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Beyond Index!

6 Dec

As I am writing this, I am trying not to give in to panic. As I mentioned in my last post, we have had very high pollution levels in Shanghai during the past month. Before that, I was in Beijing on the fateful 22nd of October, during which the AQI (air quality index*) was so bad that foreign media spoke about it. Further north in Harbin, people couldn’t see further than 3 metres and the airport had to cancel all incoming and outgoing flights on that day. Whenever this has happened up north, I kept saying to myself good we live in Shanghai instead of Beijing.

Yet somehow, it seems that the tables have turned. Today in Shanghai we have a whopping 503 AQI which is simply described as “Beyond Index”… It’s far off from the 900+ that north eastern China has experienced earlier this year but still it is beyond “hazardous” and poses risks for absolutely everyone. According to the American Embassy, it is recommended that “Everyone should avoid all outdoor exertion.”

The US Consulate AQI reading today

The US Consulate AQI reading today

At work and amongst friends, we have been commenting on the pollution levels but we also seem to be in permanent and increasing state of shock as the AQI levels have been going up and as our health has been declining. One of my colleagues has had serious respiratory problems, another one currently has bronchitis, a friend has chronic lung problems too and I have inflamed lymphoma below my jaw.

Two weeks ago, I was able to work from home for a full week but since then I have had no excuse not to get out. So I have finally bulged in and started to wear a mask when going out. I first wore the one that my colleague bought for everyone in the office, then have upgraded to one with a valve which enables you to breath more comfortably but leaves two horizontal marks on my face by the time I get to work. For the past two weeks, I have been waking up every morning with the hope that the situation would improve but it’s been getting worse, so much so that today you can actually SEE it. The white smog has been getting thicker and thicker, significantly affecting visibility and, in spite of the mask, giving me a very mild but present sore throat. (For sake of comparison see pictures below of the view from today and on a clear day)

The colour of the sky today near home

The colour of the sky around 1:30 pm today near home

My first and second masks

My first and second masks

On the street, while I admire Chinese people’s stoicism, I wonder how most of them as well as a few foreigners still don’t wear a mask and let their kids out. I’ve been asking if the local media have been mentioning anything but it appears that there’s little coverage, let alone outrage. The only explanation proposed has been that people north of the Yangtze (about 100 km north of Shanghai) have been using coal to warm their houses and it’s therefore affecting us. I find it very unlikely given that it’s not even that cold (around 15 degrees Celsius during the day) and during the worst days of winter in the past two years we have never had that. So, I don’t know… Is it because it’s Christmas soon in other parts of the world and factories are working double shifts to supply Christian people with gifts?

In the meantime, I have cancelled my plans for tonight and I intend to limit outings to the strictest minimum. One thing is sure, if things don’t improve, anyone usually receiving a Christmas gift from me shouldn’t expect anything from China this year. What I really wish for right now is a massive storm with lots of rain to clean up the atmosphere and hope things will get better soon because I actually like Shanghai and would like to stay here for a few more years.

*For more explanations on AQI and measures of pollution levels, see my post Giving In.

Post-scriptum: It’s just 2 hours after writing the post above and I saw that Le Monde has an article on the unusual levels of pollution. Apparently, the Municipality of Shanghai has recommended people not to leave their houses, construction and factories to stop all work (although I did hear works from home). Apparently, the high levels are due to industrial activities combined with unusual weather conditions. The article doesn’t mention what conditions but I suspect it’s the lack of rain.

Today around 2pm

Today around 2pm – from home

On a clear day

On a clear day

Today

Today 2pm also – other view from home

...and on a clear day.

…and on a clear day.

Shanghai Flâneur: the Old Town

5 Mar

Some time last October, I discovered a “walking think tank” called Shanghai Flâneur. It promotes the art, you may say, of walking in the city and, one thing leading to another, I have now started to collaborate with the consultancy attached to it, called Constellations. Shanghai Flâneur organises thematic walks to the wider public, generally urban amateurs or professionals, or more corporate clients as part of a wider programme.

To date, I have been on one walk, which focused on the old city of Shanghai. I was particularly curious as I had previously been with a friend to the old city and, much to my dismay, couldn’t find it! We wandered in-between vast construction sites and tall residential buildings. One or two streets were quite popular and picturesque but that was about it.

The Flâneur talk-walk – twalk is probably the best term for it – was led by Katya Knyazeva, a Russian resident of Shanghai, who became passionate with this part of the city and researched it to the point of becoming an expert and now working on a book dedicated to it. There was a whole lot of fantastic information, historical, urban and human, and the discovery of unsuspected treasures. I have tried to filter some of it here in a comprehensible and palatable way, but excuse me in advance for the length of this post – and this is just a part of Katya’s talk.

