Family Time in Wealthy China

The economic revolution, with its VCRs and TVs, widens the generation gap in a middle-class home

IT'S a Sunday afternoon in Shanghai. Wang Guopin softly croons the opening bars of ``When I Grow Too Old to Dream'' as his son, daughter-in-law, and two grandchildren cluster in the family's cramped two-room flat. Bing Crosby plays on the CD player. The Wang's living quarters, cluttered with three full-size beds, holds other accouterments of Chinese middle-class life: a color television, VCR, refrigerator.

The new wealth of an emerging capitalist China is changing the lives of the Wangs and millions of other residents of Shanghai, one of the vanguards of the country's economic revolution.

But Wang (not his real name) is uneasy about the changes afoot in China. Before World War II, he recalls, Shanghai was a city of millionaires and beggars, parties and politics, gangsters and communists.

As a young student, he watched the Nationalists, led by Chiang Kai-shek, and underground Chinese Communists battle for control of China's largest city.

And there were other memories of his youth, both sweet and bitter: his studies, the parties, dancing at the Majestic Ballroom, and the signs erected along Shanghai's foreign-controlled Bund riverfront: ``Chinese and dogs not allowed.''

``No one cared very much. People only cared about how to get money and do business,'' he recalls in precise English.

Just before Japan's invasion of China, Wang went to work for the Nationalists and was forced to flee with the government to the western Chinese safe haven of Chongqing in 1937. After the war, he returned to Shanghai and chose to stay when the Communists took over in 1949.

``It was clear the Communists would have to get their sovereignty. But we were short-sighted. We were just concerned with how to live happily,'' he says, recalling the hyperinflation and hanging bunches of bank notes from his bicycle handlebars during the Nationalist years. ``At that time, everybody knew the Kuomingtang [the Nationalists] could not control because of the corruption.''

Wang sees uncanny parallels to today. Although paramount leader Deng Xiaoping and other ruling Communists admonish party members for widespread greed, corruption is as rampant as under the Nationalists, Wang says. The elderly man also finds the materialism of Chinese youth unsettling - opinions which set him at odds with his grandchildren.

``The next generation always has money on its mind, and that is a crisis,'' says the man who was bitterly attacked and lost belongings during the Cultural Revolution. ``In my generation, we cared about money, but studying always came first.''

Wang's 20-year-old granddaughter Wang Xiaolin, who hopes to emigrate to the United States or Singapore, agrees that educational standards here are sliding. But she insists corruption is no worse today, and defends her generation as more pragmatic.

``Now, we know the reality more than the older generation,'' she says. ``Our entertainment is more colorful.''

``That was the same in my day. But at least we learned a polite manner,'' interjects her grandfather.

``You mean we are impolite now?'' Ms. Wang retorts.

``We danced like gentlemen, not cheek-to-cheek,'' the grandfather says.

``I think the world has changed a lot,'' says the young woman, a fan of actors Patrick Swayze and Kevin Costner. ``It won't ever be the equal of old times. But I think every generation has its own fun to enjoy.''

The grandfather shakes his head. Despite the turmoil of China's recent decades, he concludes, ``I have enjoyed more freedom than they have known. My life has been richer than theirs.''

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