Tuesday, June 19, 2012

A Jetlagged Middle Aged Curmudgeon's Impressions Of Shanghai


After arriving at my hotel in Shanghai around midnight, the first thing I notice is that an alien spacecraft has landed smack dab in the middle of the city's Lujiazui district. Stuff like this always gets my attention. You know how nightmares about seeing ghosts are scary? Well, I've had ones about seeing UFOs, and being stalked by slimy, aggressive alien creatures, which to me are way more terrifying. Seeing an alien would shake up my worldview way more than seeing a damn ghost would, I can tell you that much.

This spaceship is shaped like a rocket, but it's massive, probably 1,500 feet high. Its base looks like a tripod, and a couple hundred feet above the ground there's a giant, bulbous pod, shaped like a ball, that I figure might serve as the cockpit. Above the ball, probably 500 or 600 feet higher, is another, smaller ball. After that, there's a long, thin antenna like thing, pointing skyward. The whole spaceship is covered with flashing dots, and they're constantly changing color. I would not be surprised at all to see E.T. come shuffling out of this freaking thing.

I assume I'm just hallucinating. It was a tough 14 hour flight from San Francisco, and the little kid sitting behind me was kicking the back of my seat the whole way. That is, when he wasn't screeching, or demanding candy from his pathetically overindulgent parents. I slept very little as a result, probably less than 30 minutes total, and it was the fitful, twitching kind of sleep that actually makes you more tired and cranky instead of refreshed.

Jin Mao Tower
But soon I realize I'm not seeing things: This garishly lit monstrosity is right there in front of me, and now the top is obscured by fog. It occurs to me that it might actually be a permanent fixture of the neighborhood. Seeking answers, I look up Lujiazui on my phone and learn that the "spaceship" is really the Oriental Pearl Tower, built between 1990 and 1994 by the Shanghai Modern Architectural Design Co. Ltd. Until 2007, it was China's tallest structure.

And you know what? I don't care, I really just want a beer at this point. Lujiazui is filled with modern looking skyscrapers and the whole place is bathed in neon glow, with cranes and construction sites everywhere, suggesting imminent expansion. But for all that, Lujiazui might be one of the boring places on the planet. There are no bars, not even closed ones, so what looks like an area that should be full of life and energy is actually a dead zone with few visible signs of life. Well, that is, unless you count the creepy pimps, who slink out from the shadows every couple of minutes asking "You want lady?"

This would happen to me a lot during my week in Shanghai, and after I while I started wondering if I had some sort of sign on my forehead, invisble to me, which said "Yeah, I'm that guy".

Old Shanghai, right across the Huangpu River, more than makes up for the soullessness of Lujiazui. Here you can see how real people live, with streetside vendors selling corn on the cob to schoolkids, tiny shops selling impossibly niche items, like fuses and birdcages, and old folks sitting streetside, reminiscing about the good old days before the scourge of modernization started changing the city's complexion. You'll often see kites floating high above this section of the city, diving and darting on the breezes blowing in from the East China Sea.

I first came to Shanghai in 2000, but like many places in China, this city has changed a lot in the past 12 years. It used to be difficult to get a cup of coffee -- a good cup, I mean. But in Shanghai, there are now coffee shops all over the place now. To me this makes sense: Shanghai is a galloping city where everyone is running around eager to taste the next new and exciting thing, and so it makes sense for them to get all caffeinated first. That way, there will be no regrets later on that anything was missed.

Shanghai World Financial Center
In one Shanghai neighborhood, there is a museum where hundreds of Chinese Communist party propaganda posters are exhibited. Calling it a 'Museum' actually is a stretch: It is basically some guy's basement apartment, albeit a spacious one by Shanghai standards. The posters on display date to the beginning of the People's Republic in 1949 all the way up to the end of the Cultural Revolution in 1976. There are plenty of images depicting Chairman Mao with Stalin, Lenin, and Fidel Castro.

The most common theme centered on smashing U.S. imperialist aggression. China's leaders really have always hated that about us, though they don't blame individual Americans: One of the most interesting posters voices support for the U.S. antiwar protestors who demonstrated against the Vietnam War in the Sixties.

But if you only have time to see one museum in this city, make it the Shanghai Museum. It is magnificent, with a range of exhibits that will take you way more than a day to truly do justice to. There are 4,000 year old wine containers, which I found fascinating because it's fun to wonder what people got up to back then when they were hammered. There is a whole wing dedicated to Chinese calligraphy, and walking through one realizes the power of the written word in this culture. Jade pieces that are thousands of years old, coins several hundred years old, including some from the Silk Road era that are basically just mashed up pieces of metal with some bearded guy's face on them, are also among the museum's finest attractions.

Getting around Shanghai is easy: There is an excellent subway that goes all over this sprawling metropolis. Be ready for crushing crowds though. I made the mistake of taking the train to the Shanghai Pudong airport on Monday morning rush hour. The amount of people in the subway was actually frightening. But, I was calmed by the soothing sound of Angry Birds being played by my fellow passengers. By the way, iPhones are very popular here -- one marketing poster I saw on a mobile device shop said "If you don't have one, you're a loser". Well, the 4GS is pretty nice I guess.

Before leaving, I headed back over to Lujiazui to take photos of the skyscrapers, which were lit up brilliantly at night. As I was taking a shot of the Shanghai World Financial Center, which at 1614 feet is currently the tallest building in China, the bright lights illuminating the building's exterior switched off. It was fascinating to watch, though it happened in the blink of an eye.

And I thought to myself, someday I'll be telling my grandkids, 'Your gramps is so old, he once saw a skyscraper get shut off'.