The first thing to know is that the origins of Shanghai are actually very modest. As its name indicates, the old city is where it all started. However, it used to be a small fishing town built on wetlands, where some of the streets of today were actually a network of canals leading to the far larger Huangpu river and linked to the hinterland. This is why most of the streets in the old town are winding and curvy, following the geology of the land rather than a set plan. The old city was also fortified and, although the wall is no longer, you can guess its trace in the circular road going around what used to be all of the old town.

Adapted from Google Maps

Adapted from Google Maps

Not all that was part of the old town remains today. As I mentioned above, there is a lot of new and prospective development around. However, life in the older neighbourhoods is certainly buzzing and full of artefacts witnessing Shanghai’s history. We started off at Penglai Road and got straight into a daily street market. The street was packed with all sorts of products from fresh and ready made foods to clothing. It was difficult to keep your cool with so many curious things going on and the pedestrian traffic in all directions. We started off with some of those winding streets with very modest buildings, some of which are very very old but, due to various alterations and extensions, bear few marks of their historical importance. If I recall correctly, one of the buildings dates as far back as the early 19th century, but you could never ever tell by its appearance as it’s been mended practically everywhere.

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The high rises looming in the horizon like a threat

The high rises looming in the horizon like a threat

Hand-made pork dumplings

Hand-made pork dumplings

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Mending and mending one's house

Mending and mending one’s house

Incidentally, this was pyjama land (read this post for more info)

Incidentally, this was pyjama land (read this post for more info)

After crossing the market, we carried on to slightly wider streets where more imposing, European-inspired houses fronted the street. Some prominent people lived in this area and their presence is indicated by weird plates to the front of the house, written in Chinese only, which sadly limits the appreciation of their importance. We went through the gates of some of the housing blocks, where we discovered beautiful ornamental details and where Katya told us a little bit about the past and current inhabitants and their misfortunes during the hard core Communist times. Like this 70 year-old lady who was the daughter of a poet’s butler and, just for the mere association of her family with a more bourgeois one, was sent to do forced labour for 17 years in the Xinjiang province (the westernmost province in China where conditions are harsh today and were harsher then).

Curving street

Curving street

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Entrance into a Shikumen

Entrance into a Shikumen

We then carried on into another neighbourhood, passing on the way by three small trees fenced off from the passage. The reason for this is that these trees are officially listed for being something like a 100 or a 150 years old. This neighbourhood was yet a different world. The various houses and occasional restaurant can be accessed by a network of narrow lanes, where cars cannot circulate. Before we reached our destination, we were shown by our guide these wooden pots/boxes, just lying there.

Guess what these are!

Guess what these are!

Just as I was thinking that they looked quite nice and was wondering whether it would be nice to get one or were used for rice, we were told that they are actually toilet pots! Shanghai may be the wealthiest city of China with an amazing concentration of billionnaires, yet some people still live in houses with no toilets and therefore use these pots, drop them on the street the following day for the “pot cleaning” service to come, empty them, give them a quick rinse and put them back for the owners to use again.

After about an hour and a half of walking, we knocked on a door set in a blank wall and got into what is Shanghai’s best kept secret and the city’s oldest known house. The lady who lives in it is its owner and direct descendent of the original owner, a highly learned ex-bureaucrat, who commissioned the building of the house. Because the owner and Katya know each other, we were able to visit the house, which is in absolute shambles as the owner and her family do not have the means to restore it and the government is lingering on the matter, not seeing the many values of such a house and probably having “grander” plans for the area. The house is organised in three courtyards and throughout the different indoor areas, you can clearly see the remnants of the grandeur of this house, the amazing craftsmanship and how important this family once was. This was further attested by the presence of a “Golden Stone”.

The very fine and detailed sculpted top of the gate to the second courtyard

The very fine and detailed sculpted top of the gate to the second courtyard

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This “stone” looks like a table with a thick top tile on top of it. In reality, it’s everything but that. A “Golden Stone” is a tile similar to the ones found in the paving of the Forbidden City in Beijing. They were produced in special workshops in Suzhou and the process of their fabrication used to be (and maybe still is) a very well guarded secret. Those who owned one were particularly lucky and wealthy. It’s meant to just stand and never ever be used as a table. The lady told Katya that when the Red Guards came to pillage the house during the Cultural Revolution and heard about the Golden Stone, harassed her father to give them the stone, thinking it was literally made of gold. Being 15-16 year old uneducated boys, they failed to see any value in a large piece of ceramics and that’s how it still remains in the property of the family.

