200th Blog Post – China Sourcing for Small Businesses aka Mulberry Fields

I was wondering what to write about for my 200th blog post, a milestone of sorts. Since I was reading an article on Pu Dong today and thinking back to my own experience there, which is unique, I think I will make the 200th post about Pudong.

In the fall of 1990 I moved to Shanghai where I had been invited to be an instructor for the 1990-1991 academic year at the Shanghai Maritime Institute in Pudong. This was the institute where all of the COSCO (China Ocean Shipping Company) and Maritime industry executives were trained. There were 3 overseas lecturers at the Institute – myself and two ladies from New Zealand, Mick and Jenny. We were all pioneers for we were the only three foreigners living in Pudong at that time, what I was told by the school administration. This was after all Pudong in 1990, a year before Pudong was declared a Special Economic Zone by the Chinese Government.

Pudong was a wasteland in those days. It was countryside and there were no tall buildings other than drab grey Soviet era apartment blocks. There were no tunnels or bridges connecting Pudong to Puxi ( Shanghai proper ) and if you wanted to go into the city it took a 20 minute bus–ride and then an anxiety laden trip across the Huang Pu River on a dilapidated and overcrowded ferry. I remember how on those trips across the river I used to look at the half-submerged stern and think how fortunate I was that my parents had sent me to swimming camp when I was a kid. Those ferry trips were certainly memorable. For the duration of the 15 minute passage, I had to endure dumbstruck and not always friendly stares from peasants because this was a time in Shanghai when there were very few foreigners and anti-western sentiment was still widespread. 40 years of anti-Western Maoist propaganda does not go away overnight. I am sure that for some people I was the first foreigner they had ever seen, their absolutely agape expressions betraying that. If I was lucky enough to get a space by the railing, what I always aimed for in order to avert the curious and hostile faces, I could look into the river and always spot some interesting objects, what became my pastime on those river crossings: bicycles, appliances, shoes or other articles of clothing and the occasional pig carcass. You name it and someone had tossed it into the Huang Pu. When dead pigs were polluting the Huang Pu last year, a story which made international headlines, I could certainly relate. Shanghai in those days was not the sparkling, chi-chi international city it has become, pig strewn rivers notwithstanding.

There was little to do in Pudong back then so I spent my days studying Chinese, playing basketball or frequenting some of the local pool halls with my students who knew a thing about pool and also about drinking ( these were employees of COSCO not regular students). The restaurants we would go to were great. Authentic Chinese food for a couple of dollars. Some of the best food I have ever had. Chinese food in New York, Tokyo, San Francisco ? Forget it.

Pudong nowadays looks like Manhattan. The last time I was there, in 2011, I was absolutely astonished at the growth. It is unrecognizable from the place where I lived over 20 years ago and it has become the symbol for Shanghai and modern China. Pudong can boast now some of the tallest buildings in the world and there are now over 50,000 foreign residents there. Driving past the Mercedes Benz dealership in Liu Jia Zui which is probably bigger than the New York Public Library, I could think back to my early days boarding the Pudong ferry in Liu Jia Zui and at that moment I could see all of China’s potential. And I think back to those COSCO training classes that Mick, Jenny and I taught. Just the three of us in that vast stretch of land across the river from Shanghai.

Wow, I can’t believe I was part of all that.

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