In the words of more than one long-time local, Shanghai is a city full of surprises.
In just three days, I was overwhelmed by cultural, social and architectural sights, normal to the Chinese, but to this Kiwi, curiosities and absurdities.
People hang their washing out to dry on the walls of the city’s prison, the first and the largest gaol in China.
Others happily – and publicly – hang their underwear on power lines,
though I’m told many old wires on the spaghetti-like power poles are no longer live.
A cop car zooms past, lights flashing and horn blaring, screeches to a halt obediently at the next red light, only to zoom off again as soon as it turns green.
There’s a motorway bridge with huge opening windows.
Women passengers on pushbikes and scooters sit side-saddle.
Motorcyclists and scooters don’t need helmets and share the footpath with pedestrians. Want to text and scoot? No problem,
and no-one’s going to limit how much you can carry; if you can tie it on, it’s allowed.
I even saw a scooter with a refrigerator strapped on.
Crossing the road is simple. Do it anytime, anywhere. Step out from the pavement, don’t stop, don’t change speed, and don’t run. Don’t wait for cars or scooters, they’ll avoid you, honest. And don’t bother finding a pedestrian crossing, they’re only there for decoration, just like the centre line. In the words and accent of a French tour guide, "Shanghai traffic, it is 'ectic."
Unlike New Zealand, littering is cool and it’s seen as a potential for employment. In my part of the city there was a uniformed cleaner on every block, and very little graffiti.
That is, if you don’t count the hand-written scribblings of tradesmen advertising their services on the walls of a house they’ve just worked on. Locals tell me it’s the Chinese version of the Yellow Pages.
And although I saw very few newspapers, Public Notices are posted regularly on multi-coloured chalkboards in public parks.
My room at my hotel, Hyatt on the Bund
I wonder if it’s a reflection of the employment situation that I got room service three times a day. I found that a bit disconcerting, especially when they repacked and tidied my bags.
However, if you’re an ex-pat (non-Chinese) the government makes it easy to set up your own business, and surprisingly, it’s even easier for foreigners than for Chinese from other provinces. Some of the ex-pats we met had up to three jobs or self-employed enterprises on the go.
|Scooting with a child, a dog and no helmets|
Women swan around in the daytime, wearing pyjamas with high heels and handbag, maybe walking their dog, announcing to the world that they don’t need to work, or perhaps have gotten the day off. In a society which is only now easing its one child policy, I’m told that “dogs are the new children.”
One group I saw were doing leg stretches my gymnast daughters would have been proud of, and many trees in the parks have been rubbed smooth by people bouncing their backs against the trunk, sorting out their back issues and ‘transferring the tree’s positive energies.’
Many of the plane trees are braced on four sides due to the occasional typhoon that blows through.
A man-made tree with massive flowers disguises a cell-phone tower.
I saw a crazy spiky green caterpillar, but sadly heard very few birds.
One of China’s favourite pets are crickets, sold from pet shops in big plastic pill bottles,
and Mynahs are taught to talk and sold as caged birds. ‘Ni hao’ (hello) we called to them and they excitedly replied. We then tried ‘Kia ora’ and they just squawked angrily.
There were of course the amusing Chinglish (Chinese-English) signs. Seen at a local bar advertising a gypsy-themed fancy dress night: “Everyone who arrives horse – gets a present!”,
and “Declined Carrying Drinks.” I guess that means ‘No BYO.’
On a tree-protecting fence in one of the public parks a sign proclaiming “No Striding Over” reminded me of Gulliver’s Travels.
A shopping bag declares “Welcome to Shanghai. Evaded affection. Pieces of pieces of the Heart.” And on our way to the night markets to sample Big Butt Lamb we came across a street called Twisted Tit Lane (in the transliterated Chinese.) I’d love to know its history. Not that language problems were restricted to the Chinese. An American tour guide once stopped to check on the group: “So, you’re all making out?” Ah, no.
|Pouring tea for Kelly Kilgour, our tour guide, and|
a corporate communications executive with
Air New Zealand, at a restaurant called 1121.
Just as happily, we had a Kiwi wine aficionado in our group who saved us from buying a $14 bottle of New Zealand wine for an exorbitant NZ$98 (at a fixed-price restaurant.)
In most other shops however, bartering is the norm (actually it’s fun), and we were advised that “if you haven’t walked away at least once, you really haven’t tried hard enough.” I spoke to one guy who was nearly conned out of $500 for a tea party. Buyer beware.
Apples and grapes are enormous,
Hairy crabs are a delicacy,
and noodles are made by hand as you watch, with no kitchen appliance in sight.
Streetside restaurants are BYO i.e. if you take your own food, they’ll cook it for you.
Fish flop around in crowded plastic tubs amongst the green veges sold at the wet markets.
To the Chinese, if it’s not alive it’s not fresh.
Fitted, lined and tailor-made trousers were a mere $50, sold in multi-boothed shopping malls where, not to miss a sale, retailers and their families cook and eat their dinner in the aisles.
Tradesmen ply their trade amongst the retailers, using a mix of traditional and modern styles. I peered into one carpenters shop and saw them using a pre-1950s hand plane alongside their power tools. Nothing goes to waste if it’s useful.
|A street artist draws a portrait in one of the night markets|
All kinds of food are laid out on uncovered tables, though thankfully I saw very few flies.
Doctors take blood pressure
and locals gamble openly, playing cards
or mahjong, a game which looks like a mix of scrabble and dominoes. I saw more than a little money change hands.
Surprisingly there are only a few street hawkers. I compare that to previous trips to Phnom Penh in Cambodia and Denpasar in Bali where you couldn’t walk out of your hotel without being accosted by hordes of hawkers flogging all manner of interesting junk.
Locals and ex-pats tell me that Shanghai is an extremely safe city to live in with a very low crime rate. They put it down to the high penalties, lots of police and the “millions of security cameras.”
I’m told the authorities have cracked down on street prostitution, but some pretty high-level stuff goes on in the upper floors of high end hotels.
That could be why I was only propositioned twice, once by an apparent lady-boy who caught my eye from across the street, and once by a curvaceous and painted young woman who ran down the steps to grab my arm and literally tried to drag me back to join her three young lady friends. Naturally I said no, but there must have been a language difficulty as I was given decidedly disapproving looks by two older Chinese women as they walked past.
|American blonde poses with local kids|
|Evidence of previous Jewish residence in what is now often called "The Ghetto."|
Some of the city’s old town has been restored
|Dense housing and office blocks, also a vacant section|
from demolished buildings, probably for another skyscraper.
Old town demolished in favour of skyscrapers
Size is everything; even the foyer in my hotel is three stories high.
|Shanghai business district at night|
|Radical building styles in the business district|
|Two different architectures photographed from the same spot|
It turns out though that the city is very spread out, and even on National Day the crowds weren't a lot larger than I’ve seen on a mid-week lunchtime in Auckland’s Queen St.
That’s not to say it’s not crowded in places. We visited one house which was home to three families, having just one communal living area the size of a small double bedroom. However, reflecting the notion that you can only take sharing so far, its one extremely small kitchen had three stoves, three taps with separate water meters and three separate lighting circuits.
As they say in Shanghai, one should expect the unexpected.
Air New Zealand flies daily to Shanghai from Auckland with connections available from Air New Zealand's 25 domestic ports. Fares start from $865 one way inclusive of taxes. Visit Air New Zealand for more details and to book.