Hello there! Alex here.
If you’ve missed last week’s post, click this!
It’s our 4th week in Zhejiang University, and this week has been especially interesting for me for two reasons: Beijing, and dogs.
My chosen theme for the Asian Leadership Programme is Visual Design for the Comprehensive Intelligent Large Screen, and at its core, it is a data visualization project. How can we design an interface that helps visualize a torrent of data such that people can instinctually acquire insight just by looking at it? For this year, we’re working with the Bank of Beijing, a reasonably young bank that, like the rest of the industry, is trying to make sense (and cents?) from the new waves of big data and social banking, and our project will be used in one of their branches. On its own, that’s pretty cool.
But wait, there’s more!
Because we’re working with the Bank of Beijing, that also means we got to go to Beijing. That was the first half of my week, and boy it was an interesting experience, starting from the ride there. The 高铁 (High Speed Rail), or G-class train services are purely passenger-dedicated high speed train lines that ply the routes between cities at a sweet top speed of 350km/h. Being a bunch of poor students, being able to ride these trains was a hell of a blessing (especially after experiencing the K-class trains from my trip to Shanghai). It struck me how incredibly quiet and stable the trains were, even when zooming across the countryside at a sweet 344km/h, and the onboard Wifi was a huge plus as well. We reached Beijing from Hangzhou in a short 5 hours.
Over at Beijing, we went ahead to meet staff from the Bank of Beijing to gain some context and understanding, as well as what they expected out of the visualization. Surprisingly, from my shallow knowledge on this field, I found that the bank had faced what was essentially the same problems as other banks. They also roughly outlined what they wanted out of the project, and big data in general – the typical perks like insight, reduced operating costs and what not. Not exactly as clear as I wanted it to be, given that we had little insight on to the specific needs of banks and the financial sector, but much better than nothing.
After the meeting, we proceeded back to our hotel, where most of us promptly crashed. Sightseeing could wait for tomorrow.
The next day started off on a okay note – having your typical hotel breakfast. Not quite the kind of food I was used too, given the obvious Chinese bent (need my roti prata and teh alia), but pretty good nonetheless. We all made it a point to stock up for the full day of walking ahead.
Our two major destinations were the Forbidden City and the Temple of Heaven. The sun was positively relentless that day, further worsened courtesy of the urban heat and the droves of people all rushing to make their way in. We alighted from Tiananmen East station and made our way through a security checkpoint (those are common in China) under the watchful eyes of many, many guards. We took a few moments to just…let our inner tourists take over us, taking a few photos before skedaddling away. Looking upon the Forbidden City and the portrait of Chairman Mao adorning it, it struck me how perfectly maintained the place was – the palace walls were a healthy, unblemished shade of red, and the portrait of the Chairman looked so new that I would believe it if I were told it were painted yesterday. This place, being the tourist trap it is, seems so perfectly manicured in contrast to the rest of the country. I know it sounds strange, but it felt so right– that sort of familiar cleanliness, not so much of hygiene and what not, but rather order and proper upkeep. It tickled my need for neatness, I suppose.
Anyway, to make our way into the inner walls of the palace (technically, we were already at the inner walls, as there used to be a proper outer wall beyond it. It was mostly scrapped with time however), we had to dive head first into this swirling sea of people. We waddled along, pushed by the tide, which in turn was guided by a handful of ushers standing by the sides of the main walkways. It struck me how strangely in sync they were – they were all wearing white long-sleeved shirts (in spite of the weather!) and were all males of about the same age group. That was kind of unnerving. Eventually, we were swept into a courtyard, where the human wave promptly broke and scattered. Sauntering (the only acceptable speed as tourists) ahead toward the even-more-inner walls, we found out that we’d have to pay a fee to enter. Given that we wouldn’t be around for too long, it didn’t quite seem worth the money.
Well, that threw a wrench into our plans.
Circumnavigating the paid portion of the place, we found a way out of the Forbidden City. Wandering the streets of Beijing, we slipped into the National Centre for the Performing Arts (also known as the Egg). We did not have the time (nor the chance) to watch anything, so taking in the ambiance and the architecture would have to do. And the aircon. We definitely, absolutely, totally did not enter just for the aircon.
It was about time for lunch, and being in Beijing meant we had to eat Beijing Roast Duck. With Zhou Zhi (one of our thememates who was born in nearby Tianjin) at the helm, we made our way to Quanjude, a restaurant known for its trademark interpretation of the roast duck. Stepping through the (revolving!) door, a lavishly decorated interior greeted us, with designs blatantly derived from Chinese imperial palaces – it makes sense now, having learnt that the method used to prepare the duck was originally reserved for the imperial families. Staff, dressed in clothes much like those of olden China, drifted between the large round tables, preparing the place for the inevitable lunchtime crowd. Luckily for us, we came quite early, and the restaurant wasn’t fully occupied just yet. Our meal, of course, would be roast duck.
With the roast ducks arrived with two chefs in two, as they promptly began disassembling the ducks with practiced strokes of their knives. A waiter read to us a brief history of the restaurant and the ducks before our meal started. The duck, of course, was ridiculously good. Crisp skin, tender meat and a full flavour – the whole package. Also, roast duck skin with sugar is a surprisingly potent combination. Delicious.
It was also the most expensive duck I’ve had in my entire life. Rest in peace, wallet.
