TODAY -

Sunday & other days in Shanghai & Guangzhou
- Part 1 -

By R.E.Gonmei *

I'd been camping in Shanghai for nearly two weeks. I thot I'd be returning in a week's time, but cudn't finish my work. These Chinese are giving me headaches everyday. It's amazing how well they can mis-communicate things ... not that they do it on purpose. One has to keep explaining & re-explaining things ... in several different ways ...by writing, acting, drawing.... laughing ... screaming ... in short, everything at your disposal... hoping that somewhere, something will hit that button of understanding.

So, to convey an idea, it takes a decade ... & loads of p..a..t..i..e..n..c..e . You throw them a question & they'll get into an animated discussion & consultation amongst themselves ... in Mandarin (or in Cantonese ... as the case may be ...... meanwhile, u can go out for a cup of tea or coffee ... or just take a walk ... by the time u return, if u're lucky, they shud be ready with the answer to your query.

By the end of the day u'r exhausted ... tongue aching .... head pounding.... & u realize that u've covered 3 points out of 30 points u shud've covered that day. And after all that, they try to feed you all kinds of unpalatable Chinese food. This is not to say that all Chinese food are that way .... I had some greatly delicious authentic Chinese food as well. Then they keep 'pestering' u with "how 'bout some foot massage..... body massage ? ...relax ??" But I understand they're trying their best to make you feel good.

In between, I did find some time to visit a couple of hospitals here in Shanghai (all govt hospitals). Am mighty impressed by them. These Chinese don't fail to amaze me over & over again. They don't seem to have any space constraints .... apparently no cost constraints ... 'expensive' materials ... monumental quantities...... It's as if all these are regular stuff.

In India & our part of the world, it'd be considered architectural luxuries .... extravaganzas. Very good workmanship ... impeccable maintenance & housekeeping.... I think it's an attitude thing, a way of life .... atleast public life. Public property is very well-taken care of : Clean, wide, tree-lined streets with dedicated lanes for 2-wheelers & broad sidewalks ; sleek, multi-level fly-overs (their undersides gleaming in the reflected light of the streetlights below) ; pretty parks ; inter-city highways that are wider than airport runways (with impeccably manicured lawns on either sides, plantations & flower beds all along the median for miles together).

I'm sure u too have seen them all. Everything is done on a gigantic scale. They don't seem to know how to think small ... like we Indians (& many like us) think all the time. Rules are followed & discipline is enforced .

By the end of 2007, China will have completed all constructions relating to the August 2008 Olympics to be held in Beijing. It'll be the only country which wud've been fully prepared for such a big event a full six months ahead of time. Impressive achievement ...... & great showmanship ... by the government. The Olympics is such an important event for the people of China ...... more than 3500 babies have been given the name 'Olympic' !

Great infrastructure ... atleast in urban China. The majority of the common people, however, are still quite poor. But scenes of extreme poverty are not very common in the cities. China has an impressive track record in poverty alleviation. In the '70s, there were 250 million Chinese with an annual per capita income of < US $ 80/-.

Today, there are only 26 million Chinese living below their national poverty line. Compare this with 300 million Indians still living below poverty line even today (2007). Of course, India's poverty line is at US $ 90/- per annum. But both figures (China's as well as India's) are well below the internationally recognized line of US $ 112/- per capita per annum.

Last Sunday, I got to see a li'l bit of the city. Shanghai (meaning 'above the sea' or 'on-the-sea') wud easily rate as one of the most fascinating cities in the world (I wudn't not believe those who say that it's one of the 'best' cities to live in ...... not that I have lived in many other cities) ... character, tradition, modernity, history, scale, infrastructure, organization ... it seems to have everything.

Probably god had a hand in designing this city (or atleast his assistant must have). Of course, there are shanties in Shanghai too ... like every other city in the world. But u've to look for them ... unlike in Bombay where slums are a highly visible & integral component of the cityscape.

Nanjing Lu is a very popular pedestrian street (also known as China's Number One Street) where people go to (window) shop & hang out. It's also sometimes referred to as China's 'Fifth Avenue'. On sunday it was as though the whole city had converged on Nanjing Lu. But u'll not see too many folks buying things or carrying shopping bags.

Everyone is decked up in the most modern (western) attire .... especially young Chinese girls (they r an ultra-mod species; the boys are simpler). Everyone, young & old & the very young & the very old as well, is out there for a pleasure stroll & to just watch everyone else strolling along. The atmosphere is ... carnival.

As u stroll along, a couple of very innocent-looking young Chinese girls (some of them look barely out of school) walk up to u & try to chat u up .... "u want go for coffee ??" ... some of them are more direct .... "hey sir, u want lie with me?"... in their thin sing song voice. U tell them "No, thank you", ... & they melt into the crowd. Their male agents are even more brazenly direct .."sir ! u want nice girls to f... ?!" & he isn't exactly whispering into your ear ... u can see people on the other side of the plaza turning to look ... On one hand its quite funny ... & on the other hand, u feel sad at the level of desperation.

