Like a Glittering prize / Always on a clear day

The train from Shanghai’s air­port to the city was very fast.

In fact, they claim the Maglev train is the fastest in the world and since you hit speeds of 430 km/h it’s hard not to find that rather believ­able. Yep, it’s an impres­sive tube of high-tech and the lev­el of that tech is nailed when one pass­es the train going the oth­er way at a joint 860km/h..faster than most jets.

That said, the bits at each end are a dis­as­ter. To get on the train you trudge about a kilo­me­tre through poor­ly sign­post­ed tun­nels, with vir­tu­al­ly no trol­leys in sight (we found one even­tu­al­ly, with a bumpy wheel), to buy your tick­ets ($6 each – can’t real­ly grum­ble about that) and are then faced with a grey, non air-con­di­tioned, stand­ing-room-only wait­ing room. When the train is ready to board you then bat­tle, now trol­ley-less, through a massed rush to a sin­gle nar­row esca­la­tor (no lifts a-la Hong Kong, Sin­ga­pore or KL) and, once down, face an unbend­ing con­duc­tor telling you loud­ly and very firm­ly in either shrill Shang­hainese or Man­darin (don’t expect me to know which) which door to enter (the one far­thest away nat­u­ral­ly).

At the oth­er end you are dumped in an indus­tri­al wasteland/building site some dis­tance from the city cen­tre, to face anoth­er nar­row esca­la­tor, a walk across a few  roads to a taxi rank and then 45 min­utes in relent­less traf­fic, admit­ted­ly over some of the more astound­ing bridges I’ve ever seen, to your hotel.

And that real­ly sums up Chi­na, I guess.

Shang­hai is astound­ing. There is no oth­er word for it. I’ve seen noth­ing like it and I’ve been to many of the world’s larg­er cities. There is noth­ing quite quite the same as sit­ting high up amongst a row of large ear­ly 20th cen­tu­ry com­mer­cial build­ings, in which, clear­ly, no expense was spared in design or con­struc­tion by the finan­cial insti­tu­tions of the occu­py­ing pow­ers in the years before it all came tum­bling down, now topped by large Chi­nese flags, look­ing across the Huang­pu Riv­er, with its boats with mas­sive elec­tron­ic bill­boards, to the futur­ism of Pudong’s sky­scape. It’s a city of not just mas­sive con­tra­dic­tions but over­whelm­ing visu­al dra­ma.

There are, they say, 1042 high rise build­ings, with new ones every week.

We were lucky in Shang­hai, we had the guid­ing hand of our old friends, Philip Kel­ly and Tracey Lee, who’ve been liv­ing there for some months, to lead us. It doesn’t mat­ter how many guide books one owns, local knowl­edge is, as always, absolute­ly every­thing.

So we found our­selves, on my birth­day evening (Philip hav­ing giv­en me, as a gift, a mag­nif­i­cent print of a pho­to he’d tak­en of Detroit meis­ter, Paul Ran­dolph – Brigid gave me a Mac­Book Pro 17” but that’s anoth­er post) at an astound­ing­ly good  Hunanese restau­rant, Lost Heav­en, where we drank New Zealand Sauvi­gnon Blanc whilst eat­ing, and at pret­ty good prices, and from there to Con­stel­la­tion, a long nar­row bar with a killer cock­tail list.

The next night we were tak­en to LAN, a four sto­ry bar / restau­rant com­plex designed and themed by Patrick Gilles and Dorothée Boissier in a rather dra­mat­ic way, from the Jel­ly­fish Tank to the infin­i­ty long room. The place was sur­pris­ing­ly emp­ty which suit­ed us and we were tak­en on a guid­ed tour of the whole place, and wan­dered from theme to theme, and ate (mod­ern pan Asian – but isn’t every­thing) for prob­a­bly a quar­ter of what it would’ve cost us in any­thing approach­ing the place in Aus­trala­sia.

My ear­li­er expe­ri­ences of Chi­na were in the south – in Guang­dong, and the psy­che seems quite dif­fer­ent fur­ther north. Whilst in Guangzhou I found the pop­u­lace as a whole extreme­ly gra­cious, help­ful and gen­er­ous. Shang­hai is dif­fer­ent though. There we found the pushi­ness and rude­ness that we’d been warned about ear­li­er but not encoun­tered. Peo­ple pushed – no threw – you out of the way, they yelled at you in what I can only assume is the leg­endary local dialect, and the dri­ving – in par­tic­u­lar the taxis, who seemed unable to see a red light no mat­ter whether it had been red for one minute or three and sim­ply careered through pedes­tri­an cross­ings with horn blar­ing, and peo­ple jump­ing in every direc­tion.

