Monday, October 13, 2008

Like a Glittering prize / Always on a clear day

Warning: Shanghai virgin alert.......

sh1 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.

The whole world shudders when that happens.

sh13That 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 sh32Shanghainese 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, 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...well maybe mindblowing. Either way 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 at M on the Bund, sh2where Brigid took me for my birthday brunch, 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 (Shanghai, like Hong Kong, was not by Western standards expensive, even at the higher end) and from there to Constellation, a long narrow bar with a killer cocktail list that could easily have slipped out of that golden late night era that was Auckland’s High Street circa 1995 (you had to be there I guess).

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.

sh23 My earlier experiences of China were in the 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 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.sh16

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.

sh18The river divides the city into two clear halves. There were several ways to cross the 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?

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.

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!

sh21 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.

 sh20 And 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.

 sh24Wondering 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 sh22the 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 it.

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 wonder if the thought 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 and I’ll let the photos speak for themselves. 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.sh25

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 Shanghai Tang red stared baseball cap I’d bought a few days earlier and because, well, I was in China, so you do these things.

sh36 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 it’s 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 loudly?

I shut her down rather quickly as several stern young men looked angrily in our direction. Were we headed for re-education or a lifetime of floor scrubbing in some western new town.

I rushed her downstairs where the looks seemed to have 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. sh8It seemed oddly appropriate as was the fact the CCP’s congress happened in a precinct with some of China’s most desirable property now 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.sh35

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.

sh37 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 them scuttling as a cop arrived.

And even 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.

The never-ending joys of being in Asia....

Technorati Tags: ,