Sunday & other days in Shanghai & Guangzhou
- Part 2 -

By R.E.Gonmei *

Coming out of Jin Mao, I look up at the neighbouring Shanghai World Financial Tower (SWFT) rising high up into the black night sky. Designed by Kohn Pedersen Fox Associates, by August 2008, SWFT will have risen to its full height of 492 m (with 101 floors) & will be taller than 'Taipei 101' (which is 448 m), which means it'll be the world's second tallest skyscraper after SOM's Burj Dubai (designed to rise 575 m, with the tip of its spire touching 808 m in the sky), which is also currently under high-speed construction & slated for commissioning in the second half of 2008.

I hop into a taxi & am driven back to the old downtown side of the river. Whats so nice about these cabs is that u don't really need to ask the driver whether he can drive u to where u wanna go. U just tell him to drive u to wherever u wanna go ...... & he (sometimes she) will drive u there ..... its as good as riding in your own chauffeur-driven car. But u need to always carry the address cards (written in Mandarin) of your destinations. The English (or for that matter, any other non-Chinese language) that u speak to him is more for the audio-visual effects to make your attempt to communicate more expressive. He'll never be able to even guess what u're saying to him.

In downtown Shanghai, streetlights aren't really needed. All the buildings are lit up so bright .... & those ubiquitous gigantic back-lit digital billboards & the brightly lit shops lining the streets also generate so much of brightness all around that u don't even notice the street lights at all. Coming from where I've come, I can't help but think about how many Indian villages cud've been lit up by the amount of electricity consumed by one of the city blocks.

Its almost 10 pm as I alight from the cab. 'Xin Tian Di' (pronounced Shin tee-an dee), meaning 'New Heaven, Earth', is today one of the hottest upscale commercial precincts in downtown Shanghai. Less than a decade ago, this area was nothing more than a cluster of nondescript two to three storeyed brick houses called 'Shikumen', a type of tenements unique to Shanghai.

A Hong Kong developer saw a 'gold mine' here. With the help of an American architect, Benjamin Wood, this entire area was re-developed & completely transformed into a chic shopping & entertainment precinct. ...... ... .... cafes, different kinds of restaurants serving Spanish, Italian, French, Mediterranean, Japanese & other cuisines from all over the world ; curios, book shops, mini-museums, theatres, bars, discotheques ....... ......... etc., etc...

The blend of the traditional brick (& wood) architecture & the new architecture of glass, steel & stone is quite pleasing ........ That there are people who are sensitive to all things good & beautiful & who are capable of creating so much beauty .... makes u feel good ...... But the kind of crowd that throng Nanjing Lu is different from the crowd u see here ...... Here, its mostly the well-heeled, the elite, the hip ..... many white-skinners.

It's a kind of watering hole for the 'in' crowd. I'm told many celebrities own shops, restaurants here. The success of this redevelopment model has inspired the authorities to undertake similar projects in many other Chinese cities.

It was in one of these brick houses that Mao Zedong & a couple of his comrades had their first meeting to form the communist party of China. The building is remarkably well conserved. 'Wow', I say to myself ..... & click a couple of fotos of the house . ......

Shortly after midnight I'm back in my hotel room. Been a long day ..... but didn't realize how tired I was. I flop onto the bed. When I open my eyes, it's already morning again. I raise my head & look down at my feet ........ 'oh !?' ... one shoe was still on. Looking out from the window of my room on the 17th floor, I see this big red sun slowly rising up behind the silhouette of the city's skyline ...... yet another day ahead........

Today is the 25th of October, 2007. Last evening, I had boarded China Southern Flight CZ-3504 to Guangzhou. While checking in at the airport counter, I realized that after having alighted from the cab, I had walked straight into the terminal building & right up to the check-in counter without anyone stopping me to check for my ticket.

No security checks at the gate. In all Chinese airports, anyone can walk into the terminal building without being asked for tickets or IDs. Your friends & all your loved ones can also march right in. Such a thing is unthinkable in a country like ours & our sister countries.

In Guangzhou, all the city hotels are running full. The bi-annual Canton Fair is on. Visitors have come from all over the world. With great difficulty, my agent friend had managed to book a room in one of the second-rung hotels in the heart of the city.

By the time I check into my room, it's nearing midnight. I call 'room service' for a cup of tea. The female voice at the other end of the line answered in Cantonese. I tell her, "No Chinese, only English".

"Oh aaa .... "... she transfers the call to someone else. Another female voice answers in a very broken English (pronounced, "Engrish" by many Chinese). I repeat my order. Silence ..... for a couple of seconds ..... ..... and then she said, "aa ... u want what, sir ?".

I almost barked into the phone, "Tea ! T E A tea ! I want tea !". My Indian genes at work there.

"Oh ! t(h)ea ! Ya, ya, ok .... I know, I know ... .. moment please !", she says & then asked, "What kind t(h)ea you need, sir ?"

"Milk t(h)ea", I said, "hot milk t(h)ea! With sugar ! And spoon .... S-p-o-o-n ... sp(h)oon !"

