Inchin Closer’s CEO Nazia Vasi, a Mumbaikar who lived in Shanghai, goes behind the gloss and presents the loss that comes from growing too big too fast
1. No Beach
Although Shanghai literally means `City on the sea’, this bustling port city on the banks of the East China Sea is beachless. Mumbai’s ragged waterfront could do with some resuscitation, but at least the Juhu and Chowpatty beaches and the promenades on its Western coastline offer some respite to its citizens after a hard day’s work. Shanghai-ians don’t know what it is to sink their feet into the cool, gritty sands, play football on the beach on Sunday or simply chase the waves. Instead of the beach, there is industrial might__ports and docking stations for large container ships. Container shipping companies work overnight loading ships with Chinese goods which travel to markets far and wide including those in Mumbai. Shanghai may be the largest cargo port in the world, but a port city without a beach is a sad city indeed.
2. No birds, No stray dogs
In Shanghai you are nostalgic even for that raucous house crow which persistently tore afternoon siestas to shreds. For look up, and the sky is birdless, the morning without bird call or bird song. Stray dogs too are hard to come by__though, admittedly, many in Mumbai would count this as a blessing. Theories about the birdless city abound, thought up mostly by expats mulling over their beers in nightclubs like Bar Rouge or Windows. The most accepted belief is that the Chinese government had all the birds killed in a bid to stem the spread of bird flu. As for the mutts, perhaps the rash of stalls selling dog meat provide the explanation. Whatever the reason, the lack of any animals makes you think longingly of the four-legged, bird brained multitudes in Mumbai.
3. Artificial City
Tourists and archaeologists love old things, the older the better. One site in Shanghai that particularly draws them in droves is the Jing’an temple, built in 247 AD, 1,760 years ago. But wake up all ye backpackers and put away those Nikons. The temple is a faux version of the old, reconstructed at 40 million Yuan (US$ 4.82 million) only four years ago. Fake-posing-as-real is a malaise in Shanghai. Temples which look like they are a respectable 300 years old are actually three-year-old toddlers. In a massive drive to make Shanghai an international city for the 2010 World Expo, ancient temples were razed to make way for modern parks; heritage sites such as the place near Xintiandi, Shanghai’s center of conspicuous consumption where the Chinese communist party held their first meeting have been given a facelift, instead of being allowed to retain their original look. Now the authorities have realised the error of their ways and are trying to rebuild old monuments. Anyone who has lived here for more than ten years will be pains to point out to newbies whose eyes are still sparking with the dazzle of skyscrapers that all you see is new, utterly new, and a good copy of the original. Copying, of course, is an art that the Chinese have perfected. The bulldozing of heritage should also ring an alarm bell for Mumbai, which is losing many of its grand heritage structures, either through negligence and vandalism or through policy decisions such as the decision to sell all the mill lands.
4. No Opinion
Ask any Chinese what he thinks of North Korea’s nuclear ambitions, the war in Iraq, or even a simple question such as his response to a particular painting and you will get no response. Welcome to No Comment Society, the natural consequence of a political dictatorship where dissent is crushed by tanks and jail sentences. “The Chinese have no opinion about anything. It’s like they don’t think. As a foreign teacher who wants her children to learn by thinking for themselves, giving my students a problem and asking for their solution or reasoning is a failed exercise,” says Hannah Kirby a British teacher in Shanghai. “The Chinese don’t express their opinion at all, instead they just listen to you express your opinion and nod along. Maybe it has to do with years of being oppressed and living in constant fear of speaking out, but it’s frustrating to have a conversation with someone who is too afraid to express his or her feelings about politics, economics or even their own neighbour,” added Abi Tan, an architect in Shanghai.
5. Babies with slits in their pants
The weirdest thing that’s apparent to anybody living in Shanghai is little babies, toddlers and even children with special slits at the back of their pants. Specially stitched into their pants these slits enable mothers to help their babies defecate in public without the trouble of pulling a baby’s pants down. Nullifying the need for nappies, Chinese children just squat fully dressed__just imagine a whole generation of Indian’s growing up with slits in their pants!
