Monthly Archives: September 2014

China Diaries – Day 3

P1030049 (Large)Today is our first visit to an early years setting in China. We are going to a government funded nursery in a Shanghai district. It is a 260 place nursery serving the local community (neighbourhood).

Zhiang, our guide, provides context for our visits based on his own experience and knowledge. It is helpful, for example, to see how the provision of childcare fits into the current Chinese social paradigm, both as an expedient for working parents and as the preparation for children’s education.

It seems to me that the scale and pace of social change in China continues in an almost inexorable movement, reaching far back into its  feudal agrarian pre-industrialised past to its present continuing dynamic urban global engagement, where its citizens are trying to come to terms with their former expectations of birth to grave welfare, guaranteed employment and housing provision from the state, albeit not always of the best quality; matched against the reality of existing and aspiring to make a better life for my family (my one child) in this and successive generations, within the uncertain and unchartered territories of enterprise and economic development.

Leaving aside the mind-blowing scale of all of this – Bejing and Shanghai, current populations around 22 million – how to feed, clothe, house,  employ, educate,  heat, light, transport all these people in a sustainable way, the overarching question is where are the politics headed? What does China mean by communism and what are its paternal (or otherwise) intentions towards its own indigenous people groups and its neighbours and how does it see its future role globally? These are huge and unanswered questions that I continue to consider.

ChIna currently has a population of around 1.4 billion people, 50% of whom live in cities. 20 Years ago this figure was 15%. This is the largest scale and rate of urbanisation in history.

We saw evidence of and heard much about migrant workers. The impoverished masses moving to the cities through economic displacement. These are the men and women building the forests of high rise blocks, 24 hours a day; sweeping Beijing’s streets and waiting tables in its restaurants. They are making ipads, clothing, cars and furniture etc. They are, in the main, relatively uneducated, naïve and often several days journey from home and their family.

Scarce resources are rationed. This includes services. Every citizen has an identity card detailing his/her place of family origin. This determines the location of their entitlement to welfare – education, medical services, housing etc. But here’s the problem, in order to get a job, it is necessary to travel to the city but once there, it is not possible to find a school for your children, a doctor or hospital because your entitlement is back where you came from, not here. So workers have to leave their children at home, cared for by the grandparents. You can always pay for medical help or education but most workers can’t afford this.

The provision that does exist in the cities is over-subscribed. We found it to be of a good standard, well resourced, with qualified and knowledgeable staff.  The outdoors environments were well-resourced, safe, well-maintained and welcoming.

The children attend from age 3 to 6 years when they then move on to school. The children we met were happy, engaged and well behaved. There were no children for whom Mandarin Chinese was an additional language.

Children are divided into classes of up to 35 individuals with 2 teachers and 1 assistant.  They attend from 8am – 4pm daily with a 2 ½ hour siesta after lunch.

Rather than write an account of our visit, I put it into a poem –

Little stars *

Zhiang led us from the minibus

past railings to security,

clutching our ipads, bags and phones.


You grabbed our hands and pulled us in.

We smiled and clapped while you performed

your polished dance for visitors.


Professionals, we sang our song,

we wound our bobbins, clap, clap, clapped

and pointed to the floor and door.


We came together, hand in hand,

each adult leading their own group,

each circle dancing to the tune.


We waved through doors, we counted cots,

our cameras captured everything.

We headed back into Shanghai.


‘* – the Chinese flag has 1 large star representing China and 4 little stars representing workers, soldiers, peasants, intellectuals.

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After our visit to the nursery, we drove to Suzhou ready to tour the Master of Nets garden and to visit a Children’s Development Centre the next day.

China Diaries – Day 2

Our first introduction to China today. A short minibus journey took us across the Huangpu river into the centre of Shanghai and the historic Bund district. We visited the Peace hotel, built by Victor Sassoon and opened as the Cathay Hotel in 1929. As an introduction to Shanghai, strolling through the opulent decor of the reception area and dining hall, we could see the British colonial influence of the pre-communist past when Shanghai  society events featured jazz and tea dances. As we paused outside to cross over to the river bank for a photo opportunity, a municipal street cleaning lorry busied itself along the kerbs, blaring out the tune to ‘Happy Birthday to You’ !

The skyline across the river comprises the high rise buildings of the financial district, that characteristic photo shot of the new Shanghai, an area that only 20 years ago was farm land. More evidence of the extraordinary rate of development.

Back on the minibus and on to the Shanghai museum and our first exposure to priceless historic art treasures. We explored half a dozen galleries ranging from bronze work,  calligraphy, precious jade, porcelain and paintings through to traditional costumes from China’s indigenous people groups.

