Capitalism can sure be irritating
Trip Start Sep 04, 2007
19Trip End Nov 20, 2007
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What a great town. I got off the train from Beijing, and before I even had a chance to look for a taxi, I passed a sign that pointed me to the Shanghai subway, the Metro. This, I knew, would take me to within a short cab ride of the Metropole Hotel, which I'd found mentioned in the Rough Guide. It was approaching 9 pm, I'd just spent 10 hours on a train, I was hungry, and I didn't have a hotel yet, so I didn't want to work too hard at hopping the subway, but it was worth a shot. Tickets were sold by machine, so I didn't have to fight with a phrasebook while a line of Shangjainese grew restless behind me. Score. The touch-screen user interface included a button that said "English." Score. The button worked. Victory! To the Metro.
I emerged on the edge of Renmin Guangchang (People's Square), hailed a cab, and soon was standing in the lobby of the Metropole, an old art deco hotel that is close to the Bund and to other places I wanted to see. The check-in clerk talked me into a fancier room than I'd planned on by offering me the "internet price," but that close to the Bund even the cheap rooms weren't cheap. I'd only be there a few days, so I splurged and ended up in a ninth-floor suite with a good view of some of Shanghai's more interesting architecture.
After dumping my bags in the room, I walked toward the Bund in search of a snack and ran across an Italian joint that was still open. The waiter said the dessert special was a chocolate pudding, which turned out to be this delectable cupcake-looking thing that oozed a warm, thick, dark chocolate sauce with the first nick of a spoon and that was easily the best chocolate I'd had in China. Properly chocolate buzzed, I made a quick stop at the Bund, the riverside stretch of regal buildings that are Shanghai's best-known landmark, but this came to an end when they turned the lights out. I was staying two blocks away. I could come back later.
Thursday morning, I stopped by the hotel's travel office to arrange my next few flights (Huang Shan, Wulingyuan, Chengdu), then ambled over to the Shanghai Museum. I had missed the National Museum (?) in Beijing because I was under the weather and shipping glass my last few days there, so my opinion isn't exactly fully informed, but the Shanghai Museum may be the best museum in China. The exhibits of Chinese bronze, ceramics and porcelain, calligraphy, painting, furniture, chops, currency, and assorted clothing and other art from ethnic minorities were exceptional and were augmented by special exhibits of Spanish paintings from the Prado and of Swedish silver. Descriptions were in Chinese and English, and the English descriptions were detailed, well written, and particularly well translated by someone who speaks English as a first language. I spent the entire afternoon there and would have been glad to go back for a second viewing, but there was other exploring to be done.
The French Concession, which was praised in the Rough Guide, proved to be a disappointment, and Huaihai Lu, the main street through the area, is downright depressing. It's overrun with upscale, western clothing stores and infested with hawkers, who did their insufferable best to try to convince every tourist passerby (and clearly I was a tourist) to visit their shop or sidewalk table of shoes or watches or bags or clothing or tourist gewgaws. Hawkers are an omnipresent irritation anywhere that tourists congregate in Shanghai, and it doesn't take more than a few hundred encounters with them before you want to behead one from time to time as a warning to those nearby that you are not to be bothered. While I was in Shanghai, I tried a variety of tacks to get them to bugger off, beginning with "bu shi, xie xie" (no, thank you), but being that polite only seemed to encourage them. Sometimes I'd just have fun with them, pointing to my shoes or watch or backpack, explaining that I already had the best, most comfortable, most stylish whatever in the world, and asking why I would want to look at anything inferior. If they spoke little English, this would get rid of them pretty effectively; if they spoke English well enough to understand, they would grasp that I was kidding with them, laugh, and still give up. (While I was in Tunxi for my trip to Huang Shan, someone taught me "bu yao"-"nothing"-which worked very well during my brief, second stay in Shanghai.) Sometimes there were just too many of them in too short a time, and I got surly. I resisted using English as much as possible, but I did find that lowering my voice and issuing an emphatic "No!" had the desired effect. Some woman followed me for half a block asking me, in English, whether I wanted this, that, or another thing. When she finally wound down and asked me what I wanted, I told her in my sternest voice that I just wanted to be left alone and asked if she could do that. She got the point, finally, and went away looking dejected. One especially persistent hawker who caught me at the wrong time even heard the suggestion that he f off, but that just made me feel guilty. Including hotels, I'm spending more every few days than the annual income that defines the poverty level in China (less than 700 yuan, or a little more than $90). I may resent their tactics, but they're just trying to make a buck in a way that is acceptable in their culture. (At night, I also encountered quite a few pimps, but that story will have to wait for in-person discussions. I'm trying to keep this thing G rated. No, I did not take any of the slimeballs up on their skeevy offers.)
Come lunchtime Friday in the French Concession, I mildly humiliated myself in a restaurant that usually catered to folks better dressed than I was and who spoke at least some Chinese. I'd come in because a poster out front showed pictures of dumplings, but the dumpling menu was entirely in Chinese (not that a picture of a dumpling would have helped me know what was inside), and another menu was only partially illustrated with photos. Most of the staff was pleased to have a westerner in the place and catered to me far more than the manager would have liked. My waiter read several of the items on the dumpling menu to me until I heard a couple of things I liked, and others stopped at every opportunity to practice their limited English, but the manager passed only occasionally, never cracked a smile, and surely wished me gone. When I finally granted her wish, I noticed, on the elevator to the street level, that my shirt, pants, and belt were all askew. No wonder she thought me unqualified to be seated in her realm. Oh, by the way, lunch was delicious.
