Poagao's Journal

Absolutely Not Your Monkey

Oct 12 2006

I went out for some last-minute exploration on my …

I went out for some last-minute exploration on my last afternoon in Shanghai, around the neighborhood where I’d been staying. The weather, unlike the past few days of brilliant sunshine, was grey and dull. Children played with their Young Pioneer handkerchiefs, calling out “Look, a parachute!”

I ducked down an alley into an old neighborhood, past some houses being refurbished and into a courtyard where some old people were sitting. I told them I was looking at the architecture, and they invited me to sit down. A hefty old woman told me that the two-story apartments were about 80 years old and had originally been quite nice. “They’re a mess now, though,” she added. Her children had moved into nicer quarters, but she was loath to follow, saying she couldn’t adjust to the newer buildings. Looking up at the glass and steel towers surrounding the area, I could understand how the prospect of moving there must feel like jumping into a sci-fi novel.

Talk turned to politics, and an old man told me he thought Chen Shui-bian shouldn’t step down. He wasn’t the first one. Most people here, when I mention the subject, seem to think the anti-Chen movement rather silly. I suspect the PRC leaders would rather not see a leader being called on corruption, alleged or not, as it would make for a dangerous example.

The old man took me to see his apartment, which he shared with his son, who was asleep on the sofa. It was a small loft, a little smaller than the Lofty Sky Palace. He paid 50RMB a month for the room and a small garden out front, he said, giving me a bag of wet peanuts as a gift. He then went outside to join a game of chess with a neighbor in the courtyard. The neighbor, from Hainan, was unemployed.

I went back out to the main street and walked along it for a while, enjoying the tree-lined streets and noting the abundance of satellite dishes, which are supposedly illegal. The bag of wet peanuts gave me a sense of legitimacy; it seemed as if I got fewer stares because of it.

But I had a train to catch, so I made my way back to Lennet’s apartment, gathered up my things, said my thanks and good-byes, and proceeded to the subway, which I took to Shanghai Train Station. It was already dark when I emerged from the subway tunnel onto the square in front of the station, which smelled of urine and too many people. Everyone walked through a metal detector, bit its beeping was ignored. I sat in the sleeper lounge watching the other passengers until my train, the Z6, was announced, and then followed the crowd over the bridge to the platform where the train lay waiting. I was reluctant to get on, waiting until the last minute, but when I found my cabin it was crowded with well-wishers seeing off my three bunkmates, an old man and two old women. They were all from Shanghai. The women spoke exclusively in Shanghainese, as if she didn’t want me to know what she was saying, while the man spoke Mandarin.

An announcement of our impending departure emptied our cabin of the crowd, and the train set off north into the night. I chatted with the Shanghai man for a bit before going out to explore the train. I’d thought it would have all of the various classes, but it turned out to be all soft sleeper cabins. Most of the cabin doors I passed were open, the people inside playing cars, drinking alcohol, and looking intently at laptops. The air conditioning was on full, the air frigid.

I found my way to the dining car and struck up a conversation with the train policeman who was tending the bar. I asked him why he chose that particular profession. “I didn’t have a choice,” he said. He’d been doing it for over 30 years, since the year I was born.

“What would you choose to do if you had a choice?” I asked.

“I’d be a boss and make lots of money,” he said. He, like the entire crew, was from Shanghai, and spoke like it. He told me that my Taiwanese accent was fairly thick.

Behind us a foreign couple was nuzzling in a booth. The foreign man came up and asked for ice-cream, but there wasn’t any. Only beer and soda. I had a soda. A man with a laptop was watching recorded TV programs on his laptop. A small article in the paper on the anti-Chen protests in Taipei was accompanied by a picture of red-clad demonstrators.

The messy, vibrant kitchen, surrounded by glass, closed down, and I returned to my cabin, where the three old people were already asleep in bed. I climbed up into my bunk and read my copy of Hotel New Hampshire, listening to the rattle of the train, the easy-listening music spilling in from the hallway, and high, whistling snores of one of the old women. I could see my reflection in the shiny ceiling, lit by the reading light.

I woke at 6am the next morning, wrapped up in blankets to fend off the frigid air. It was light outside, crude huts and fields flashing by the window. The real China, I thought. I went back to the dining car, where the policeman from the night before was chatting with his co-workers. “He’s Taiwanese,” he told them, pointing at me with his chin as I sat down. Breakfast was runny eggs, a bright pink piece of unpalatable “ham” and cold toast. At the next booth a very old foreigner wearing a cap was talking with a young Chinese man, apparently his assistant. “Have you seen Beijing on TV?” he asked.

“Nope,” the old man said. I was surprised by the sudden appearance of a large Volkswagen factory in the countryside. We were approaching Beijing. I tried to get back to my cabin, but found the doors between the cabins locked. I had to wait until the train stopped so I could walk back to my car along the cold concrete platform in paper slippers and retrieve my luggage. I then headed into the city.

posted by Poagao at 2:13 pm  


  1. There is a large group of Mainland Chinese at work and I remember how they gleefully told me that Chen would be out of office soon and that Taiwan belongs to China…I no longer talk to them. It’s nice to see another side of Mainland Chinese.


    Comment by Anonymous — October 14, 2006 @ 5:34 am

  2. That’s strange, I have yet to meet any Chinese here with that view, and I’ve asked a lot of people about it.

    Comment by TC — October 14, 2006 @ 5:35 am

  3. Thanks for the stuff about anti-Chen demonstrations, Poagao. Food for thought about Chinese attitudes.

    I don’t think it is the “downfall of corrupt leader” aspect that worries PRC elites, but rather, the prospect of legalized mass protest in a Chinese society, since the PRC faces so many mass protests that are disorganized and disunited. Just imagine if the PRC hosted protests that were run by a major opposition party, with instructions dispensed to the masses by the latest in modern information tech and by major media organizations, in coordination with rallies elsewhere across the nation. What a nightmare that would be for an authoritarian state.

    Very enjoyable account of your travels, BTW. Other people’s blogs are killing my productivity.


    Comment by Michael Turton — October 19, 2006 @ 10:27 am

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