Shanghai people are distilled from traditional Chinese people under the pressure of modern life, they are they product of a deformed mix of old and new culture. The result may not be healthy, but in it there is also a curious wisdom.”
– Eileen Chang
In the past month, there’s been a fair few shake-ups in my life, hence the silence on this blog.
At some point, I know imma have to retire the ‘life gets in the way’ excuse, but the fact of the matter remains that life keeps getting in the way – of writing, of thinking, of sleeping, and sometimes, even of living.
I love blogging, but at times I find it difficult to put thoughts to type, only because so much of what I want to say is so personal, and at the end of the day, ’Classic Jenisms’ is a public platform. There are experiences I desperately want to share with you all, some of them trivial, others milestone, but they always end up saved in my other private doc titled ‘Diaristic Ramblings’, where I genuinely ramble on and on sans tact sans poise sans PC-ness a la Joyce in Ulysses.
Let’s just say that when emotions run high, punctuation and political correctness take a back seat.
This is why digital journaling has its separate set of therapeutic benefits; blogging is a different game altogether, one that requires diplomacy, strategy, and sufficient brainpower. Like Montaigne, the patron saint of diary-writing, journaling helps me (1) retch, (2) regroup, and (3) review my thoughts and feelings – all in that particular order.
Plus I don’t need to worry about not taking the piss too much/presentation/pictures/making things look visually appealing for ya peeps innittttt (lolol jokes I love doing it and I love doing it for you all who read this blog. Truly.)
Anyway, the purpose of this post is to catch up on my Shanghai trip back in late May. Kind of long overdue, I know, but hey, I doubt if the city has changed much during my one month time lapse, so I figured I’d still share my two cents in my occasional wannabe travelogger mode.
I’ve solo travelled for more times than I can count on one hand now, but I’m still not at a stage where I can be entirely at ease when navigating a new place on my own.
There remain jittery and self-doubting and ‘WTF why did I think this was a good idea’ moments. The feeling of venturing into any place unaccompanied and alone can be scary. Which is why I’m proud of every single solo trip I make.
This sense of pride reminds me of a historical fiction novel I read last month, titled ‘The Last Gods of Indochine’ by the polymathic Sam Ferrer, who is a double bassist for the HK Philharmonic Orchestra, a songwriter and bassist for the acid jazz group Shaolin Fez, as well as Man Asian Literary Prize winner.
At the start of the book, the protagonist Jacquie Mouhot embarks on a solo journey from London to Indochina, with the aim of finding out a secret about her grandfather’s legacy.
Out of many interesting moments in Ferrer’s work, there’s one exchange between Jacquie and a fellow traveller that attests to how far solo female travelling has come since the start of the last century:
Upon meeting an Englishman by the name of Stanley Hubert, who offers to look out for Jacquie as a friend, she feels –
What a relief a complete stranger could bring. She could not imagine enduring this part of the journey all alone. “That is very kind of you. Thank you.”
“So what, pray tell, brings you to this part of the world?”
“The temples of Angkor Wat.”
“Rather – I’m going there as well.”
“Is that so?”
“Yes, that place is becoming ever so popular, isn’t it? The French can’t seem to get enough of it. So you’re a tourist?
“Yes, of sorts. You could say I’m a tourist who also is doing a little bit of personal research.”
“Well, the world is such a rapidly changing place. Lady-adventurers from Blighty are now gallivanting by themselves to the most remote corners of the Earth. As for me, I’m going for research while on my way to Siam.”
And later on, as “she inquired about his research in Cambodia and Siam”, “he shrugged the question off and said that it was rather banal”, followed by –
“I must say, I’m impressed to see a woman traveling by herself in this region – that was unheard of not long ago…”
(77-78, Signal 8 Press)
As an avid female solo traveler, I’m glad that the world, for its many unpleasant rapid changes, has at least moved towards allowing women to “gallivant” and explore different corners of the planet on their own strength.
Why Shanghai, out of all places?
Back-tracking for a bit of context as to why I went to Shanghai in the first place.
