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The Melbourne Age



Extract of article by Helena Iveson

The Age - The Melbourne Magazine

How good is life in Melbourne? We compare the daily existence of a family here with similar families in five of Melbourne's sister cities: Osaka, Tianjin, Boston, Thessaloniki and St Petersburg.  


CITY Tianjin, China (pop. 10 million)  

WHO Wang Jian, a teacher; her husband, Li Zhiqiang, who works for a bank; and their five-year-old daughter, Li Yuqing  

HOME Spacious, modern six-room apartment in Hexi, an inner-city suburb  

PROS Rapidly improving lifestyle  

CONS One-child policy, high-density living  


Tianjin is just 90 minutes from Beijing, but locals say it feels much further. Not that Tianjin is some sleepy backwater. It's one of China's biggest cities, with 10 million people, a substantial number of foreigners working in trade, its own dialect, style of cooking, and a reputation for friendliness. Wang Jian lives in Hexi, just west of the Haihe River, which has provided the city with much of its wealth. With her husband, Li Zhiqiang, and their five-year-old daughter, Li Yuqing, they are just a few kilometres from the city centre.  


Their slate-coloured apartment block - only the very rich live in detached houses in a city bursting at the seams - is in what's considered a "good" neighbourhood, with Tianjin's best schools, brand-new high-rises and shopping centres. Neon lights from restaurants, mid-market clothes stores and

mobile-phone shops light up the pavements, and in the distance, a gigantic TV tower dominates the skyline.  In their living room, there's a Winnie-the-Pooh tricycle and a huge bottle of Hennessy XO Whiskey displayed behind glass cabinet doors and a large fish tank against one wall. The other five rooms, including a study, lead off from the living room, and the whole place feels modern, light and airy, though a chorus of vehicle horns can be heard outside.  

Born here, Wang Jian and Zhiqiang met at university and say they have no intention of leaving Tianjin. Zhiqiang, 34, has worked at the Agricultural Bank of China, one of the country's main banks, for almost 15 years now. He earns around 7,000 yuan ($A1100) a month plus a yearly bonus - "A little higher than the Tianjin average," he says. Wang Jian, 32, teaches Chinese at a secondary school. This is her busiest time of year, as she coaches students for the national university entrance exam. "I do enjoy the teaching, but at this time of year, the stress is difficult," she says. Her salary is about 4,000 yuan

($A630) a month.  

Every weekday morning, the whole family sets off together in their gleaming little Xiali. The total journey is only four kilometres, but with traffic can take nearly an hour. The car was made in Tianjin (in a joint venture between Toyota and a local company) and bought outright two years ago for 50,000 yuan

($A8000). Before then, they caught the bus. Yuqing is dropped off at a government-run kindergarten which costs a little under 10 per cent of the couple's monthly income, with bills for tuition, food and art supplies, as well as the annual health check, compulsory for all children attending school. "We think it's a good place as they don't focus on education, but on playing and getting used to being with other children," Wang Jian says. In the evening, Zhiqiang collects his wife and daughter. When the weather is fine, they often go kite flying at the small park near their flat, which is full of other young families enjoying the greenery they don't have at home - they don't know anyone who has a private garden.  

Weekends are a time for family and revolve around Yuqing. On Saturday mornings she studies traditional Chinese dancing while Jian goes to yoga or uses the gym in their building. On Sunday mornings, Yuqing goes to private English classes, and Zhiqiang waits in the car reading while Yuqing learns to count. "Right now, she's very proudly telling everybody she's five in English," says Wang Jian. Yuqing's uncle has emigrated to Canada and the whole family want to visit in a few years time. "We want her to translate!" laughs Wang Jian. In the afternoons, they head to a local private arts centre for drawing class. While Chinese parents have a reputation for over-ambitiousness with all their hopes invested in their child, Yuqing's parents are adamant she will not be one of the country's "little emperors" (the media often bewail the generations of only children, a consequence of China's one-child policy).  

Every weekend, without fail, they spend time with both sets of grandparents, who live within easy driving distance. "Family is very, very important to us," Wang Jian says. The two adults rarely spend time together without their daughter. As Wang Jian says: "We're very aware that we won't have another five-year-old, so we want to spend as much time with her as we can." Most of their money goes towards Yuqing's education. They bought their flat new in 2001 for 400,000 yuan ($A63,000) and have a 30-year mortgage that they're repaying at 1,700 yuan ($A270) a month. They own everything else outright. Like many Chinese, they don't have credit cards. "We prefer to wait rather than be in debt," says Wang Jian.

Food isn't too expensive, with bills averaging around 300 yuan ($A50) a week. Nearly all of that is spent on fresh produce rather than packaged meals. "We make sure we eat healthily. We have to be careful, especially with Yuqing being so young," says Wang Jian, who does the cooking - "Yes, me always!Though at the weekends, he does help," she says. Rice is their daily staple and Wang Jian cooks in the traditional Tianjin style - sweeter than food from other regions - with the evening meal often consisting of a soup, one meat dish, and a couple of vegetable dishes. Trips to McDonald's are a once-a-month treat, but that's mainly because Yuqing loves the restaurant's adventure playground.  

The room goes silent for about a minute when the couple are asked what would improve their lives. "I'd like to work fewer hours and have more time in the evenings and to go on holiday as a family," says Wang Jian. They would also like another child, but the law prevents them even contemplating it. Five minutes later, Wang Jian comes up with what she'd really like: "I'd love a garden - then I'd be really happy."  

© 2005 Copyright John Fairfax Holdings Limited.     Not available for re-distribution.  

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