The Golden Stone

The Golden Stone

The stamp of the factory in Suzhou

The stamp of the factory in Suzhou

The state of the house and courtyard was obviously very sad to see. What was worse was the fact that a Danish practice had managed to solve the puzzle so to say, by looking at every single beam and piece of wood and understand which piece goes where in the overall structure. They proposed to restore the house and found funds for it but the Shanghai Municipality didn’t let them proceed with it for sheer national pride. They argued that such a project could only be undertaken by a Chinese firm…

Equally sad and weird was to see in what conditions the owner lived, especially coming from such a learned family and whose mother is, we were told, a most refined and well-mannered woman. See for yourselves…

The room where the owner lives

The room where the owner lives

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In spite of the enlightenment and wonderful discoveries made on this day, the end of the walk had a bit of a bitter taste. It comforted my theory that Communism is responsible for China and Chinese people losing millennia of culture, manners and finesse, which can be seen in the way they live and sometimes act…

The owner with a drawing from her father who re-organised Yu Garden (Yu Yuan), probably the only historic site to see in Shanghai

The owner with a drawing from her father who re-organised Yu Garden (Yu Yuan), probably the only historic site to see in Shanghai

Giving in

3 Feb

If you have been vaguely following the news lately, you may have seen that China has been featuring regularly in the headlines. Not so much because of the unexpected growth in January, contrary to 2012 anxieties and predictions, but because of the terrible pollution that has blighted first and foremost Beijing and, to a lesser degree, Shanghai. (Although distinct, I don’t think the two issues are entirely unrelated.)

A healthy air quality index (AQI) is between 0 and 50, which has probably not happened in Chinese cities in the last 30 years. You may also know that the American Embassy in Beijing has been independently monitoring the air quality in Beijing and, more recently, in Shanghai. According to their website, an AQI above 200 is considered “very unhealthy” and above 300 “hazardous”. About two weeks ago, Beijing reached a terrible 993!!! for which there is simply no descriptive term. One of the reasons, besides the number of cars and factories, is because coal is still heavily relied on in power stations and to heat houses. A lot of coal mines or mining cities surround Beijing and obviously make the situation worse.

From what we know, Shanghai has never reached such toxic levels as Beijing has. Its periphery is still heavily industrialised and so are many of the cities surrounding it, like Hangzhou, Suzhou etc. However, we are far from healthy air quality levels. There are a few mobile apps, which tell you what the daily AQI is hour by hour. I have a few friends who have downloaded it but I refuse to. We all know the air quality is shit so why know precisely how bad it is. On bad days I can see it from home, which is on the 18th floor. Even on those days, life goes on as usual. J. goes to work and so does anyone who has to go out of the house, for whatever reason. You may have seen in the press this picture of people doing their taiji in Fuyang (about 3 hours on the train from Shanghai).

In Fuyang

In Fuyang (Source: http://totallycoolpix.com)

In Beijing

In Beijing (Source: http://totallycoolpix.com)

Shanghai some time in the past two weeks (Source: http://totallycoolpix.com)

Shanghai probably some time in the past two weeks (Source: http://totallycoolpix.com)

One of our views on one of the clearest days recently

One of our views on one of the clearest days recently

The other side - also on that clear day

The other side with Suzhou Creek – also on that clear day

The same on a bad day, coupled with a bit of drizzle

The same on a bad day, coupled with a bit of drizzle

From home 2 - bad day_small

The Suzhou Creek side

So we, or to be more accurate, I have given in. Unlike two of our friends, I still have not bought the face masks, but as of today we are equipped with this:

Spot the odd looking object

Spot the odd looking object

Air purifier 2_small

This is an air purifier that we’ve just bought. J. doesn’t really believe in it but I do because I think it can’t do any harm and we should put chances on our side. Doctors recommend that you should have one if you have kids at home, so why not adults?

The poor transparency and apparently lack of or few improvement measures about all things health related are definitely the most worrying aspect of living in China. There’s no easy way around it. One has to hope that, as my father says, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.

Visits: Hong Kong

13 Jan

A little over two months ago, we went to Hong Kong for the first time. One of our best friends, R., was there for work and, given that she had already visited Shanghai last year (and inaugurated our first flat with us), we thought we’d make the trip this time.

I had heard a lot of great things about Hong Kong from friends in London but the most enthusiastic ones, by far, certainly are our fellow Shanghainese residents. They praised Honk Kong’s shopping offer like it was paradise and spoke a lot about some small streets with independent shops and art galleries. Following their advice, we went to these places but not being a big fan of malls or a shopaholic (mind you I do have occasional shopping sprees), I actually was quite disappointed by all of this.

