Sunday, August 10, 2014

Thoughts of Shanghai

Before I subject you to my impressions of Shanghai I'd like to take a moment to talk about the food, which has nothing to do with my overall opinion  about the city.

In Shanghai the cuisine tends toward the sweet and mildly piquant - a beguiling combination, as opposed to Wuhan's food which, in my opinion is nearly unpalatable for its overwhelming spiciness. However I did taste some dishes that were overly salty. Shanghai also fuses many culinary cultures into its fare, making it a gastronomical adventure.

Now, on to thoughts about the city itself.

Perhaps I am/was unduly prejudiced against Shanghai because of my bad experiences there (see Stranded in Shanghai entry, posted September 2010). Maybe it just all comes down to my contrariness: what everyone else likes I disdain. Whatever the reason, I do not have warm thoughts about this city.

I see Shanghai as cruel and spiteful. Cruel to display obvious wealth, goods and riches, but those  desirables – rich food, good times, even ordinary entertainment are out of reach to most who live there. She is touted as Asia's 24-hour city and I have no reason to doubt it. However, as most dwellers must rise early to work, what good does 24 hour entertainment do... other than provide jobs for those who work there and activities for those who can afford to spend time and money frolicking late at night?

I guess I just answered my own question.

I'm seeing Shanghai through my friends' eyes. Housing is so expensive they must live 3 or 4 to a room. Not apartment, ROOM. They earn only a pittance: less than 2,000Yuan a month. The type of glitzy pastimes that well-to-doers and tourists can enjoy are out of their reach. While not exactly malcontent, my dear ones are resigned to living outside the circle of excitement. That hurts my heart.  

Most cities I've visited in China have a... flavor, energy, aura... a certain je ne sais quoi that recalls me to places I've been before, and Shanghai is no exception, other than she reminds me of 2 places, and on different continents. The tourist part smacks of Paris while the part where my friends live and work feels and looks like Los Angeles.

“Paris” roads are well paved, sidewalks are evenly cobbled and diligently maintained. Not many hobos in sight and no beggars that I saw. Lush vegetation lines the streets and the buildings are well kept. “Los Angeles” roads are potholed and uneven, as are the sidewalks. Disparate, downtrodden structures edge the streets, as opposed to the shiny, recessed highrises in Paris. L.A. feels more like 'real China' with its hole-in-the-wall shops and eateries, narrow roads and jammed traffic. Apparently, across the river in Glitzville it is more proper to ride scooters. Other than the riverfront boulevard, the roads were  too narrow to accommodate two-way traffic easily. Either that, or those who can afford to live in that area have gone 'retro cool' or 'green', opting to ride scooters to do their part in saving the environment.

Just like Los Angeles, California suffers in ignominy next to its rich neighbor Beverly Hills, and much like those who work the nuts and bolts businesses that keep that city functioning could never afford to shop on Rodeo Drive, so the residents of the part of Shanghai that my friends live in endure, with perhaps one difference: my friends do not seem to long for fortune or the easy life others might have. They are young. They know they have to pay their dues. Being able to put 'Worked in Shanghai' on their resume will no doubt garner them higher pay when they job hunt elsewhere. That, coupled with the job market in smaller cities including Wuhan is what took them to Shanghai to begin with.

All in all: it would not be far from the truth to say that the advertised Shanghai is mostly glam, a shimmer to cover the drab from those who are moneyed and ready to play, and who might be appalled or outright repulsed at how the other 99% live. But then again, plenty of cities all over the world pour money into beautiful areas to entice tourists while discouraging visiting downtrodden areas.

One aspect of my visit that surprised me was mass transit. Zhanny was correct in saying the buses are unreliable, I soon saw. Not only were those conveyances smaller than in other cities, they were older,  raggedy and, for the most part filled to capacity and beyond. I couldn't help but notice the buses circling The Bund (Paris) are new, larger, fueled by clean gas (CNG) and run more often than buses in the L.A. part. 

On the other hand, the subway is a comprehensive system, covering most of the city and ridden by millions every day. For all that, the stations I was in were drab, poorly lit and vaguely menacing. I suppose that is to be expected in a system of underground transportation that has been operational for years but I couldn't help but compare it to Wuhan's system, whose stations and trains are clean, well lit and attractive.           

That is the cruelty part; what about spite?

Money is money: right? Apparently not in Shanghai. Throughout the year I save all my 1Yuan bills for when I travel. My bus pass will not work in other cities but I can always get around because I have a wad of 1Yuan bills to pay transit fares.

When Zhanny and I went to Ikea I was prepared to buy my own subway token. I pulled out a few bills but she pushed my hand away, saying: “I have coins”. What is the difference between a coin and a bill if the value is the same? Shanghai token machines demand either 1Yuan coins or bills no smaller than 5Yuan. Out on my own the next day I got frustrated when I tried to pay my subway fare using the bills I had brought for that purpose.

It goes further. It seems my collection of bills is not welcome anywhere in that tourist mecca. When I attempted to pay my 62Yuan lunch ticket using 3 of those 1s,  they were turned down. I had to offer a larger bill and got several one yuan coins back.

Well, at least I now have subway fare.

Naturally I saw many foreigners, especially on the Bund side of the riverfront. None of them made eye contact or gave any type of acknowledgment that we were sharing the same space. That is not so unusual; many foreigners in China do not wish to ruin their 'Authentic China Experience' by publicly recognizing potential countryfolk. I did find it somewhat disturbing that, in Shanghai especially, travel destination for millions around the world, there seemed to be no solidarity or companionship among seeming peers. The Chinese, as always were very friendly and did not mind trading a word or two.

As I wandered, I wondered: what are all these tourists taking away from here? Good memories? nice pictures? Bragging rights? Are any of these supposedly rich travelers going to “L. A.”? Would they be appalled to know that side of Shanghai? 
Other than visiting with my friends I have no reason to go back. I'll take it on the word of others that the night life is fantastic. Even for the purpose of research and accurate reporting I have no urge to plunk down hundreds, or maybe even thousands in pursuit of a good time. For that matter, that is not how I define a good time.

I hope my decidedly negative impressions do not deter you from visiting there, if you so wish. However, if you go there, please don't just be a high roller. Go to the other side of the city. Talk with the people there. See what their life is like. After all: you can spend money anywhere, but will you know what makes Shanghai tick if you don't explore all of it?

Spiteful. Typhoon Matmo had squalled its way through 4 days before my planned visit. Nevertheless, every day I was there it rained, and copiously on Sunday: the one day Zhanny had off from work. On Tuesday, the day of my departure, clear skies and sunshine mocked me as if to say: “Didn't want you to have too good a time. I don't like you and you don't like me, so we'll call it a draw and now that you're going away, I can beam benevolently on those who want to be here.”

Neither Zhanny nor Lucky want to be there. Both told me how much they miss Wuhan and in fact, plan on moving back next year, after Spring Festival (Lunar New Year). I understand their feeling completely: Wuhan has wormed its way into plenty of people's hearts, mine included. I am ready to go home, wait for them and welcome them back with open arms.

I hope that, for their remaining time in the City of Spite it does not rain on them too badly.  

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