A tale of two (Chinese) cities

STREETLIFE - Nigel Paul C. Villarete - The Freeman

It was a two-and-a-half hour flight, about the same flying time between Cebu and Hong Kong. But this time it's is between two Chinese cities, if we consider Hong Kong as one and not a different entity. Which we should since it's a part of China, in spite of its special administrative status, and notwithstanding the student protests that marred its otherwise peaceful and inviting urbanism a few months ago. There might not be overly stark differences. Chinese letters look the same all over the world, and, while Hong Kong exudes world-class cosmopolitan character distinct from Kunming's prefectural city appeal, both are undeniably Chinese, invariably aped even in Chinatowns all over the world. Only when you open your smartphone or laptop will you feel that something is different, leading to a disappointing realization - there is no Facebook!

Maybe, the fact that we came from Hong Kong added to the contrast. HK is a cosmopolitan world city, where you can get a WiFi connection anywhere, or at least, in the city centers. And these are fast, too, free in most hotels, as well as in many establishments. So you're always online in social media. You can trade in almost any currency. If not, there's a currency exchange in every street corner. It's as convenient any city could be.

Our woes started when we checked in - at the Kunming Xinghua International Hotel. We were pre-booked, but nobody minded a short statement in the booking website - "your card won't be debited - you pay at the hotel in the local currency." And why would anybody take particular attention to that, most of us in the delegation travelled too often enough to trust that you can always pay by credit card in most hotels, or if not, in U.S. dollar currency. I did remember I had a premonition, and unconsciously brought Hongkong dollars just in case. But even that was of no use.

"No, we don't accept credit card payments," was the flat answer after long minutes suffering the communication divide. It took all of Melanie Ng's Mandarin to get the message through and the answer was "No." Our host, from the Yunnan Airport Group (YAG) tried to appeal, too - it's an international conference they're sponsoring, and guests were arriving from all over Asia. A stern "No," was the draconian answer.

Out came the US dollars. "No, we don't accept foreign currency." I delighted in the fact that I remembered I brought some "local" currency, so I produced my Hongkong dollars. "No, we don't accept foreign currency." At least, now I know they consider HK "foreign." No wonder HK residents are up in arms whenever some mainland Chinese buy some items wholesale in Hongkong. I have a feeling we're not seeing the last of the student protests. We finally settled by going downtown and exchanged the dollars to RMB. Deep inside, most of us were frustrated why the hotel even placed "International" in its name.

Sure there was WiFi in the rooms. But it took almost half an hour to connect, navigating through all the firewalls and restrictions Chinese internet providers impose. The government itself built a nationwide firewall. I didn't mind FB, I could live without it. But I am a Gmail user, and the whole of Google is inaccessible anywhere inside China (except Hongkong, or probably Macau). I panicked - email is something difficult to live without, especially the official needs, even if, or especially while, on travel. Fortunately, I managed to redirect my email to a temporary Yahoo address and continued connected to the world.

Was it bad? Not really. After a week, I realized China pulled a fast one on us and even profited from its huge nationwide internet firewall. Funny, but they've proven Western experts wrong. Something to discuss in our next article.

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