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Saving the Trees in Nanjing

This is a very interesting read from the New York Times that outlines a grassroots movement in our city to save the lovely "Wutong" trees that provide shade, beauty, and increased air quality here in Nanjing.

Nanjing Fights to Save a ‘Supertree’

Quoted from the NYT June 4, 2011 (in case the link grows old):

NANJING, China — Tall as a 15-story building, with a mighty trunk, crooked branches and kingly canopy of leaves, the London plane tree, Platanus x acerifolia, is prized by horticulturists and city planners as a “supertree,” immune to urban grime and smog.

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Shiho Fukada for The New York Times

Subway construction uprooted some of the trees.

But can it survive a development-hungry Chinese Communist Party? In Nanjing, a southeastern city of eight million people, the answer seems — for now — to be yes.

In a nation where homes and farmland are routinely chewed up for the sake of high rises and factories, a grass-roots campaign by Nanjing residents this spring to save hundreds of the trees, known here as the wutong, from a subway expansion might seem like a nonstarter. But the effort, organized mostly online, has led to a surprising compromise from local government officials.

It was not a shining example of democracy in action. But neither were ordinary citizens left fuming about power-drunk bureaucrats deaf to anyone below.

Maybe that is because some Nanjing officials consider the Communist Party’s credo of “supervision by the people” to be more than mere words. Or maybe it is because trees, in the scheme of development, provide an easy compromise.

Giants in the arboreal world, the wutongs were introduced in China by the French in the late 1800s or early 1900s to adorn their settlement in Shanghai, Nanjing officials say. In 1928 and 1929, Nanjing planted more than 20,000 saplings along Zhongshan Avenue, a road leading to the mausoleum of the anti-imperialist leader Sun Yat-sen, revered as the father of modern China.

Many more were reportedly planted after the Communists took power in 1949. The trees grew fast and provided shade during Nanjing’s scorching summers. And they became not just a symbol of Nanjing’s graceful beauty, but of its civic philosophy. China’s capital through multiple dynasties, Nanjing regards itself as a cultural haven. Its urban plan touts the city’s integration with mountains, rivers and trees.

Liu Hengzhen, a former military employee, planted wutongs in the 1950s. “They keep the whole city cool,” Mr. Liu, now 80, said as he played mah-jongg at a street cafe, its roof pierced by a massive wutong branch.

“The people of Nanjing grew up together with these trees,” said He Jinxue, the daily operations director for the city’s urban construction commission. “There is so much emotional attachment to them.”

That did not shield them from the onslaught of development. In 1993, more than 3,000 were felled virtually overnight to make way for the Shanghai-Nanjing Expressway. Nearly 200 more were removed to build Nanjing Subway Line Two in 2006.

Then, this year, came Subway Line Three, calling for more than 1,000 trees — mostly wutongs — to be beheaded, uprooted and plunked down elsewhere to make space for six above-ground stations in the city center.

Nanjing’s two existing subway lines, each carrying a million commuters a day, are not nearly enough, said Mr. He, the urban commission director. More than 10 new lines are planned, he said.

But once workers had reduced a first batch of 49 wutongs to trunks and a few feet of branches, the Chinese equivalents of Twitter rustled with more than 10,000 outraged messages. A schoolteacher organized students to tie green ribbons around some untouched trees.

Several celebrities weighed in, including Huang Jianxiang, a freelance television host and sports commentator whose Sina Weibo microblog is followed by more than five million people. So did a Taiwan legislator with the Kuomintang Party, which made Nanjing its headquarters until it was vanquished by the Communists in 1949.

Zhu Fulin, an enterprising reporter for the government-owned Nanjing Morning Post, traced the fate of 190 trees that had been moved elsewhere five years ago to construct Line Two. Despite the government’s pledge to protect and replant them, he found 80 of the wutongs languishing in a trash-strewn city field.

A tree expert said 20, at most, had survived. Weeks later, even those were being knocked down to make way for an expressway. Farmers drove off with truckloads of wood, saying it would make good tables.

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Shiho Fukada for The New York Times

While some trees are replanted, others are sold for wood.

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In 1928 and 1929, Nanjing planted more than 20,000 trees.

Some critics were openly reluctant to press the government too hard. A local environmental group, Green Stone, posted tree photos on the Internet.

