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Books &Chinese Culture newlight on 08 Jun 2007 01:32 pm

Getting Rich First: Life in a Changing China

Getting Rich First: Life in a Changing ChinaIn the introduction of his new book Getting Rich First: Life in a Changing China (Chatto and Windus), Duncan Hewitt wrote that when he sat at the cafe of Shanghai IKEA, he can see cars and trucks were rushing around outside the window in the three level elevated roads which also tangled with a light weight train rail. When I was reading this, I was sitting beside a window in a quiet corner of one of the large Waterstone’s in Edinburgh. Outside the window is the cobbled back street, where a pigeon was fighting hopelessly against a seagull for some leftover chips. Incidently, Edinburgh is where Hewitt’s journey started, as one of the students learning Chinese in Edinburgh University who were about setting foot in China in late 80s.

An often heard complaint among the youngests who came to the UK from China is that this place is just a bit dull. People can cite me many things they used to do in China, eating out at a newly opened restaurant, karaoke at a new KTV, or exchanging some latest American tv series are just the common ones. There seems to be endless supplies of new ways of consuming and entertaining. Things are moving rather fast there.

This fits well what Hewitt said, that it almost like the 60 years of post war development in the West has been compressed into 20 years in China. BBC’s Andrew Marr, in his History of Modern Britain, describes the make over of Birmingham in the 60s – the old Birmingham almost completely disappeared while people can’t wait to see a New Britain. Imagine that in a much bigger scale, repeated every five years. That’s what’s happening in China.

When I went back to China in 2004, I took a shuttle bus (which itself had morphed from an old rugged 20-seater to a shining, air-conditioned 60-seater) through a longer route (because I landed in the new Pudong Airport). When the bus approached my hometown Suzhou, some 50 miles west of Shanghai, I saw lots of brand new-looking factories and warehouses, followed by high and low rise apartment blocks, but I couldn’t make out where I was, until after about half a hour when I finally saw a building I vaguely remembered, which was way outside the city of Suzhou. The city may have doubled its size, only in about three years time.

This most visible change of China is where Hewitt started – the change of urban landscape. But ultimately as the title suggests, this book is about life. As a journalist Hewitt had been able to talk to many people, across the country and generations, from trendy city dwellers to those who are struggling at the bottom of the food chain.
As one who had been in China and Hong Kong for long time and speaks Mandarin, he showed his understooding and empathy of the people he talked to. But at the same time, he maintains a viewpoint from outside, which helps him to see the big picture – as we Chinese like to say ‘the spectator sees it more clearily’.

A question Hewitt raised but was not able to answer is why it happens so fast? To be fair, this is not a question this book could answer. Perhaps we just don’t know the answer. As a Chinese, I always feel that the urgent sense to be modern and competitive, to be ‘strong again’ means we embrace anything precieved to be new or advanced without much hesitation. Indeed we have quite often jumped into the arm of the “new” happily. The frantic pace of development means there is little room for the concerning the protection of environment or culture heritage. Perserving and protecting are always much more expensive than demolishing the old and building and new. The economic development brings to the people material wealth in relatively short time, but at the same time causes intense anxiety, insecurity and delusion. But as you will find in this book, when people have ingenious ways to make money, they also have imaginative ways to deal with the emotional stress, to perserve history and cultural heritage.

What is good about Getting Rich First is its vivid recording of how people are coping with the rapid social and economic transition in China. It’s an informative and enjoyable read.

13 Responses to “Getting Rich First: Life in a Changing China”

  1. on 09 Jun 2007 at 09:24 1.LinkChinese UK News » Review: Getting Rich First: Life in Changing China said …

    [...] Book reviewed by Pin Lu on WaterInk [...]

  2. on 13 Jul 2007 at 00:49 2.Feng said …

    Is is a typo that ‘clearly’ be spelled as ‘clearily’?

  3. on 31 Jul 2007 at 18:41 3.Water Ink » China Road: A Journey into the Future of the Rising Power said …

    [...] to move on. Unlike another recently published book about present time China, Duncan Hewitt’s Getting Rich First:  Life in a Changing China, the social observation in China Road does look scattered [...]

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