There are, of course, many other nicer things on Nanjing Lu .... the 'toy' trains that take tourists around the plaza ; ... outdoor cafes & restaurants.... then there's this musician in black suit, bow tie & black hat belting out yesteryears' hit tunes on his golden saxophone from the first floor balcony of one of those stately old mansions lining the plaza. The crowd in the plaza gather below the balcony to watch this gentleman play .... & they cheer him on.

The toy-sellers on the pavements are a delight.... all kinds of amazing toys which i've never seen anywhere else. The buildings along both sides of the plaza are architectural marvels ... exquisite beaux arts & art deco architecture of the 18th / 19th century ....... interwoven with modern steel & glass skyscrapers .... contrasting & complementing the other. The architectural blend of the old & the new is quite fascinating. This plaza is a must-see-and-experience for urban designers.... & for everyone else of course.

U continue to stroll eastwards & come to where Nanjing Lu meets Zhongshan Road, which runs along the western bank of the Huangpu River. U take the pedestrian subway across Zhongshan Road & emerge on the western bank plaza of the Huangpu River. This area is called the 'Bund'. By the way, it was in this subway that for the first time I got to see Vincent Van Gogh's paintings (reproductions) from up so close (& such large sizes) ... which decorated the subway walls. There i realized why his paintings r so talked about by all .... amazing depth ... quality of light ... serenity ...strength .... which u don't normally experience thru books & other printed media.

The view across the Huangpu River from the Bund is breath-taking, to say the least. On the eastern bank u can see the Oriental Pearl TV Tower, Jin Mao Tower + 'Observatory' /Grand Hyatt (designed by Skidmore, Owings & Merril) & many other architectural landmarks scraping the blue sky. The western edge of Zhongshan Road is also equally impressive with those magnificent French buildings ... the Broadway Mansion Hotel , China Everbright Bank, Peace Hotel, Customs House ... & of course the Monument for People's Heroes. This area is also known as the French Concession (Frenchmen & their families were assigned this quarter of the city).

As afternoon progresses to evening, the changing light of the setting sun is reflected on the glass-skinned towers across the river. The teeming crowd along the plaza is clicking & flashing away... it's a sight to behold ... Jin Mao Tower (with its unique Chinese architectural characteristics) shimmering in the golden light ... the pearly globes of the Oriental Pearl TV Tower softly glittering in hues of pinkish red turning to a dark, crimson red as the late evening sunlight gently fades.

After a while, the electric lights come on. All these towers are adorned & lit up all so pretty... its as if these buildings are not just life-less buildings .... they seemed to be alive .... dressed up like pretty young brides in their finest bridal wear ...visually communicating with the people.... they are like architectural citizens (or archizens) of the city. So u don't feel like calling them as just 'buildings' .... makes them sound life-less. But don't know what else to call them either. Wish there were a better word.... with more life in it.

Then there are these tourist boats with decks-full of tourists / sightseers cruising the river. It was a tempting thought to take a boat ride down the river. But it was getting rather windy & cold ... & I was without woolens. So I decide to just enjoy the view. Besides the tourist boats, there are these 'advertisement boats' with giant backlit LCD screens mounted on them .......... advertising apartment complexes, herbal healthcare products, Thai massage & so on... slowly floating up & down the river. I thought it was quite an enterprising idea.

Its approaching 7 pm. I hail a cab & tell the driver to take me to Jin Mao Tower across the river. A five minute ride through the tunnel under the Huangpu River & we're at the porch of Jin Mao Tower, which is located in Pudong (the new business district). The tower is 340 metres high (88 floors). It has an 'observatory' (actually a viewing deck) on top from where u get a 360 degree view of the whole city.

There are many high speed elevators (about 60 of them, I'm told) in the building, with 2 elevators dedicated for tourists. We all get into one of the elevators. 45 seconds after the elevator door closed, we are on the 88th floor ... which means we zipped up @ 9m/sec (more than two floors in one second !!).... and we didn't even feel it ! The view from the observation deck is simply awesome.

It is at such times that u come to believe that life's purpose is to create beauty ... and enjoy it. It is at such times that u realize how beautiful people are ... & how beautiful their minds are .... so creative, constructive, ... There is a post office on the observation deck from where u can send postcards & other gift items to your friends & family members anywhere in the world.

It's time to leave. In 40 seconds flat we're back on the ground.

To be continued ....

Read Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 |


* R.E.Gonmei contributes for the first time to e-pao.net. The writer can be contacted at r_emei(at)yahoo(dot)com . This article was webcasted on March 26th 2008.

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