Shanghai, a city that roughly equates to the geographical size of Brisbane, is home to over 23 million people. To put that into perspective, that's one sixth the population of the United States, and greater than the population of Australia. Something to consider next time we haphazardly slap a ”Fuck off We're Full" sticker on the back of our cars.

China’s abundant population is made up largely of the great unwashed –  a social division that sits within the confines of a pragmatic class structure. The Chinese people are a reflection of historical augmentation; and the sprawling edifices they call home begin from the instant I exit Pudong Airport. As our taxi driver hurtles us through a concrete jungle on the way to my hotel, the chaos of near collision and constant horn honking is juxtaposed by the stone cold apathy on the faces of those driving the cars. There’s seems to be no indignation – more like a sagacious warning to all in opposing directions.

My friend and tour guide, Sam, is an Australian, who like many others around the world works in an industry that relies heavily on China’s mass production capabilities. While this may sound like a dastardly thing to say, it perhaps clarifies why we cannot compete with the cost-efficiency China can offer Western countries. The once slumbering dinosaur has had a geopolitical explosion in the past decade, reaching a labour force of nearly 820 million. This figure alone elucidates the decline of Australia’s own manufacturing industry, and the potential economic issues we face.

Photo by Jonathan Kos-Read

Sam has been here for six years and speaks fluent Mandarin. This helps tremendously. Even though Shanghai is the largest, and most westernised Chinese city, it is difficult to get by without at least a newbie’s grasp of the pleasantries. He tells me that despite the polluted air and occasional serving of pigeon in an advertised Chicken dish, he would struggle adjusting back to Australian life: “When you see how well you can live in a country like this on very little money, it puts a few things into perspective”. I have a feeling he is talking about food and beer.

We’re joined for lunch by two natives who take us to a Szechuan restaurant buried in the back alley of a string of dilapidated shops. Szechuan is a cuisine that originated in the southwest province of Sichuan and is characterised by its spiciness.

Photo by Jorge Gonzalez

I’m told that my first dining experience will be entirely free of squirrel, toad and/or dog. Pigeon, however, seems to be OK. A little bony, but OK. I have always had an intrepid attitude when it comes to trying food, and it seems like the perfect country to put that philosophy into practice. The food we eat is amazing and is vastly different to the Cantonese format we are used to in Australia (Sweet and Sour Pork, Lemon Chicken etc). After we finish picking from the central plates we take a cab through the French Concession district and down to the Bund.

The Bund runs along the western bank of the Huanpu River and is characterised by its European architecture. It’s a startling contrast to the rest of Shanghai. It was initially built to house the foreign financial institutions of the world, which shaped its European aesthetics. Today, the river bank is largely populated by women of the night, and tourists, who take photos against the backdrop of Pudong on the other side of the river. If any piece of scenery could best illustrate the scale of change in China – through a complete lack of democratic town planning – it is the skyline of Pudong.

Escaping the chaotic frenzy of urbanisation gone mad, and the continuous shrill cries of “Hey big western man! You want good time?”, we search for somewhere to escape the sleeting rain. A glowing Heineken sign acts as our shepherd and we pull up a pew at a local bar.

The Chinese youth appear to be fascinated by Western culture, however, the fact that it is drip fed into their peripheral by the Chinese government means that the bits and pieces of pop music they receive is often from the past decades. Facebook and Youtube are banned in China for this very reason – the Chinese government wishes to keep control of its people and not have them influenced by things like American Idol, Kyle Sandilands, or Temper Trap lyrics. It is kind of refreshing in a way, so we order a couple of Shoedrivers (supposed to be Screwdrivers) and kick back to Craig David’s perennial classic, ‘7 Days’.

China is a country I bypassed in my formative travel years, and I’m not really sure why. I am twice the height of the average person, I am a sucker for cheap beer, and I respect the chopstick (despite the fact they’ve seen the fork). Unfortunately, this five-day sojourn was a hasty, last-minute decision – unorganised with nary a plan in place, so there is a lot that I will miss out on during this trip. I do, however, tell Sam that I’d like to see the inside of a Chinese factory.

Full of Shoedrivers, he tells me he’ll see what he can do.

City sinking in pollution. Photo by Leniners

The next evening we board a Southern China Air flight to Guangzhou in the Guangdong Province, China’s third largest city with a population of 12 million. Guangzhou has been aptly dubbed ‘The World’s Factory’. Stepping off the plane you get the instant feeling of a multicultural market town in motion. Investors, schemers, and one-time shoppers cram into waiting cars before being ushered away, with chequebooks in hand and bartering hat firmly affixed. 

