Poagao's Journal

Absolutely Not Your Monkey

Oct 09 2006

It’s hard not to interpret Shanghai in terms of th…

It’s hard not to interpret Shanghai in terms of the familiar: “Like Taipei, with many Hong Kong elements,” etc. The unpredictable interference of the strange in a familiar setting makes me look for context that may not even be there.

So you’ve been warned.

Lennet and I took the subway on Saturday to the center of the city, around Nanjing East Road, I think. As we stopped to discuss where we would go next, two or three guys came up and started asking us questions in English. “Hallo! Where are you from?” and that kind of thing. Lennet ignored them, so I followed his lead, though I have to admit I thought at first they might just be friendly people. But then the pitches started: “Want to buy Fake Rolex?” “Massage?” We decided standing in one place wasn’t a good idea and walked down the street towards the Bund. It was a brilliant day, not a cloud in the sky, a fresh breeze and not too hot.

I was immediately impressed with the architecture of Shanghai, especially in that area, the old colonial/European stone edifices contain a feeling of old-world substance and class that the gaudy advertisements stuck on their exteriors can’t quite smother. The details of the cornices, the bay windows with cloudy glass, the dormer roofs and soaring spires impart the scene with a certain dignity and significance, a historical root, and I can only imagine what a shock arriving in Shanghai in the 1920s must have been like, especially after travelling through the rest of the country.

We had beef noodles at a Chinese fast food place (complete with a Chinese version of “The Colonel”) called “Yonghe Da Wang” and then walked under the road and onto the Bund to have a better look at the buildings, and periodically people would approach us with offers of watches, postcards and cameras. “Fake watch?” a hawker would ask me.

“Got a real one, thanks,” I said, pointing to my Casio.

“Fake camera?”

“Real one, thanks.”


“Gonna make my own with my real camera. Thanks.”

We also got one or two beggars. Unlike beggars in Taiwan, who lay on the street and look miserable, sometimes knocking their head on the pavement, beggars here look relatively healthy and follow their objectives.

We walked down the Bund. I took the obligatory picture of the skyscrapers across the river in Pudong, but I’m sure it’s been taken a million time before, as well as closeups of light bulbs on the overpasses. We struck inland, through a line of tall, luxurious apartment buildings and into an older area filled with ancient houses and streets. The houses were made of stucco and brick in wood frames, and for some reason, every door and window frame was painted the same dark red. Possibly due to the good weather, residents sat outside in the street chatting, making food and smoking.

It wasn’t a completely peaceful scene, however. Every so often we would come upon an area that looked as if it had recently been bombed, with every house flattened. Some were empty lots, some were mere shells, some had just been stripped. Everywhere the character marking houses for destruction marked walls and windows. The sun cast striped shadows from the bare timbers of the frames across the streets. The people went about their business, seemingly resigned to it all. A woman sat out in front of a house with a wok, cooking while a bag of paste sat under a press behind her. One old man combed through the rubble of a house, possibly his own.

Some of the houses left intact (for now) were cleverly constructed two-story affairs, with a high courtyard just inside the door and an intricate series of stairs and half-stories inside to maximize the use of space. Some of them had obviously been the abodes of rich families in the past, with carved wood doors and windows, all painted the same dark red. Lennet pointed out the ubiquitous chamber pots those who didn’t have toilets used. These places are well over a century old, predating even the oldest toilets. I ducked into the courtyards quickly to take pictures inside, ready to explain myself if I met any of the inhabitants, but I didn’t meet any.

We continued through similar neighborhoods, filled with shops and groups of people chatting in the street, before coming across a large refurbished area full of tourists buying cheap trinkets. Immediately the offers began anew. Lennet was interested in old maps, however, and I wanted to buy a blue Mao hat to wear backwards, so we continued on through. Eventually I found what I was looking for, but the maps were prohibitively expensive.

A few blocks later we passed a Taoist temple. Underneath, in the basement, was an Internet cafe. “No underage persons,” the sign said, with accompanying signage indicating not only that smoking and horn-blowing were not allowed in the vicinity, but the entrance was 1.8 meters tall.

We kept walking as the sun began to sink in the cloudless afternoon sky. We passed more of the tall, modern buildings that seem to be invading and occupying the city, erasing its past, and to an odd area called “Xin Tian Di”. This is an old neighborhood that underwent gentrification with extreme predjudice. All that’s left is the shells of the structures, now filled with expensive shops and Beautiful People, rich Shanghainese and foreigners sucking down lattes and looking very pleased with themselves. I suppose it’s good they kept the buildings, but the area felt a lot more like the Xinyi District in Taipei than anything remotely to do with cultural preservation.

We were meeting up with Lennet’s roomate John and another friend, Greg who lives in Hangzhou, at a restaurant later, so we walked down a nice tree-lined street past a plethora of expensive shops. In front of us a rail-thin Chinese woman slinked up the street, huge white flowers sticking at odd angles out of her head. I wondered if she’d just had surgery, but Lennet said it was a fashion thing. We passed some kind of show, with haughty women dressed in gowns and angel wings standing guard as another woman lounged on a divan a few feet back. She looked bored. They all looked bored. A few blocks later we passed a man squatting over a laptop on the curb. I looked at the blue screen and saw that he was reformatting the hard drive.

We got to the restaurant about sunset, footsore and sweaty after the long walk. The food was good, and it was interesting to meet John and Greg. After dinner we walked to the subway, passing by a large temple on the way. It was closed.

We took the subway back to Zhongshan Park and John’s and Lennet’s apartment, stopping at Dairy Queen/Papa John’s on the way. Yes, Dairy Queen! I was surprised to see it there, as Shanghai doesn’t seem to have any other chains that Taiwan doesn’t already have. Subway and Blockbuster, for instance, are nowhere to be seen, nor are there any 7-Elevens, in stark contrast to Taipei where 7-Elevens are so numerous they are often located across the street from each other.

Back at the apartment we watched some “Boondocks” DVDs that Greg had brought from the US. Shanghai TV seems to be limited to state-approved Chinese content only. As much as I like Shanghai and could see myself living here, the censorship of the media nags at me. I wonder what would happen if China slowly and quietly relinquished its control, notching down the censorship gradually until it’s at the level of, say, the US media or Taiwan media. That is to say, less censored, but still influenced. Would it be the disaster Beijing seems to think it would be?

Hopefully, someday, we’ll find out.

posted by Poagao at 3:58 am  

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