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Published: January 24th 2008
South. 1423 km south of Beijing is Shanghai, our final stop before exiting the PRC
. We scheduled only two days because Shanghai was a very expensive city. It was here, in arguably China's most capitalist metropolis, that we encountered homeless people and in-your-face poverty. The tunnels and stairs of Shanghai's subways were populated with indigent humans; some dead asleep, others begging. Right above our heads imported cars drove around skyscrapers and trendy shopping malls and the pace of commerce and life rivaled that of downtown Manhattan.
Our bland but expensive hotel room looked out on worn-out galvanized and shingled roofs of our neighbours. We weren't in the best part of town but we could afford
this neighbourhood. We didn't mind too much sharing our street with hanging clothes, baked chickens on a string, a few homeless people and a whole lot of sewing machine repairmen. Besides, we were close enough to a bus stop from where we could visit all the hi-faluting areas of Shanghai.
The British, after the first Opium War, gained control of a sleepy little, fishing village in 1842 and transformed it into a bustling city. The French followed in 1847 establishing the French Concession area
and then came the Japanese. Shanghai became a world leader in trade centered on opium, tea and silk. But, as with all boom towns, the rich got richer and the poor got poorer.
Shanghai is fun-to-look-at. Its architecture runs the gamut from modern glass-and-steel office blocks thru old colonials to a retro, art-deco district. With more skyscrapers than Manhattan
, the Pudong area, across the polluted Huangpu river, has ambitions of becoming a major financial center in the world market and it might well pull it off. On that same side of the river is Shanghai's signature architectural area, the Bund. Described as 'neoclassical 1930s downtown New York style'
, the buildings on the Bund (Anglo-Indian word meaning 'the embankment of a muddy waterfront') are 'like totally groovy dude'. Dominated by the funky, retro Oriental Tower, most of these stuck-in-time structures are now chic boutiques, restaurants and galleries. Thousands of tourists, Chinese and non-Chinese alike, flock to the riverside promenade on Huangpu's western bank to gaze over on the Bund before releasing their inner shutterbug. At night, vivid, color-changing neon and up lights transform a beautiful daylight attraction into something magical, dazzling and captivating. Needless to say, hoards of persistent beggars,
Commercial area across Huangpu river
pesky salespeople and invisible pickpockets descend upon the tourists lending to the carnival atmosphere but reducing the experience.
The carnival atmosphere extends from the Bund, day and night, all the way down long East Nanjing Street. Pimpers' paradise, shoppers' heaven, tourist trap, knock-off capital, seller's dream, East Nanjing was unlike any other shopping scene we had ever encountered. Underground bargain 'basements', pimps or sometimes unhealthy-looking women whispering 'massagie' to passersby (understand that there is a huge difference between 'massage' and 'massagie'), hawkers screaming 'Lolex, Lolex'
although the knock-offs read 'Rolex' and look very much like the genuine article, display racks of clothes peeling back to reveal endless bootleg in-the-cinema DVDs, TV series and pornos and restaurants and food-courts in abundance. But this is not your run-of-the-mill Chinese shopping street. World famous brands, like D&G, Prada and Gucci, occupy outlets that rival their western counterparts for glitz and glamour. Here, on East Nanjing, decadence and depression rub up again each other in the crush of tens of thousands. A colorful 'train' chugs up and down the street ferrying weary shoppers, building-sized TV screens flash risqué ads for perfumes and underwear and then Shaquille O'Neal flies across the screen in Nike
shoes. Neon lights, signs and music create one big razzle-dazzle.
At the far western end of East Nanjing is Renmin (People's) Square. A decent arrangement of ponds, trees and shaded park benches, Renmin Park provides a welcome break from the hassle of the hot, crowded streets. A young couple approaches us. 'Students from Beijing', they say. 'Few days’ vacation in Shanghai', they say. We strike up a conversation centered on the usual questions like 'where are you from?', 'first time in China?' 'Kung Fu tea ceremony in town today. Only once every 3 years'. We are interested. Girl links arm with Shanna. Vibert and boy stroll manly behind. 'Woohoo, we have new friends', we think. They ask directions. Look puzzled but eventually we're seated, the four of us, in a little back room in some shopping mall. On the table are seven small glass canisters of tea leaves. There is a carved tray, a sizeable carved wooden frog with a coin in his (or her) mouth, a painting of an emperor (with clothes) and a shelf with a wide array of packaged teas in various sizes. A young lady enters. She speaks only Chinese. Our new friends translate. While
the young lady measures tea portions and immerse them in hot water, we hear stories of the emperors' love of tea. The first cup is thrown on the frog's back. 'For the spirits of the ancestors'. We get tiny tea cups without handles. Girls' pinky stick out, boys' pinky curl. 'Rose tea. Finish in 3 sips'. Sip. Sip. Sip. Vibert and Shanna down RMB 138 (combined). Another for the frog. Sip. Sip. Sip. Chi-Ching!!
