Wednesday 5 November 2014

Shanghai, a city of surprises

Last month I visited Shanghai in China as a guest of Air New Zealand for an intense three days of tours, food and culture shock. This is my first story for Hawke's Bay Today

In the words of more than one long-time local, Shanghai is a city full of surprises.

In just three days, I was overwhelmed by cultural, social and architectural sights, normal to the Chinese, but to this Kiwi, curiosities and absurdities.

Washing hung out to dry on the walls of the local prison photograph

People hang their washing out to dry on the walls of the city’s prison, the first and the largest gaol in China.

Washing hangs on power-lines which may or may not be live photograph

Others happily – and publicly – hang their underwear on power lines,

Spaghetti-like power-lines which may or may not be live photograph

though I’m told many old wires on the spaghetti-like power poles are no longer live.

Some of the thousands of electric scooters photograph

A cop car zooms past, lights flashing and horn blaring, screeches to a halt obediently at the next red light, only to zoom off again as soon as it turns green.

Motorway bridge with opening windows photograph

There’s a motorway bridge with huge opening windows.

Sitting side-saddle on a scooter photograph

Women passengers on pushbikes and scooters sit side-saddle.

Texting on a scooter, with no helmet photograph

Motorcyclists and scooters don’t need helmets and share the footpath with pedestrians. Want to text and scoot? No problem,

A loaded up scooter photograph

and no-one’s going to limit how much you can carry; if you can tie it on, it’s allowed.

A scooter with a refrigerator on the back photograph

I even saw a scooter with a refrigerator strapped on.

Crossing the road is simple. Do it anytime, anywhere. Step out from the pavement, don’t stop, don’t change speed, and don’t run. Don’t wait for cars or scooters, they’ll avoid you, honest. And don’t bother finding a pedestrian crossing, they’re only there for decoration, just like the centre line. In the words and accent of a French tour guide, "Shanghai traffic, it is 'ectic."

Graffiti photograph

Unlike New Zealand, littering is cool and it’s seen as a potential for employment. In my part of the city there was a uniformed cleaner on every block, and very little graffiti.

China's Yellow Pages, tradesmen leave their advertising scribbles on houses once their work is finished photograph

That is, if you don’t count the hand-written scribblings of tradesmen advertising their services on the walls of a house they’ve just worked on. Locals tell me it’s the Chinese version of the Yellow Pages.

Public Notices on a chalkboard in a public park photograph

And although I saw very few newspapers, Public Notices are posted regularly on multi-coloured chalkboards in public parks.

My room at my hotel, Hyatt on the Bund photograph
My room at my hotel, Hyatt on the Bund

I wonder if it’s a reflection of the employment situation that I got room service three times a day. I found that a bit disconcerting, especially when they repacked and tidied my bags.

However, if you’re an ex-pat (non-Chinese) the government makes it easy to set up your own business, and surprisingly, it’s even easier for foreigners than for Chinese from other provinces. Some of the ex-pats we met had up to three jobs or self-employed enterprises on the go.

Scooting with a child, a dog and no helmets photograph
Scooting with a child, a dog and no helmets
Women swan around in the daytime, wearing pyjamas with high heels and handbag, maybe walking their dog, announcing to the world that they don’t need to work, or perhaps have gotten the day off. In a society which is only now easing its one child policy, I’m told that “dogs are the new children.”

A woman with her dog at the hairdressers photograph

In one street I saw a young woman in evening dress and high heels walking her dog, another woman with her dog on her knee at the hairdressers.

A woman with her hair in rollers and a crazy gadget at the hairdressers photograph

Another was having her hair done under a machine that looked like a medieval torture device. And no, it wasn’t just this man’s ignorance, the girls in our group had never seen anything like it.

Old people exercise in a public park photograph

“Old” people arrange their own flash mobs, dancing or doing exercises on the street or in public parks.

Old person stretches in a public park photograph

One group I saw were doing leg stretches my gymnast daughters would have been proud of, and many trees in the parks have been rubbed smooth by people bouncing their backs against the trunk, sorting out their back issues and ‘transferring the tree’s positive energies.’

Trees supported against the occasional typhoon photograph

Many of the plane trees are braced on four sides due to the occasional typhoon that blows through.

A man-made flower tree. disguising a cell tower photograph

A man-made tree with massive flowers disguises a cell-phone tower.