“We didn’t want to oppose what the government was doing,” Cui Yuanyuan, a staff member, said. “We just wanted to have a channel to communicate.” Other activists said the group was vulnerable because it was small and weak, and not registered as a nongovernment organization with the Chinese authorities.

Mr. Huang, the television celebrity, decided not to repost online calls for a street protest, fearful they would backfire. Yet hundreds gathered outside the city library on March 19 anyway, activists said, and the police dispersed the crowd within an hour. Censors ensured that the local news media ignored them.

But a chastened Nanjing government was already looking to compromise. Several days earlier, it had suspended the subway construction plan and announced the formation of a “green assessment committee” to review it.

The eight citizen members were outnumbered by nine experts — most from government bureaus or construction companies — and eight delegates to China’s handpicked legislative bodies.

A civics lesson it was not. The panel’s work took less than two days: one to tour subway station sites, and another to approve a predigested revision of the original plan. At the end of the second day, citizen members were summoned from the deliberations to receive envelopes of cash — compensation, it was said, for their transportation costs. And when it came time to vote, the group’s leader simply directed panel members to applaud if they had no objection.

“There was a two-second pause, and then clapping,” said one panelist, who asked not to be named because citizens were ordered not to talk to reporters. “There was no time for consideration. There was not a democratic decision.”

Nonetheless, she said, “I would still like to think of this as a step in the right direction.” Mr. Huang agreed. “In China, this process is not easy, so we have to take small baby steps.”

Under the new plan, Line Three will claim 318 trees, mostly wutongs, but it will spare more than two-thirds of trees that were to be moved. The city promised to give each uprooted tree a number and track its health wherever it is replanted. And henceforth, Mr. He said, every construction plan that affects ordinary citizens will first be reviewed by a green assessment commission.

Moreover, the government will get citizens involved before, not after, it digs up trees, he said. All in hopes of preserving a separate, arboreal peace.

Mia Li contributed research from Beijing, and Barclay Walsh from Washington.


Angels, Angels, Go away!

This post has nothing to do with China, but I wanted to share this story because it made me smile tonight!

As I was tucking Leo into bed, I told him to, "Sleep with the Angels." This is not an uncommon sleep wish in our household, and I’ve said it before without reaction. But tonight, some alarm went off in Leo’s head. He immediately looked at me and said, "Mommy, you tell those angels to go away, I do not want to sleep with them." I had to think fast here, so I said, "Well, is it okay if they stay right outside your window? They do protect you, you know." He thought about that, and said, "Nope, I don’t want them nearby; I need my space." Smart kid. I said, "Ok, I’ll tell them they need to give you your space. They’re thoughtful, so they’ll respect that." He looked relieved and said, "Yeah, they’ll listen to Mommy."

I assured them that they would listen to me and went out of the room.

Two minutes later, Leo popped out of his room to make sure I’d passed the message on to the angels. I said I had, and he looked so relieved and said, "Thanks Mommy for telling the angels to stay in the sky." Then he added hopefully, "Maybe they’ll just melt because they’ll be close to the sun." I told him luckily angels wouldn’t melt – even if they were close to the sun because they’re made special – and he seemed a bit disappointed. 🙂

So, we’re going to have to work on the fact that angels are generally good types.

May is Race Month!

May has been a full month in the Nanjing Muller household, with races recently keeping us very busy!  Here’s a glimpse of what we’ve been up to.

JM was up to the starting line first, taking part in the local Nanjing-Man Triathlon. He joined a couple of his colleagues on a team and ran the 8k leg (more or less – this triathlon isn’t quite official!).  It was a beautiful day and he clocked a nice time.  This local tri is organized by the expat community and it’s grown over the years into a really nice event – with many Chinese locals also participating.  JM used the race as a tune up for his marathon training – he has his sights set on Beijing this upcoming October.

After that it was Liz’s turn – the next weekend she made her way to Beijing for the Great Wall (half!) Marathon.  It was a dream come true for her to run this awesome race, and it totally lived up to her expectations.  Gorgeous mountains, sunny blue skies, and a Great Wall to climb – amazing!  About 4-5 miles of the race was run on the Great Wall – including 1800 steps up and down.  It was a race to remember.  She ran along with many students from her school, and was also happy to welcome her good friend Robin (one of her first Chinese tutors in Nanjing) who came to cheer her on!