Our base for the remaining few days is a town called Dongguan, which is around 45 minutes outside of Guangzhou. Twenty-years ago Dongguan was a village – now it has a population of 8 million people. It is an educational town and a favoured destination for westerners who come to China to teach English. There’s a much calmer atmosphere in Dongguan and you get the feeling that it’s a lot wealthier than other Chinese cities. Unemployed early 20-somethings mill about in Nike Air Pumps, sipping subpar coffee under leafy trees – I could easily be in Surry Hills.

Guangzhou Opera House by Eugene Lim.

One of the great things about Chinese cuisine is the breakfast. Nowhere else in the world could you get away with eating dumplings at 8am. Xiao long bao is the traditional steamed dumpling bun and it all previous dumplings I have had to shame. They come at around 80c a plate, and after a few these it is hard to pry myself away.

Sam has pulled through and arranged for us to visit a factory just outside of Dongguan. It’s one of the largest factory complexes in China and manufactures – amongst many other things – Nike shoes. I’ve been warned that journalists are not welcome and cameras are certainly not. So i’m playing the role of western investor/lost tourist.

Several Chinese factories came into the limelight in the past couple of years after a string of staff suicides at Foxconn (iPad, Xbox 360, Wii). This came back to bite Apple, and Steve Jobs had the Fair Labor Association audit the factory to rectify the issues. The most chilling thing I notice as I walk up the stairs are the trapeze-style nets, suspended in the gaps on each level of the stairwell to catch the jumpers. I wonder for moment if this is the amelioration Steve Jobs had in mind?

China manufacturing is becoming very complex and high technology oriented. It is shifting from an assembly base to a full scale manufacturing center for multinational companies.

We’re issued a gown, slippers, and a hair net – lest we drag in any foreign particles. All employees and visitors must go through a metal detector before they come on and off the floor, which has got to be a soul destroying way to start a shift.

The production line is a frenzy of hands joining parts together, machines joining the parts to other parts, and bosses with clipboards making sure the parts have been joined to the parts (Yes, my head is hurting, too). The factory workers seem to be young, but we’re assured they’re over sixteen – the legal working age in China. A lot the workers are girls and I’m told that after leaving high school many females are faced with the option of working in a factory, or turning to prostitution. A few giggles are shot in our direction, but mostly glares. It would seem that the workers are well aware of the supply and demand chain and how they fit into it.

In the car back to Dongguan we lament over the factory life these young people live. China is in a strong global position at the moment and has the power to implement this intensive labour regiment, but we wonder if it is only a matter of time before a revolution of sorts could take place. Foxconn was an example of the Chinese becoming more conscious and awake to the possibilities of free-will. On the other hand, employing a population of 1.4 billion people is not an easy task.

Regardless of this, the Chinese people are very family orientated. They have a beautiful sense of humour and love to entertain. I think back to what Sam told me in the cab: “You can live well on very little money”. It’s true – and many of the Chinese don’t seem to let it get in the way of their lives.

It’s my last night and we stumble upon a local tiki bar in Dongguan run by a Canadian conspiracy theorist called Paul. Naturally, Paul and I become great friends as we discuss everything from planned World Wars, to US gun control, to the Lizard people controlling human consciousness. His business is a Western bar that serves kangaroo burgers and is populated by local Chinese. What could possibly go wrong? I sneak in for a couple of clensers and an 8c cigarette at the bar; however, as cold as his beer is, and as tempting as his kangaroo sounds, tonight I’m on a mission to find a Chinese street BBQ (Shao Kao). Shao Kao combines the convenience of a street with the deliciousness of a BBQ. It’s one of those win/win situations. Vendors pedal fresh, skewered produce that’s cooked before our eyes. Like the previous evenings, we wash it all down with a few litres of Chinese beer, sold to us at genuine 1974 RSL prices. It’s a wonderful way to conclude my trip.

The internet has arguably propelled mankind into an age of inescapable globalisation. Unlike the times of old we can now travel seamlessly to new lands and interact with people of foreign ideologies, social structures and historical reference points. China, for me, has been the personification of the term, ‘foreign’. Despite having Chinese friends, the notion of the East was not a tangible one, and therefore it became a theoretical canvas in my mind, which I had been applying large brush strokes to.

To feel, smell, touch, and interact with China has been an enlightening experience for me. An experience which has reaffirmed my belief that love, laughter, and hard work is truly the bona fide universal language.