A modest prosperity in colonial haven

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 23 September, 1999, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 23 September, 1999, 12:00am

It is lunch time on Sunday at an open-air fish restaurant in Yantai, on the northeast coast of Shandong province. It overlooks the calm, clear sea and a pleasant breeze cools the heat. The table is laden with sea cucumber, baby sharks, octopus and 'crawling prawns'.

Suddenly, the calm is shattered by a huge explosion. The diners shiver for a moment. 'It is the PLA [People's Liberation Army] testing their missiles again,' one of them says. 'They always make a disturbance.' Yantai is home to a large naval presence, as befits a port that guards the southern end of the Gulf of Bohai, around which sit the richest areas of north China. The navy occupies many of the prized properties on the beachfront that is the city's treasure.

In the evenings, the beach is crowded with hundreds of residents either taking a stroll, having a massage on a stone bench or dancing the tango (age no barrier). Wandering guitarists come to the restaurant's tables and offer to sing for 10 yuan (HK$9.30) a song.

One, Liu Ming, says as he offers us his song list: 'I come from a poor village in Shaanxi and took up singing at school. In the summer, I work at a beach resort and in winter try my luck at clubs in the big cities. Sometimes we get harassment from the police. Of course, I have to lie about it to my parents, who are farmers. I tell them I have a regular job in a hotel.' It was the port and the beach that attracted foreigners to Yantai 140 years ago, when they included it on the list of 14 cities that China had to open to their trade. By the early 1870s it had 16 consulates, the most elegant European-style houses on the waterfront.

The foreigners built churches and China's first seminary for nuns but brought little industry, because Yantai was not a foreign concession like Shanghai, Tianjin and Guangzhou, where this was permitted. But local businessmen built the country's first wine and clock factories in Yantai.

In 1898, the Germans occupied Qingdao, a southern Shandong port, built a railway link to the national network and started modern industries. It was bad news for Yantai: without a railway it lost its edge.

Matters got worse after 1949, when the communists designated Qingdao Shandong's sole trading port and all Yantai's products had to bear a Qingdao label. It was not until 1984 when Yantai won export rights.

Its economy improved after 1992, when Beijing normalised relations with Seoul - only an overnight ride away by sea or an hour by air - prompting a flood of South Korean investment. Almost all the Chinese in South Korea are from Yantai.

Yantai's waterfront even experienced a modest property boom. Hong Kong sex bomb Nina Li Chi ploughed an estimated US$10 million (HK$77.5 million) into an estate of villas in 1992, but all remain unsold. Tycoon Li Ka-shing is interested in building a hotel-and-entertainment complex on the coast, but officials say the project is on hold.

But the number of empty properties in Yantai is few compared with other coastal cities. Yantai escaped developers' greed because it is considered too small - its urban population is about 500,000 - and too remote. The old British club has been turned into a restaurant - but still has Asia's first two bowling alleys, built in 1865.

The city's modest size may have been its salvation. 'We are still traditional Shandong people here - blunt and honest, if [not] conservative and a bit dumb,' one primary school teacher says. 'But people in Qingdao are different. They have been changed by the development and riches. They are becoming like the southerners. It is all money, and personal relations do not count any more.'