CM3303, China Immersion Program: Visits to Fudan and Shanghai Ocean Universities

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Fudan University has a beautiful campus, with sculptures scattered all over its grounds. 古色古香 describes this campus aptly.

There are many rocks, large and grainy, with inscriptions of Chinese couplets and, at times, even complete poems.

Trees with bony branches line spacious roads. Cyclists travel freely on flat grounds. Buildings glow with a rich Chinese culture.

This abandoned building, with overgrown vines,
is photogenic. You'll never find such a building in
NUS as it is a waste of precious land.
There are a great number of sculptures in Fudan University and I drooled over their craftsmanship.

Dong Zhe Mao. What does it mean? To my eternal
mortification, I realised that I read the words backward.
There are beautiful ponds with aquamarine-blue waters. There, weeping willows dip languid branches into gently moving waters.

Such palpable and intoxicating Chinese aesthetics! How I wish that NUS is equally beautiful.

By contrast, NUS is a rojak admixture of boxy pragmatic buildings, interspersed with a few ultra-modern gleaming structures. In other words, quite painful to any architect’s eyes.

It could have drawn on Singapore’s rich South East Asian heritage to create a campus environment conducive for learning. However, at the founding moments of NUS, nation building was critical. Preserving and promoting culture were secondary.

Here’s a quick summary of how the current grounds of NUS came to be:
  • 1968: UNESCO experts submitted a $150 million plan to restructure the University to meet Singapore’s economic needs in the 1970s, including moving the University to a new campus, the establishment of a Faculty of Engineering and the transfer of all the degree courses from the Singapore Polytechnic to the University.
  • 1970: Professor S J Van Embden, UNESCO expert from the Netherlands, revealed the Masterplan for the new University of Singapore campus at Kent Ridge, where the University’s Faculties will all be brought together under one roof. The plan also included a new university teaching hospital related to the medical faculty.
  • 1972: Dr Toh Chin Chye officiated at a ground-breaking ceremony for the new University of Singapore campus site at Kent Ridge.
  • 1976: The Faculty of Architecture and Building was moved from its Ladyhill campus to the new campus at Kent Ridge, the first faculty to move into the new campus under the first phase of construction. Over the next few years, the construction of the different Faculties concluded and they moved in by phases.
During this 1970s period when NUS was consolidating, Singapore was in a state of turmoil. In 1968, Britain announced its intention to withdraw its armed forces from Singapore. This coincided with the PAP winning all seats in the 1968 General Election which the Barisan Sosialis boycotted. In 1969, the Race Riots in Singapore erupted when the tension from the 13 May Incident in Malaysia spilled over.

Given the turbulent times, the aesthetics of the NUS campus were hardly a consideration. Hence, it is understandable that the buildings of NUS are so pragmatic (and somewhat ugly).

We had the privilege of visiting Shanghai Ocean University as well. It is incredibly modern, with a tasteful combination of textures and colors. All the buildings appear to blend harmoniously because the entire campus is new. It struck me that China must be sloshing with cash to spend so much land and capital constructing a completely new campus for a relatively young university.

I'm not kidding. All the buildings in this picture belong to
the Shanghai Ocean University.
There is a gargantuan pond lined with reeds and willows.
There are ducks and swans in it. Wonderfully serene. 
From their university administrators, I understand that the Chinese government has identified marine science, aquaculture and food technology as being critical to the burgeoning Chinese population and economy. Hence, governmental support for this university is unstinting. If my memory serves me well, half a billion RMB was spent on this campus.

To a Singaporean studying in NUS, the scale of this university is incredible. I was to discover later that this dramatic scale is fairly common in China, across various industries and education institutes.

The amount of effort went into welcoming us, a delegate of pesky NUS students, was incredible. We got to visit their topmost office where a 360 degrees view of the campus awaited. There was a tank of iridescent jellyfishes.

But what struck me the hardest was the effusive friendliness of the Shanghai Ocean University students. They were really happy to host us. I wonder if NUS students offer the same level of enthusiasm to visiting student delegates.

These students would have exams in the week after we visit. They assured me that they were not very well-prepared but the end-of-semester exams were no big deal. According to them, the Shanghai Ocean University is not a top-tier school and academic competition within it isn't that stiff.

At this point, allow me to paraphrase a conversation we had:

"Are you all here during school term?"

"No, actually this is our holiday period."

"Wow, so good. Our school doesn't have many opportunities for us to venture abroad."

"But why? I mean how about exchange programs with other universities?"

"We have some with other Japanese and American universities but the places are very limited. Only a few people can go every year."

"How about student-initiated programs? Volunteer trips? Cultural programs?"

"Our school doesn't encourage this. Last time, one student went missing on a student-led trip. Since then, the school requires teachers to accompany and few teachers are willing to do so."

"Hmm, sidetrack. Does studying for a degree help you all to find better jobs next time?"


"Huh? Then why are you all still studying? Too much money?"

"No, hahah. It's because we are not rich that we must study. Those 富二代 can afford not to study. In fact, I know someone who is a 富二代, working now with only a high school education and is earning a salary much higher than I'd expect with a degree."

I've often heard about such social inequities from my Chinese friends back in Singapore. However, it's a completely different experience to hear it again during a casual conversation in China.

I’ve signed up for this cultural immersion program for many reasons. I wanted to have a reprieve to look forward to after a year-long scientific research. I wanted to discover Chinese motifs, textures and aesthetics to use in my art. I wanted to be in a place that I've heard of, dissected and written about but not visited.

Never had I expected that I'd encounter such beautiful grounds and wonderful people. I've also realised that studying in NUS is a privilege for there are numerous opportunities for overseas exposure. Very much thankful for having this opportunity to visit China.