As my father said to me, I may be a bit blasée. Having spent 10 years in Europe, it might be true. By contrast, our friends in Shanghai, who have spent many years in mainland China, do crave that European feel which is after all closer to our cultural background, whether we come from Europe or the Middle East. I thought about it again and actually realised that I liked Hong Kong, just not for the reasons everybody in Shanghai seem to worship it. Here is why.

First, I absolutely loved the view of both the sea and high mountains in the backdrop of the city and its skyscrapers. I cannot stress this enough. I think coming from Beirut, the visual connection with the mountains from probably anywhere on the coast and the sense of altitude and topography is very important to us. So Hong Kong reminded me of that. I was always annoyed at the flatness of Paris and London and now of Shanghai. You can’t see beyond the buildings, this eternal flatness can feel claustrophobic…

Going from Kowloon to Hong Kong island

View of Hong Kong island with the mountains in the back

Quick and very retro ferry ride

Quick and very retro ferry ride

Second and still in connection with those mountains, their dense and lush vegetation holds the promise of nature beyond and it just makes you want to cross them and see what’s out there. We met with a Lebanese friend who has been living in Hong Kong for 7 or 8 years and who doesn’t intend to go anywhere else. She confirmed to me that 70% of Hong Kong’s territory is nature and there are great treks to be made through the mountains and jungle to reach beautiful small creeks with lovely beaches and a shack serving fresh seafood and fish. It sounds lovely to have this so easily accessible, instead of having to plan a trip out of it. That’s when I felt quite jealous…

Third, I thought the urban experience of Hong Kong was such a weird trip. The city is extremely dense, particularly on the island of Hong Kong, and it feels like every square centimetre has been exploited. It’s a mix of New York, Asia and London, with the double-deckers and the driving on the left side of the road.

A bit of New York

A bit of New York

A bit of London

A bit of London

Asia

Asia

The local Leicester Square

The local equivalent of Leicester Square

A bit of British debauchery

A bit of British debauchery

Also, because of its density, roads are very narrow and in a considerable part of the centre, pedestrian mobility is ensured by seemingly endless elevated walkways, totally segregated from the street. Even if we were fairly efficient in terms of our route (J. and I are very good at reading maps and directing ourselves), we still had to go through malls to carry on and get where we wanted. We were eventually able to reach ground and street level to get to another segregated outdoor path to reach the tram station, which takes you to the Peak, where you can enjoy a plunging view of the city.

Starting on the elevated walkway

Starting on the elevated walkway

Looking at the street level

Looking at the street level

Carrying on

Carrying on

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Walking to the Peak tram station

Walking to the Peak tram station

On the tram

On the tram after about 30 minutes queuing

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Fourth, J. and I thought the Kowloon part on the other side of Honk Kong island was actually quite nice. Yes, it is more local but it has its charm and, in spite of the crowds, it feels more spacious and human, less utopian. Less walk-ways everywhere around. If you have dinner on top of any sky-scrapers there, you’ll have an amazing view of the other side. But there are also little gems to be discovered, such as the world’s most affordable 1 star Michelin restaurant, which, much to my disappointed, we couldn’t enjoy as we got there too late and the queue was too long for me not to miss my plane back.

Dinner at Hutong on Kownloon

Dinner at Hutong in Kowloon

Strolling in Kownloon

Strolling in Kowloon

Tim Ho Wan - cheapest 1 star Michelin in the world

Tim Ho Wan – cheapest 1 star Michelin in the world

So here we are. Hong Kong: been there, done that. Off the check-list. I’m not saying that there isn’t a whole lot more to discover or that it’s not interesting. But given how much of Asia and the Far East we still have to discover, I’d rather use my money to go to a new destination.

Shanghai Randoms #3

28 Dec

Merry Christmas everyone, friends or random readers! Hope you’re all having a fabulous time off. I’m too busy spending quality time with family and friends to write anything lengthy but here are a few totally random pictures of Shanghai mostly, which I’ve been collecting for a while. Hope you’ll enjoy them and happy new year to all!

In summer, there are street dancing classes. This one is next to our house.

In summer, there are street dancing classes. This one is next to our house.

Vendeuse lotus Pudong

In the subway

In the subway

Waiting for the train to arrive

Waiting for the train to arrive

On summer holiday

On summer holiday

In Sanya

In Sanya

The method of those who can't afford pampers

The method of those who can’t afford pampers (it took me a year to finally get this shot).

