City of Sound is about cities, design, architecture, music, media, politics and more. Written by Dan Hill since 2001.

Shanghai Diary #3

Written in


Next instalment from Justin O’Connor, who’s in Shanghai this summer and sharing his observations – context here. Interesting side-note: Justin’s not actually been able to get through to my site to see his entries here – apparently many ‘western-based’ sites are difficult to get behind the Chinese cultural firewall. I’ve added a few seemingly useful links to this piece, dated 1st August.

"After the last entry I started to read an article by Jing Wang: "Culture as Leisure and Culture as Capital" (Positions, Vol.9 No.1 Spring 2001) where she writes:

"Dichotomous thinking seems to have trapped all (cultural) tourists who, after a sightseeing trip to Tiananmen Square, are prone to turn themselves into instant China experts"

She proceeds to give Terry Eagleton a bit of a kicking for his contrast of the Mao portrait and McDonalds occupying the same space. I took the ‘instant China expert’ to heart. So I thought less of the speculations – more of what’s under your nose. But what is under your nose? Is it the first encounters, the obvious things that strike any tourist. When I saw a taxi driver with his old Nescafe jar filled with tea (one third leaves, the other liquid) I thought – good idea. Within a day I realized that this was ubiquitous. You can even buy fancy jars with silver tops. And were they ever Nescafe jars? Or something like food culture – the most obvious place for a westerner to start. It’s all over. Hundreds, thousands, millions of restaurants, street stalls, market stalls, corner shops, bakeries, 7-elevens, individuals with fruit, melons, corn-on-the-cob. I felt sorry for the Rough Guide team – how on earth do you do a food listing in such a city? Actually they are forced to include McDonalds and various western-style restaurants, to give some relief to the challenged tourist palate. My big moment was when I realized that the huge Tiger Prawns ‘cooked’ in the ice bucket – to be picked out, heads ripped off and dipped in washabi sauce – were in fact moving. They were cold, and moving slowly, but for the first time in my life I felt like a predator, bite into that living flesh. It was the eyes though. But generally the big problem is that Chinese like meat that is closest to the bone, so all the gnarled and twisted bits we throw to the side of the plate – they’re the best bits. I used to think that Chinese restaurants were saving the best bits elsewhere – little did I know that I was in fact eating them. So eating is not about cutting, selecting, paring, separating, chewing, swallowing – putting food into the mouth is just the first bit of a long complex process before you get to the swallowing bit. And how many chefs and waiters in this city?

I went to a posh place on Friday. The doors opened automatically and you walked a long passage of wood with water running on either side – like crossing a river to a tea house on the lake – then more swoosh and into a very stylish restaurant. The style I suppose was contemporary Chinese – though I’m still not sure what it is. It reminded me of Petersburg. There, when the money, the stylistic understanding and the bribes clicked together, you could feel a cultural inheritance of 200 years geared up for the 21st century. This was not imitation of the West, it was a re-interpretation of its stylistic imperatives. But what stood out was the food first – a lot of it cooked and served at the table (in a not very gimmicky way, because I’d seen versions of this in less posh restaurants) in a way that spoke to Chinese tastes and appreciation – which are far more ‘democratic’ or ‘popular’ than in the UK. Then what amazed was the sheer number of chefs and waiters. But most Chinese like to eat out in big, huge, enormous restaurants – three, four floors all big, all brightly lit, full of shiny colours and glittery decorations. In fact like UK Chinatowns but more modern, more shiny, less down at heel. And the food is fresh and cooked very quickly. Sometimes the first bits start arriving before you’re finished ordering the full list. And it’s all over by 9 pm.

After the posh meal I walked back from the posh French Concession area – the most ‘European’ area in the sense that it still is mainly low rise, tree lined, with a street life not dominated by looming residential towers. Somehow readable. It was an odd mix, walking South West to the first major ring road (Shanghai has a system of concentric ring roads, which are all elevated – the outermost is M25 size). Bits felt like South Kensington, big hotels and some small bars down side streets, light in the trees; others like LA (or is that Golders Green?) – strips of restaurants, bars, real estate, beauty products, and darkness behind. You could see quite a few westerners – out looking for bars, jumping in and out of taxis, up for it on a Friday night. Then further out those bars that think they are appealing to westerners but don’t – brightly lit ‘Judy’s’, ‘Lill’s pub’, ‘Bourbon Street’, ‘Energy Bar’ (all display lights seemingly secured from a very active Johnny Walker rep). The fancier ones have girls outside, stood behind a desk with a ledger (what for?). This is not some prostitute come-on – in Guangzhou (Canton) there is a whole city-promoted street full of bars each with a team of these girls (all matching costumes) stood around a desk. It is called (as the neon archway tells you in English) ‘Bar Street’. I don’t know who goes in these as yet. I’m sure other people do. Then further out, more street life, fewer westerners, more bicycles. You don’t notice many bikes in the centre, but gradually they increase until they are five abreast, great swarms of them. But then, when it seems you are leaving the modern centre a huge shopping and entertainment complex appears. You might think Blade Runner – but the seediness and urban brutalism (Ridley Scott was a child of Thatcherism) are not there. Huge towers lit by neon ads; walkways in the sky; thousands of people out walking amongst the street vendors, the Budweiser-sponsored something-to-do-with-BMX thing in one corner, some other film or TV shoot in another – Friday night in the big city without some angry, bitter, drunken male (mostly) throwing up or trying to hit you. These places don’t register in the Rough Guide, partly because they are so new the probably missed the last edition, but also because they don’t fit their image of what a westerner wants to see.

