“This means instead of chocolate and sweets for my birthday you can get me something really Chinese...”
And indeed she’s right. What I realised quickly taking in the gigantic boulevards of Shanghai was that the phrase ‘made in China’ is hardly a novelty. A scarf bearing the label ‘made in Milan’ may carry some exotic novelty gift mileage, practically anything proudly proclaiming ‘made in China’ will probably not.
So why am I here? Professionally, to work at a pair of conferences a week apart. The first in Shanghai, taking place some hours after I land and the next, a week later in Beijing. In the meantime however I am gifted the most luxurious hotel room I’ve ever stayed in – lacking only a kitchen space to prevent it being the image of the New York flat Helen and I dream about eventually occupying. I am also gifted a brilliant city to stay in. Sharing a vibrancy with both London and New York, if architecturally more similar to the latter and population density in relation to obstruction of one’s shopping more on a par with the former.
It is vast. I am apparently staying in the centre, and have a fantastic view 40 stories up. (Jono Gadsby you would love this). Though it is clear just how vast the city in that are several ‘centres’. So I look around downtown, scanning simultaneously for the memory bank and gift ideas. It is very easy city to navigate around, though I suppose most major metropolises are. I’ve never had a problem rapidly getting to know New York, Berlin, Munich, for example. The subway is excellent, well signposted, clearly laid out and massively efficient. Trains appear to be every one to two minutes and are counted down to the second. Mind you they need to move, I’ve never seen such a human swarm as that on the subway here on an early Saturday evening. It makes Oxford Circus at Christmas look like, well, not such a busy station after all. And you wonder why there are no chase sequences in movies set in the Shanghai underground?
Well, wonder no further…
In case you’re still wondering the point is they wouldn’t move very fast.
And speaking of not moving very fast, once again I come across that peculiar phenomenon known as ‘people rushing everywhere except on the tossing escalators where they stand side by side steadfastly refusing to budge’. Even in a city as fast-paced as New York everyone races through the streets like lightning only to become Huxley’s Delta drones as soon as they encounter an escalator. Only in London do people understand how these things are meant to work. I think it’s because there are signs. This phenomenon is closely related to the even more inexplicable need people have at airports, not known as the welcoming refuge of those with ambulatory indifference, to stand still on the moving walkways. This is really stupid. Standing still on one of those only propels you towards your intended destination a fraction of a second faster than simply standing still.
Not that all my airport experiences were challenges to my inner peace. I had discovered in the early hours of the morning of my departure that in a true moment of serendipity my dear friend Eric Tessier-Lavigne was also flying from the same airport at a very similar time. So cue a cross-terminal dash to grab a sneaky morning pint and catch-up before going our separate and friendship-enriched ways.
Back to the streets of Shanghai.
It’s fortunate that Dora isn’t overly bothered about me bringing back sweets because upon discovering a hand-made Chinese sweet emporium I encountered a smell I couldn’t quite place. I rapidly exited and placed it quite soon after and very precisely as the elephant enclosure of the zoo. Most Chinese sweets look like dog poo covered in flour. So kids, you’ll have to make do with what I can nick from the reception desk of the hotel and M&Ms with Chinese writing on the packet.
By the way when one is approached on the streets of Shanghai by someone bearing a laminated plastic folder advertising bags and watches accompanied by the words do you want to buy a bag?, what they mean is do you want to buy a prostitute? You may all know this. I didn’t. Perhaps everyone is offered such free and easy access to massage, perhaps more likely Western-looking-business-ish types, who knows. Initially I cast these advances aside with a grin and a polite no thank you. Then I graduated to pointing to my wedding ring, thinking they would see I was very happy indeed, thank you. Then I stopped doing that in case they thought I was ostentatiously displaying a level of wealth indicating that I might require a higher-grade hooker than the one on the proffered business card. I stopped counting after thirty such solicitations over the course of one hour and subsequently kept my head down.
Generally though there is a marvellous and exciting feel to the city. I spent a pleasant hour wandering through the People’s Park, enjoying its elegant lotus pond and waterless waterfall (perhaps it’s seasonal). I came across a large open air stage upon which earlier in the afternoon some very loud classical music was being danced to by, in all honesty, not the most elegant dancers I’ve ever seen, but they were enjoying themselves. Later on I walked past this again and the Strictly Come Dancing brigade had been replaced by a very loud and very enthusiastic rock band. This I enjoyed a little more. I think they were singing in English, though their refrain appeared to be a constant repeat of the words ‘set designer’, which I thought was nice, as they are a demographic largely overlooked in contemporary popular music.
I’m not sure I want to end on an indelicate note but I feel I should warn those who haven’t been here and provoke a warm knowing smile from those of you that have. If you find yourself in need of going to the toilet in a large Chinese city, try and forget it. Opening a cubicle door into what appears to be a shower room sans shower, with nothing else but a hole in the floor and two places to position your feet is a mildly disconcerting experience. Realising you were meant to bring your own toilet paper is even more unnerving. Thankfully owing to my almost pathological need to take more free napkins than is my right whenever I have the option, I was saved from disaster. In fact I left this futuristic ablutional nightmare and found a disabled toilet in a department store, disabled in this instance apparently meaning ‘normal toilet’ not ‘medieval shitting hole’. I ask you, why China, why?
So OCD bathroom issues aside thus far Shanghai is a winner. It’s a beautiful and interesting city. Food is reasonably priced if not massively exciting and I have succeeded in finding something for Dora that is really Chinese and not completely kitsch and tacky, something for Helen that is cute and borderline, and something for both Oli and Dora that is all of the above. Except borderline.