6. Skewed News
No matter how you access it__on the radio or on TV, in the newspapers or on the internet, all you will get is China Shining. If anybody tries to tell you any different, well it will just never reach you. CCTV 9, the country’s only English news channel spews boring and repetitive stories of Chinese successes domestic and international. You hear about their ballooning GDP, triumphant trade talks and the Olympics in Beijing, ad nauseum. The nation’s English newspaper, the China Daily, follows suit, completely silent about the thousands who perish in China’s mines or government apathy during the Sichuan earthquake last year. The internet is still some sort of hope but it is closely policed: BBC and Wikipedia were banned for a long time. And any websites carrying negative news on the middle kingdom refuses to open no matter how many times you refresh the page. Access to cyber cafes (called Internet bars) are restricted to those over 18 years.
7. They bring only 1 menu card and bring the bill before you eat
When you go to a restaurant with a bunch of friends in Shanghai, only one measly menu card will be given to table. Then, before you’ve been served your dumplings, noodle soup or fried rice with hot and sweet chicken, a waitress will bring you the bill. Food is only served after you have paid the bill. “The waitress brings to the table only one menu, as according to Chinese custom, only the host orders and pays, the rest, his guests, do not get to choose dinner as they do not pay for it,” explains Vivien Chou, a local. However nobody knows why the bill has to paid for even before a meal begins__ maybe they need to ensure that you have sufficient money for your dinner. It’s a good thing tips are not customary in Shanghai. Chinese food in China is nothing like the Chinese food in Mumbai, the food back home is “Indian-ised” with a lot more flavour and spice. Shanghainese food tends to be more bland, however, food varies across the provinces of China. While the north eats more noodles, the south eats more rice, While the east eats blander and sweeter food, the west eats spicier food.
8. Men carry women’s purses
It happens only in Shanghai! Young men and women in Shanghai who are dating each other usually walk arm in arm, dressed in co-ordinated clothes.
It could be the same sweatshirt or even, in more smitten cases, the whole ensemble, linked arm in arm, like twins entwined. More surprising is that boyfriends carry their girlfriends’ purses. Maybe it’s a local chivalry thing, but the sight of macho men toting little pink bags full of lipstick and eye-mascara while their girlfriends stroll alongside takes some getting used to.
9. People walk around in their pyjamas
Its the Chinese way of bringing the indoors outdoors – they wear their pyjama’s out on the street, whether its just to go out and buy some fresh fish or to pick up their child from school, many Shanghainese (about 25% of the population admit they have worn they pyjama’s outdoors) still dare to venture out in their frillies usually adorned with cute adorable bunnies, cats, cartoon characters or flowers. Daytime pyjama wearers can be spotted anywhere in this city of 17 million, donning bedroom attire as naturally as a T-shirt on a hot summer day. They cruise by on bicycles. They sip tea in quiet teahouses in the park. They saunter-toothbrush and towel in hand-through leafy lanes graced with the grand French concession homes of a bygone era to the public bathhouse. In a recent opinion poll conducted by Shanghai Academy of Social Science sociologist Yang Xiong asking about what the respondents considered the most uncivilised things about life in Shanghai, pyjamas topped the list. Many people offer varied reasons as to why Pyjamas should be part of the public wardrobe – they are worn in the pursuit of comfort, freedom and relaxation, others point to the implied socio-economic message that wearing pyjamas in public announces to others a certain life of leisure while others say that pyjamas are similar to the traditional Chinese suit of tunic and matching baggy trousers worn in ancient times. Nonetheless the most logical reason is that decade ago it was natural to wear pyjamas in Shanghai’s small lanes, where overcrowding meant forced communal living, but that has changed as more people have moved into the privacy of high-rise homes. “As Shanghai has become a metropolis the difference between private and public space has become more pronounced, and that is how the pyjamas have become a problem,” said Lianne Yang, a mother.