The tab is now RMB 288. Five teas to go. 'We can't have anymore. No more money', we say. Our friends look worried. ' But we must finish tea ceremony', they say. 'Very sorry but we can't afford. Didn't plan for this. You go ahead', we say. Reluctantly they sip-sip-sip another round; the frog didn't have a choice. We pay RMB 288, they pay RMB 488. We all leave the ceremony room. 'Oh, we forget. We have to meet up with some other students', they say. We swap emails and promise to write. Something didn't feel right. In five minutes we forget about the ceremony. 'Hello, where are you from?'
. Three girls, one with glasses thick like the bottom of Coca-Cola bottles. 'First time in
where no tourists tread
China? Kung Fu Tea ceremony in town...', they say. We declined. Been there, done that but the warning bells are really ringing. We turn a corner. 'Shan, you don't suppose...', Vibert started but he gets cut off. 'Hello, where are you from? ...Kung Fu...'
Confirmation. We had been conned! Hood-winked! Bamboozled! Here's how it works
: a group (usually 2 or 3 young people) ropes you in for anything. Could be for tea or dinner or drinks at a bar or a theatre performance. You pay. They pay (probably with fronted cash). Everything seems legit. They find a reason to part company, double back and get a cut/commission and the only Kung Fu you get are the big kicks in your wallet and ego. Now, what would Chairman Mao say?
After the shamming, Shanghai didn't feel right. We dismissed everyone who appeared friendly or interested in us. In the course of doing so we probably turned away genuine people but, in Shanghai, it is very difficult to differentiate. Small wonder, therefore, that we were relieved when our Hong-Kong bound train pulled out leaving behind a city struggling with the vices, excesses and stresses of capitalism's survival of the slickest. Point of clarity:
We, would have just finished 6 weeks almost circumnavigating mainland China; who have come to love the country and its people, trains, food and national parks, hereby dispense with marathon sentences and mind-numbing clichés, to make the following, simple announcement:
"China Rocks but Shanghai kind of sucks"
• Nobody in particular
Hong Kong and Macau: Take Two At 12:30 pm we arrived from Shanghai at Hong Kong Jiulong train station and navigated smoothly back to ChungKing Mansions
. Different Guesthouse, same crap (DGSC). With basically just an afternoon in good, old, smoggy HK, we decided on a visit to Lantau Island. The subway emerged from the depths of the city and rode topside. A good thing too because we had excellent views on HK's 'burbs. Lantau was a world removed from Hong Kong's pace, twice as big but much less populated. There were trees; lots of trees, far fewer cars and we could see the sky (it's funny the things we really begin to notice and appreciate). And when the bus, which we had boarded where the subway terminated, banked between the valleys obliterating all city views, we were pleasantly surprised. The real destination was
the Tian Tian Buddha - a 45-minute bus ride - and we arrived just before the 5:30 pm closing time. A Buddha this big had to be superlative and this one was the "world's largest outdoor seated bronze Buddha statue"
. The massive, smiling sculpture was perched on a hill. Palm in the usual 'blessing' position and gleaming in light of the setting sun, the Buddha sat comfy in a lotus leaf and beautiful women (also sculptures) held up trays with various offerings. Pilgrims and tourists alike tossed coins into the offering plates (in flagrant opposition to visible cease-and-desist signs) and, occasionally bowed in reverence.
Time was running out. We rode the line back into HK Central and then walked over to Avenue of the Stars. Across Victoria Harbour, the still impressive skyline promised to delight even further with a 'Symphony of Lights'. At 8:00 pm it began. For about 15 minutes or so lights 'danced' on buildings supposedly choreographed to Vivaldi's Four Seasons and green laser light flashed intermittently. 'A bit underwhelming', we thought, considering the hype and the efforts we made to get back here. But that was basically how HK fared on our second visit in two
months. We were on the fast craft to Macau at 2 pm the following day.
What can we say about Macau this time 'round that was not said in "Fireworks, Egg Tarts, Glitz and Glamour"
? Well, we were glad to see Ludi again and there were no fireworks this time. New excitement was building around the imminent Macau Formula 1 championships which would basically turn the regular streets into a speedway for jet-propelled cars. Hmmmm, too bad we'd have to miss it. 'Glitz and Glamour' certainly remained with fortunes made and lost at the roll of a dice in INSANE gambling arenas. And, of course, the Egg Tarts
(notice the capitalization). Those delectable, decadent, dollops of delight! We did little else for our day-and-a-half in Macau (resting up from China) than sucking down more than a dozen Egg Tarts
, the capitalization) and watching our Shanghai-purchased Seasons 1-3 of Lost
We bid 'adeus' to Ludi and rode a bus to Macau International Airport. Tiger Airways departed on time. The destination (we must tell): Singapore
• Ludi again for your heart-warming hospitality.
• The Egg Tart (notice, for the last time
, the capitalization).
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