Last up was Leo – his kindergarten organized a field day for 1700 kindergarteners and their 3500 parents.  It was a monstrous event held at Nanjing’s Olympic Stadium.  He competed in two events – pedaling this little cart with Liz in a relay (see pics) and then both Liz and JM competed with Leo in “Ride the Big Horse” – another relay event.  The event was fun – for the first 3 hours (of 5).  JM took part in the ‘cheering squad’ for our class by playing big Chinese-style drums.  The last 2 hours were a bit painful as the sun was beating down and the kindergarten teachers and principals showed no signs of speeding things to a finish for all the tired spectators and little kiddos.  We finally pulled the plug and left a bit early when we discovered that Leo crying because he was too tired and thirsty/hungry on the field with the rest of his class.  As we left, he said, “I’m too small for this.  The other guys can stick it out!”  We assured him that he had competed well and that leaving was the better part of wisdom.

We marveled at all the other parents who seemed willing and happy to sit there in the beating sun to endure 5+ hours of relentless relays, dance routines, and speeches.  All the parents who we spoke to afterward raved about how fun it all was.  And we guess it was too, sort of!  But we were sure happy to get out of there and retreat back to our place for some rest!

Race month was great – hopefully next year Rosie will have a race too! 🙂

Be here tomorrow

Ah, the concept of planning.  It’s a fluid concept.  For much of life over here, planning means to ask in advance.. in as little as one hour in advance, it often seems.

We got a text message from Leo’s kindergarten Wednesday.  “Parents, please come to the field day practice session tomorrow afternoon at 4.”  That meant both parents.  And that meant leave work early.  And it also meant do something with your other child at home in the case of we foreigners exceeding the one child policy.

Luckily Liz was able to negotiate an hour off work at the last minute.  JM has the afternoon free most days, conveniently. And, in the absence of grandparents living nearby, we count on our faithful Chinese nanny as always to take care of Rosie when we’re busy.  So it worked out- just.

But it never ceases to amaze us that this is status quo in China.  People are expected to be accommodating, plain and simple. It just underscores to us how differently we operate from a cultural perspective.  We expect individual accommodation- not accommodation to the group.  That seems backwards!

We’re trying to learn, three years into this process.   I think the only way we’d ever feel comfortable with it would be to grow up here like Leo and Rosie are currently doing.  But they get healthy doses of individualism from their raging Western parents at home, so maybe there’s no hope for them either!

Moving day again?

Time flies. It seems just like yesterday we were packing out of our old apartment and coming to our new one.  Looking back at memory lane:

Where would we be without our trusty moving carts? The method of choice for moving locally in China.

Ironically, soon we will be moving back into our old apartment! Thankfully it won’t entail entire house contents shifting over. We will simply be squatting while our current facilities are closed.

In fact, many locals here own two apartments if they can afford it.  It’s by far more common than we would have expected.  We’re not quite there ourselves, as we only rent, and considering that property here costs about as much as it does in New York City!

Don’t be surprised to see us strolling down the road in suitcases before long!

Hang on!

You’ve been riding in your taxi cab over stretches of highway for about 20 minutes. Suddenly your driver, ever so nonchalantly, reaches for his seat belt and clicks it in.

Time to panic?

National Palace Museum Taiwan

Well, I closed out the museum yesterday. I believe I was the last actual tourist in the whole place and they finally politely requested that I leave the premises ;).

I had my reasons for staying far beyond my welcome. The collection of art was ridiculously amazing, and my opportunity to soak it in was ridiculously short. Porcelain, ceramics, pottery, jade, calligraphy, bronze, steles, paintings, drawings, buddhavistas, ivory carvings, jadeite bok choy, sculpture – it was too much to take in, but I did my best.

I decided to take one of my favorite paintings home with me, and here it is!

Waiting for a Ferry in Autumn

Waiting for a Ferry in Autumn by Chou Ying. He was one of the four master painters of the Ming Dynasty, and a native of Jiangsu province, where we live. I didn’t know that when I bought the print, but it makes sense given that the painting evokes some of the beautiful rolling landscapes in our area.

Being at the museum made me want to drop everything and run off to study art history and start painting. As it happened, though, I did get kicked out, and returned to my normal life this morning. The world will be spared my paintings! Whew!

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