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Notes on the Geography of China: Wenzhou

So it's 2007. You're flying from Shanghai to Xiamen, but you have to change planes in Wenzhou. The first flight is late, so you miss the connection. Next flight tomorrow. What do you do? May as well look around this city that you'd otherwise never see.

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Well, the fog on the Oujiang or Ou River doesn't help. It just happens that we have in our carry-on the British Admiralty's handbook for China Proper (1945, vol. 3). Never travel without it. The authors report that "Wenchow is an ancient walled city, founded at the end of the fourth century. The site is in a well-cultivated plain criss-crossed by canals and surrounded by hills... The old streets are paved with brick and stone, and many run alongside small canals, which have caused Wenchow to be compared with Venice. Of recent years some of the streets have been widened and modernized and new buildings erected, but the town still remains essentially Chinese." The report continues, "There is no foreign settlement and the foreign residents have been limited to a few missionaries and trade officials... There has been no industrial development."

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Well, that was 1945. In 2005 Wenzhou exported 438 million pairs of shoes, or about a thousand pairs for each of the 400,000 people engaged in shoe manufacturing. Ermenegildo Zegna sourced suits here from SharMoon, and something like 80 percent of the cigarette lighters sold in Europe were made here. Jiang Qing, no friend of the private sector she, is said to have said, more or less, "If you want to know what a capitalist is, try Wenzhou." One consequence: a Mercedes dealer on the road in from the airport.

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What's that saying: "there are only two speeds in China: fast and faster." Still, you can catch the Cadillac dealership.

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A forest of highrises.

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Two generations of housing.

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Does the spoked-wheel up top mean something?

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We'll head down to Lucheng Qu, the original city. It's shown nicely on the 1945 U.S. Army Map Service map of the city at 1:12,500. The city appears there as a rough square about a mile on the side, rimmed on the north by the river and on the other three sides by canals, beyond which there is little except paddy fields. So we're down in that old city, which obviously is Europeanized. The puzzle in this picture is the date 1868. How can it be? Wenzhou was opened to foreign trade by the Chefoo Agreement (or Che-Fu Convention)of 1877. The nice thing about leaving town tomorrow is that there's no way we'll ever find the answer.

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European styles had taken over certain streets in the old city by the time of the 1945 map.

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Was this the work of a European architect or a Chinese one with a European pattern book? Bets are on the latter.

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A touch of Art Deco.

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A pedestrianized shopping street.

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Bus-stop advertising chocolate-colored cell phones.

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So people are the same everywhere? Yes and no.

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Finally something from the traditional Chinese city: Wenzhou's drum tower.

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We'll wander a bit through Dasheng Residential Quarter. Plenty of alleys.

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Houses of wood, glass, and plaster over... brick, perhaps?

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Tidy.

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Lots of tiny gardens in pots.

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Another example.

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Another.

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Another, this time with air conditioning.

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Cycle-rickshaws; charcoal bricquets on the left; in the distance, midrise apartments.

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One step at a time.

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Birds in cages.

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Birds in cages?


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