Positive aspects of Shanghai:
1. Bicycle city:
Each street in shanghai has dedicated bicycle lanes for the umpteen number of peddlers. While it might be the fastest way to get across town during rush hour, bicycles also keep the Chinese fit, save precious money on oil and don’t add to the pollution of an already smoggy city. While stealing bicycles might be the most rampant crime in town, everybody from policemen to deliverymen to corporate executives can be seeing zipping through Shanghai’s streets on a two wheeler that suits their pocket. For the lazier, leisurely lot, there is a mechanised version of the bicycle that runs on a battery which can be charged at home. For those that have matchbox sized homes, there’s also a bicycle that folds up to the size of a single wheel and can be carried around town.
2. Glitz and Glamour:
China’s Manhattan, or the Paris of the East, whatever you decide to call her Shanghai lives up to the name. From 100 floors atop the swankiest bars to the people walking down the street in their designer best, shanghai has it all on display. The skyline which sets the tone of the city offers glossy buildings shimmering in neon lights. Swanky cars zip by on smooth highways zigzagging through the city, Shanghai’s glitterati aptly display China’s new found dominance in the world, restaurants serve the world on a platter and shoppers consume luxury brands like there’s no tomorrow. Brands are big in Shanghai and citizens lap up every label.
3. Efficiency and perseverance:
The Chinese people are known worldwide for their hard work, efficiency and dedication to a task. The rate at which they have turned the wheels of their economy over the past 30 years is by no means an effortless feat. Given a particular task, the Chinese fulfil their duties to the T, working efficiently and diligently, without compromise, even after a all night Karaoke session. The most obvious results of their years of dedicated labour can be seen mostly in large cities such as Shanghai where low lying, decadent buildings or acres of rice paddies have been razed over night, making way for large sprawling, swanky malls, office buildings or residential complexes. The 100 story Shanghai World Financial Tower, which witnessed several controversies while it was being built, was fully completed within three years. An even larger feat was the development of Pudong. The east side of the Huangpu River which divides Shanghai, Pudong was primarily rice fields a decade ago. Today it boasts the head quarters of China’s largest banks, huge malls, the world’s longest bar and China’s tallest building. While no country is shy of red tapism and corruption, the people of China deserve a hand especially for dreaming and fulfilling their dream within break neck speed.
4. Common Good:
Socialism with Chinese Characteristics, iconic proletariat leader Den Xioping’s ultimate theory is still very much practiced in modern day China. All of what is done in the country is deemed to be done for the common good. From a young age, students are moulded to work in groups, smarter children are made to help the weaker ones out, everybody is meant to progress at the same rate. Capitalism is a vice and caste and class distinctions do not exist. In an office environment, a single project manager will not accept accolades for the excellent work he has done, rather he will praise his team and the hard work they have collectively put in. While people might joke about the different districts they come from, economic, social, political and religious segregations do not apply in China. Everything that is done, whether it’s constructing a dam, tearing down old buildings or restricting the number of children a couple can have is seen to be done for the common good.
5. One party system:
China’s largest asset is probably its one party system which lays down the law sans opposition whether you like it or not. The one party system means that citizens are given no choice but to obey the law of the land or face persecution, a vital reason the Middle kingdom has been able to witness such unprecedented growth. A single government means that there is efficiency in place of bureaucracy and security in place of violence, education for all primary school children and a procedure for everything from travel to setting up a business. Efficiency in the system the government provides and the citizens strive so hard to maintain also means that Shanghaians have a better standard of living. Because the system is so efficient it works regardless of China’s vast and varied population.
6. Clean and green:
Maple lined lanes make their way to pockets of verdant parks blooming with flowers. These green patches offer respite to the elderly who play Mahjong in the shade or those who want to practice any form of martial art early in the morning. Although Shanghai boasts large roads and a population that rival’s Mumbai’s the tree lined streets are clean, devoid of the poor, beetle spittle and garbage. While the Chinese might not be meticulous at keeping their own houses spotless, civic authorities in large showcase cities such as Shanghai make it a point to keep Shanghai shaded and sanitary.