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June 2019
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2004-03-23 It All Goes Horribly Wrong On First Visit To Shanghai City

I had mislaid Matthew. One moment my Celtic colleague and I had been guiltily thumbing through pirated CDs and DVDs - all three Lord of the Rings movies on DVD for US$3 and the next, he was gone, and not responding to texts.


This was my first time in China and it had suddenly all gone horribly wrong. It was an awfully long way to travel for just three days work, but after a 12 hour flight and a 1½ hour drive from Shanghais Pudong airport we had arrived beneath Shanghais stunning sky-scraping skyline. We had already witnessed how sprawling, teeming and yet strangely intriguing this city is. The Maglev  a high-speed magnetic levitation train  is the only one of its kind in the world.

150 years ago, Shanghai was a fishing village on the banks of the Huangpu and Yangtze rivers. Today because of the immense weight of these skyscrapers and the removal of the water reserves beneath the city , Shanghai is sinking. An Art-deco building which once had six steps up to the entrance now has six steps down. Peasants had thronged citywards from the provinces to make their money in Shanghai, but throughout the 20th century, the rich got richer and the poor got poorer in this supposed Paris of the East. There is something disturbing about people performing futile tasks  an old lady mopped a tiled underpass as we and hundreds of commuters piled through. Road sweepers were sweeping not just roads, but motorways too.

In the mid-twentieth century Shanghai  one of the worlds five largest cities and one of Chinas leading cultural, industrial and educational centres  had become a centrepiece for Chinese Communist Party ideals. For Expo 2010, there are plans to redesign and rejuvenate the city, and to relocate entire communities in so doing.

Everywhere we walked, though we were invaders, it was as though our personal space was being invaded. Our arms were grabbed as we were dragged into shops. Fake Rolex watches were shoved in our faces. You dont want Rolex, how about Omega? At one point I very naively thought we had been recognised, as three giggling Chinese girls begged us to have our photo taken with them, but we were no stars, we were freaks, or Westerners as they excitedly put it. The Yu garden and winding alleys of the old city are uniquely intriguing, and shopping possibilities are endless, but there is something just a little threatening about Shanghai. Bicycles and tricycles with heavy-laden trailers come at you from all angles, and on every street corner someone sits offering a vital puncture-repair service. 

When it came to eating, we wanted to do as the Chinese do, and we found ourselves in a packed and buzzing city centre eating establishment. I played safe and pointed at a picture of what looked like ribs and rice. When our meals came, we were presented with several complimentary side-dishes too  a meat dish (what animal had reluctantly expired to tantalise my taste-buds?), a blacmange-textured mixture with wobbly pink bits, some eel, a sort of miso soup in a teapot with floating alien body-parts, and iced tea (I think, and hope, Oh God it was iced tea, wasnt it?). The waiters and waitresses hovered and giggled at us throughout our stay, especially when we ordered two beers, and they brought us a litre bottle each! At one point I was sure I had heard a chicken sneezing in the kitchen, but by then my imagination had progressed to a whole new level.

It was after this, while participating in some final retail therapy, that I mislaid Matthew. Some helpful stall-tenders directed me down a passageway, informing me that my friend was down there. Naively, I obeyed their directions, and found myself in a small back room facing a pretty teenage girl in a tight mini-skirt and little else. Hi, she smiled, offering me the Full- Shanghai while sizing up my quivering manhood. Im looking for my friend, I croaked, impressively displaying my full vocal range in just a few words. I reversed at speed, and out once again into the market to the hysterical laughter of those helpful stall-tenders. After minutes Matthew and I were re-united.

By now, it was nightime, and Shanghais neon advertising displays were easily rivalling Times Square, but somehow I still hadnt felt totally welcome in this sinking city.