After such a late night, I felt sure that my manager would want to have the morning free, but just after I'd got out of bed, he knocked on my door telling me we had a breakfast appointment. In my mind, breakfast is a light, wholesome meal – instead, the breakfast was a virtual re-run of the previous night – a group of businessmen in an expensive restaurant eating horrid food and drinking copious amounts of beer – at 8.30 in the morning. I was listening to their conversation trying to figure out what it all had to do with the business school in New Zealand but couldn't understand the relevance of their discussion at all.

It was only later in the afternoon, after a visit to an office and another three-hour lunch, that I was able to convince the manager to let me run off on my own. I only had two hours before we had to leave, and so I made up my mind to do at least one of the tasks on my itinerary – walking around Da Ming Lake.

It was overcast, and the lake really didn't look as appealing as it should have. I entered the park and started out, but with all the performance of the last two days of pretentious business torture, I was hardly in a mood to appreciate it fully.

Da Ming Hu is admittedly beautiful. The winding pathway takes the casual stroller around many discreet gardens and pavilions, all backlit in the soft luminescent light of the sun filtering through the thousandfold fronds of hanging willow. It should have put me in a peaceful mood, but I kept thinking of the karaoke hall and all that smoke, and the desperate look on the girls' faces as we left, begging the businessmen for more tips. I climbed a few ancient towers and looked out over the grey waters of the lake, but had the eerie feeling that I'd seen all this before in other cities, and that maybe I was becoming immune to the poetry of the classical Chinese garden and its capacity for quieting the spirit.

Never make a task out of tourism: it'll take the pleasure out of just being there. I was looking at my watch and wondering if I'd make it all the way around, but was running out of time. Then, just when I was closing in on the end of my circle, I discovered that the south-eastern section of the lake is fenced off and impossible to pass. I was disappointed to realise that I couldn't possibly walk the way around the lake itself, and so doubled back to the park exit to complete the loop at the roadside around the edge of the park.

As I walked towards the group of busses that I hoped would take me back to the Shandong Hotel, I took some time to reflect. I'd expected to see some of the beauty of Jinan, but had instead seen something far more human – insincerity. Pretended status. Undeserved pleasures. Unearned money. A traveller should count himself lucky to see not only the buildings of a new city, but the evil than men do inside.

 More Jinan Travel Reviews
Comments (5)


Apr 20, 2007 11:25 Reply


that's supposed to be an amazing hotel. my roommate has a friend who works there, so she got a vip tour. i guess it was built for mao back in the day, but he never got around to staying there. now, it's reserved for the very highest classes who come to stay in jinan. i was told condoleeza rice and dick cheney stayed there not too long ago.


Nov 29, 2006 23:14 Reply


What you said about the feelings as a real traditional traveller is so ture.
Not everybody can understand that, such as my boss. haha...She's a typical old Chinese woman, who always "suggested" us to work harder(which means work overtime without vacations, nor weekends when we're young) to collect much more MONEY to persuit the so-called HIGH-QUALITY travels later.
To her dissapointment, cheap and "dirty" motels give me more chance to get to know and even make friend with locals, street food just takes right. haha...
The silly standards of good trip just be set by society and people with routine thinking way, no need to please it.
Keep your style, and be true to your self. Cheers!


Oct 22, 2005 11:08 Reply

MISHEN said:

Thanks so much for these kind comments - I think that Shandong has much of great beauty to offer despite the dealings of these businessmen, which are unfortunately similar all over China. I don't think that there's any danger of them spoiling the rest of the country, much too much of China for that! Shandong Dasha is a wonderful and first class hotel.


Oct 21, 2005 13:23 Reply


I stumbled upon your comments at an interesting time - looking for information about the Hotel Shandong Dasha, for my boss, for his upcoming business visit. Yours is an interesting perspective, one that is perhaps unfortunately the view of several of us "Yanks" share of our experience in business dealings with Asia. I'm sure there is an entirely wonderfully beautiful & unspoiled (underlying) culture remaining to be explored. I just hope that in China's growth & "coming into it's own," that it does not forget or bury its precious cultural heritage. I hope to experience its natural beauty someday, before it is too difficult to find.

Thank you for your views..they are sadly shared. I hope it will change. ...and you write very well...a most enjoyable read.


Sep 29, 2005 22:07 Reply

SOPHIA08 said:


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