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The museum building design combines the Chinese elements of  heaven and earth symbolised by the round roof and square building below.

Form the museum we walked across the park behind, on the site of the old racecourse, through the underground train station and on to a restaurant for lunch. The chopsticks are starting to feel more comfortable in my hands!

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After lunch we headed to the French Quarter, Zhiang pointed out some of the older communist era lower level buildings en route – most marked for demolition.  These were built for communal living with families sharing cooking, eating and toilet facilities and with no lifts servicing  the 6 or 7 floors.

For the Chinese, number 8 is lucky and 4 unlucky. We have noted that there is generally no 4th floor in hotels and 4 is usually absent from car number plates.

The French quarter retains its narrow streets and European architecture. Having browsed in the small independent shops, we retired to Starbucks (okay –mainly in search of a loo but also fancied a coffee). We ordered a black coffee and a weak latte, we were given an extremely strong iced coffee and a sugar laden iced latte, neither of which were potable in our opinion. We searched for a convenient plant to pour them into.

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Our next stop was the silk museum where we observed the silk worm lifecycle – from the live worms, through to the chrysalis and moth. We saw the individual silk casts being spun into threads.

We then helped pull out thread sheets across a table to form the filling for a duvet.

After the demonstration, we were given the opportunity to purchase silk good – duvets, sheets, jackets, shirts, ties, boxer shorts etc from a substantial warehouse.

6 of us headed out for an evening meal. The Chinese eat early, usually around 6pm. Most restaurants seem to be emptying from 7pm onwards. We were shown into a private side room, away from the smoking in the main eating area (yes, there is still a lot of smoking in restaurants here).  We tried squid this evening. It was very good. We were just finishing when the door opened and a strange man walked in, greeted us all, gave a rambling speech in Chinese, smashed a wine glass and walked out again!

China Diaries – Day 1

After months of anticipation, 14 hours of flights – 4 airline meals, 5 movies , arm-rest tussles with an over-sized arab in the adjacent seat and Chinese immigration forms, we are finally here, tired but excited. We are a group of 7 early years folk – Ruth, the journalist and group leader, 4 nursery owners including Anna and David from Paint Pots, a graduate practitioner and an administrator.

What expectations do we have?  What are our preconceptions about China? How do you begin to understand this vast and complex country and ancient culture? Having studied our tour programme, it is evident that we are going to give it a good go over the next couple of weeks with a packed schedule of professional and cultural visits and experiences.

Our first site of China actual is glimpsed from the minibus on the relatively speedy road in from Pudong airport (Dong meaning East) to Shanghai. The airport is 15 years old and currently has a capacity for 60 million passengers annually but with a third terminal planned to open in 2015, this figure is set to rise to 80 million, along with 6 millions tonnes of freight.

Our guide, Zhiang, already proves to be a personable, knowledgeable and ever resourceful companion without whom it would have been impossible to function in this alien environment.

The sense of disorientation is huge, not only as a consequence of our travel across time zones but also our complete helplessness and inability to communicate since we can neither speak, understand or read Mandarin Chinese. Having turned my mobile phone off for the duration, the thought occurs what to do should we become detached from the main group?

We have already learned that Shanghai has a population in excess of 22 million people. So that’s 3 Shanghais equal to the total population of the UK. China’s population is approaching 1.4 billion overall. We’re starting to get a sense of scale.

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Our hotel – the Shanghai Ocean is across the river from the famous Bund area, a relatively new building amongst a whole development  on former farm land. Everywhere we drive or visit, there is evidence of recent and continuing development. Building activity continues through the night in a drive to complete projects as quickly as possible. There are whole vistas of skyscrapers – none of them more than 15 years old, and still more building sites, cranes and concrete deliveries. It is easy to see where much of the world’s resources are going right now.

Once checked in, we head out on foot into the local Shanghai streets, to a local restaurant decorated in the familiar red and gold and find ourselves seated at the first of many circular tables with a revolving “lazy Susan” at its centre, soon replete with rice, noodles, chicken, vegetables, pork and beef. There is no western cutlery. As I slide out my chopsticks from their paper packaging, I tentatively advance towards a flatter item of food trying to recall the grip needed to effectively transport it onto my plate. The bottom line is, if I don’t get this to work, I’m going to be hungry! As Anna observes, why did the country that invent chopsticks rely on rice as its staple diet? The 2 don’t necessarily seem compatible.

We managed to eat! We retired to our beds and fell into a deep sleep – until 2 am when, for the first of several such occasions, we found ourselves wide, wide awake.  How do you force yourself back to sleep?  It was a good job we had packed sufficient reading material.