Sunday, 1 July 2012

The Lady From Shanghai

Shanghai just sounds so exotic. But just as The Lady From Shanghai is a conventional noir film that relies on the title to add mystery and exoticism, Shanghai as a city is not terribly remarkable and relies on historical perceptions for much of its allure. Much of the foreign influence that led to Shanghai's reputation in the West has been reduced and minimized. Compared to anywhere in French Indochina, the French Concession is utterly unremarkable, and the British influence on the Bund is essentially limited to a short stretch of riverfront that isn't especially compelling when you're coming from Hong Kong. Perhaps the real story of Shanghai is the Pudong business district which has grown from nothing to an expanding thicket of skyscraper on a few short decades, but the story of rapid development and mega-cities is one repeated throughout China (and in many respects is even more impressive when applied to cities that were utterly anonymous, if not nonexistent, twenty years ago).

Because of Shanghai's modernity and cosmopolitan nature, however, it does make for a gentle introduction to China.

Hostels, service, and cleanliness in China

I had booked a hostel online before arriving in Shanghai. But because likes to assume you want to book a week in advance, and not for the next day or so, I had inadvertently booked for the week ahead, and not when I arrived. Add in the difficulty I had in actually locating the hostel, and I was a sweaty mess when I arrived, and none too happy when I was curtly told they were full and my reservation was wrong. Of course, since I didn't have a reservation for that day, they wouldn't let me use the wi-fi so I could book another hostel, and told me I would have to go find a Starbucks, to which they gave me very general directions. Thanks, Phoenix Hostel!

Once I found the Starbucks, I discovered that, besides coffee costing more than it does in the USA, in order to connect to their wi-fi you need to provide a Chinese phone number. At the time I thought this was a ridiculous requirement imposed for marketing reasons by Starbucks China, but in retrospect I suspect it is to comply with Chinese internet-monitoring regulations. I eventually found free wi-fi and was able to make a booking at a hostel in Pudong, the Hidden Garden.

That hostel was actually pretty bad, in some ways that were uniquely Chinese. The rooms would be OK if they actually had windows or ventilation. But they didn't, which meant they were dark and very damp, even though it was the middle of summer. It must be terrible in the winter. There was new hardwood laminate in the hallways, but it had been laid without padding underneath, which meant it was creeky and you could hear it anytime someone walked outside. Especially when the hostel's little dogs walked outside, with their nails clicking on the floor.

These problems could exist in any hostel in the world. The Chinese aspect was the complete lack of cleanliness in the bathrooms. They had clear signs of being somewhat new, as some of the hardware still had the protective plastic wrap stuck to it (as if they thought you're not supposed to remove it after installation). But it also looked like no one had actually cleaned the bathroom at all since it was installed. The toilet bowl was covered in brown stains. The glass shower doors had protective plastic but was also stained and moldy. It's just really strange, but is really quite characteristic of the Chinese
approach to bathroom cleanliness.


The Pudong area of Shanghai, east of the Huangpu river and opposite the historic Bund, is where most of Shanghai's skyscrapers are located, including the iconic, futuristic, Oriental Pearl Tower, which was the first tower built in the area, in 1991. That's right, in 1990 the entire Pudong area was flat farmland.

The Bund, in contrast, is British and international in origin, and consists of a number of old Western-style stone buildings that once housed major financial concerns and consulates.

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The bottle-opener World Financial Center on the left, and the Jin Mao Tower on the right, as seen fro Lujiazui Park.

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Minor skyscrapers.

The aperture was originally intended to be circular, but the shape was changed after people objected to it resembling the Japanese flag.

The Oriental Pearl Tower, from the Pearl Ring pedestrian walkway.

The Shanghai Tower under construction, as seen from the Pearl Ring.

There's an Apple Store in Pudong, just off the Pearl Ring. I went there and was approached in English by one of the employees. I remarked on how good his English was, and he told me that he's actually from California, but spoke (Taiwanese) Mandarin at home, and that he had decided to move to Shanghai for a year. Such is the appeal of China.

Pearl Tower from nearby shops.

Entire skyscrapers act as video monitors. "I ♥ SH" is better than the Beijing equivalent.

View from Pudong waterfront. Cruise ships ply the Huangpu river.

You can also take a ferry across the Huangpu for a couple yuan. The Bund from the ferry just after sunset.

Approaching the dock.

The area is popular for photoshoots.

Pudong from the northern end of the Bund.

The Monument to the People's Heroes, on the northern end of the Bund.

View from the Garden Bridge, looking towards Pudong.

The Garden Bridge is illuminated by a changing array of colours.

A few seconds later, a different colour.

A photoshoot at the northern end of the bridge.

Models or newlyweds?

The steel truss Garden Bridge.

View from along the Wusong river.

Ad-hoc ballroom dancing sessions are a common sight in public spaces, such as along the Nanjing shopping street.

Shopping along Nanjing pedestrian street.

Along Nanjing street.