In late May, I was on the cusp of changing jobs, and because I had only 4 ‘buffer’ days between my old and new job, I knew that if I wanted a quick get-away, it had to be a place within a reasonable radius from Hong Kong. Having been to Beijing numerous times in the past few years, I decided Shanghai would be a good metropolitan alternative, especially since I’ve heard lots of good things about how international and bustling it is as a Chinese city. Besides, the HQ of my new/current company is based in Shanghai, so I figured it would be worth doing some due diligence beforehand, as I’ll be traveling to this place for work sooner or later down the line.
Usually, I’m super well planned before every solo trip. This time, though, I deliberately resisted the urge to TripAdvisor/Lonely Planet the crap out of Shanghai before I went, precisely because I wanted to take a more ‘fly by the seat of my pants’ approach to everything for novelty’s sake. Being classic Jen, however, I couldn’t help caving at the last minute, which means I semi-freaked out at the airport on the morning of my departure and ended up buying a Chinese guide to Shanghai at Relay (a bookseller at the HK airport).
Needless to say, then, I ended up spending the entire 2-hour flight dog-earing and annotating the guide. I boarded the flight knowing almost nothing about Shanghai; I left feeling like I already knew too much about the place. Oh the irony.
By the way, don’t you just envy travel guide writers? For itchy feet nomads like me, it seems like the perfect job.
Anyway, instead of running you through each attraction I went – which is something you could do with a quick TripAdvisor/Google search, I figured it would be more interesting for me to offer up my ‘3 lessons learnt’ and ‘3 impressions gained’ from my whirlwind Shanghai trip.
So, here goes:
3 lessons learnt on my day of arrival
Opt for the Maglev, not the metro, for your first trip into the city centre. I made the mistake of assuming that because my hostel was located on the same line as the Pudong airport station (Zhongshan Park on Line 2), it would make more sense for me to just take the metro.
Big mistake. The whole journey ended up lasting 1 hr and 40 mins (?!); I actually had to change platforms at one point; and I heard afterwards from a friend that taking the super-speedy Maglev is actually quite an experience in itself. Apparently, the train tilts at an angle whenever it takes a swerve, which sounds pretty dang cool to me.
Download Baidu Maps before you even arrive in Shanghai (or any other Chinese cities, for that matter), and avoid Google Maps like the Black Death. Seriously. I made the mistake of assuming that because I had VPN, I would be able to access Google no problemo. Well, I was technically able to access it, but because Google is banned in China to begin with, a lot of the roads aren’t covered by its GPS system.
I learned my lesson walking around in circles for an hour trying to locate my hostel from its nearest metro station, which was supposedly a 15-minute walk away. An hour. All because Google Maps kept lapsing on me and a lot of the smaller alleyways weren’t on the map. I ended up getting the Baidu Maps tip from a helpful security guard. Here’s my tip to you.
Another tip re reading road signs: In Shanghai, addresses are expressed in the form of “X 弄 X 号”. The character 弄 (meaning ‘alley’, pronounced as ‘nong‘) takes precedence over 号 (meaning ‘number’, pronounced as ‘hao‘), so don’t ignore it. There could be multiple identical 号s on the same street, but they may be minutes away from each other, all because they are of different 弄s. I made the stupid mistake of overlooking the 弄/alley of my hostel, which is why I couldn’t locate it for the longest time.
When in China, even with a first-tier city like Shanghai, eschew bargain hostels like, well, the Black Death. And don’t trust ‘reviews’ on TripAdvisor/booking.com either (at least not for Chinese hostels). The hostel I picked was ranked 3rd out of 300+ hostels in Shanghai on TripAdvisor, and the only good thing I can say about it is that it cost me a dirt cheap RMB 76 per night. That’s it, really. Nothing else.
There was mould behind the bathroom doors, rust on whatever metal surface I saw, quasi-yellow bed sheets, cramped dorm rooms, lacklustre service, etc etc etc. I even saw the cleaners themselves using the bathroom facilities to wash their own clothes. It was liveable for a 4-day stint, and my fellow dormers were all interesting travellers with great stories to share, but if I had to do the whole accommodation thing in Shanghai all over again, I would probably go for a boutique hotel instead of going down the hostel route.
I mean, this was rated one of the best hostels in Shanghai – arguably one of, if not the, most developed city in the Mainland, so, what the heck??