A spiky caterpillar photograph

I saw a crazy spiky green caterpillar, but sadly heard very few birds.

Crickets are one of China's favourite pets photograph

One of China’s favourite pets are crickets, sold from pet shops in big plastic pill bottles,

Mynahs are taught to speak and sold in cages photograph

and Mynahs are taught to talk and sold as caged birds. ‘Ni hao’ (hello) we called to them and they excitedly replied. We then tried ‘Kia ora’ and they just squawked angrily.

Everyone who arrives horse - gets a present! - Chinglish sign at a nightclub photograph

There were of course the amusing Chinglish (Chinese-English) signs. Seen at a local bar advertising a gypsy-themed fancy dress night: “Everyone who arrives horse – gets a present!”,

Declined Carrying Drinks - Chinglish for No BYO? photograph

and “Declined Carrying Drinks.” I guess that means ‘No BYO.’

No Striding Over, Chinglish on a sign protecting a tree in a public park photograph

On a tree-protecting fence in one of the public parks a sign proclaiming “No Striding Over” reminded me of Gulliver’s Travels.

A shopping bag declares “Welcome to Shanghai. Evaded affection. Pieces of pieces of the Heart.” And on our way to the night markets to sample Big Butt Lamb we came across a street called Twisted Tit Lane (in the transliterated Chinese.) I’d love to know its history. Not that language problems were restricted to the Chinese. An American tour guide once stopped to check on the group: “So, you’re all making out?” Ah, no.

Pouring tea with a teapot with a metre-long spout for Kelly Kilgour, corporate communications executive, Air New Zealand, our tour guide, at 1121, a restaurant photograph
Pouring tea for Kelly Kilgour, our tour guide, and
a corporate communications executive with 
Air New Zealand, at a restaurant called 1121.
I’ll talk about some of the amazing foods in a later story, but can you imagine being served green tea from a teapot with a metre-long spout? Talk about dexterity. Luckily we had a tour guide who taught us proper etiquette, so as we discovered with the soup dumplings, slurping is cool.

$100 for a NZ$14 bottle of wine photograph

Just as happily, we had a Kiwi wine aficionado in our group who saved us from buying a $14 bottle of New Zealand wine for an exorbitant NZ$98 (at a fixed-price restaurant.)

In most other shops however, bartering is the norm (actually it’s fun), and we were advised that “if you haven’t walked away at least once, you really haven’t tried hard enough.” I spoke to one guy who was nearly conned out of $500 for a tea party. Buyer beware.

Huge grapes photograph

Apples and grapes are enormous, 

Video advert for a Hairy Crab Feast, in the foyer of hotel, Hyatt on the Bund photograph

Hairy crabs are a delicacy,

Hairy Crabs photograph

Making noodles by hand photograph
and noodles are made by hand as you watch, with no kitchen appliance in sight.

Cooking on the street photograph

Streetside restaurants are BYO i.e. if you take your own food, they’ll cook it for you.

Fish flop around at a wet market photograph

Fish flop around in crowded plastic tubs amongst the green veges sold at the wet markets.

Fish at a wet market photograph

To the Chinese, if it’s not alive it’s not fresh.

Retailers eat in the aisles of a shopping mall, which is split up into hundreds of booths photograph

Fitted, lined and tailor-made trousers were a mere $50, sold in multi-boothed shopping malls where, not to miss a sale, retailers and their families cook and eat their dinner in the aisles.

Carpentry shop, with modern power saws and a pre-1950s hand plane photograph

Tradesmen ply their trade amongst the retailers, using a mix of traditional and modern styles. I peered into one carpenters shop and saw them using a pre-1950s hand plane alongside their power tools. Nothing goes to waste if it’s useful.

A street artist draws a portrait in one of the night markets photograph
A street artist draws a portrait in one of the night markets
A lot of business is done on the street.

Street food photograph

All kinds of food are laid out on uncovered tables, though thankfully I saw very few flies.

A doctor takes a patient's blood pressure at his streetside clinic photograph

Doctors take blood pressure

Gambling on the street photograph

and locals gamble openly, playing cards

Mahjong gambling photograph

or mahjong, a game which looks like a mix of scrabble and dominoes. I saw more than a little money change hands.