I had a quintessentially Chinese experience while walking Nanjing street one night. Despite there being no bottle deposit on plastic bottles, people collect them for recycling. Often it is old and retired people who collect them as a way to generate some income, but you occasionally see others. While walking Nanjing road with an empty bottle one night, I saw a young collector coming my way. He had a huge sack, half-full with plastic bottles, across his back, and he was walking from garbage can to garbage can. But he was walking distracted, as he had a pair of headphones plugged in to his smartphone, on which he was watching a video as he wandered from bin to bin. I surprised him by stopping him to give him my bottle. (People were always surprised or even shocked—but thankful—when I gave my bottle directly to them; this kind of consideration just isn't something that seems to happen in China.)

In general, Chinese just throw trash wherever. Garbage cans are little used, and throwing things into the gutter is an acceptable practice. In practice, it matters little, given that itinerant recyclers will pick up everything worthwhile, and early-morning sweepers will take care of the rest—though I wonder if the sweepers came first as a way to guarantee full employment in the Communist era, or whether they were a necessary response to already-existing littering.

Former consulate of the UK.

People's Park & Shanghai Museum

People's Park is a large central park in Shanghai, on the northern half of the grounds of a former British racetrack. The Shanghai Museum is in the southern half, while there are lotus ponds and wooded areas in the northern part.

On the weekends, much of the northern half turns into a huge market full of matrimonial match-making ads. It seems really weird, but is online dating all that different?

These two ads also had their text in English.

The Tomorrow Square tower, behind a lotus pond in People's Park.

Unopened lotus.

Chinese kid posing for a picture in front of the lotuses.

Lotus Blossom.

It was really hot in Shanghai—about 36°C and very humid. Kids played in a fountain in People's Park, just north of the museum.

I think that most adults were a little envious.

The pollution is bad enough that even the nearby Shanghai Opera building and Tomorrow Square are hazy. And the heat was so bad that there was about a 20-minute lineup to get into the air-conditioned Shanghai Museum. The queue was surprisingly orderly.

Let's pose! Chinese kids tend to have great poses, and can be extremely creative.

The no-touching sign is a real necessity. There was a nearby exhibit with a statue in a base filled with gravel. Since she wasn't allowed to touch the statue, one lady decided to pick up a handful of gravel and examine it instead.

Buddhist relief statuary.

The Shanghai Museum was really quite good. Many Chinese museums are of high quality, with logical and enlightening layout and explanation, showing clear development of historical and artistic development. You might think I'm grading on a curve and going easy on Chinese Museums, but I recently visited the Royal Ontario Museum, and they had a comparatively terrible exhibit on Chinese art: a mishmash of artifacts from different eras and in different styles arranged not to show a progression or evolution in technique or style, but haphazardly arranged according to geography and function.

The pollution has drained all colour from this scene, just south of the Museum.

The French Concession

The French Concession, as the name suggests, is an area of Shanghai that was essentially conceded to the French to let them build a settlement there. This led to the construction of a community in the French style, with Western-style buildings and spacious, tree-lined streets.

Originally, the French Concession extended from the banks of the Huangpu, circled the top of the Old Chinese City, below what is now People's Park, and extended west from there, but what most people think of as the French Concession today is the residential area southwest of People's Park.

The historic boundaries of the French Concession. It's really only the residential areas (shaded in brown) that are what we think of when we think of the french Concession today.

Today, the French Concession is being pulled in opposite directions. It is popular for its relatively calm and peaceful atmosphere, and its trees and architecture, but that popularity has led to rising prices and increasing development which is at odds with the fundamental nature of the area. Of course, this story of development and gentrification happens everywhere, but in other parts of French Indochina there is such an abundance of colonial atmosphere that development in one part of town doesn't significantly eliminate those colonial influences.

This isn't to say that the French atmosphere has been developed out of existence everywhere in the French Concession, but at the same time it's true that there are high-rise apartment complexes, and some of the most famous and popular attractions are Disney-fied reconstructions of traditional neighborhoods. Tianzifang is an art-inspired, cafe and souvenir-heavy, walled enclave in the French Concession that comes across as something like a themed-shopping mall. And Zintiandi, near People's Park, is a similar reconstruction of traditional Shanghai shopkeeper architecture that has been morphed into an elite shopping and entertainment area.

Old gateway at Tainzifang market in the French Concession.

Sign at entrance to alley in Tianzifang.

Typically French street.

An alley full of colonial-style buildings.

Peeking into a courtyard.

Wide, leafy streets are atypical outside of the French Concession.

Recycling by trishaw.

Selling crickets.

Roller-blading at Fuxing Park.

Alleyway at Xintiandi market.

Egg display at Xintiandi market restaurant.

Technically part of the French Concession, the upscale Hong Kong Plaza shopping mall near Xintiandi.

Old City

Shanghai's Old City is rapidly disappearing, much to the consternation of some conservationists who would like to see the city's traditional core preserved. In the abstract, it does seem a shame that the city's traditional quarters should be overwhelmed by the high-rise apartments that dominate other parts of the city, but once you actually visit the old city it's much more difficult to insist that these areas not be replaced. Because the reality is that the old city isn't a great place to live, and I can understand why residents might want to leave, or not be upset if they are required to.