3 impressions gained on my day of departure
Shanghai is a city bustling with commercial energy and potential, but it is definitely not as international as I had been led to believe. Certain areas, like Xujiahui, Lujiazui and pockets in Pudong, are clearly very gentrified; otherwise, the overall vibe is still very local. Before I went, I kept hearing about how Shanghai was going to take over Hong Kong in no time with its impressive speed of internationalisation. After having been, I can confidently say that Hong Kong still has at least a decade – if not more – before it has to worry about losing its ‘East-West’ hub credentials.
After all, Hong Kong’s Westernisation is encoded in its postcolonial DNA, whereas Shanghai has always been a solidly Chinese city, despite its short periods of French occupation.
What is ‘Shanghainese’?
From the 4 days I was there, I couldn’t figure it out, because I actually couldn’t feel anything distinctly ‘Shanghainese’ in the city. And it’s not as if I only went to tourist attractions – I walked along random streets in residential areas, but almost nothing, neither the attitude nor the architecture nor atmosphere, really struck me as being quintessentially ‘Shanghainese’. Apart from the food, maybe.
Compared to Beijing, where people are generally more conscious of the fact that they are either local Beijingers or are living in the capital and thus deserve ‘capital swag’, I didn’t get the same kind of strong identity attachment from the people in Shanghai. There’s a sense that the ‘Shanghaiers’ out and about aren’t really from the city, but from other areas or towns, and they’ve come to Shanghai for their proverbial ‘big break’.
In a way, it’s similar to the Shenzhen today, Hong Kong 50 years ago, and dare I say, New York City 100 years before, where people from all over the world looked to the metropolis as a land teeming with untapped business opportunities.
The Shanghai metro is surprisingly slow. Either that, or Shanghai is just a big-ass place, because for some reason, almost all the rides took me an average of 25 minutes, and that’s excluding the sections where I had to walk to, into, between and out of the stations – all of which would probably tally up to another 20 minutes in total. So I ended up spending a substantial amount of time on commuting just within the city, which I found a bit odd for a place that’s supposedly so well-developed.
An upside to this discovery, though, is an increased appreciation for Hong Kong’s transportation efficiency, which I’ve always taken for granted. Then again, HK is much smaller and more compact in comparison, so, give and take.
Shanghai & Hong Kong: Bros or Foes?
In the tug of war between commerce and culture, then, I would put Shanghai and Hong Kong in the ‘commerce’ camp, and Beijing in the ‘culture’ camp. Some people would probably think me unfair and say that there’s a heavy emphasis on art in Shanghai, but the feeling I get is that a lot of the art shows are put on as a demonstration of cultural capital. As opposed to being organic or done for art’s sake, they are means to a commercial end.
Like Hong Kong, there’s a bustling dynamic in the people movement of Shanghai, but the kind of movement there is impatient, anxious and constantly in flux, as if the slightest halt in one’s footsteps means more time wasted and less money made.
Hong Kong shares in this kind of ambiance, but it’s more refined because this has been the way of life for HK in the past 30 years, and has thus become a natural, accepted part of the city’s culture. In Shanghai, I got the vibe that everything (and everyone) is an opportunity for business, which, I suppose, is why so many people are looking towards it as the new place to be.
By the way, I’m not commenting on any of this as something that’s ‘bad’ or ‘good’ – it’s just my subjective impression from what was a very short trip.
So, should you go to Shanghai?
I’d say yes, definitely, if only for a chance to soak in what ‘the Rise of China’ feels like in the form of suffocating crowds and hyper-commercial energy.
It’s an interesting place, and I like it. Just don’t expect an urban cultural pilgrimage, and be prepared to find certain parts of the city disturbingly polarised in wealth.
If Hong Kong is an international hub, then Shanghai is the Chinese hub – a place where people from all over the country congregate in a show of homogenised diversity, as ironic as that sounds. So don’t make the mistake of thinking that visiting either Beijing or Shanghai will suffice for a ‘China experience’, because they are very different animals altogether.
So go to both and feel the difference for yourself.
(Back in Dec 2015, I wrote a post on traveling to Beijing with my best friend: https://classicjenisms.wordpress.com/2015/12/26/whats-so-great-about-beijing-anyway/)