Letter from China No.8 - A day or two in Shanghai


During one of my weekends here in Hainan, China, I found myself on my way to Shanghai to meet one of my old friends from Singapore (2008) who moved to Shanghai and is now happily married with number 1 on the way.
Shanghai is a very different proposition than Hainan. It is huge, developed and smart with a strong western influence. The Americans, Brits, Japanese, Germans and French have left their mark with many huge old buildings that still retain their memories.
The French Concession, the area where I found a small apartment is one of these areas that are still very French. The original 3 story houses with plain trees standing prettily on both sides of the road. It is a funny area which is very Chinese in the day time and very European at night. It is a like a magicians trick to experience the change from a busy Chinse shopping street in the daytime where stall and small shopkeepers sell snacks, clothes, household goods and fruit. As darkness descends the shops close and bars and restaurants raise their steel shutters and open up with bright neon lights. Mainly Westerners flock to these drinking holes and as the night progresses the crowds start to stand on the streets holding bottles of Tsingtao beer and Heineken. Cars, scooters and pedestrian must move aside and not get in the way of the serious business of drinking and chatting.
My flat there was on the 3rd floor of one of these terrace houses and I got full exposure to Chinese life in the French Concession. The apartment was furnished as promised and not cheap. It was fine enough inside but to get there I had to find the house, find the entrance and walk up 2 flights of stairs. The area behind the streets is a maze of alleyways, narrow and, then full of bamboo scaffolding because they were renovating the walls and roofs. There were no lane names and no numbers. It was amaze but after 30 minutes of asking and calling the owner I found my way to a locked outside door with a set of keys. The hallway was ghostly with thick dust. It looked more like an art installation with a bike and wheelchair, also covered in thick dust blocking half of the stairwell. The stairs were dirty, filthy broken wooden ones, well used with rags stuffed into holes on both sides. The second floor bathroom was rusty, the filthy toilet was busted and the floor covered in old newspapers. But the 3rd floor was somewhat brighter, as I mentioned above, but there was a big problem. Saturday and Sunday morning started at 05.30h with building workmen happily banging away right outside my window…
Still Shanghai has wonders to offer. The Bund or Waitan is a breathtaking waterfront area on the west bank of the Huangpu River, facing the modern skyscrapers of Pudong. It is a wonderful site where bridal couples are photographed by noisy professional cameramen. Just a short walk away, there are new hotels and shopping centers that are as exciting and well turned out as New York. The whole area buzzes with activity and just sitting in any restaurant or coffee shop is a great experience. A far cry from Hainan where life is much, much slower and more domestic and provincial.
Knut invited me to the Polo Restaurant which I thought would be just another western based place, but no, it turned out to be a very traditional and fine Shanghainese dining room serving up the best the city has to offer. The tables were circular with 10 stern mahogany chairs carved in the old style. The center of the table had the glass turntable on which the busy waitress piled the steaming dishes. Sunday lunch here means that the whole family in 3, 4 or even 5 generations is present with the oldies having their food spoon in to their mouths by their younger siblings. We were the only table not representing a several family generations.
After lunch I was taken to see a small second floor shop of a posh hotel. It must have been expensive. The floors and walls were all covered in thick marble slabs and huge flower arrangements were centerpieces in each hallway. It must have been really expensive because there was not a sole to be seen anywhere in the reception area or on the second floor. The staff of the shops selling minks, macaroons and fashionable shoes were sleeping in standing positions. Nobody moved except the shop which we entered. This was one of China’s event management companies and the owner was, like me the previous day, practicing his calligraphy with a large bamboo brush dipped in black ink. He was pleased to have at least one visitor that day so he could show off his products which were the silk costumes worn by Presidents Xi, Obama and Putin in 2014 at the APEC Summit in Beijing. The silk coats on display there were hand embodied with the Tiger and the Phoenix. Very smart and very Chinese that the leaders were obliged to dress up in against their will. The company that had prepared the silk is one of the oldest in China and went back in time many hundreds of years. Not to have worn them would have led to a new world crisis.
But the thing that sticks out above this weekend trip, and still smarts in my mind, was that nobody I spoke to knew where I came from. They all knew about America, England, Italy, Germany and France but nobody had ever heard of Finland. The most common response was “Philippine?”…