The streets are damp and dirty. The buildings are old and lack modern conveniences. Compared to the rest of the city, they look like slums. They may be picturesque and interesting to tourists, but in many ways I think it's irresponsible to force these places to continue to exist as functional communities when they are dysfunctional, dated, and anachronistic on many levels.

Where would you rather live: in one of the foreground buildings or background apartments?

Shops in the Old City.

Old City alley. Colourful and full of character, but probably not the nicest place to actually live.

Newer buildings surround the touristy part of the Old City, the Yuyuan garden and City God temple, with the Pearl Tower barely visible in the background.

Pond in Yuyuan garden.

Warren of shops near Yuyuan garden. The entire area is really disappointing, as it's nothing more than a big stylized shopping center and amusement park.


Qibao is a small canal area within Shanghai itself, accessible by metro. It's a really small area, with one picturesque old bridge and a few blocks of pedestrian streets lined with traditional-looking souvenir shops and restaurants. It's pleasant, and worth seeing if you don't have enough time to see one of the other water towns.

Tourist boats and the Puhui bridge.

Pedestrian street in Qibao.

View from the Puhui bridge towards the Anping bridge and Qibao temple.

Puhui bridge and temple pagoda.

View from Kangle bridge.

Lessons from Shanghai

Shanghai is one of the most open, cosmopolitan, and Western cities in China. Despite this, the Chinese flavour of the city emerges fairly quickly.

In some ways, it is surprising to see how advanced some things are. There's the Maglev train that runs to the airport as a showcase example of technology, as well as the Pudong skyscrapers that function as giant video monitors. But it extends beyond these expensive and symbolic displays of technology to things like solar water heating and electric scooters, both of which seem to be the default technology in use, and both of which put most Western countries to shame. Sure, their adoption may reflect Chinese energy pressures and pollution concerns, but the widespread use of technology is nevertheless startling.

From a cultural perspective, you see a lot of things that are similarly surprising, though not in a positive way. Take the subway and you'll notice that no one lets anyone off the subway before trying to force their way on. Once on, they scramble for the recently-vacated seats, elbowing midlle-aged ladies out of the way and laughing if they're able to secure a seat. Even more mysterious is the tendency of those who have secured a hard-fought seat to simply spread out when a passenger next to them stands up to leave: instead of letting the space remain open for an entering passenger to sit down, they spread their legs or adjust themselves to take up more space. In my opinion this is symptomatic of the core Chinese malady of failing to care about other people, and being focused almost entirely on one's self.

There's also the issue of personal hygiene. I've talked a bit about how the Chinese seem to clean (or not) their bathrooms, but many have a cavalier approach to how they groom themselves. In Hong Kong, one of the guys in my hostel had been studying in Hong Kong for a semester, and while talking about mainland China he mentioned his room-mate, who was from mainland China. He told me that he would go for weeks without showering, even when he smelled bad; he just didn't come from a culture of habitual showering. Personally, I acquired a taste for the roll-on deodorant widely sold in Southeast Asia (stick deodorant leaves too much residue that transfers to clothes, in my opinion), so I was hoping to buy some in China. I noticed, however, that they don't seem to sell any kind of deodorant in China. None. I think this says something.

I wonder if the English translation is to let foreigners know that this is an issue the Chinese government is trying to address.

The misery of booking train tickets in China

In contrast to the ease with which I got my ticket from Hong Kong to Shanghai, the task of getting domestic train tickets is much more difficult. Trains are good value, fast, and comfortable, and although China has a great (and rapidly growing) rail network, it also has 1.4 billion people. Popular routes sell out quickly, and in order to get a ticket you have to try and buy them as far in advance as possible: when I was there you could only buy 8 days in advance at stations, where they often sold out almost immediately, but that has thankfully been expanded to 60 days in advance. Foreigners are at a disadvantage, as you need a Chinese ID card to either buy online or buy at an automated ticket machine (infuriatingly, they tease you by letting you browse—but not buy—in English), so you're limited to either using an agency (those who offer services in English tend to charge about $10 per ticket) or queuing up at a station and hoping to communicate with an agent who is highly unlikely to speak English unless you're at the international ticket window of a major station.

I was unable to get a sleeper ticket to Beijing, so I ended up taking a fast night train (it doesn't look like they run fast trains at night anymore). These trains take less than 5 hours to do the 1,300 km route between the cities, but are not a good option for traveling at night. The hard-seats in these trains are five-across in a 2-3 configuration, and the price of one of these seats is almost twice that of a hard sleeper—555 yuan for a hard seat compared to 327 for a hard sleeper that takes 11 hours. Sure, you get there faster, but since the seats don't really recline you get there very, very tired and grumpy. has good information on buying train tickets in China, and you can check availability (and their prices) on ticket bookers like If they have lots of seats available on the trains you want, you can head down to the local station and try to book there. 

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