On the back streets of the French Concession, I found the Shanghainese who had real jobs and knew enough to stay away from Huaihai. The neighborhood wasn't unusual, just a pleasant respite from overpriced designer clothing stores. As elsewhere in Shanghai and China, I found block after block of tiny street-level shops below several-story apartment buildings. The shops had or did a little bit of everything: groceries, clothing, electronics, housewares, scooter repair, haircuts and hair styling, photo processing, printing, cigarettes and alcohol (always together, apparently in government-sanctioned stores), metal work (including welding, often on the sidewalk out front), and a multitude of other things I don't recall, all interspersed with lots of restaurants. I'd been looking shaggy, and I noticed a barber sitting with his feet up in a place with maybe a half-dozen chairs. I gave him a quizzical look to see if he wanted to bother with a westerner, and he waved me in. I like my barber in Seattle, but he's getting too close to retirement and isn't as attentive to details as he might be. This barber was absolutely meticulous and gave me the best haircut I've had in years. When he was finished, I got out my camera, mimed a request to take his picture, and, with his OK, positioned him at my shoulder. I then pointed the camera at the mirror, framed and focused, and moved my head out from behind the camera. When I'd taken the shot, I showed it around (everyone wanted a look), thanked my barber, paid, and left. Late that afternoon I found a Kodak shop to print the picture for me, and the next morning I returned to the shop and gave my barber the print. Once again, everyone wanted a look, and for a brief time I was a celebrity. They turned the picture over and offered me a pen so I could write on the back (my name, Seattle, Washington, very good haircut, thank you), and after saying goodbye, I took one more picture of the whole shop, waved, and left.
Pudong, across the river from the Bund, was less of a disappointment Saturday than Huaihai Lu in the French Concession the day before, but only because of the view from the waterfront and from the observation deck of the Jinmao Tower. The rest of the area was office buildings and western-style shopping malls. At ground level, the air looked fairly clear, and I suppose in relative terms it was; from the observation deck I'm pretty sure I saw the Yangtze River several miles to the north. However, the horizon still disappeared in a smoggy haze long before it should have. My friend Conrad, with whom I've eaten at the Hooters in Seattle more times than either of us will admit, will be pleased to know that I had dinner at the Hooters in a shopping mall in Pudong. I was craving a good burger and a beer (Kilkenny beats any of the weak Chinese beers, I learned), and I thought it would be amusing to see how the U.S. and Shanghai versions compared. The interior design, the menu, and the skimpy costumes on the waitresses were all the same, but somehow the experience wasn't. The waitresses were trying too hard to endear themselves with casual conversation in broken English, and when I left, I got the hard sell on Hooters memorabilia. Suddenly Hooters was no different from being on the street in a tourist area of town. I couldn't imagine a good use for a Hooters Shanghai t-shirt, so I left my waitress broken hearted.
My last full day in Shanghai I learned that the old town area is really two different areas, one tarted up for tourists and the other a lower-class version of the back streets of the French Concession. The hawkers in the tarted-up area were even more irritating than hawkers elsewhere in Shanghai, so I bolted for the nearest exit and ended up in another area where regular people lived. The streets were narrow, the shops were dingy, and the restaurants looked like places I wasn't willing to trust my good health to, but no one was trying to sell me anything. One of my maps had mentioned a bird, fish, and insect market in this neighborhood, which I tracked down in an inner courtyard that was only accessible by one double door that I could easily have missed had I not been on the lookout. The place was packed with tiny booths spilling into narrow aisles, and while there were several bird and fish vendors, as well as a few dogs, cats, rabbits, and ferrets, the majority of the space was occupied by people selling bugs. This bug stuff was clearly a well-established business; most of the vendors used the same type of tailor-made container, complete with air holes, for like-sized bugs. Many vendors were selling bugs that looked like little cockroaches, but a few were selling huge beetle-like things that made a pretty good ruckus and that were pushing at the lids of their prisons trying to get out. Some containers had easily removable lids, and potential buyers were taking the lids off and poking at the bugs with lengths of grass as if to find out how angry the bugs would get. A few vendors even carried spiffy little containers that you could carry your bug in, some with an opaque sliding door that you could pull over the clear plastic lid so your bug could take a nap. I tried repeatedly to find someone who spoke enough English to tell me what this was all about. Cockroach fighting? Pets? An alternative to exterminators? Did the beetles eat cockroaches? Unfortunately, I had no luck finding anyone who both spoke English and was less in the dark than I was.
I spent much of Monday hanging out in a smokey internet gaming emporium working on this blog, nursing another short-lived cold, and waiting to go to Pudong Airport for a late-evening flight to Tunxi, the town nearest Huang Shan, the Yellow Mountains, which the Rough Guide claims the Chinese revere and hope to visit at least once in their lives.