Oct 16, 2001
David Rich 1000 Words
S h a n g h a i e d A g a i n
Within seconds of arriving at the North Shanghai bus station, we were shanghaied by a cab driver. Apparently, you've got to watch Shanghai cabdrivers like a hawk, but who knew that ahead of time? Before arriving in the city of fraud I'd felt safe relying on taxi meters, but in Shanghai our cabby's meter mysteriously skipped a few dozen yuan. I should have figured it out when he fidgeted with something on the floor in the middle of screeching traffic. On arrival at the hotel the meter read sixty-five yuan. Wow! The cabby wanted eight dollars for a ten-mile trip that should have cost only two dollars. Yeah I know it's all relative; I couldn't take a U.S. cab around the block for eight dollars. But I started in Shanghai feeling shanghaied, and this was days before we experienced the invading Mongol hordes we'd heard were due to arrive.
Ignoring shopping, the single tourist attraction in Shanghai was Yuyang Gardens, built from 1559 to 1577 during the Ming Dynasty, deep in "Chinatown," where the Chinese were relegated during the British, French, Italian, Japanese, and American control of Shanghai from the mid-1800s to 1949. The gardens would be exquisite with their extensive reflecting pools, swooped-roof pagodas, and nifty hidey nooks except every square foot was occupied by compressed Chinese, German, and American tour groups making the Gardens impossible to see, much less nudge about at more than an inch an hour. Plus the entrance fee had more than doubled since our brand new guidebook was published. The only upside was a Starbucks on site and lots of photo ops, when we were finally able to persevere in the face of relentless tourists taking each others' pictures in front of everything, making it difficult for us to do the same.
Okay, so my mom said if I couldn't say something nice then shut up, or was it the skunk in Bambi that said that? What good can be said about Shanghai, a city of fourteen million, slightly more people than the population of New York City? I'm thinking. Oh, yeah, besides looking liked it'd been transported from the lab of a mad mod architect, Shanghai is quiet in the very early morning. At 6 a.m., which is very early to me, hundreds of Chinese dressed in fashionable pajamas did Tai Chi on the Shanghai waterfront, while another dozen flew kites a couple of hundred feet up, colorful specks in the early morning fog. The Tai Chi enthusiasts were a minimum of age sixty, graceful codgers and codgerettes, stepping and turning, lifting arms and legs. Though the movement was agonizingly slow, I was exhausted after half an hour just watching while we waited for the earliest opening McDonald's to unshutter so we could get cups of coffee instead of the tea exclusively available at most places in China. The gung-ho Tai Chi-ers toted portable music systems that were loud, similar to most public music in China. Music on trains, cleaning trucks and for Tai Chi grannies consisted principally of "Moon River," "Happy Birthday," "Greensleeves," and popular Chinese groanie stuff with pan flutes that if I never hear again, will be too soon. Pedestrians hummed the "music" as they strolled by, housewives duck waddled, surely meant as jogging, and young jocks did hundreds of deep knee bends broken by slow wind sprints that a person would have to see to believe. Young women gazed mournfully into the grubby yellow river. Okay, I tried to be positive but the invading Mongol hordes really did Shanghai for me.
Cadres of identically dressed clerks in maroon and teal outfits flooded toward high-rise shopping centers where every upscale European brand was sold, genuine or not, mostly not, which means great deals were to be had along with oneself being had. Almost every "label" for sale in China was fake, but ah, the ambience, the unhurriedness at an ungodly early hour in Shanghai.
We persevered, got the coffee, and observed the denizens in their native habitat. Abruptly that afternoon everything changed, far more suddenly and radically than I had dreamed it could or would. We'd been warned. We'd read the English-language newspaper and bought airline tickets for the evening flight to Chengdu. But evening was too late. By mid-afternoon the streets erupted with uniforms. Clerks disappeared and stores shut tight. We walked gingerly down Nanjing Dong Lu, the main Shanghai shopping street, under the watchful eyes of a hundred cop-type persons but these were no ordinary cops. These were shifty-eyed guys in green uniforms with red stripes and green epaulettes scrawled with haphazard yellow writings and wearing martial hats-the Red Army. They whistled, and we scurried back to our hotel to hole up for the night flight. I'd thought the Mongol hordes had vanished some years back and that a peaceful city such as Shanghai couldn't turn into a police state in the blink of an eye, but I was exceedingly wrong.
Two hours later we grabbed a taxi, watching the meter with fixed glare all the way to the airport entrance where the Red Army turned us back. "But," I said, "we have tickets for the nine o'clock flight."
They pretended not to understand English, a common phenomenon in China. I waved the airline tickets and they waved us back, failing to mention how we could get a refund. The airport was closed to all but the invading Mongol hordes in limousines who meet yearly to inconvenience us common tourists. This year it was some guy named Zemin's turn to play smiley face with Putin, Bush, and their cronies, turning Shanghai into a desert under the guise of something called APEC. We snuck to the train station under cover of darkness; after three hours in very hard seats, we moved up to a soft sleeper for the next twenty-five hours to Chengdu-Shanghaied again.