If we had stayed on the Yangtze river, suffered the horror of having to stay on that rat-infested boat, Tianshan, we would eventually have ended up visiting the "Whore of the East". Of all the names, I had heard for Shanghai, the "Whore of the East" was the most offensive, yet, strangely, the most intriguing. I had heard a lot about the sordid history of the city, a haven for crooks, swindlers, con artists, drug dealers, gangsters and pimps, yet Shanghai was also home to adventurers and tycoons. Indiana Jones began his journey to the Temple of Doom in Shanghai in the thirties, and the images in that movie, together with countless other similar old films, had painted a vivid picture of what I was to expect upon my arrival. The name "Shanghai" means "by the sea", and describes the city perfectly. In the 19th century Shanghai was a thriving trading port, easily the busiest in China, trading in goods such as silk and tea. However, other nefarious activities such as gambling, prostitution and opium dealing led to the its bad reputation whilst at the same time hauling in huge profits for those who lived outside the law. By the 1930's, the time of depicted in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, the city had acquired a large population of foreign residents (French, British and American) who lived in certain territorial zones outside the jurisdiction of Chinese law. However, after World War 2, the Communist Party, which incidentally was founded in the Shanghai in 1921, (in their words) "liberated" the city, gradually removing all foreign influence and taking over the previously lucrative businesses. The achievements of the communist government between then and 1990 could be said to have been a huge success; they eliminated the slums and rehabilitated the thousands of opium addicts in the city whilst at the same time, eradicating child and slave labour.
Since 1990, Shanghai has undergone a small transformation, mainly due to the amount of money, which has been invested by the government and foreign investors. The new developments are centred on the Pudong area on the eastern side of the Huangpu River, which is home to several Hong Kong style skyscrapers and the Oriental Pearl Tower. Plans are actually underway to construct the largest building in the world in the city.
Clearly Shanghai has come a long way since it was founded in the 11th century as a small fishing village. By the 19th century it had become the largest city in China, its population growing from around 50,000 in the mid 18th century to one million by the year 1900, finally reaching the massive 14.2 million of today. Incredibly the city, in terms of population is over twice the size of Hong Kong and larger by a good 2 million than Beijing.
The name "Whore of the East" would almost certainly not apply to Shanghai today. These days it is called more respectable names such as "the Paris of China" or "the Queen of the Orient". I was really looking forward to spending time there.
After a comfortable night's sleep, the express train pulled into Shanghai station. The two businessmen with whom we were sharing, opened their briefcases and, almost simultaneously, grabbed their mobile phones and started dialing. Our last half an hour on the train was spent listening to the two men jabbering loudly. One, in particular, was becoming rather animated, raising his voice and shaking his fist at the person at the other end. We watched in silent amusement. The scene reminded me of Hong Kong where you are considered an abnormal deviant if you do not carry at least a mobile phone.
We disembarked from the train into a modern, yet still chaotic, railway station. I looked around and found that there was something missing. For a while, I couldn't put my finger on what it was. Then it occurred to me. Not a single tout could be seen. My now established paranoid streak, urged me to be wary. Perhaps they were hiding, waiting for the right moment to pounce. I mentally prepared myself to explode in a tsunami of abuse, but it was all, happily, in vain. Nobody leapt in front of us trying to offer us a hotel room or carry our rucksacks. Not one person tried to get us on a bus or bundle us in a taxi. All we could see were commuters going to work, rushing past us to catch the underground train into the city.
It was remarkably easy to find the local metro station, something we were not used to, and although there were hundreds of people rushing about, the chaos seemed to be controlled; people knew where they were going, exit signs were clearly marked and there was no sign of the mayhem we had encountered in Guangzhou. Furthermore, the station was extremely modern, once again reminding me of Hong Kong. We had a few problems buying tickets because there were no instructions in English (which surprised me a bit), but, once we were on the platform, the destinations and metro maps were crystal clear. We knew exactly where we wanted to go and exactly how we would get there (the fact that our destination was on the only line running from the railway station helped).
The train, when it arrived, was spotlessly clean and extremely modern, once again reminding me of the MTR in Hong Kong. The people didn't bat an eyelid at us, leading me to believe that Shanghai was a cosmopolitan city full of tourists and foreign workers - a far cry from a place like Fengdu, where Lisa and I had been constantly stared at. When we arrived at our destination, we left the metro station and there standing directly opposite was a McDonalds. Hunger and the smell of burgers engulfed me and dragged me inside where Lisa and I had a breakfast that was extremely bad for our health but wholly satisfying.
