The Lows of Shang-High

How low is low for a place so high like Shanghai? Find out how the Pearl of the Orient, the Paris of the East isn’t as appealing as you thought it would be. “Another sharp, insightful piece about her travels in the Far East.”

Shanghai cast me a weird look when I went to the theatre alone on a Tuesday evening. She didn’t understand. Why are you watching a play alone? I saw the much-acclaimed “Secret Love in Peach Blossom Land”, a marvelous work created by one of Asia’s most highly regarded Taiwanese playwrights and theatre directors, Stan Lai. It was a superb theatrical adaptation of the Oscar winning film. An unusual, refreshing and deeply entertaining synthesis of two romantically beautiful, yet political and hilarious stories of love, loss and one’s longing for utopia set in different times – one modern and another period. It was about two troupes of actors who, by accident, booked their rehearsals at the same time, and later discovered how the themes of their play collide. But annoyingly, there were these two screens positioned awkwardly at each side of the stage, showing distractingly unsynchronised English subtitles. There’s just something about Shanghai that’s not quite right.

On the following day, Shanghai took me on a motorbike ride at two in the morning to an open plan bar that sells over 3,000 brands of beer from all around the world, fed me enchiladas and nachos, then put me into a taxi and saw me home at four. The bar is called Beer Lady. Shanghai spoke to me in her New York accent and invited me to a gallery at the Bellagio. Shanghai refused to seat me at a Sze Chuan boiled fish restaurant because the fish, sold by every half a kilo, is too much for one person; but went on to feed me a dozen fat, juicy pork and chives Shandong dumplings dripping with un-pretention and broth.

Shanghai also spoke to me in Shanghainese. A svelt, willowy dialect not at all jarring coming from a lady dressed in fine embroidered qi-pao.

Apart from that, everything that Shanghai had given me was not Shanghai.

Shanghai is a port city; once attracted the Brits, twice the opium wars, and countless times the world. Shanghai, also called the Paris of the East, is very much like Paris. The Huang Pu river, like the Seine, slits the land into Pudong trade zone in the east and chi-chi Puxi à la Rive Gauche in the west. Shanghai is obsessed with the French phoenix trees because the Shanghainese believe the branches are where the immortal bird come to rest their feet. Shanghai’s favourite word is “civilisation”. Everywhere in the city there were banners that screamed, “Be civilised!”, “You are the civilised culture!” Shanghai tries very hard to be civilised, but I am not too convinced if everyone in her hands understand the meaning of civilisation quite the same.

Being in Shanghai is like being in a deluxe A380 – seeing the First-Class passengers and the people in Economy shoehorned into their respective spaces within very close proximity, separated by a tiny little curtain, but all moving towards the same direction, at the same speed.

The similarity between Shanghai and Mumbai is that the rich lives depressingly close to the poor; the difference being, in Shanghai, the class system is fervently overthrown and everybody is brainwashed to aspire to the same height and to want the same things. And you probably guessed it right. It’s the C word. Don’t make me say the C word.

What most people didn’t see nor realise is that Shanghai is marginally desperate and comically confused.

The Marriage Market in the People’s Park is where cutthroat geriatric Tinder represents come to play. Parents would pay a fee to “market” their children to potential suitors. There were walls and walls of get-me-hitched CVs airing out ghastly personal information for the public to pick and choose. Your future in-laws want to know what you do (if you work for a foreign-owned company, definitely put that in), your Chinese zodiac (because a rabbit must not be with a tiger), your blood type, whether you own a car or a property, and the most important of all, your monthly salary. Don’t worry about explaining how meditation and your regular sessions of Tabata yoga have made you a better person. No need to tell them your opinions on gender equality or what great sense of humour you have. It doesn’t matter. As popularly quipped by a female contestant in the country’s top dating TV show, “I would rather cry in a BMW than smile on a bicycle”.

So if that floats your boat, know that someone out there is willing to cry you a river.

Infuriatingly, people think this is a Chinese thing; and the younger  generation blame this on the Chinese tradition and culture. It’s not. Not even close. Despite being born and bred in Malaysia, being a Chinese by ethnicity myself, I know. Like how people use religion to mask their greed and to instigate wars, tradition and culture are both excuses. I’ll tell you what. The one and only reason is that these parents are frankly bored. Bored out of their mind. Bellicosely and bulimically bored. So bored that they would binge on their neighbours’ guff and purge on their children.

The older generation of Mainland Chinese grew up in a time where the country was toiling away day and night to get to the top. There was not much money, not much entertainment. There was nothing. Now that China has joined the Superpower Club, they are starting to rest their plough and play dollhouse, catching up on all the play time they’d lost in their youth. It’s the hangover of a social and economic reform. The one-child policy clearly didn’t help.

Tian Zi Fang in the French Concession area is a faux marbling of alleyways, pigmented by boutique shops, art galleries and a terrazzo of tourists. Decidedly quaint and meaningless. A self-inflated toytown where spending more than 45 minute will likely to lead you to buy something that you don’t need. There is nothing much to say about Tian Zi Fang except that it’s somewhere that you should go because the Shanghainese make you do it. So go, then forget about it until someone back in England asks if you’ve visited Tian Zi Fang in Shanghai, to which you say yes and move on to discuss some other more worthy topics.

Walk further to Huai Hai Road shopping district and you’ll see that it’s like Orchard Road in Singapore, Xinyi District in Taipei, Tsim Sha Tsui in Hong Kong. Replicated and instanding. An overspread of international brands that are all well, Made in China, if that’s the kind of souvenir you’re after.

The Bund is just a cord of neo-classical architecture, majestic but exhausting because walking from one end to another is not worth it. Go to Sir Elly’s Terrace at the Peninsula Hotel instead, order a plummy cocktail and nibble on the skyline of Shanghai from a bird eye’s view. 

The No. 12 on the Bund is the HSBC building which looks nothing like the Chinese – Greek pillars, Roman Dome and two English bronze lions, called guess what? Stephen and Stitt. In fact, the whole building looks like someone just stuck the Mosta Rotunda of Malta in one side of the quads of Somerset House. The two thousand kilo Bund Bull statue, on the other hand, is a lot more interesting even though it’s not new. It’s the second Di Modica’s Charging Bull after his first installation on Wall Street in front of the New York Stock Exchange twenty years ago. According to a tour guide, if you stroke he’s willy (the bull’s, not the tour guide’s), it would bring you good luck and prosperity.

The bull’s willy is now very shiny. The tour guide’s, I wouldn’t know.

Shanghai is underwhelming.

Pales in comparison with Beijing, which I had so vocally and unashamedly enjoyed. The people are a lot gentler, but lack character. Food is mediocre. Culture is largely stolen.

We all know that this Airbus is definitely going somewhere, but we don’t know where exactly it’s going. Shanghai needs to be mindful that nobody likes being in the plane for too long.

A picture of me in Tian Zi Fang. Might have overdone it with the faux fur gilet but no, not sorry Im not.

With love x

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