Shanghai is a migraine waiting to happen

Early in the morning of our third day out from Osaka on the ferry, we entered the mouth of a narrow river. Both sides were grim and industrial, lined with docks and hulking cranes. Lots of rusted little boats were tied to the concrete embankments beside slate-grey military ships with big ugly guns. Every vessel and seemingly every building flew the red and yellow Chinese flag - a surprise after Japan, where I think we saw one flag flying during our stay. The ship crawled up the sluggish oil-slicked river for ages. It was hot and steamy under a glowing white greenhouse-effect sky.

Shanghai came upon us gradually, creeping upward. I didn’t realize we were there until I saw the unmistakable Pudong skyline appear out of the murky air on the right. I decided in that moment that Shanghai is one of the ugliest collections of buildings in the world. Misbegotten and mismatched, Shanghai’s skyscrapers are a monument to tasteless architecture. They rear their awkward heads up, each trying to outdo the rest with its crown of hideously pointless architectural flourishes. Each building is ugly in its own right, but there are so many wildly clashing styles and forms that there isn’t even any unifying harmony of unattractiveness. The Oriental Pearl Tower takes the prize, though. I thought the CN Tower in Toronto was unsightly, with its blobs of dull grey 1960s concrete, but the Pearl Tower is like a tripodal, iridescent double-ended version and easily three times as ugly.

These were my first impressions of Shanghai as we waited in the river to dock: an architecturally ungainly city swathed in burning white smog. A migraine waiting to happen. The city might have been more aesthetically appealing if the light and the weather had been better, but it never really improved much. The first few days brought torrential rain and smelly backed-up sewers - the last word from Morakot, the typhoon that had made our ocean crossing so rough (though Morakot was the Japanese designation for the hurricane and so everyone in Shanghai called it by it’s Philippine name Kiko instead). The rain was heavy enough to keep us indoors most of the time. It wasn’t long before I took to shaking my fist at the sky and shouting Daaaaamn you, Kikoooo! in mock fury. Truth was, we wouldn’t have gone very far afield anyway. Sheryl’s back needed time to heal from the wrench she’d given it on the ship. The weather never did clear, and the seething bright white overcast never lifted for an instant. Sometimes just at sunset we’d glimpse the dim red circle of the sun glowing sullenly as it slipped down between the layers of smog. I wonder if Shanghai ever sees a clear day? I think any Shanghainese would scoff if you told them the sky was blue where you came from.

The first few days we spent easing into the massive culture-shock that is China. We’d become so used to India and Nepal that they didn’t bother us, and Japan had been so clean, quiet and easy that we never had a problem. China was different. Vastly different. Even Shanghai, this most Western of Chinese cities, took a lot of getting used to. I don’t mean that the setting was unfamiliar the way so many places have been, on our travels. In many ways it was exactly the opposite - the language, the food, the signs, the markets - they were all nearly too familiar. It was any big Western city’s Chinatown writ (very) large. I might almost not have left Toronto. That in itself was a little defeating, to be honest - I didn’t throw my life away to travel around the world just to see the same tired-looking dim-sum restaurants and Golden Dragon Import-Export junk shops. I’d probably be the first travel writer to complain about the over-familiarity of China, though, so let me hasten to add that the let-down quickly vanished as we looked a little deeper.

If, as I’ve noted in previous dispatches, India is a nation collectively afflicted with chronic sleep deprivation, then China is a nation collectively suffering nicotine withdrawal. Every man, woman, child and animal smokes here, constantly. If I hadn’t seen the traffic I’d assume it was the main cause of the soup-like air. The Chinese, it seems, have learned to live without oxygen. I did wonder, though, why it was necessary to throw burning cigarette butts into trash bins. I’m sure there was some purpose to it. Maybe the many smouldering garbage cans I saw contribute to eliminating the little remaining (and clearly deadly poisonous) oxygen from the atmosphere. Makes life hard for the bottle collectors who go around mining the trash for empties, though.

The noise pollution, too, was impressive. It’s loud here. It’s not just the traffic noise, it’s the people. There’s no denying it, people just talk a lot louder here. Chinese languages are tonal, in that the highness or lowness of the voice affects the meaning of the words. Tones like, for example, the High Tonal Screech, the Low Rising Yell, the High Falling Scream, &etc. So many times I saw people standing half a meter apart and literally shrieking into each others’ faces. The noise level rises exponentially with the number of people involved. It’s bewildering until you realize that the loudest person wins the conversation.

Once I was used to the noise and the bad air (or as used to them as I was ever going to be), Shanghai was an interesting place to be. It’s a modern, more or less clean city with an excellent subway system that took us all over. I couldn’t help comparing everything I saw to India - sometimes favourably, sometimes not. I noticed a distinct absence of stray dogs, which only struck me as strange after I’d realized it. Later, I found out that the authorities were conducting a draconian dog cull that summer, sending out teams to shoot any unlicensed dogs they found - strays or pets.

We weren’t seeing the city at its best. Shanghai is hosting a world Expo next year, and right now nearly all of the city is a torn-up mess of demolition, construction and renovations and the weird little blue mascot character is everywhere. The Bund - the famous embankment along the Huangpu River - was no exception. It was a wasteland of hoardings and broken asphalt from the street right to the water. The only way to see the historic buildings is from the other side of the river. But neither of us were especially impressed, to be honest. It just seemed like a stretch of ugly old buildings rather than the ugly new buildings in Pudong. But it gave us an excuse to take the sightseeing tunnel under the river. Everyone we talked to about it, local or tourist, hates the tunnel. They think it’s an ugly, tacky, stupid tourist trap. We loved it. We rode under the river in a little glass pod pulled along a track, through a tunnel lit with flashing, strobing patterns of seizure-lights in waves of colour. Different areas presented us with projections on movie screens, goofy inflated waving puppets and flashing lasers. Low expectations are the key to happiness, I find.

There’s a small but wonderfully curated propaganda poster museum in the former French Concession area, hidden in the base of an apartment block. I’ve always been fascinated by the unapologetically manipulative Socialist Realism style of communist propaganda posters, and this was a priceless opportunity to see one of the few remaining collections of this now-vanished art form. The gallery had a much wider range of styles and periods than I’d expected. Here was the familiar revolutionary romanticism - idealistic representations of happy workers striding forward into a glorious future. But several more distinct modes and stages were also present, organized into discrete movements. Cartoony posters of cherubic children stabbing out-of-favour Party members, languid Shanghai Style women, and even posters modelled on traditional woodcut illustrations. The themes were invariable, though. Lots of proletariat boosterism, anti-imperialist messages and Mao hero-worship. My particular favourite was a painting of trains, fanciful spaceships and satellites exploding from the centre of the frame in a style that I can only call Soviet Futurism. I would have loved to pick up a reproduction for my brother, but the prices were way out of my reach.

In the Shanghai Museum we spent an hour looking at ancient bronze artefacts (Sheryl finds them absorbing but they tend to blur a little for me after the second or third hundredth piece) but then got kicked out at closing time and watched people flying giant squid kites and crashing toy helicopters in Peoples’ Square. That was a lot more fun than the market we found near Laoximun station - a covered building packed to the rafters with stacked cages full of various creatures. I heard that it was a market that specialized in animals, fish, birds and insects, and when I told Sheryl about it she wanted to go immediately. It was only when we got there that I realized that - of course, we’re in China. Any market that specializes in insects is going to be full of crickets. I hate crickets. They terrify me. Don’t ask me why. Some people are afraid of spiders or snakes - I hate crickets. There were huge strings of little wicker cages hanging from the ceiling, each one holding the biggest, most hideous specimens of the horrifying creatures that I’ve ever seen. They weren’t content to just sit there either - they constantly hurled themselves at their wicker prisons, trying to get at me. I spent the whole time there in a cold sweat with my eyes fixed desperately on the floor.

Our last day in Shanghai we finally managed to find the Sanye wholesale market for eyeglasses that Sheryl had heard about on her last visit. I really needed a new pair - my old ones were getting too scratched up to see through. The market used to be above the main railway station, and all the directions I could find pointed to a now empty building. We’d been through the station a dozen times during our stay and hadn’t bothered following any of the big yellow overhead posters that pointed to some Three Leaves glasses store. It took days before I stopped underneath one and thought to myself - wait… doesn’t san mean “three”? Travelling is a good way to feel stupid pretty much all the time.

The place was on the 5th floor above a food market near one of the station exits. It was overwhelming walking in - there were hundreds of stalls under the bright fluorescent ceiling, and every one of them called out to us as we looked up and down the aisles. Most of the frames were utterly hideous and it took me a couple of hours to find a nondescript pair of wire-frames. A little effortless haggling brought the price down from 480 yuan to 200, with an eye exam included - I hardly had to say a word. No doubt I could have had them for even cheaper, but $30 for a pair of glasses is fine. If I have to wear the stupid things then at least they should be cheap and unobtrusive. Sheryl picked up a pair of reading glasses for herself. Unobtrusive doesn’t do anything for her - she went straight for the hideous pink and purple candy-coloured ones. But hideous looks cute on her.

Sheryl in her reading glasses


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One Comment on this Dispatch:

April 10th, 2010

Aw, Sheryl is adorable! I don’t know how I missed the poster museum or Glasses Central, but DAMN. Did you go to the site of the first communist party meeting or something or other? It was in the French Conscession behind a Gucci building or something. Not as eye catching as a poster museum, but very socialist and proud.

I wonder how that Expo is going? After all that bloody work and a year of disappointed tourists (I didn’t get to see the Tunnel. :C) it better be/have been brilliant. Can’t imagine that sailing up the Hunagpu would EVER give a good impression of that city. :P

I had to go over my own pictures again after reading this. I have THREE blue sky pictures from Shanghai! Like Beijing, it happens. Just not very often. At all. :P But they’re also full of smokers, so I didn’t really win at all.

¬ Mary
April 13th, 2010

Hi Mary.Shanghai’s an easy place to miss a lot of when you’re there. :) We didn’t get to the First National Congress site, somehow we missed that one too. I read your notes from Shanghai over Sheryl’s shoulder a little while ago - sounds like you didn’t have much of a good time either. I’m trying in retrospect to separate Shanghai itself from the initial overwhelming culture shock of China, because I think Shanghai could have been more charming if I was in a better mood at the time. I’m just glad we didn’t hit Beijing first… I’d have turned tail and run back to Japan.

Expo is supposed to start in a couple of weeks. Why don’t we all go back?

¬ Chris
Chris Liberty - Dispatches from a Gentleman Adventurer
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