The map in the guide book was not detailed enough to help us find our target hotel and, rather than getting lost wandering around looking for it, we opted for a taxi. Traffic was manic as we had come to expect in major Chinese cities and I was convinced that the driver was taking us the long way round down hugely busy streets to prolong the journey and increase his fare. In the end, it turned out that the road on which our hotel was situated was being dug up. We decided to get out and walk, much to the annoyance of the cab driver. We stepped out into complete mayhem; cars were queued up waiting for temporary traffic lights; workmen dug up the road with pneumatic drills, causing so much noise pollution that I could barely hear Lisa speaking to me. The road was also a fairly major shopping area and we struggled to make our way up the street past busy shoppers, other tourists and businessmen shouting into their mobile phones above the cacophony. And, to cap it all, we could not find our hotel.
We walked up and down the street repeatedly, covering old ground, checking and rechecking every building and every doorway. We double checked the guide book and checked the street name over and over.. The hotel was nowhere to be found. The two of us were becoming more and more frustrated and started snapping at each other. The heat, the chaos and our ineptitude began to wear us down. More out of desperation than anything else Lisa suggested that we try inside the shops. I was incredulous and asked why. Was she expecting us to spend the night in a clothes shop? Had she lost her mind and decided to go shopping instead.
Looking back, it was clear and obvious that her plan was to ask a shop assistant. I don’t know why I didn’t think of that myself. Perhaps it was the heat; maybe it I was blind to the obvious. Either way, the look Lisa gave to me was one that would have struck fear into even the bravest soul. I think she felt the urge to beat me senseless there and then in front of a throng of Chinese shoppers. Thank heavens that her desire to locate a hotel room won the argument.
She whirled away from me and asked a shop assistant who immediately pointed to a doorway which was clearly labelled in English.
Feeling rather sorry for myself and not really wanting to antagonize Lisa further, I humbly followed her until we eventually reached the reception. Once more we asked for a discount and this time got the rather terse answer “Why?”
Clearly we were going to have to accept the given room rate. Having booked in we asked whether we could change some travellers cheques. Again the answer came – “Why?”
The receptionist thought that “why” meant “what” and we realised that perhaps we could have got a discount after all. The room was acceptable though not as good as our last abode in Beijing.
After a short rest we decided to head for Frenchtown, the former French concession, a place where there seemed to be a fair amount to do and a few places to eat. As we walked, I noticed that unlike other the other cities we had visited, a lot more people in Shanghai spoke English and we attracted far fewer stares than anywhere else. It was a refreshing change not to be watched by gawping faces with their mouths wide open in a frozen visage of shock. There were also quite a few westerners walking around and businessmen from both China and other places.
True to form, when we left the metro we went the wrong way. Not knowing exactly where we were we strolled around for a while until Lisa spotted a Blind Massage parlour.
“Let’s have a massage,” she said eagerly.
“Er, I’ll leave that up to you,” I replied.
“Coward,” she shouted accusingly. To be honest I was a little apprehensive about allowing myself to be pummelled half to death by a blind Chinese stranger but I think calling me a coward was a little extreme.
“I’ll watch,” I said finally.
We entered the massage parlour and Lisa approached the attendant. The cost of the massage was 60 yuan for 60 minutes. The parlour contained several beds each of which had a hole where clients put their faces while the massage took place. There were little indents in the side of the bed to accommodate the arms.
Lisa was led to a bed and motioned to lie down face first. A towel was provided for comfort. The attendant covered her with a white sheet and a blind masseuse was led to the side of the bed.
As I watched, the masseuse tackled Lisa’s shoulders, pinching and pressing the skin with extreme pressure. From my chair it looked really painful. Either she got used to the treatment or the technique actually worked. I couldn’t see Lisa’s facial expression because she was facing the floor. I was tempted to go and have a peek but resisted.
After a while, the masseuse moved away from the shoulder and down the back, using her hand press really hard. She balled her fist and pressed it against the skin, rotating it and digging in with her knuckles. Once again, to me, it didn’t look very comfortable. This technique was used all the way down her spine and occasionally she used her elbow to press other areas.
After the back she moved onto Lisa’s legs, chopping away with her hand. Sometimes she used the flat of her hand, playing Lisa’s legs like a drum, the slaps echoing around the room. After dealing with Lisa’s ankles, she motioned Lisa to turn over and set about massaging her head.
The masseuse used her thumbs on the top of Lisa’s head and stroked the area just below her eyes and around the nose. She used circular pressing movements on her temples. The rest of Lisa’s body was treated in much the same way, dealing with her arms and legs. The fingers had a unique treatment all of their own; the masseuse took each little pinky and rotated it slowly before pulling it a bit and then bending it slowly.
The final treatment was a few gentle mini karate-style chops to the head.
When it was all over, Lisa reluctantly stood up and we left the parlour. She told me that at one point she had almost fallen asleep, which amazed me considering the amount of slapping, chopping and pressing I had witnessed. And now after the event she told me that she felt totally relaxed with all tension being removed by the talented masseuse, rather like using the steam valve on a pressure cooker to relieve the strain.
