Archive | December, 2011

From China to Shanghai

20 Dec

This post is long, long overdue. It’s about a walk I did over a month ago now. I’ve been turning and tossing over it. There are so many things to say that I could write at least four posts about this single day. In fact this is a second post as the “Sun day, laundry day” one was just one element of that day. Anyhow, I have written about it now but have had to filter quite a bit. Other aspects of the walk will inevitably come up in future posts. In the meantime, I hope this makes some sense and conveys at least in part my enthusiasm and the progression from the point of departure to the end destination.

So a while back now, I went on a long walk from our flat on Tai Xing Lu eastwards along Suzhou Creek, the small river running west to east and leading to the Bund and the bigger River Huangpu, both of which I was going to see for the first time. Around that time, we had just moved into our flat and had been too busy flat hunting, getting everything we needed for our new home and taking care of administrative paperwork. So even after two or three weeks, we had never seen the Bund (i.e. river embankment), which is usually the first place newcomers to Shanghai rush to.

My itinerary (overlaid on the Lonely Planet map)

The walk was really great. It took me through all sorts of places and showed me another face of Shanghai than what you would see along Nanjing Road or Huaihai Road and their numerous shopping centres filled with Western brands or the French Concession and its very pleasant, sort of westernish or Parisianish atmosphere.

Following the southern bank of Suzhou Creek was not a continuous path. There are few areas where you can follow the waterfront but inevitably, at many points, particularly where you have bridges, you have to get off it, back on a main road or through a popular neighbourhood to be able to get back to it. Although, I did find it annoying at times, it gave a great insight into life nearby.

It started off with streets near my place which were quiet, mainly filled with drying laundry and some activity. It got busier and busier once I had crossed Changdu Road (the internal highway running north to south). Lots of shops around, many people sitting on their low stools or chairs on the pavement and getting on with various activities. Buzzing traffic everywhere, odd looks directed at me. I was one of the very few non-Chinese people to walk around there. Living conditions also seemed to decline compared to neighbourhoods further west. Everything seemed lower, tighter, denser and messier, and sometimes just simply dirtier.

The way “Chinese” neighbourhoods are organised in Shanghai is like a big block defined by main roads. On the external sides of the block, facing the main roads, are the commercial activities; generally tiny shops and workshops. These long stretches are then broken up by more or less tiny alleyways from which people access their homes. From my observation, it looks like residents only go inside to sleep and maybe eat. I never dare to venture into the heart of neighbourhood. Shanghainese are not very forthcoming so, despite my strong curiosity, I feel it would be a bit too invasive to do it.

Continuing further east, the urban character changed again from local Chinese to colonial. Buildings got taller and newer again and there were gradually more and more non-residential historic buildings, starting with industrial ones and ending up with smarter ones. It started up after Middle Sichuan Road, with the 1929 factory, then the renovated old boathouse and church a bit further along. You could then feel you were arriving to the Bund, with the massive Art Deco-meets-Brutalism Broadway Mansions Hotel first looming in the horizon and the bottle opener and the Oriental Pearl Tower in Pudong.

I have no clue what this is...

The old boathouse to the left and church

The Broadway Mansions Hotel and the Russian Consulate (in white), with Pujian Hotel (Astor House) behind it

Arriving on the Bund after this walk was probably even more impressive than had I gone through another route. By then, I had seen so many different layers and textures of Shanghai that everything about the Bund and the river seemed grander. Being on the Bund on a glorious day with 1930s, Art Deco Shanghai to the west and the wide Huangpu River and Pudong to the east is not overrated! The western bank shows that Shanghai was leading the regional economy in the early 20th century. Despite what I’ve said in my previous post about Pudong itself (that, on its own, it’s a reductive aspect of the city), the view of Pudong from the Bund is quite extraordinary. I think the fact that it is situated on a natural curve of the eastern bank amplifies its effect.

I guess you have to see it for yourself but hopefully I haven’t ruined the surprise and may even tempt you into following the same route some time…

Where Suzhou Creek and the Huangpu meet

The People's Memorial at the northern end of the Bund

Characterising Shanghai

14 Dec

As a seven-week old resident of Shanghai, I have to say that I find the city very different from the way it is portrayed in Europe. There, Shanghai equals Pudong, which is the newly developed area on the eastern bank of the River Huangpu. It’s about 10 to 15 years old. The Chinese are mainly to blame. Pudong was (and still is I suppose) their way of saying this is what China is now; modern, economically vibrant and competing with the rest of the developed world.

