Almost every Chinese person I know talks about how much China has changed. It has been only 5 years since my last visit to
Dalian (in 2008) but I can’t help but be surprised at how little of it I recognized on my return. I saw condos, malls, offices sprout up at an alarming rate. And just as fast buildings deteriorated, were torn down, or abandoned.
In the six months that I stayed in Dalian, I witnessed at least three condos and a mall erected along with miles of coastline filled in for a highway all within walking distance from our apartment building. From dawn to dusk, I could hear the clamouring of steel and concrete. Walking from the bus station to our apartment I saw more flyers given out for condos than for supermarkets. Meanwhile, there are abandoned projects in every district of the city. The subway that was started in Dalian for the Olympics sits exposed and untouched along the main road for over 5 years. On my way to work, I could see skeletons of buildings with rusting scaffolding and tattered tarp that dances in the wind like ghosts. Neighbourhoods that were newly built in the beginning of the millennium look like the projects from the 60s. My parents’ building, shiny and brand new in 2008, is already falling apart. Only 1 (sometimes 2 if you are really lucky) out of the 4 elevators work. Most of the lights have gone out in the stairways making it difficult to avoid the sticky garbage water and abandoned appliances. The hallways are always dark and dirty. When it rains, the whole building smells like sewer. This is the same building that had 2 doormen, a security guard and 4 cleaning ladies just 5 years ago.
China is growing too fast, trying too hard, and cutting too many corners. Like a teenager trying to reinvent themselves, the country is fraught with an unique mix contradictions. Just like teenagers, Chinese people live with these contradictions without noticing them. It’s a country that understands the importance of a good foundation but not detail, appearance but not value, brands but not quality, fashion but not taste. There are ocean view housing developments worth millions of dollars with drawers that don’t close all the way and uneven floor boards. There are beautiful open tree-lined boulevards backstreets littered with plastic waste. There are big shiny shopping malls that sell cosmetics that turn your skin orange 30 minutes after application. There are fake everything you can imagine and things you can’t – like fake Apple electric scooters. There are women sporting dresses copied right off the runway of Paris with old sneakers and their mother’s purse.
Despite all of China’s efforts and money, there’s an unruliness to it that is not quite first-world and a shabbiness that’s difficult to sweep under the rug. Yet the Chinese people seem to be happy. People are grateful that they have more of what they used to. There’s a sense of optimism about the future that hasn’t been felt in the West since the 80s. For a country that looks so much forward to the future, it’s sure not building things that would last. Even with all its money, China can’t afford to build and rebuild forever.