Shanghai: Where romance is big business

By Duncan Gillies

Duncan Gillies visits a city where one in 65 people is a millionaire - and romance is a growth industry.

Love for life and brief liaisons are both big earners in Shanghai. Photo / Duncan Gillies
Love for life and brief liaisons are both big earners in Shanghai. Photo / Duncan Gillies

"I have met a beautiful Chinese woman and I won't be coming back," I wrote.

It's been a while since someone at work took me seriously, so I didn't expect my boss to read my email and really believe I'd be staying in Shanghai with the new love of my life. After all, I'm a husband, a father and the owner of two cats, the head of a happily dysfunctional household.

And sure enough. "Okay, sure, see you soon," came the reply.

Yet it would have been easy to fall in love, even in the few days I spent in the city, if I was single and not so easily scared.

Getting someone to fall in love with me might have been a different matter. In Shanghai, a city of more than 23 million, where what most women want in a man is a good car, a good job and a nice apartment, Cupid would probably laugh at my annual income. And I ended up running away from the women who were most keen to get to know me, worried that even if I'm not a rich man by Shanghai standards, they still would have been happy to take whatever money I had.

Think of romantic cities and Shanghai doesn't immediately come to mind. It is bright lights and big business. The most recognisable image of the city now is Pudong, the business district that has sprouted up like a scene from the Jetsons since then-Premier Li Peng announced plans to develop the area in 1990.

That progress has also shaped the people of Shanghai. If the city were a man, he would probably drive a million-dollar sports car and be more interested in impressing the girls with his wild wealth than his softer, sensitive side.

Sure, Shanghai pitches itself as the Paris of the Orient, but to shoppers, not young lovers.

Still, love is alive in Shanghai, if not always in a conventional sense.

Most cities give away their secrets down sidestreets and alleyways or while the rest of the world sleeps. While a cheap taxi ride to the outer suburbs of Shanghai lets you see the city without all its makeup, the early riser gets an insight into a simpler way of life along the Huangpu River pedestrian strip.

Before most tourists have even had their breakfast, locals are out on the concrete-block walkway that lies between the river and the Bund, the stretch of colonial-era buildings that are the symbol of old Shanghai. And it is there that I see the first real signs of intimacy, old couples enjoying a morning walk, their age impossible to guess and their good health, no doubt due to a life of hard work and a traditional diet. In a city where courting is now often a complex equation between possessions and earning potential, it is encouraging to see signs of a love that has lasted the tests of time.

In the hours before the smog descends on the city, it's easy to imagine a good life for those making the most of the morning sunshine. Groups who appear to the outsider to be recently retired practise tai chi in colourful costumes, while middle-aged couples, far more supple than most westerners their age, stretch, lunge and jump as they guide shuttlecocks over imaginary badminton nets. Those not interested in Earth-bound pursuits fly kites that rise so high they appear to hover above Pudong's space-age skyline.

As the morning rolls on, the riverbank pedestrian strip becomes a destination for locals and visitors alike - more old couples walking at Zimmer-frame speed, families with young children in tow and groups of teenagers taking turns at pulling peace signs for holiday snapshots.

It's not just tourists taking photographs, though. Young couples dressed for their wedding day pose for professional photographers. It's all good looks and glamour. The men are immaculately groomed, the women, some in the white dresses of the west, others in the red that signifies good luck in China, all look as though they could grace the cover of an international fashion magazine.

But few, if any, will be married on the day. The wedding industry in China is now worth nearly $80 billion a year and photographers are cashing in. Many couples will have their wedding photos taken over several days, months beforehand, spending thousands of dollars ensuring they get the shots just right.

Maybe it should come as no surprise that in Shanghai love and money are so entwined. The city made millionaires out of many of those who moved there after a series of treaties signed in the 1840s allowed outsiders to set up shop and made it a centre for international trade. Today, according to a report this year by the Hurun Research Institute, one out of every 65 people in Shanghai is a US-dollar millionaire.

I don't know if the women who approach me think I am a millionaire but most are keen for me to buy them a drink and even dinner. Others just want to take me to a "sex bar" where I can choose the woman of my dreams.

During the day along the Bund and the nearby Nanjing Rd, the women try to engage in conversation before revealing their true intentions. At night it is hard to walk 20 metres without someone trying to grab my arm to make me go with them. A friendly "no thanks" is not enough, and their regular phone conversations make me worry I'm being set up.

"So you don't like Chinese women?" one woman asks after failing to win me over. "Of course I like Chinese women," I assure her. "Good, I know lots of lovely Chinese women," she says and the cycle starts again.

"Aah, so you like other men," another woman says after her soft-sell-hard-sell tactics fail to work on me. "No, I am married," I say, showing her my wedding ring. "But not in China," she replies.

"Sorry," I say. "Even in China I'm married."

And then she gets another phone call. "It's just my friend," she says. "You might like her."

And as she talks on the phone I begin to jog until once again I'm just another western man walking alone down Nanjing Rd. And it's only a matter of time before someone else approaches me. In Shanghai, I guess it's just the price you have to pay for wandering the streets alone.

Check out the video Duncan Gillies shot of the view across Pudong from his hotel room:

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Cathay Pacific flies daily to Hong Kong, with connecting flights on Cathay Pacific and sister airline, Dragonair to Shanghai. Return economy fares to Shanghai start at $1732 plus taxes and airport charges of $65, and business class fares start at $6000 plus the same taxes and charges.

On these airfares and on days when Cathay Pacific does not have a same-day connecting flight from Hong Kong to Shanghai, Cathay Pacific will provide complimentary overnight hotel accommodation.

Duncan Gillies travelled courtesy of Cathay Pacific and stayed as a guest of the Peninsula Shanghai.

- NZ Herald

© Copyright 2014, APN New Zealand Limited

Assembled by: (static) on production bpcf05 at 29 Dec 2014 04:37:08 Processing Time: 1257ms