Salient. Victoria University Student Newspaper. Volume 36, Number 17. July 18th, 1973
Walking The Streets
Walking The Streets
Imagine a group of foreign visitors walking into the D.I.C. or Woolworths in Wellington and being surrounded by a crowd of friendly and interested local customers, or Wellington citizens waving, smiling and applauding when a busload of foreign tourists drives down the street.
Unusual as it would be to New Zealanders this is what has happened to us in Canton and Shanghai. Everywhere we have been, travelling as a group or walking down the street, people are tremendously friendly and curious. This attitude is at first surprising in view of the fact that the people of Shanghai in particular suffered a great deal from the oppression of foreign imperialists. For many years Shanghai was divided up into foreign "concessions", and was in fact a number of armed camps controlled by foreign troops.
Many of the present 10 million citizens of Shanghai experienced the foreign occupation of their city, so I asked one of the interpreters travelling with us why it is that people are so friendly today. "The people of Shanghai," she explained, "understand that your people have also suffered the oppression of foreign imperialists." Thus the friendliness of people here demonstrates not only the politeness of Chinese people and their hospitality towards foreign guests, but also their understanding of proletarian internationalism — the unity of the people of the world.
But how spontaneous are these demonstrations of friendship? Isn't it quite conceivable that people are organised or even forced to show friendship towards foreigners?
While we have had no evidence to suggest that ordinary people on the streets are organised to wave and applaud when they see us passing by in a bus, we have tested the friendship of people by walking the streets in small, unorganised groups at night or early in the morning.
On our first morning in Shanghai three of us set out at 5.30 and walked through the streets for a couple of hours before breakfast. At 5.30 in the morning Shanghai is a hive of activity. Along the river bank there are hundreds of people, young and old, taking exercise by practising shadow boxing. It is an amazing sight, and we immediately had visions of Wellington office workers practising shadow boxing at the Railway Station, or on Lambton Quay on their way to work. We wandered through the side streets back to our hotel, past markets, cafes and a couple of small factories. People looked surprised to see us but smiled, waved and exchanged greetings of welcome. There was never any suggestion that any harm could come to us.
Near our hotel we stopped at a building site, where a team of men and women were pouring concrete onto the foundations. We sat and watched then working for about 20 minutes. No one told us to clear off. The workers smiled and greeted us and got on with the job. It was particularly interesting to see men and women doing hard manual work together, and to see the foreman working alongside the others.
In Canton I had a fascinating experience trying to buy a pair of trousers at a Peoples Store. The range of sizes does not cater very well for a tall westerner with a pot gut, and the problem of buying a pair to fit me was not helped by the fact that no one in the immediate vicinity of the menswear department could speak English.
I tried on pair after pair of trousers, cursing myself for a love of food and a lack of exercise. The shop assistants seemed very concerned that they couldn't provide what I wanted. A crowd of about 30 people gathered round to see what was going on and study the problem.
Suddenly a women with a tape measure appeared at the counter. She quickly measured my waist and proceeded to explain the contradiction between Frank's gut and the range of trouser sizes provided by the People's Store. There was a hilarious reaction to this information and when I had to go a few minutes later to catch the bus I felt that even though I'd failed to buy trousers that had fitted me I'd provided a few locals with some entertainment.
The People's Stores are especially striking because of the very cheap clothes (for example I bought a jacket and a pair of trousers for about $(NZ)6.) and the total lack of advertising. In fact the Chinese have turned capitalist advertising into its opposite! At a People's Store in Shanghai there was a special display area for new products. People were able to examine these products criticise them and suggest alternatives. A case of consumers dictating to manufacturers, rather than manufacturers dictating to consumers, as happens in New Zealand.