I was pleasantly surprised to see that the city is in fact much more diverse and complex that this simplistic message, especially in terms of its skyline and history. Granted there are plenty of tall buildings and their number keeps increasing, but there also are lots of low rises, mostly in the French Concession but elsewhere too. Likewise, Pudong, impressive though it is from the Bund, feels like a big international showcase. There’s a mega-giant mall, an aquarium, iconic architecture and many offices separated by giant avenues, but the core of the activities and what makes Shanghai one of the most exciting cities to live in or to visit still happens in Puxi (the western side of the Huangpu). This is where historic Shanghai developed and, again, as the Chinese do, we have to recognise that this history does not date back very far. Compared to Beijing, which is millennia old, Shanghai really started developing 150 to 200 years back, but it constitutes one of the key places where the history of 20th century China was shaped. The main protagonists, Mao notwithstanding (I visited his house two weeks ago), all lived in Shanghai at one point and many crucial decisions were made here. Similarly, the power struggle with Europeans also started here and then spread elsewhere.

So there you go, it’s full of paradoxes but it’s fascinating. The extremes constantly juxtapose one another and in a way are quite aggressive, to the eye and to the people. Tall buildings are adjacent to low rises; gated compounds sit next to popular neighbourhoods; historic buildings and residential areas face the internal ring roads; if you like walking as much as I do or just have no other choice, you are bound to cross those same ring roads very often; and with all the money spent on Pudong and other iconic landmarks, some people still can’t afford a bicycle and have to use their own body power to drag their overloaded karts. Yet I am surprised that the city is so safe; that street life, domestic and modest, has not been dampened by the brutalising development process and that Shanghainese, except for the impatient behaviour typical to all big city dwellers, are so stoical and rather friendly when spoken to. In other places, they would just be annoyed if not aggressive towards high-income earners and foreigners.

Two of the best known buildings of Pudong

View from one of the apartments I visited

View from another apartment - this felt especially indecent as this neighbourhood looked particularly insalubrious

This guy manoeuvred his kart from the rear

People playing cards - very common

My favourite street so far - the west side of Fengxian Road

Playing badminton on Fengxian Road

Chop the head yourself!

7 Dec

Going to the supermarket, except for Carrefour as you may have read in a previous post, remains a constant source of amusement. My local supermarket is called Lian Hua. It’s not very big but it offers a really good range of products, including a very decent selection of European goods. It’s only to buy meat that I go to the fancy City Shop, which sells Australian meat.

Somehow, until today, I had never been to the very back of the shop at Lian Hua. That’s where you will find meat, fish and poultry. Again, the choice is wide. You can get live fish. It may respond to the (Lebanese) anxiety for freshness when buying fish but the water did look like it needed changing. The fishes were trying to gulp air from the surface.

It also appears that it is quite popular for Chinese (or Shanghainese?) people to eat many more parts of the animals than most people in the Middle East or Europe do and that they are especially fond of animals’ heads… Chickens and ducks are sold with their heads. On the streets, you will find ducks’ heads sold separately. Fish heads are also either sold with the fillet or on their own. No wonder that they use and sell these really scary knives everywhere. It’s to chop the heads (and in some cases feet) yourself!

Joli canard :s

Like for the dogs’ attires, there’s often a culturally cuter side to things, like forks and spoons being sold individually!

Fruit shops

5 Dec

Fruit shops are very sweet here in Shanghai. There are plenty of them around town and at least three near my flat. They only sell fruits and, every once in a while, you think you may have spotted vegetables but those are technically fruits, like tomatoes or avocados.

Anyway… I find them extremely sweet for several reasons. First, the fruits are always so impeccably displayed and vendors have a real feel for colours. Striking out are the yellow of pomelos, the soft orangey-pink of grapefruits, the unambiguous orange of oranges and darker orange of tangerines, and then, taking over, the spectrum of reds of apples, to finish with the amazing fuchsia of the dragon fruit. Second, they’re open late, very late sometimes and, with their characteristically open frontage, they brighten the street with their energy-saving light bulbs and colours, when shops around have shut down or when people rush back home. Finally, it always feels like they constitute a small hub of family or even community activities, during both daytime and nighttime. Because the shop is permanently open onto the pavement, the grand-mother, mum or whomever sits opposite, peels some vegetable, feeds the baby or teaches a toddler how to walk. Older kids run around naughtily and customers buy their fruits while walking their dogs.

I’ve chosen my favourite fruit shop somehow randomly but I’ve decided to be exclusive to it as a strategic measure to start knowing the local community outside my compound and, perhaps more importantly, to practice my Mandarin. The guy I assume to be the main shop owner turns out to be very nice and sympathetic to my linguistic efforts. He gave me a sincerely amused but polite smile when, instead of asking for píngguǒ (apples), I asked for péngyou (friends).

This is my one. The man in the middle is the shop owner. I was trying to be discreet...

%d bloggers like this: