Thursday, December 3, 2009

Moments in Shanghai

Before I tell you anything more about our Hong Kong trip, I feel I have to give some attention to Shanghai, the older shabbier distinctly more Chinese sister (or rather divorced auntie) I visited on my own a few weeks back.

I am in a unique position to have been able to visit both places so near in time to each other and compare the two. In fact, given that China is a force so up and coming these days, it's impossible not to think of the two cities side by side.

While Hong Kong is young and glitzy and Vegas-like with nightly laser light shows and high-rises, Shanghai feels like the mature European and Chinese hybrid who is still loyal to the "traditional" ways. (though, in fact, it is going through a remarkable building boom)

It could be that the weather in Shanghai was gray and cold and miserable, and that colored my perception, but it seemed less youthful and more serious to me.

Or in hindsight, maybe I just felt the need to take it more seriously. If you ever have a chance to visit Shanghai, you will no doubt come away certain that its financial and commercial strength is pulling the rest of the world into its orbit.

In any case, traveling solo there as a female was not a problem at all. The city is safe, albeit extremely crowded, fast, and aggressive. There you are in competition against everyone else for a seat on the train, a good place in line, that last sweater on the rack... None of it is confrontational though; you just have to be faster than the person next to you. And faster than the motorbikes, cars, and cyclists ready to mow you down every time you cross the street.

To me, there are the typical landmark images like the Bund, the Pearl Tower, and Yu Yuan Garden that capture the atmosphere of the city. But there are also those details on the streets and in the people that can say a great deal too. As is often the case with spontaneous happenings, I don't have pictures to go along with all of them, but they reflect something about the city and culture:

1) Driving from the airport to the downtown, I saw a huge truck carrying supplies in the back. There must have been a tarp covering the supplies which got pulled off by the wind and was trailing the truck hanging on by a thread. You can imagine the panic in every other driver's mind, knowing that any second the blue tarp would fly off, cover someone's windshield, and cause a 10 car pile-up. Everyone passing the truck tried to get the driver's attention by honking and waving hands to no avail. When that didn't work, everyone on the road resorted to driving in huge gaping arcs around it. The driver just kept chugging along completely unaware of the disaster about to unfold.

2) Shopping on Nanjing Road, the busiest shopping street in Asia, I found a scene very much like Times Square in NYC with neon lights, crowds of people, fake Guccis and Rolexes, and the energy that a big city generates. I was lucky to be there when a window opened on the second floor of a colonial hotel and a saxophone player came out and entertained the crowd. Very cool and unexpected. Lucky that I do have video of this. In the moment, I felt chills go down my spine.

3) On the streets of Shanghai, motorists share the space with pedestrians, motorcycles, bikes, rick-shaw type things, and scooters. It's crowded. I observed a man on a bike pulling a cart with dozen of boxes of shoes. He had the most determined look on his face, and I imagined him counting to himself. One two three four, one two three four...I kept waiting for the boxes to fall and the shoes to spill out into the street, but he managed to pedal by without incident.

4) Like many countries around the world, the concept of waiting politely in line is somewhat foreign. Even if you are clearly there first waiting for the very thing others happen to want, people just crowd around and try to force their way ahead. I guess they figure that if you let them, then it's worth a shot. It happened to me waiting in line for a drink. I was parched and irritable and a group of 13 year girls decked out in pink tried to cut. I glared, grunted, and sighed and finally they got the hint. They removed themselves and got in line behind me... I think it helped that I looked scary due to the huge cold sore on my lip.

There are so many more things to say about Shanghai, but I can't possibly write about all of them. The next post will be about my day visit to Suzhou, aka the Venice of the East, not exactly sinking like its Italian cousin, but oh just as stinky.

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