"Hotta milk ?" She sounded puzzled. "What is sp(h)oon ? .... .... ok, ok I send someone to your room now, sir". There was no point trying to explain to her that I needed the spoon to scoop the sugar from the sugar bowl and to stir the tea in the cup.

After a while, the door bell rings. I open the door. There's a female attendant standing at the door holding a very big serving tray. In the center of the tray is a tiny li'l cup of some very black looking liquid stuff. Next to it was a tiny jar in which was some pale Bournvita-colored liquid (milk .... .. I touch it ....... ice cold) and a bowl of sugar. No spoon.

"What is this ?", I ask.
" ... umm... aa .... (searching for the right word) .... khauffee", she blurts.
I call 'room service' again & ask, "What have you sent ?".
"Amelican (sic) khauffee, sir. No t(h)ea now, sir".

I give up. I draw a picture of a spoon & show it to the girl at the door. She nods her head vigorously & disappears. I wait. 5 ....... 10 ... 15 ....17 ..19 minutes. Besides the already chilled brownish milk (I wonder which animal produces milk of such a color), the coffee is also getting cold. I mix everything that was on the tray & shake the cup, hoping that the milk & sugar will somehow dissolve in the coffee. I finish the luke-warm 'Amelican' coffee in two gulps.

The door bell rings .... "loom (sic) service ....," a faint sing-song voice announces. I open the door. Another smiling girl stood there with a spoon. I take it. She produces a bill of Yuan 53.00 (INR 350.00 approx) for the 'khauffee' for me to sign. I protest. She looks quizzically at me ..... but still retaining the smile on her face. I roughly scribble my signature on the bill.

"Xie xie", (pronounced shi-shey, meaning thank you) she says & leaves.
"Xie xie .... thank u ..... good night", I say, & close the door.

I now need to write a mail to my colleagues back in India. I look for an electric socket to power my computer. All the sockets in the room are designed to receive flat pins. I call up 'housekeeping'. The same thin female voice answers the phone. She can't understand what an 'adapter' or an 'extension chord' is. "I send someone to your room now," she says, and hangs up.

After a while the door bell rings. I open the door. A bored-looking attendant stood there & says something in Chinese. I walk back to the work desk, pointed at the computer & using verbal+sign language I tell him that I need to power it. His face lit up a little. "Aaa...", he says, nodding his head & picks up the bedside phone & rattles something in Chinese into the phone.

He puts down the phone & says, "aaa ...aa .. uumm ... !", nodding his head vigorously. I say, "aaa .... aaa... ," & nod my head in appreciation of his intelligence & ability to have understood my requirement. Now, it's beginning to feel a little like I'm transported back in time to when we dwelled in caves. But it looks like the message has been conveyed accurately & effectively. He ambles out of the room.

After what seemed ages, another attendant comes into the room .... ... an adapter in hand. I sigh in relief. I turn on the computer & try to go on the net. Doesn't link up. I didn't have the energy to call for assistance again & go thru that 'Engrish-Chinese-sign language' exercise again. Its two in the morning now. I dial the 'operator' for a wake-up call. Again, for the third time, it's the same thin female voice on the other end of the line !

"I need wake-up call in the morning", I tell her.
"Ok no problem, what time u need wake-up call, sir ?'
"I need two wake-up calls. One wake-up call six am. Another wake-up call six am and ten minutes". Broken 'Engrish' is easier for most Chinese to understand. I've realized that grammatically correct sentences are confusing for them.

Avoid the articles in between the words and they'll understand u better. It'll have more punch ...... & hence, be more effective. But of course, the larger international hotel chains have attendants & operators well-trained in English speaking.
"Is okay ... no problem .... I understand ... thank you ... good night", she says & hangs up.

The next morning I wake up & see the room awash in bright sunlight. I'm a li'l disoriented. I look at the watch. 9 am ! I grab the phone to scream at the 'operator'. No dial tone. The phone's dead. It's exceptionally quiet. I realize the AC is also not running. There's no electricity in the room.

I walk to the nearest attendant's room, wearing only a bath towel (I'm sure the hotel's CCTV camera now has a detailed visual record of me walking down the corridor in that attire). The attendant summons a 'technician' who came, saw, fiddled with the switches in the room DB (Distribution Board), said something in Chinese, and left. After a while, another 'technician' comes, looks at the DB, fiddles with the switches ..... nothing happens ..... He looks at me & I look at him........ he nods his head and he, too, leaves.

This is getting mysterious. I'm getting impatient. Like all 'busy' travelers with little time to waste, I fret & fume..... quietly. Almost half an hour later, a third technician comes. He, too, looks at the DB, fiddles with the switches ...... and .... BINGO ! ... everything comes on ! There's a look of pleasant surprise on the technician's face.

Immediately after this ordeal, I call up 'reception' & tell them I'm checking out (cutting short my stay from 5 days). Surprised, they offer to change my room to the 13th floor. I decline.

To be continued ....

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

* R.E.Gonmei contributes for the first time to The writer can be contacted at r_emei(at)yahoo(dot)com . This article was webcasted on April 02nd 2008.

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