January 2006

We learned today of an explosion in a nearby home that killed one person and severely injured another, the parents of a young child.

It seems this couple was trying to build, or use, a home-made helium balloon-filling machine. One version of the story said they were even trying to produce the helium themselves. We’re also not sure if they were doing this just for fun–for their child or for the Chinese New Year celebration–or whether this was their new business idea: sell helium filled balloons on the streets.

Tragic, and it makes me want to walk by any open doorways here even faster than I felt compelled to already.

You’re probably starting to recognize a motif here: if there’s a way to make money, people in this Chinese city of Anhai are going to find it.

The next evidence:

Anhai apparently has some of the better elementary and middle schools in the region, and people from elsewhere are eager to have their children attend them, even though they don’t live in these school districts per se.

That has spawned a bit of a cottage industry in the past few years, a new twist on the private boarding school concept, where people in these large, multi-story homes near the schools are setting aside a room or two to serve as student dormitories, taking on 5, 10, or more students, providing their room and board (with bunks stacked three high, just like they’ll encounter later at the university), and the “best” ones charging a premium fee to provide evening tutors for the students.

Many of the customers, I’m told, are families in the countryside or smaller towns who have themselves gone into business independently, made some money, and want to provide their children with a better chance of getting into a university later on.

One of my Wife’s Cousins, in fact, is housing 20 elementary school-age children and providing two evening tutors to help the students review and expand on their lessons. They’re charging 900 RMB a month per student–we’ll call it $112 U.S. dollars–for a take of U.S. $2240 a month before expenses, which include food and a cook, cleaning and housekeeping help, and the evening tutors, none of which cost very much here.

It seems a good idea to define Anhai, since it’s probably not a “typical” Chinese town, if there is such a thing, and some other narratives in this blog might require this bit of background.

Anhai is under the jurisdiction, broadly construed, of Xiamen, one of the original five “Special Economic Zones.” These SEZ’s were allowed to have commerce with the outside world long before other parts of China, and as a result, money began flowing into this region sooner than most other parts of the country. And it continues to flow in even faster today.

Long story short: Anhai, as far as small-to-medium sized cities go, is fairly well-to-do. This isn’t apparent as you walk the main streets, though; they look rather filthy and dingy. The wealth isn’t visible–unless you count the high-end vehicles you sometimes see in the filthy streets–until you step into private courtyards and sprawling multi-story homes, accessible through small mazelike alleyways.

You see, Anhai has become wealthy to the point that its native inhabitants no longer need to do any “menial” or “service” tasks. The people sweeping the streets, cooking and waiting in restaurants, working in factories, and just about everything else that isn’t “managerial” or above, they’re all from elsewhere, maybe poor inland regions of Fujian or as far away as Sichuan Province.

Thus there’s a very obvious two-class system in Anhai, one that might bear some comparison to the way of life in South Africa these days. The locals live in large multi-story houses with stone, marble and granite floors, stairs and countertops, with grand rooms and rooftop gardens and refrigerators and big TVs, behind large walls with glass shards sometimes embedded on the top to discourage unwelcome visitors, locked front gates, bars over the windows sometimes as high as the third floor, and so on. They wear more expensive clothes, often sent or brought back by relatives overseas or in Hong Kong. Many have cars or motorcycles. They often get their hair cut in salons (Japanese styles are fairly popular, I’ve noticed.)

Local people here in Anhai are factory owners, traders, stone/marble granite magnates, and the like. Also, lots of people from here have gone abroad to make their fortunes, and they send a lot of it back. At least enough to build one of these grand family homes, large enough to be mistaken for multi-unit apartment buildings, if one doesn’t know the whole story.

Most people you see out in the streets, however, are referred to as “Northerners” here, though this term encompasses basically anyone who’s not from “here,” anyone who has come as a laborer or worker. They live in spartan, crowded conditions, dress in common or low fashion, get their hair cut by street barbers with dull shears…and are not trusted by the locals, as the gated courtyards and barricaded windows suggest.

I’m not sure who fired the first shot in this class warfare, but I frankly don’t mind sleeping behind the locks and bars, as there are enough stories to convince me of people, sometimes entire families, being murdered by robbers who managed to break in during the night. Less so now that the extensive “home security” measures are in place, but such crimes are what made the measures so ubiquitious in the first place.

Street and alley robberies are fairly common here too, usually around dusk, when it’s harder to get a good look at the assailant, but no so dark that said assailant can’t see his way as he makes his escape. Whenever someone has been caught for such crimes, they are–of course–“Northerners.”

We were headed out today–me, my Wife, two Daughters, Wife’s Younger Brother, and Nephew–and my Mother-In-Law warned us to be careful because the number of street robberies increases around the Chinese New Year. I told her not to worry, because with me along, everyone in the streets will be watching us, and the robbers might not be as bold with such a great crowd of potenial witnesses watching our every move. We made our way out and back again just fine, but I’m not sure my reassurances helped her feel better. She’s known too many victims of brazen daylight robberies here for that to happen.

A View of Part of My Wife’s Cousin’s Four-Story House

A Couple Views of My Wife’s Family’s Third-Floor Outdoor Garden Level:

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