I did something crazy this past week. During Chinese New Year's -- the biggest holiday of the year and at a time when most people avoid Mainland Chinese like the plague (think about all of those migrant workers and Mainlanders who are returning home) -- I bought a train ticket and headed to Guangzhou, China.
In part I went to visit friends and in part I went to check out the vast changes in what remains a fascinating country. I had been to Guangzhou, China's third largest city, in 2010 to see the Asian Games. The city was squeaky clean and had gotten a facelift in time for the event. Now more than two years later, the city looked even better. The subway line had expanded. A night boat cruise showed a healthy city landscaped with new residential and business districts, and bridges lit up with neon lights.
I even had the chance to tour the Four Seasons, the latest addition to Guangzhou's luxury hotel market. The hotel with five upscale restaurants and the lobby resembled an exhibit straight from the Guggenheim Museum. Beautiful, breathtaking, spectacular and this was China.
I had the chance to spend time in the Grandview Mall, a mega mall that seemed to trump even the Mall of America. The mall was anchored by a three-story Nike store where shoppers could custom make their own sneakers. Nearby the H&M was packed with shoppers lining up to buy. The mall included a multiplex theater (4D is around the corner), and would soon include an aquarium. This mall could be anywhere in New York, London, San Francisco, but this was China.
Earlier that day my friend and I had lunch at a mega buffet at the Four Seas International House, even more sprawling than the buffets I'd enjoyed in Vegas (I actually got lost a few times and had the feeling I was at the Costco parking lot back at home in New York). The spread included everything from hubcap platters of sushi, to an oyster bar, to an assortment of Haagen Dazs ice cream to all you can drink champagne. And the food was good, the champagne acceptable and I didn't get sick. The kids running throughout the restaurant were rosy cheeked and chubby. An upgraded quality of life is wonderful, but is met with frustrated from Hong Kongers.
My Hong Kong friends harbor a love hate relationship when it comes to the Mainland Chinese. The complaints and conversations about those loud, boisterous Mainlanders feel a bit like leftover dinner now, but are once again resurrected during the holiday season.
The Mainlanders have "devil may care" attitude about crossing the border. Hong Kong is a part of China after all, they say. It is like one big dysfunctional family -- at least for now. The Mainlanders have money now and resources and thus the freedom to spend their holidays over the border. In lieu of Chinese New Year's, many of my Hong Kong friends bought their plane tickets a while ago, to Singapore, Malaysia, Paris, Manila and even Guam, anyplace to escape the crowds of Mainlanders.
"I'm afraid I will get nicked in my heels by one of their suitcases," a Hong Kong friend said. "So I don't even go out to shop anymore, there are just so many of them and the problem is that they don't queue up and they are loud."
While they may not line up they certainly are spending the money, and the spending is helping fuel Hong Kong's economy. And there is the age old adage of the person with the golden hand calls the shots. In a slow global economy (note all those poor Spaniards and Greeks without work), money does count as it brings an upgraded lifestyle and opportunity to spend at the malls and buffets.
A friend from the U.S. visiting Hong Kong for the first time commented on the bustling shopping malls, a sign of a robust economy. She compared it to the shopping malls back in Miami that are a lot more sprawling and a lot less crowded.
"And they are not just looking, they are buying, I wonder what they are buying," she said. In the grand scheme of things the elbowing and pushing and shoving and the fact that many of the shoppers were Mainlanders didn't seem to matter. All that mattered is that they were spending. An excellent start to the Year of the Snake.