Yingkou by Cecilia Schulz
Getting Out of Dodge
Leaving Beijing was work. The train station is gigantic like everything else is in Beijing. It was also full of rushing people. Where are they all going on a Sunday morning? I can’t even imagine the insanity of a Monday in that station. Our destination was to get to Panjin which was a stop in the middle of nowhere to catch a bus to go even further into the abyss of China. The train was a high speed train which took us to Panjin in under three hours. It was very fast. Trees hypnotized me as they blurred past my window. The scenery was red earth, impoverished neighborhoods and working people. I never once saw a field where there wasn’t a person hunched over tending to the soil. The snacks on the train were excellent! I was sitting with Steve who brought a fine selection of Beijing favorites like honey and sunflower seeds or crunchy black sesame seeds. I brought chocolate cookies.
From Panjin, we travelled via motor coach into Yingkou. The roads on the outskirts of the city were under construction and there’s been little rain so the road was rough and dusty. The skyline was smoggy, but I think it had more to do with sand in the air as opposed to pollution. My mouth felt gritty my mascara collected grime. The first impression of Yingkou was the hundreds apartment buildings. Some blocks had these monstrosities disappear on the horizon. They went on as far as I could see! The thousands of apartments were new…and empty. None of us had ever seen this before.
In the evening, I walked to the river to enjoy the weather and the locals. The park along the river was alive with people just hanging out. Groups gathered to dance. Some danced what looked similar to a fox trot. Then just meters away from them, different music played with different dancing. Others were walking their dogs, eating ice cream, holding hands, talking. People met in the park as their apartments are small. Whatever their reason, Yingkou-ites knew a good evening when they saw it. Being outside was where you wanted to be.
Our hotel had scheduled plumbing repairs and left the kindest note in our rooms informing us that the power would be shut off from 6am – 7am. I was fortunate enough to just get the shampoo out of my hair when indeed all fell dark. They weren’t kidding as it was exactly 6am! So I met Elinore for an early morning walk to a nearby park. So glad I went. Again, the park was the hub of activity. Many seniors were there. They weren’t sitting around discussing the woes of arthritis. Instead, they were involved in tai chi, sword dancing or fan dancing. I saw men writing poetry on the slate sidewalks, but not with paint. Instead, they used a broomstick affixed with a textured paintbrush that they would dip into a bucket of water. Their poetry simply evaporated. There were toddlers playing nearby which made me think grandma was watching grandkids. Tables were set up throughout the park to take blood pressure for ten yuan. I clocked in at 114/76 thank you.
I guess no matter where you live, you’ll need groceries. In China, the need for groceries is no different from shoppers’ needs in the US, but the method is. The first retail assignment in Yingkou was to review a few grocery stores. RT Mart was first on the agenda. This busy store was large and bright. It was located above a small shopping mall that featured mostly apparel. The groceries were organized beautifully with a busy produce section, an interesting deli (more later) and a quiet meat section. People buy meat…just not a lot. The deli was active with shoppers as they sold ready to eat foods like dumplings and breads and omelets. The manager of RT Mart tastes the items sold in the deli on a weekly basis to assure customers that the selections taste the same every time. Quality assurance is important as they assert that their deli items are derived from secret recipes. RT Mart was uncomfortable with any of us taking photographs. Shoppers come into the store about twice a week. Older shoppers shop in the mornings. People who hold jobs come in after work. Saturday, like in the US, is the busiest day for this grocery store.
The Xinglong Shopping Square was also interesting. The general manager met with us and walked us through her store which began as (you guessed it) a multi-branded soft line department store. It seems common to have high end apparel located on the ground floor necessitating a walk through before you ascend the conveyor belt escalator to get to the second level grocery store. More accommodating than the RT Mart, the manager encouraged us to photograph the store and also advise her on improving the retail model. She was serious as her entourage followed us with pen and paper taking notes on what Steve suggested throughout the tour. This store was not as bright and as organized as the RT Mart, but it was well merchandised and had a ready and willing staff available at every corner. I mean that. There was more sales staff available than I had ever seen. If you touch an item, two associates are there to “help” you. What are their labor costs?
In the adternoon, our students had an opportunity to meet with the director of the Foreign Affairs Office, Mr. Liu Xiu-bo and the vice director, Han Haiyan in the Foreign Affairs office conveniently located next door to our hotel. Together, they hosted a meeting to talk about retailing Yingkou along with the managers of the RT Mart and the Xinglong Shopping Center. They discussed how the city of 2.38 million was the first Chinese city to open to western merchants who traded in the mid-19th century. Nothing has changed really… Yingkou will continue to accommodate merchants and develop the port as it had for 150 years. Governments change over time…merchants not so much. The most recent retailers in town include Wal-Mart, Coke, Budweiser and Tesco. Coke built a huge bottling division outside of town which will manage of 1 million tons of beverage annually. They graciously gave us a tour of the impressive facility. It’s prepared to begin production within days.
What is interesting about the Yingkou officials is their united view that Yingkou will soon become a tier two city and expect nothing to get in the way. The infrastructure is getting attention as a priority and at breakneck speed to get the people. Apartment homes, roads, high speed rail, airport, hotels and fast food restaurants are moving in. They are developing land that is flat and ready for construction. Yingkou fully expects investors and businesses to come. Wait for it…waaaaait for it.
Yingkou is the sister city of Jacksonville, Florida. One of the purposes of our visit was to introduce the students to government officials and to invite them to share in the festivities of the partnership. The students met with the vice mayor. Chinese business etiquette is an amazing formality with perfect reasoning to support it. Mayor Tang Xinen met with Steve Kirn seated in two large chairs separated by a small table which held two small flags. Interpreters (including Elinore) sat just behind their chairs. Government officials are seated on the host’s side. On the guest’s side sat Steve, me and the UF students. Formalities were expressed. Photos were taken. Hands were shaken. Gifts were given. Students would never have access to such elaboration, but the executives were patient and spent the afternoon answering questions and then hosted a lavish dinner to celebrate the partnership. Elinore Fresh was honored as the Jacksonville board member. The people of the Foreign Affairs office and the Mayor’s office were gracious, interesting, innovative and fun. They welcomed weary travellers and their kindness was unforgettable.
Yingkou Economic and Technology Development Zone was another eye opener. Mr. Wu Zhonghua, the commercial bureau director was kind enough to show us a scale model of the Yingkou port and talk about the plan for a transformed coastal eco-city. From there, we drove over to the port. Well, it is humungous. Cranes stretch as far as the eye can see. Mr. Zhonghua said it is only about 30% complete. Rail leaves the port and disappears into the Chinese chasm. When complete, the deep water port will accommodate any type of ship carrying any type of freight. How could any company say no to Yingkou? My guess is that’s Yingkou’s plan. They said their goal was to make foreign investment as easy as possible and it looks like thought of everything. Outside of the old city, Yingkou is developing an entirely new city as quickly as possible to house all of the people who will move there to work all of the new industry. What? Yes. That’s what I said. China has designated Yingkou as one of 40 cities chosen to develop. While life continues in Yingkou, another city is being developed just outside of town complete with civic centers and high rises, golf courses and shopping centers and good grief it was massive. Yet, no one was there. We stepped out of the bus to hear wind blow sand across large granite boulevards. It looked like a movie set. The motto must be “build it and they will come”, but really? Will they? China is secure as to the success of this city to invest over 10 billion Yuan in the development of this futuristic city. I had never seen anything like it. I think I was in the right place at the right time to witness a ground breaking city. I doubt I will ever see this again. When I revisit Yingkou, I don’t think I will recognize it.