China Blog I - Shanghai Surprise

I had promised long ago and I now seek refuge in the statement 'better late than never' - the posts on my China trip have finally been written.

Before I begin...
These are accounts of the 10 days that I spent in Shanghai and Beijing. China, like India is in the process of redefining itself and I could feel that nervous energy pulsating in the two cities that I visited. Of course, I wanted to know what makes China click and what can India do better? Is India with its completely beat-up but still functional democratic system still more likely to succeed than communist-capitalistic China in the long run? It was quite a trip. Despite my best intentions, I could not investigate human-rights violations, Chinese nuclear capabilities, repression of democracy, or Chinese Olympic training methods. Tongue in cheek, I mean that with a limited number of observations you cannot extrapolate a great deal. Like any first time traveller, I was extremely curious about the big questions and desperately seeked their answers. Reality, however does not pan out that way. What follows are my few observations, first impressions and speculative explanations for what I saw, so bear with me...

Surprisingly, after spending about 30+ hours in a plane flying in the wrong direction(courtesy: Air India for not rebooking my flight) from India to China - I faced no jet-lag. My theory is that by the time I landed at Pudong International Airport, my biological clock was so confused after being in Pune-Mumbai-Frankfurt-Ann Arbor-Tokyo-Shanghai in less than 40 hours, that it decided to completely give up. There were no troubles after that!
Pudong or New Shanghai, built across the Huangpu River, felt like some sort of urban fantasy-land. Skyscraper after skyscraper, broad but empty roads, spanking new facilities and housing projects. Needless to say that it was spanking clean. I know from years of living in India that views from the airport are often misleading. I half-expected, that apart from a few superficial differences, China would be very much like India, except it would be full of Chinese faces. There were a few surprises and my conclusion at the end of the trip was that China is like India's big brother. Everything in China was a few notches higher than everything that we have back home. A few notches more people, a few notches better transport, a few notches better pollution control and a few notches better planning and development.

Shanghai has had quite a chequered history. Pudong might have been marshy land less than 10 years ago and might have sprung up from nowhere, but Shanghai has always been around. It has been an international city since the early part of this century. For a number of years in the 1930s the city was home to the largest population of Europeans in Asia. There were more than a handful newspapers in European languages and people still remember some streets with their French and English names. Shanghaians are not only known for their tightfistedness and financial acumen, but also for being torchbearers for China. The Communist party was founded here and now, Shanghai is once again the epicentre for another kind of revolution that is sweeping China. The commercial and enterprising spirit of the city that was bottled-up for years has now been released. Given a second chance the city shows no signs of looking back. If you ask a Shanghaian where he wants to go, he will say, "Up!", and if you asked any other Chinese, he will say, "I want to go to Shanghai!".

Due to the conference(this was the 'supposed' purpose of the trip), we were booked at the magnificent Pudong Shangri-La Hotel. It really lived up to its name. My friend, Greg remarked looking at the toothpicks frosted with green mint at the ends, "Is there anything that they don't class up in this place?". It felt like the hotel depicted in the movie - Lost in Translation complete with a singer accompanied by a pianist in the main foyer in the evenings. Travelling with a bunch of Americans also makes travel abroad more interesting. They had quite a few culture shocks! The best among them was having to piss in what they called '... literally a hole in the ground'. It's time they knew how the rest of the world goes about its business. What surprised them the most was the amount of service personnel. There was 6' tall girl in a red dress with black stockings whose only job was to smile profusely and guide people to one of the six automatic elevators, that's it! I was not even about to tell them about how 3 people are needed to operate an automatic coffee machine in India. America welcome to the land of billionaires!

After two days, I was ready to leave the rarefied, synthetic atmosphere of the Shangri-La. So began the explorations with nothing but a printed card with directions in English and Chinese to places in Shanghai. If you are fussy about food, you won't get much of a chance in China. In most places, the menus are in Chinese and so it is a real blind test - you simply go 'eenny-minny-moe'. I really don't know what I ate, but I ordered hot-spicy 'Sichuan' stuff and I was happy. Till the buffet I was not aware that there are so many kinds of meat and so many ways to cook them.

The first question that may occur to most after a couple of days is: Why do the Chinese smile so much?. There are a few explanations. One, is that they are really friendly. Two, they have been 'ordered' by the government to do so. Three, smiling is generally a good substitute for not being able to speak any English. The most frustrating part of the trip was trying to conduct a simple conversation. I have yet to meet a rude Chinese; you could sense that they had a lot to say and would like to know a lot too, but in most cases I was reduced to the most rudimentary kind of sign language. In China, if you don't get a translator or speak Chinese be prepared for a lot of games of Pictionary and Dumb-Charades! I hate when I travel to a wonderful, new place and cannot conduct a meaningful conversation with people, except make really pathetic Mandarin sounds from my Pinyin phrasebook. All they did was smile and behave in an extremely friendly way, while drowning me in a barrage of Chinese.

Ingrid Newkirk has not been to to the Bird and Fish Market in Shanghai, because if she does she will instantly die of brain haemorrhage. All kinds of small animals were on sale - cricket, parrots, turtles and simply not as pets! In some countries humans have such few rights, what to say of the animals?. Curious onlookers stared at us as we walked about in the market. Then goaded by the excited audience, we participated in the local sport. Tim and I bought a pair of fierce fighting crickets and fought them. After a few bouts, we returned them to the astounded salesman and wife(pic on link below). Perhaps, we should have kept them and set them free. .

Being able to bargain is an absolutely essential skill for shopping. These guys were ridiculous with their prices! I felt completely at home: I simply knocked off the first digit of the price they quoted, they laughed, then I walked away, then they called me back, I came back looking hurt, the quoted new price, I said nothing looked dejected, then 'last price', more haggling, the the deal is sealed. The usual charade. By the end of the trip all my American friends acknowledged the potency of Gujju genes when it comes to bargaining! At one shop, I was actually banned from making the deals for them! I managed to avoid the charms of the tenacious 'Rolex' salesmen, but succumbed to the temptation of buying a whole lot of DVDs for 1$ after bargaining on a calculator. How can you not buy an entire box set of Stanley Kubrick for 15$?

Pictures from Shanghai

5 comments:

nad said...

nice post ghata...the pictures are also lovely...

BTW...thanks for the comment on my blog...which I need to write more often!

Javed said...

Hey man the pics are cool...especially the 'in-motion' ones(i.e. the one of the subway and the disco). The other one which I really liked was the bird market one...very candid with the women scratching her face..i think alternatively you could call it 'Shanghai surprise'. The post too is very nice, especially where you compare India to China, two giants that have just woken up, and now the world is waking up to them. I know you're gonna write more about it in some future post.

Saket said...

Superb pics Hirak! All you PICT kids seem to be making jaunts to Shanghai. Ive seen pictures from Aditya as well.

Sujay said...

great pics. loved terracotta...

Paddy said...

Nice Account! You shud have gotten 2 sets of Kubrick though :)