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A changing China

Mr. Zhang

Occasionally I sift through photos taken by friends who had recently been to China. This is a portrait of Mr. Zhang taken by my friend Ming while in Shanghai. (The same friend whose Tiananmen photo I used in a previous post.) In his words, this is the story behind the image:

85 years old and retired, Mr Zhang is a man living in his past. Came to Shanghai in 1952, he spent his entire life working for the Communist Party. For over a half century he lived in his condo on 淮海路, a shopping street now known for exclusive high-end malls and boutique stores. As an orthodox communist he has hard time to adjust himself to the ever westernized Shanghai.

As he stepped out his century old neighborhood complex, now preserved as historical heritage buildings by the municipal government, Mr. Zhang faces a completely changed World.

The China of today has gone through massive transformations. For my parents and their friends generation, the changes are breath-taking and at the same time quite “foreign.”

For Mr. Zhang, even before he moved to Shanghai, the roughly 25 years of his life saw the Japanese invasion, followed by the civil war between Mao and Chang Kaishek, and then the founding of the Peoples Republic of China. Even within the last few years of Shanghai, he has just witnessed the infrastructure upgrade from the 2010 World Expo. High speed train between Shanghai and Nanjing now takes less than two hours.

Another friend told me her father recently got onto the Internet. She now complains her father “spamming” her with emails; like a little kid who has just visited the zoo for the first time in his life, he points out all the animals he sees. Who would have thought China’s Internet population at the end of 2010 be larger than the entire population of the United States?

I also see a sense of capitulation to the more energetic younger generations, trusting that they will make sense of it all.

But I do hope someone help Mr. Zhang get on the Internet if he is not already on it. Like my friend’s father who got on the Internet recently, I think their generation would provide a different kind of perspective altogether, one that is attainable only through age.

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  1. nic
    January 8th, 2011 at 03:09 | #1

    My grandparents are as old as Mr Zhang. Almost a decade ago, they took a small computer course at a local kind of community college. Afterwards, their children gave them a computer for Christmas (Win98, with analog modem). Particularly my grandfather was very eager to deal with email (he has one or two relatives in the US) and read some blogs/websites of people he knew (e.g. he has a distant nephew, who is a geologist and traveling a lot). He is always very happy to receive emails with photos from his grandchildren (even though they take forever to download at 56 kbit/s). For some years, whenever I visited them, he would have a handful of questions to ask about the computer and the internet.

    However, having been a teenager in WWII, having seen a lot of hunger and desperation during and after the war, he is very eager to keep his money together in case he really needs it. So, despite his interest in the computer and the internet, I don’t think he will ever invest in a new computer, let alone a broadband connection. (Even though he could definitely afford it, if he wanted to.)

    Long story short, my experience is that — despite their interest and eagerness to deal with all these new technologies — the old generation seem to be much less willing to invest roughly a month’s income in a new electronic device every three years, than younger people. Let alone learning all the things you need to know to prevent yourself from the spamming, scamming and hacking … and learning a new OS interface every few years …

    They just don’t seem to think that this stuff is important enough. And sometimes I think, maybe they’re right 🙂

  2. January 8th, 2011 at 19:58 | #2


    thx for sharing about your grandparents.

    I think you are right about the difference between the younger generation and the older ones. I remember plunking down a whole years savings to buy my first PC – this was in the 80’s.

    Generational values can be so different.

  3. January 20th, 2011 at 13:30 | #3

    A good friend of mine, also surnamed Zhang, grew up in Shanghai during the 40’s within shouting distance of the Bund. His father was a property owner and comprador who did business with the British, so his family suffered harshly after 1949. His father was killed and they ended up eventually being sent out to the countryside. It was only after 1979 that he and his brother – all that remained of his family – managed to rebuild their lives, eventually setting up a factory in Shenzhen.

    Nowadays he prefers to stay away from Shanghai – too many bad memories.

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