A bit like Bali real­ly, except here every does it. And at least in Chi­na there seemed to be some rules and some peo­ple try­ing to enforce them.

And we saw fights – lots of them – the most dra­mat­ic being two guys in a pet mar­ket fight­ing over some­thing which end­ed with one throw­ing tur­tles at the oth­er! Not for the faint heart­ed. Clear­ly the Shang­hainese are a lit­tle more high­ly strung than their south­ern com­pa­tri­ots.

The riv­er divides the city into two clear halves. There were sev­er­al ways to cross the riv­er, taxi, of course, the fer­ries, and foot and bus. But we chose the most excit­ing. This was my birth­day after all.

Just about every guide to Shang­hai rec­om­mends the train under the riv­er. Why do  they rec­om­mend it? Is it the thrill, is it a glass view­ing tun­nel (which would give one a view of brown sludge judg­ing by the riv­er), is it a tech blast? 1

In Shang­hai terms it was quite pricey – about US$4 a head, but after wan­der­ing around try­ing to find the booth, we hand­ed over the dosh and got our tick­ets. They includ­ed a com­pli­men­ta­ry pass to the Shang­hai Muse­um of Sex!

And down we went, we three, and three hap­py Ger­man back­pack­ers, until we came across the train, except it wasn’t real­ly a train it was a wee cap­sule and in we all went and off we went through a tun­nel lit with what locked like a neon light­ing show left over from some ear­ly 20th Cen­tu­ry future tech show. It was, as they promised, so tru­ly awful it need­ed to be seen. And then, just to empha­sis that point, two blow up rub­ber ghosts popped up and every­one began to laugh.

Then it was over. We decid­ed to give the Sex Muse­um a raincheck and we walked out into the sun­light and the base of the Pearl Tow­er, with bus­loads of Chi­nese tourists swarm­ing around, touts offer­ing to take your pho­to (folks from the vil­lages, bussing in for the Chi­nese Nation­al Day hol­i­day, like­ly don’t always have dig­i­tal cam­eras for those shots to take back to the vil­lage) and a bunch of milling Aus­tralians look­ing for the Bund.

We want­ed to go up the Jin Mao Tow­er, the 5th high­est build­ing in the world, par­tial­ly so we could look at World Finan­cial Cen­ter, recent­ly opened and the 2nd tallest in the world, par­tial­ly because the oth­er had huge queues and par­tial­ly because the deco-ish geo­met­ric stain­less steel struc­ture real­ly appealed.Wandering into the won­der­ful­ly named Super­brands Mall, a face­less rel­ic of a Stal­in­is­tic past, like the No.1 Depart­ment Store across the riv­er in Nan­jing Lu, we worked out, as we were buf­fet­ed by the hol­i­day crowds, that both the map and the eye showed a short walk to the Jin Mao and head­ed off.

Wan­der­ing into the won­der­ful­ly named Super­brands Mall, a face­less rel­ic of a Stal­in­is­tic past, like the No.1 Depart­ment Store across the riv­er in Nan­jing Lu, we worked out, as we were buf­fet­ed by the hol­i­day crowds, that both the map and the eye showed a short walk to the Jin Mao and head­ed off.

It wasn’t to be. We walked across the road and were quick­ly divert­ed into a loop into the oth­er direc­tion. We walked and fol­lowed the signs which said in sev­er­al lan­guages that we were going the right way despite our eyes telling us we were walk­ing away. At issue were vey large road works which seem­ing­ly are part of the mas­sive (and I mean absolute­ly mas­sive) build­ing projects that are redefin­ing cen­tral Shang­hai, par­tial­ly for the Expo 2010, and par­tial­ly just because that’s the way it is: In Chi­na they build and do so in a way we can’t com­pre­hend in the rest of the world.

So we walked. We walked fur­ther and fur­ther away, through the spot­less, groomed parks that fill the city, across mul­ti-laned roads, dodg­ing taxis accel­er­at­ing through red lights into scat­ter­ing pedes­tri­ans, until even­tu­al­ly, we swerved back and, hav­ing watched a fight between a couri­er on his elec­tric tri­cy­cle and a office per­son in his pressed white shirt, we got to the base of the 5th tallest build­ing in the world. The sign on the side said ‘no climb­ing’ so we decid­ed not to and went inside.

One of the things I like most about very tall build­ings, and I’ve done a few, is the speed of the lifts. The lament­ed WTC in NY had, until now, the fastest I’ve expe­ri­enced but the Jin Mao, from the base­ment (why is it that lifts to the top of tall build­ings often leave from the base­ment?), is like a rock­et. See­ing that this was the week that Chi­na had put anoth­er man in space, it seemed some­how appro­pri­ate. I won­dered if the thought had occurred to the two lift atten­dant girls who were busy check­ing their hair and make­up in the stain­less steel walls on the way up? No, I guess not.