Surprisingly there are only a few street hawkers. I compare that to previous trips to Phnom Penh in Cambodia and Denpasar in Bali where you couldn’t walk out of your hotel without being accosted by hordes of hawkers flogging all manner of interesting junk.

Security camera protected from the weather by an umbrella photograph

Locals and ex-pats tell me that Shanghai is an extremely safe city to live in with a very low crime rate. They put it down to the high penalties, lots of police and the “millions of security cameras.”

I’m told the authorities have cracked down on street prostitution, but some pretty high-level stuff goes on in the upper floors of high end hotels.

That could be why I was only propositioned twice, once by an apparent lady-boy who caught my eye from across the street, and once by a curvaceous and painted young woman who ran down the steps to grab my arm and literally tried to drag me back to join her three young lady friends. Naturally I said no, but there must have been a language difficulty as I was given decidedly disapproving looks by two older Chinese women as they walked past.

American blonde poses with local kids photograph
American blonde poses with local kids
In contrast, locals love to be photographed with blonde kiwi women. One child just stared at me, as her dad and I exchanged amused smiles.

Art Deco foyer in The Peace Hotel photograph

I’ll talk about some of the architecture in a later story. Suffice to say for now, amongst the wall-to-wall housing and multi-international styles still standing from many eras, there are some incredible examples of Art Deco. Eat your heart out, Napier.

Evidence of previous Jewish residence in what is now often called "The Ghetto." photograph
Evidence of previous Jewish residence in what is now often called "The Ghetto."
And though ex-pats proudly tell me Shanghai is multi-cultured and cosmopolitan, I hadn’t expected it to have a significant Jewish history. Surprises everywhere.

Restored old town photograph

Some of the city’s old town has been restored

Dense housing and office blocks, also a vacant section from demolished buildings, probably for another skyscraper, view from my hotel, Hyatt on the Bund photograph
Dense housing and office blocks, also a vacant section
from demolished buildings, probably for another skyscraper.
but a lot has been demolished, making way for massive skyscrapers.

Old town demolished in favour of skyscrapers photograph
Old town demolished in favour of skyscrapers

Three storey foyer at my hotel, Hyatt on the Bund photograph

Size is everything; even the foyer in my hotel is three stories high.

Shanghai business district at night photograph
Shanghai business district at night
Shanghai boasts to having the tallest building in China, the Shanghai Tower, though I was told it was the tallest in the world. Note to self: check all ‘facts’, locals are prone to exaggerate…

Radical building styles in the business district photograph
Radical building styles in the business district
That said, the second tallest building in China is also in Shanghai, the Shanghai World Financial Center, affectionately known as The Bottle Opener due to the massive see-through hole through its top floors. And I’m told the latest skyscraper being built will revolve like a corkscrew.

Wall-to-wall apartments photograph
Wall-to-wall apartments
My biggest surprise? With a population of 24 million, Shanghai is the world’s most populous city, and I had expected wall-to-wall people.

Minimum crowds on National Day - two different architectures photographed from the same spot photograph
Two different architectures photographed from the same spot
Minimum crowds on National Day - two different architectures photographed from the same spot photograph

It turns out though that the city is very spread out, and even on National Day the crowds weren't a lot larger than I’ve seen on a mid-week lunchtime in Auckland’s Queen St.

Dense housing, view from my hotel, Hyatt on the Bund photograph

That’s not to say it’s not crowded in places. We visited one house which was home to three families, having just one communal living area the size of a small double bedroom. However, reflecting the notion that you can only take sharing so far, its one extremely small kitchen had three stoves, three taps with separate water meters and three separate lighting circuits.

As they say in Shanghai, one should expect the unexpected.

Air New Zealand flies daily to Shanghai from Auckland with connections available from Air New Zealand's 25 domestic ports.  Fares start from $865 one way inclusive of taxes.  Visit Air New Zealand for more details and to book.


  1. Sharon Arnold05 November, 2014

    Very very cool Duncan you are an amazing photographer

    1. Hey thanks Sharon, I love what I do, and I was just so spoiled for choice in Shanghai, it was visually so different !!

  2. Jewish history? I'm intrigued.

    1. Hi Ros, that will be the subject of another story, it's amazing what you learn :-) I'll put a link on Facebook when it's good to go. Cheers, Dunc :-)