Thereafter, we headed to the Temple of Heaven, a temple complex where the Emperors would make sacrifices to beseech the heavens for various perks like good harvest and what not. With the sheer number of trees, I wondered why this place was considered a temple rather than a park.
We explored the main buildings, read up on the history, and took photos – before promptly plonking ourselves in the shade of one of the buildings. We were plenty fatigued by this time, given that we’d been walking for a full day by that time. It struck me how seriously the Chinese of old took the ceremonies for these sacrifices. I had known, and read about such ceremonies before, and the underlying psychological, political and cultural reasons for them (Varun, if you’re reading this, thanks for lending me Blood Rites!), but still to see it up close, and to read about the convoluted shenanigans the Emperor had to go through was quite an eye-opener. To close off this segment of our trip, we all knew that we had to take a photo precisely where the sacrifices took place – and coincidentally, all the tourists had the same idea. As we queued (I use this word loosely, because we are in China), I had barely picked up on the smattering of dialects and subtle differences in accents. I then realized that internal tourism was a pretty major thing around here – I suppose it was never major in Singapore because we’re so small so there’s nothing ‘touristy’ about going to a different part of Singapore.
With our short tour of Beijing done, we headed to the train station, and for some reason we made a terrible decision to walk to a nearby metro station. Relying on a mixture of A-maps and NS-honed navigation instinct, we hobbled toward the train station, taking detours and retracing our steps repeatedly. Everyone was perceptibly affected at that point from a potent mix of dehydration, the summer sun and fatigue.
Oh, and we spotted some dogs on the way to the station.
I could feel the quiet joy that everyone radiated when we found the entrance to the metro station. Boarding the train, we spotted a row of empty seats, and we tapped upon a hidden reservoir of strength as we bolted to those seats. Plonking ourselves down, we silently waited for the train to reach Beijing South Train Station. After a hearty dinner, we sank into the comfy seats of the Fuxinghao train, and zoomed back to Hangzhou at 340km/h – this time in the dark.
Later in the week, we visited the China Academy of Art, which was also in Hangzhou. I confess – I’m not a huge fan of art and the Arts in general, especially when I find the art devoid of meaning or proper thought and effort (if I suddenly disappear, you know who are behind it) , and as we headed to Academy, I was plenty ready to be disappointed.
And I was disappointed alright – disappointed in myself for misjudging the students of the Academy. They had a graduation exhibition, and what I found was thoughtful, intelligent design. I recall three things, one of which was a section with a plethora of futuristic car designs, strongly rooted in reality without compromising creativity nor aesthetic sense (they had designed them in conjunction with several companies, with big names like Nissan, Renault and Tesla amongst them. The next two were both projects – one was a project looking into the colour palettes of mobile application and how they could be redone to be more aesthetically balanced, and the other, a project for a series of modular, Ikea-styled flat-packed cat tunnels. It was plenty brilliant, and I walked away with a mixture of awe and fear. Awe, for obvious reasons, and fear, as these were the kinds of people that we students would have to tussle with in Singapore’s heavily globalised job market – what could true blue Singaporeans bring to the table that these brilliant Chinese students could not, should they decide to seek employment in Singapore?
Here comes Alex’s mandatory weekly rant.
I’d say the primary motivator for education for many people in in Singapore is employment (that, in itself, is also a problem, but that’s not the focus of this rant), and given how incredibly globalised Singapore is, the local job market is ironically an international battleground, which in turn is part of the greater international job ecosystem. As with any ecosystem, if one is to flourish, a niche has to be carved out. For a long time, Singapore’s niche was relatively affordable, hardworking and well-educated labour, and we could speak English on top of that. Throw in good government policies and we thrived in this niche of ours. Now, it’s evident to me that this speciality of ours is no longer unique – the Chinese can do it, and they have 1.3 billion chances to do it better than us. The Chinese are hardworking, intelligent and well-educated – what does Singapore have that they don’t? Art and design? Hardly so – the Chinese are leaps and bounds ahead in that field. Research and development? The Chinese scientific output stands in the same league as heavy-hitters like the European Union and USA. Are we more hardworking than they are? Hardly! It’s a Sunday, I’m in the office and I’ve got Masters students hammering away at their laptops.
I took some time to think about it, to ruminate on the things that Singaporeans can’t do. The Chinese have everything we have, so we have to beat them in a yet-undiscovered niche. And I think that niche is depth. Breadth of knowledge is cheap – it’s easy to acquire. Depth of knowledge is a bit rarer, given that it entails time and effort and suffering, and I think we’re alright with that. Depth of thinking, now that we lack. The hallmark of homo sapiens sapiens is not so much our upright posture or opposable thumbs, but our intelligence – our ability to learn, think, reflect, understand and create. I feel that Singaporeans have gotten too comfortable in this field – we students simply absorb and regurgitate from textbooks, rather than grasping the essence of the subject – and it might be our ticket out of this sinking ship. But what do I know? I’m just an engineering student.
Now, with the major part of the week done, here comes the torrent of dogs and food photo. First, some food.
And yes… it is time for doggo pics. The sheer number of doggos is good for my weary Singaporean soul.
Well, with that, I’m done with this post. It’s a whooping 2.4k words, so good job surviving it. Next week, I’ll be starting with my community service activities with Hushu School, so it might be a fairly long post again. Anyways, thanks for reading. See you in the next post.