Review: The Chinese Dream

Dutch photographer Ruben Terlou travels along the banks of the Yangtze River, the longest river of China. During a two-month journey from the estuary and the river delta in Shanghai to the very source near Shangri-La, Ruben Terlou tries to find interesting stories to accompany the pictures he makes along the way. He lived in China for about two years when he was nineteen years, but despite having learned to speak Chinese almost fluently he still felt unable to make his Chinese dream come true. Ever since his return to the Netherlands at the age of twenty-one, China has had a special place in his heart and feels like the love that somehow was not meant to be.

In the first of the in total six episodes, we enter the Yangtze delta on a ship. The captain describes the river as a dragon, the Chinese symbol for luck, with Shanghai being the head of that Dragon and therefor being the perfect place for fortune seekers. The first episode is all about the Chinese dream many Chinese try to follow since the economic reforms of the current president. The Chinese dream is much like what the American dream once used to be: take any chance to get to improve your life. And what place other than Shanghai could one go to in a quest for fortune?

One of those fortune seekers is a boy who has come to Shanghai to become a hairdresser. His goal is to get earn enough money to eventually go back to his home town and set his own business over there. Many more come to Shanghai in order to help their families by gaining some money. One of them is a boy who works in a fabric that produces plastic food to be showcased in restaurants and food stores, a poorly-paid job he took because his parents were not able to pay his studies. It has absolutely nothing to do with the writing career he actually aspires to have, and so his writings for now remain in a diary on a dusty shelf in a little room with no windows.

The rich people in China are by no means numerous compared to the total number of inhibitants. Nonetheless, this number is increasing ever since the economic reforms and nowadays some people drive around in Ferrari’s, which could be afforded because of, for example, owning about a hundred clubs and restaurants around town. Shanghai itself has changed tremendously through time and rural areas have quickly been changed into high-rise buildings for companies from all over the world. This is highly contrasted by the young boys we find across town working hard and sleeping little in order to earn some little money for their families in their hometowns.

In general, it is easy to get a job, it is hard to get a well-paid job. With all those fortune seekers as competitors on the horizon, it is no longer enough to be smart and work hard. In conservative China it is also all about aesthetics. We meet a woman who is about to get her cheekbones lowered by plastic surgery. Apart from aesthetics in general, China is also a relatively superstitious country. It is believed that high cheekbones cause bad luck and the surgeon himself tells us a story about a woman with high cheekbones whose first man died because of an accident and her second love because of cancer. The woman we meet in this episode wants to lower her cheekbones because she feels too insecure to apply for a job.

In next episode we will talk about love and marriage in Chinese society, in which not only aesthetics but also social status plays a very important part.

“De Chinese droom.” Langs de oevers van de Yangtze. VPRO. 7 feb. 2016.

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