I was surprised at how lively Lisa was now. As well as being chirpier she was also a lot happier and definitely more relaxed. I thought she’d been beaten up by a blind Chinese person. She disagreed saying it was the most relaxing experience she had had for a while. It had hurt briefly as the “knots” were removed but the latter stages of the massage had been relaxation personified. I made a mental note to drag Lisa away from any other places offering Chinese therapy such as acupuncture clinics – the thought of having pins stuck in me for the good of my health filled me with dread. It is something that I have never understood despite people finding comfort and supposedly better health from the experience.
We eventually found out where we were and discovered a nice little western-style bar where we had a beer before returning to the hotel. The beer here was a lot more expensive than anywhere else we’d been to (though it still didn’t exactly break the bank).
As we were drinking I caught sight of my reflection in the mirror and thought “Who’s that weird beard?”. To be truthful I didn’t think that but the image staring back at me reminded me why I had only ever attempted to grow a beard twice before in my life. For starters, the beard, and I use the term loosely, was very wispy and looked more like the unkempt facial hair of a spotty adolescent. The next thing that struck me was the fact that it was ginger. I’ve got blond hair why the hell is my facial hair ginger? It had taken me two weeks to grow this poor excuse for a beard and quite frankly I looked like an idiot. There was little or no hair on my cheeks. Instead it had decided to grow from the bottom of my chin making me look like a ginger adolescent Abraham Lincoln. No wonder the Chinese had been staring at me for the last few days. Oh, for a razor.
On the way back to the hotel we noticed a load of road works; it seemed as if the whole of Shanghai was being dug up.
There were numerous western style shops in the vicinity of the hotel and the whole city had a cosmopolitan feel to it. The city was undergoing a massive overhaul and skyscrapers were popping up all over the place. In the distance we could see the massive Pearl Tower. I wondered what it was and made a mental note to investigate before we left.
After a snooze we left the hotel in search of evening refreshment. We happened upon “The Jurassic Pub” a dinosaur theme pub that was too intriguing to walk past. Inside there were dinosaur skeletons everywhere. We ordered possibly our most expensive beers so far in China and settled down to enjoy them while listening to a live band. Nature took its course and eventually I had to visit the toilets. I wouldn’t normally mention this but in this case I must.
The urinals were shaped like a dinosaur’s head, giving you the impression, if you were drunk enough or had taken any hallucinogenic drugs that you were actually peeing into the mouth of an angry dinosaur. Even though I had only had the one beer, I found this a little disturbing.
Later we left the pub in search of food and found ourselves wandering past a restaurant called “Shanghai Drugstore”. I walked past and then the name of the place struck me.
“That restaurant’s called the Shanghai Drugstore,” I said to Lisa, who hadn’t noticed it.
“How weird,” she said.
By stopping and remarking on the place we had attracted the attention of the Chinese proprietor who ran out of the front door and grabbed me by the arm. He urged us to come into his restaurant almost dragging me through the doorway, talking in very good English but so quickly that I struggled to get a word in.
I won’t write down everything he said because it would produce another book. The abridged version is this:
He had owned a Chinese restaurant in Palma, Mallorca for over twenty years and had decided to return to China. Upon his return he had opted to use his experience of Mallorca to open a Spanish restaurant in China, effectively using his experience to turn his career around. I loved the irony of the situation.
“I make a brilliant paella. You like paella? You will love my paella. It is the best in China. Come into my restaurant. If you don’t like paella, I have lots of other wonderful Spanish food for you to try. We are very reasonable …”
I could go on but I’m sure you get the gist. He hardly paused for breath as he sold his restaurant to us. Despite all of our negative experiences with certain individuals trying to extract our cash from us, we genuinely like this guy and after a quick consultation with each other opted to give it a try.
He led us inside the restaurant, which was massive. There were lots of round tables adjacent to a large bar area, overflowing with bottles of spirits. Despite his passion, we were the only customers apart from another foursome. I’d expected to find myself in a restaurant overflowing with people. In fact, the only other people in the vicinity were the staff who stood around waiting to serve us.
Despite this we were treated like honoured guests and the enthusiasm of our host was contagious. He continued to chat to us as we waited for our meals to arrive. We didn’t try the paella but the food was fantastic nonetheless and very reasonably priced.
After the meal he gave us a free glass of Tia Maria and we settled our bill with a credit card, which was a pleasant surprise. I had noticed, as we wondered around the city that there were more places taking credit cards. Furthermore we had noticed quite a few ATMs as well; a far cry from the small towns on the Yangtze river where we had struggled to find a bank that would change money for us.
Before we left, our host gave us his business card and urged us to pass on our recommendation to anyone we knew. I couldn’t promise that in Shanghai but I smiled and shook his hand as we left.
We returned to the hotel in high spirits and retired for the night.