Crazy laundry

Crazy laundry

On how to combine a loft and Graeco-Roman temple and miss a column out of two

On how to combine a loft and a Graeco-Roman temple and miss a column out of two (Shaanxi Bei Lu).

Global city, major attraction. Still I'm always amazed when I walk on the Bund.

Global city, major tourist attraction. Still I’m always amazed when I walk on the Bund.

I just can't get enough...

I just can’t get enough…

Prosecco at the Peninsula

Prosecco at the Peninsula

The ashtray I intend to steal some day

The ashtray I intend to steal some day.

Promoting appropriate behaviours

27 Nov

We’ve all had unpleasant experiences on public transportation, in any city anywhere in the world. Somebody speaking too loudly on their mobile phone, somebody pushing you or stepping on your foot and not apologising, someone throwing something on the floor and leaving it there, etc.

A lot of people who live in China or who have visited some of China’s big cities will tell you Chinese people are rude. It’s hard and unfair to generalise of course, but it is also fair to say that some of their habits are different from ours and therefore some things, which are frowned upon elsewhere, are accepted here. Examples are: spitting loudly on the streets, making noise when you eat or not refraining a burp afterwards instead getting it out discreetly. Of course, like everywhere else, rude people exist here as well and I have seen spits in our elevator or, worse, one of my students spitting in class. Obviously, as an intolerant lǎowài*, I was so shocked that I yelled at him instantly. It is also fair to say that some Chinese people are particularly uninhibited, like the man taking off his shirt and casually lying on his side at Beijing Airport (see this post: Shanghai Randoms #1).

In new situations or settings, it can be argued, some people do not know what is acceptable behaviour from what isn’t and it may take some time to adapt. The subway or underground network in Chinese cities is not old at all. I would say about 10 years at most. When you take the underground in Shanghai (and probably in other cities – it certainly was the case when I was in Beijing in 2004), what you will notice first is that people on the platform certainly don’t wait for people to get off the train before getting in. So if you are unfortunate enough to commute during rush hour every day (thankfully I don’t), it can be an extremely violent experience at every station. Likewise, when there are free seats, people will rush like mad and push you around to put their asses down. No courtesy to be seen here. And there are far worse behaviours, which shock Chinese and foreigners equally – this China Smack link probably tops it all. So that’s why, I assume, the underground company has decided to put these videos (taken it seems from the CCTV cameras inside coaches) of people behaving inappropriately, such as picking their toes, and to point out what’s acceptable and what’s not during your daily or occasional commute.

* lǎowài: respectful word for foreigner

Love in Shanghai

1 Nov

So I’ve been a little bit blog lazy in the past two or three months. I’ve probably gotten too accustomed to Shanghai and its inhabitants and their strange habits. However, life has by no means become boring here and I do intend to make up for the laziness by continuing to write about all the fun and weird things which exist here or happen around me, starting with People’s Square and what goes on there.

People’s Square is a big park right in the centre of Shanghai. Although not particularly easy to spot when you’re around, it is quite nice and quite green once you’re inside. It contains the MOCA (Museum of Contemporary Arts), the Opera House, the Institute of Urban Planning, the Museum of Shanghai as well as other venerable institutions of the city. As if that wasn’t important enough, it is mostly famous for the matchmaking activities going on inside.

If you get into the park or the square from its northern side, you will be greeted by a dense crowd of Chinese people standing and wandering around thousands of posters you won’t be able to read. What these people do is to match their most likely only child, young or old, with somebody else’s. It is a crazy activity and the posters are basically their kids’ resumes, on which the only things you will be able to decipher are a few numbers: their age and size. Of course, resumes also advertise all their skills, academic, musical, athletic etc. Some people look for someone for their child as early as the age of 5 or 6! Those who have not married in their 20s also have not despaired and advertise themselves or have someone do it form them.

Upon entering People’s Square

Looking for the perfect match

CVs

Marriage is extremely valued in Chinese culture and everybody gets really pressured (a bit more and a bit earlier than elsewhere I am told) to get married here. But not everyone’s got time to stand on People’s Square to praise their kid’s or their own capabilities. This is why there are, as elsewhere, agencies that will take care of selecting potential partners for you. Apparently (I’ve just finished watching a TV programme speaking about it), there are very high-end agencies for single millionaires and billionaires (mostly men) looking for suitable wives. By suitable please understand both physically and educationally. One of those agencies is called Golden Bachelor Matchmakers and their method is to find girls on the street. How creepy is that? They look for girls who have, according to Chinese beauty canons, the “right proportions” in the face and who are elegant. Golden Bachelor claims a very high success rate, 60% of their matches end up at the alter… So much for outsourcing.

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