The view of course was incred­i­ble. I bought a badge I think (I like a sou­venir) but lost it. It said some­thing about Pan­das but there were none there, that I’m sure of.

We decid­ed to get a taxi back and head­ed across to the French Con­ces­sion to eat more. The day before Isabel­la and I had walked main drag in the Con­ces­sion, look­ing at the Hugo Boss and Guc­ci shops before wan­der­ing south. I had an urge to vis­it the famous site of the first Con­gress of The Chi­nese Com­mu­nist Par­ty which was a block or two in that direc­tion. Brigid had gone fab­ric scout­ing and I need­ed to see this, at least so I felt an affin­i­ty with my red-stared base­ball cap I’d bought a few days ear­li­er and because, well, I was in Chi­na, so you do these things.

Bel­la and I wan­dered past antique stores, Star­bucks, sev­er­al rather pricey look­ing design stores with Stark and Her­man Miller chairs, a Porsche show­room and a clus­ter of expen­sive cafes and restau­rants until we came to it. It was free to enter so we went it, with me try­ing, under my breath, to explain to Bel­la what this placed was about. It was impres­sive, fus­ing tech­nol­o­gy with under­stat­ed design and it did some jus­tice to a place, regard­less of your pol­i­tics, where one of the most impor­tant polit­i­cal par­ties of our time fused it’s first man­i­festo. We walked through until we came to a life-size dio­ra­ma of the con­gress, with its dozen or so par­tic­i­pants. Stand­ing at the table was a young man. Isabel­la asked who that was. Mao Zedong I said. Wasn’t he an evil mon­ster Bel­la asked very, very loud­ly?

I shut her down rather quick­ly as sev­er­al stern young men looked angri­ly in our direc­tion.

I rushed her down­stairs where the looks abat­ed some­what and I bought a sou­venir – a Mao keyring – and we walked out­side where I noticed an Amway pre­sen­ta­tion in the park over the way. It seemed odd­ly appro­pri­ate, as was the fact the CCP’s con­gress hap­pened in a precinct now filled with some of China’s most desir­able prop­er­ty, and we sat down in a Cof­fee Bean cafe new door to pon­der these things and the fact that Mao no longer appears in any High School text books in the city.

And that’s Shang­hai I think. A vast vision of the future over­whelmed with it’s long past his­to­ry but not quite sure how to treat it’s more recent past. Or at least as best as I  could fig­ure out in a week there.

As in Guangzhou I had no prob­lem access­ing most web sites. I read Wikipedia’s Tianan­men pages and watched video of both that and Tibetan protests. My friend Philip said that in his exclu­sive­ly, aside from Tracey and he, Chi­nese res­i­den­tial com­pound, the free inter­net peri­od­i­cal­ly came up with a blocked page, but if one wait­ed a minute or two and tried again it usu­al­ly came up. Any cen­sor­ship seemed very half heart­ed. I, on the also free, very fast broad­band in the ser­viced apart­ments we were in, was able to access every­thing aside from Huff­in­g­ton, who noto­ri­ous­ly pissed off the Chi­nese some time back. So is the block­ing of web­sites over­stat­ed? I can’t say that, but on both my vis­its to Chi­na, in two regions, I had no real prob­lem in or out of hotels.

What else? Well I loved the cyn­i­cal twists on rev­o­lu­tion­ary art and com­mu­nist icons which we saw in the hip young design­er shops in the back alleys of the French Con­ces­sion – Mao with first gen­er­a­tion game­boys and the like. And I wish I’d been able to com­pre­hend some of the lit­er­a­ture in the vast Chi­nese lan­guage book­shops, although I could look at the graph­ics books with some awe. As I did at the high end DVD copy shops with it’s box sets of art-house direc­tors (I bought a box of 43 Hitch­cock movies, beau­ti­ful­ly pack­aged for around US$30, and col­lec­tions of clas­sic music videos for a buck a disc).

Then there is the long neon Vegas like over­state­ment of the design­er mall strip that is Nan­jing Lu, com­plete with hus­tlers offer­ing you watch­es, strange roller-skat­ing devices, bags – and then scut­tling as a cop arrived.

A week wasn’t close to enough. On the last day we dis­cov­ered the miss­ing mod­ern art muse­um – miss­ing because every day we’d run out of time and missed get­ting there. So, with Bei­jing and the north beck­on­ing too, I think Shang­hai will be a des­ti­na­tion I’ll need get to again, hope­ful­ly rather soon­er than lat­er.

Show 1 foot­note

  1. No, none of those, the rec­om­men­da­tions all come because it is so unbe­liev­ably awful it can’t be missed. So we had to do it.

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