Shanghai: Hold on for wild ride in a city unleashed

By Phil Taylor

Stalls in Yuyuan Bazaar. Photo / Phil Taylor
Stalls in Yuyuan Bazaar. Photo / Phil Taylor

Eat your heart out Marianne Faithfull. The Ballad of Lucy Jordan came to mind during a white-knuckle, rush-hour ride across Shanghai on the back of a local's motor scooter.

Her figurative lament ("At the age of 37 she realised she'd never ride through Paris in a sports car with the warm wind in her hair") seemed a tad benign compared to the lunacy of my ride.

Warm wind in the hair. Check. Whiff of fear in the nostrils. Check. Possibility of unanticipated consequences. Check. Wide goofy grin on the dial. Check.

It must have been a sight for the other gazillion scooterists on the road a white guy, old enough to know better, arms full of shopping, zigging and zagging along traffic arteries clogged like a coronary.

New Zealand has its bungy jumping, its whitewater rafting; Shanghai scooter is China's answer to adventure sport. Travel insurers, please avert your eyes.

I closed mine twice, let out an exhilarated whoop at least three times and had one collision. Well, my knee clipped an oncoming scooterist. He yelped, my man (let's call him Mad Max), glanced back. No one fell off and so onward we rode into the dusk as the city gloriously lit itself in neon.

My frenetic 20-minute ride was not only the quickest way across town, it was a metaphor for a city rushing headlong into the future.

As we rode towards The Bund, the colonial district where the British once docked boats laden with opium, China's modern monuments the Oriental Pearl Tower, with its improbable ballbearing-like globes, the rocket-shaped Jinmao Tower and the "the Bottletop-opener", as locals refer to the sleek and elegant Shanghai World Financial Centre dominated the dramatic skyline of the Lujiazui finance and trade district. Hard to fathom it was swampy agricultural land just two decades ago.

Work goes on around the clock on the one thousand new construction projects that begin each year in the city. It's as though there is not a moment to lose. I'm reminded of those stories of children raised in religious straitjackets who let loose when they leave home. In Shanghai, all that capitalist instinct, so long constrained by communism, has burst out of the bottle.

From Prada and Gucci in the golden shopping strip of Nanjing Rd to the fun of the fake markets, where ritzy knock-offs are stored behind false walls, all shopping experiences are covered.

You can eat frugally at back-street noodle cafes or in grand style. My culinary highlight was an outstanding seared tuna steak at the rooftop New Heights restaurant in The Bund, the meal preceded by a breathtaking fireworks display over the river right in front of us, with the Lujiazui skyline providing a glittering backdrop.

It's as though everyone in Shanghai has a deal to make, a service to offer, a standard of living to raise.

"Oh, I am very stupid and you are very clever," says Wendy, a skilful and friendly 20-something stall attendant in the fake markets.

Wendy is insinuating that I have bargained well but dissolves into good-natured laughter when I point out the knowing smile of her colleague who clearly has heard it all before.

Her generation understands this commercial world. In May, she tells me, she will be working at World Expo 2010, for which construction is, typically, ahead of schedule.

After two painful centuries of civil war and invasion, China is open to the world. Mao Zedong battened it down but also held it together. Deng Xiaopeng opened it for business and has raised hundreds of millions out of poverty, creating a middle-class whose consumption saw China recover from the world recession faster than any other nation.

That emerging middle class includes our multi-lingual, techno-savvy and fashion conscious guide, Jasmine Lee.

"Yes, no glass," she smiles, tapping the rim of her lensless spectacles. "For the hairstyle!"

What change her family has seen. She grew up sharing a 15sq m room and a chamberpot with her parents and grandmother. That building was bulldozed and her family given a lease for a similar price on a two-room apartment with five times the floor space.

Her father was pulled from school aged 16 during the Cultural Revolution and sent to work on a farm. Physical labour was deemed more important than education in that China the wisdom contained in Mao's Little Red Book deemed to be all the knowledge one needed.

I bought a miniature version of Mao's manifesto for $10 from the Shanghai Propaganda Poster Art Centre. This place is filled with colourful posters that idealise life under Mao's communist rule and demonise the imperialistic west. The one I bought was of a handsome, larger-than-life Chinese soldier crushing a cowering US counterpart under foot.

It's a slice of Chinese history that was almost lost having been ordered to be destroyed after the Cultural Revolution. This is the private collection of Yang Pei Ming who during the revolution was ordered from university and sent hundreds of kilometres to work in a canning factory.

Yang found the posters in markets and junks shops and told me he felt they should be preserved as much for their artistic merit as for the historical record.

You get the sense his gallery is tolerated rather than embraced by Chinese authorities. Its underground feel is not simply due to its location in the bowels of an apartment complex that can be hard to find. You take a dingy elevator down to the basement of building B. Two rooms are crammed with hundreds of colourful posters, just a fraction of the 5000 he has. Ask nicely and he may show you a private stockroom where large originals are mounted on walls behind protective screens.

"It is important," says Yang, "It is beautiful art".

Most visitors to his gallery are foreigners. That will change, he thinks, as the internet and China's engagement with the world fosters not just curiosity but the freedom to be curious about their country's recent past. "China was closed for 30 years," says Yang. "Today it is jumping up."

With its record-breaking towers, its world's fastest train (the 431km/h Maglev whisks you the 30km between airport and city in seven minutes), Shanghai can seem to be so intent on its future that it forgets its past.

Traditional buildings are fast falling in the name of progress. That's why I was pleased to stay at the Astor Hotel, a grand colonial pile that reeks of history and comes with the prospect of someone famous having stayed in your room.

I teased my travel companions that I'd discovered carved on the underside of the huge oak desk in my vast room the inscription "Einy was here". I had them for less than a milli-second, but it was fun to think that the likes of Einstein, Charlie Chaplin, Zhou Enlai and philosopher Bertrand Russell trod these floor boards.

Not so very long ago, travelling in China was beset with difficulties. Signs were only in Chinese, you could stay only at designated hotels which lacked the incentive to serve as the government paid set incomes irrespective of how many guests stayed. How different Shanghai is today.

Mad Max spoke no English, I spoke no Mandarin, but we had no problem helping each other out. I showed him the name of my hotel written in Chinese characters, we negotiated a price by writing numbers with our fingers in the dust on his scooter, and off we zoomed.

Max and I whizzed across Garden Bridge, which was ablaze with fairy lights, and pulled up, safe and sound, outside the Astor. We exchanged smiles and handshakes and I paid him double, making his day as he had mine.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Air New Zealand has up to three direct flights per week from Auckland to Shanghai. Phone 0800 737 000 or visit airnz.co.nz.

Where to stay: Astor House Hotel.

What to do: Don't miss the Propaganda Poster Art Centre, Room BOC, 868 Hua Shan Rd. Entry 20 Yuan ($4).

Further information: See cnto.org.

- NZ Herald

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