(Oct. 22) JIN XIANG CITY, China — Take a ride through Shandong province with John Wang, and you’ll gain a better appreciation for life.

In a land where increasing numbers of people are driving yet where few have come to grasp the meaning of a red light or stop sign — forget about the concept of one-way traffic — a good driver is better than a seat belt.

Luckily Wang, who grew up in Shanghai but moved to Toronto about 15 years ago, is at ease behind the wheel of the company’s smooth-handling, jet-black Audi A6, whether cruising at 160 kilometers per hour on the toll road or screeching to a halt for some passing goats and their herder, ambling slowly along a pothole-ravaged rural byway.

In other places, corn is laid on the side of highways to dry, forcing us to weave among the colorful piles of shucked ears and oncoming vehicles, which seem to spend about half their time on the wrong side of the dividing line.

Even a slow tractor hauling a load of rock may make a sudden U-turn in the middle of a four-lane highway, causing a cacophony of blasting car horns and a few Mario Andretti-like driving maneuvers.

But this is nothing for Wang. As president of Toronto-based Canada Garlic, he travels to China eight times a year to look at garlic, as well as other vegetables, that he will sell as Canadian representative for Taian Ziyang Food Co. Ltd., Taian City.

So he spends a fair amount of time tooling around China.


He represents a new breed of Chinese entrepreneurs, having left the mainland in search of business opportunities elsewhere but rooted still to a network of Chinese producers, distributors, bureaucrats and everyone else it takes to get product from Far East to the West.

As we set out to tour the nation’s largest garlic-producing region, two sides of China become apparent.

An export-oriented government has encouraged growth at any cost. There is construction literally everywhere. Small or large cities. It doesn’t matter. Airports. Hotels. Banks. Department stores. McDonald’s. KFC. Happy Times (a Chinese fast-food upstart).

Indeed, cranes hoisting I-beams 30 stories up are now more common than the feathered cranes associated with the China of old. These days, even in the country, you see few wild animals, which, after all, lead a dangerous existence in a land so deprived of protein.

But in the cities you will see some of the most bold, bizarre and beautiful modern architecture, often right alongside a gray, crumbling, overpacked Mao-era tenement. That’s a result of some profound changes occurring on China’s other side, which essentially is anything, or anyone, outside of a city.

A huge influx of rural Chinese have swept into the cities, swelling parts of the infrastructure beyond its capabilities. At the same time, the rural flight threatens to change the very nature of agriculture.

The ability to cheaply produce labor-intensive crops has been the saving grace of rural China ever since it first longed for membership in the World Trade Organization.

Yet in the garlic capital of Jin Xiang, community leaders have seen their children leave for the better part of a decade, lured by better money in Beijing, Shanghai or any of the hundreds of Houston-sized cities dotting the red nation.

Toiling in the fields is not appealing to the youth of a nation that knew nothing but communes and centralized planning.

Far better to work in an electronics store in the city center, hawking satellite phones (which incidentally put to shame the cellular technology sold in the U.S. Ever try phoning across the ocean from a mountaintop? It’s as cool as the call is clear.).

Yet aging rural growers, even as the neon-tinged cities steal the fruit of their loins, are convinced that technology will be their savior, too. They all want better machinery. They’re eager to learn new methods. They’re organizing into cooperatives to gain the funding to accomplish all this.

Then they want to feed the world.

But, for now, hand labor rules. And it seems to be working.


Any land that doesn’t have a building or a mountain on it — every square, round, rectangular or octagonal piece — is put to use. Crop lines literally mimic the landscape, here rows of corn meandering along the bank of a ravine, there a dozen or so onions huddling around a rock that was too large to move. Much of this must be irrigated by hand or left to the vagaries of the weather.

You rarely see idle workers in the fields.

The rural folk are industrious, crafting tractors and implements from the crudest of parts, assembling odd-looking vehicles for transporting produce.

It’s these vehicles, as we speed on to our next destination, to which Wang has to pay the closest attention. They go only about 30 kilometers per hour, which is as fast as they’ll putt-putt along. They don’t signal because they can’t. And they tend to make sudden turns into oncoming traffic. Because they can.

Me? I just sit back and enjoy the ride. Really, it’s better than the chase scenes in most movies.