But these centers are springing up all over. Right out west, coming nearly to the limits of the city proper there’s a huge new development – an ‘international’ (what does this mean?) leisure-culture-entertainment (read Jing Wang on this) centre. On the hoarding there is a picture of the old houses it replaces – two story houses clustered densely together. You could image a sixties shopping centre in the UK with a similar picture of back-to-backs on it (if they’d bothered to think about informing you in those days). And this would make you think about the down sides, the deracination of modernisation. In Beijing the hotel in which I stayed was in the middle of an area of very small one floor houses grouped in quadrangles – Hutongs. Some of these date back to the Ming but most to the Qing dynasty (ie. between 15th and 19th centuries). They were being knocked down as I was there, to make a road to the Olympic Village. They were about 20 minutes walk from the historic centre. One would be there one day and as we passed the next – they were broken, exposed, intimate spaces revealed, wallpaper flapping in the breeze.  Looking through the dark alleys into the interior, past sillouetttes of bicycles leant against the wall, a glimpse of window ledge with plants, washing out to dry, old men sitting and staring. The streets in the Hutong district were living rooms – people sat out, lay on camp beds, watched TV, played cards. Little hole in the wall shops sold kebabs. Bottles of beer (they’re all satisfyingly big at 640 cls., which makes me wonder if this corresponds to an old Chinese measure, hidden behind the metric) and some of the sour strong spirit (53%) stand next to chairs with groups of men and women. It’s all like some cup-of-sugar version of the old working class communities of England – but hot, exotic, quaint, nostalgic. This is what being a tourist should be like – a glimpse of another past somehow evoking how far you’re come, what you have lost. But any romanticism (A Year in the Hutongs by Peter Maile, this week’s ‘Book at Bedtime’…) is easily dispelled by the public toilets. Like the Nescafe jars – very quickly I realized that the ubiquitous provision of public toilets was not some enlightened tourism and street life policy – they were there for the locals. And they were as pretty as an outside bog in Salford in mid-November.

In Shanghai the Hutongs are called differently – Linongs. They’ve disappeared in the centre mostly, though there are some that were sufficiently rare to be pointed out to me from the elevated freeway once. And of course one of the new leisure and culture developments in the centre are new build retro-linongs – very good replicas of the dense clustered houses with kitsch art, knick knacks, McCafe, expensive restaurants, Haagan Daz. We’re all been there before. But whilst we westerners can only look ambiguously on a hoarding with a picture of the old working class houses (I say working class, this was more or less everybody really) declaring their demolition in favour of an ‘international’ leisure and entertainment complex – for the Shanghainese (?) this is a source of pride, progress and anticipation. Anybody over 25 can remember real poverty and deprivation. (Which still exists; out in the west, far from any tourists, we got a bicycle rickshaw, three of us in one, and got a 15 minute ride in the heat for 50p. I was embarrassed about how this might look; the two Chinese people I was with had no such problem: he’s just a peasant in from the countryside – there’s nothing else he can do).

But back on the streets the shopping gave way to lower rise modern complexes of bars and restaurants and hairdressers (still open of course, it was only 10pm) – families sitting out on tables in their vests, piles of shrimp shells, paper tissues, beer, tea. This was street life as in southern Italy and it survived through density and the appropriation of whatever space seemed to work. Every now and then on my trip back I came across groups of dancers – older people but not all so. They would find a space – a park was one such spot but further out is was the space infront of a shopping centre or office block – and dance to a portable stereo. Waltzy sort of music. Sometimes similar groups could be found of mostly young people, this time doing some exercise related stuff, tai chi with a bit of pink leg-warmer thrown in. Then further out now, onto the end of ‘my’ street which is in fact one of Shanghai’s interior decoration quarter’, of which more of later. Here there were many bikes, and people sitting and lying on the streets, but this time not consuming, they just looked exhausted. Probably waiting to go back to the cramped temporary accommodation provided for the construction workers.

So that’s what’s under my nose. But I looked out this morning and saw that the electricity sub-station opposite didn’t have a wire fence. I was sure I’d seen one but it’s not there. In England there would be one, so I saw it and wrote it. In fact only now can I see the streets, only now can I focus on what shops are there. Seeing the city is not innocent, even the most basic things. Reading the city for me means reading the words about it, the histories and analyses, the maps and the reviews. It’s a city of words as much as images.

And, though it rained it did not go below 36. So we’re now record breaking and going for the big 20 days."

Elevated highway, Shanghai Metro, Shanghai Xujiahui, Shanghai Xujiahui, Shanghai Traffic, Xujiahui, Shanghai

This impression of Shanghai is by Justin O’Connor. All Shanghai Diary entries.


4 responses to “Shanghai Diary #3”

  1. Snarkmarket Avatar

    ‘It Ate Its Children’ (or) I Love Blogs

    More and more these days, I am enjoying the Web as a window into the passions and pursuits of smart professionals and scholars. Via Space and Culture, I found this great post on a blog called City of Sound. It’s…


  2. wanchunyan Avatar



  3. Tuija Avatar

    The phrase “instant China experts” touched me too. Having just returned from my first ever visit to China, Shanghai, I’m just blown away still by the scale of everything, a fact that you mention once or twice in this Shanghai Diary, too. I couldn’t put my thoughts into writing that much, but I took several hundred pictures, some of which I always posted on Flickr at the end of theday:
    I’ve been this year to two other developing countries (just when will they stop calling China that?) – Mongolia and Dakar. The latter just seems to have no hope. Corruption is to blame, for sure, but even more, failing to put girls to school, methinks.


  4. Dan Avatar

    Trackbacks sent to this post at the time (before I turned trackbacks off due to spam):

    » ‘It Ate Its Children’ (or) I Love Blogs from Snarkmarket
    More and more these days, I am enjoying the Web as a window into the passions and pursuits of smart professionals and scholars. Via Space and Culture, I found this great post on a blog called City of Sound. It’s… [Read More]


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: