The first surprise of Shanghai is a wall of smog outside my hotel room window. Through the haze, I could recognize a beautiful yet illogical road junction, a bare skeleton of a future high-rise hotel, and the grey canvas of the Huangpu River, resembling baggage ribbon. It slowly carries “oversized luggage” along it; huge barges with small cruise boats and junks in-between. A week before I arrived, Shanghai was hit by the tail end of a typhoon, and now, the dark, rain-filled clouds producing maximum humidity hover over the river. A few days ago, my plane landed in China early in the morning, and by noon, my suitcase and its contents had become damp: my T-shirts hung sadly on hangers in the hotel closet, and even my passport had become as wavy as a banana leaf.
I flew to Shanghai for the China from the books of Lisa See, Amy Tan and other American writers of Chinese origin. In that China, they wear satin cheongsams, tortoiseshell combs, and grandma’s bone bracelets (they can still be found in a dark dead end occupied by an antique store with goods from the 1920s, if you can find the dead end in the labyrinth of skyscrapers). But the more you look around, the paler the ghosts of those long gone stories become against the neon lights. In place of grandma’s jewelry, there are fitness trackers: Shanghai residents have seriously taken up jogging, despite the questionable air quality. Shops with cheongsams have turned into coldly lit boutiques in which respirators are sold.
As I wander through the streets, I wonder how deeply the Chinese seem to have buried their golden dragons and jade phoenixes, how firmly they filled a millennium of thousands of intricate fairy tales, superstitions and symbols with a concrete layer. And suddenly, I step into a pharmacy where the medicine, like a hundred years ago, continues to be weighed out on scales, and instead of a cash register, there is an abacus. Traditional Chinese medicine is familiar with thousands of healing products. Roots, mushrooms, dried glands of beavers and martens; everything that goes into teas, infusions and ointments, that improve the circulation of the qi and fill the void of the yin, is neatly placed in glass jars. Judging by the dim, like the eyes of yesterday’s fish, glass, they have not been changed for a long time. Only the ailments with which the Shanghai people come to the pharmacy change: the city used to suffer from smoker catarrh. Now, everyone treats neurosis and its accompanying insomnia.
Next to the pharmacy, there is a shop selling all sorts of exotic ‘dried products’. I check Foursquare: a chef from Singapore writes that every time he comes to Shanghai, he buys here several suitcases full of items for his restaurant.
Inside, the store resembles an aquarium that has been hit by a heat wave of a nuclear bomb, immediately evaporating all the water and life from its inhabitants. Shark fins hang from the ceiling (the largest is the size of a fan from films about colonial life). The baskets are filled with different-sized scallops, wooden boxes – with dried shrimp the size of a nail, and old trunk boxes – with brown cuttlefish.
Flyers from restaurants that buy their seafood here hang on the doors; you could notice a mysterious abbreviation on one of them, M50, in place of an address. In the smooth field of hieroglyphs, it looks like a piece of broken code, and intrigues me much more than an incomprehensible clam with a dozen tentacles hanging in the doorway, like a dream catcher. What’s this: The 50th floor of a skyscraper, the name of a department store or dock number at the port? I show the flyer to a taxi driver, and have no idea where I’m going.
As it turns out, the M50 is a trendy art neighbourhood where fifteen years ago, only abandoned warehouses and shops were located. Since the 2000s, it has steadily grown along with the pleasures associated with contemporary art, like a new apartment grows with fresh coats of paint. Now, the M50 is a collection of avant-garde youth’s notions about an ideal city: modern art galleries; workshops that smell of solvent, and bars with intricate cocktails are all present. And there are also restaurants in the austere style of Berlin falafel stands, boutiques stuffed with expensive cotton, and lively guest houses with roof terraces. Long ago, emigrants and working people settled near Moganshan Road. They understood little in the fashionable “problem art” and much more – in daily life problems. For today’s M50, unkempt yet bohemian, other settlers are responsible: refugees from the center, who were smoked out from there by huge rents.
The French Concession, where I headed at dusk, is the exact opposite of M50. For almost a hundred years – from 1849 to 1946 – this area was under French dominion, and after the 1917 Revolution, it witnessed an influx of Russian immigrants. Now, a small but very influential nation rules here: restaurateurs.
The question of how to get a Friday evening table in the French Concession is what engages the brilliant minds of Shanghai. There’s no way to get into bars on the roof, however hard you might (physically) try; 10 minutes after opening, they’re completely packed, and from that moment, it seems no one ever leaves the place. There are two things that are noteworthy about the institutions here: an almost poisonous “Bloody Mary” with a spoon full of wasabi instead of Worcestershire sauce, as well as a ban on jackets, ties, and a worried expression.
There are many non-Chinese restaurants, like, for example, Indian ones where at lunchtime you would hardly get a table. Local clerks have great skill with forks and, less gracefully, with elbows, clearing paths to the last mango lassis on the shelf behind the glass. To stand in their way is like letting a Pamplona bull trample your foot. At Vietnamese restaurants, it’s a bit calmer: it is embarrassing to give vent to one’s feelings in the presence of such a neat meal, graciously wrapped in transparent rice paper like a baby.
Generally speaking, Shanghai is not about “grace”. Shanghai is fun, fashionable, and new. Although it has long been on the great Chinese register of territories subject to restructuring and monetization, and there is almost nothing old in it. The new pictures, tastes, and smells are very good. And who cares that the latter reach your nose through a respirator.
- Don’t be afraid to use public transportation: In Shanghai, there are more than a thousand bus routes alone, and the subway is considered the fastest developing in the world. Stops are announced in Chinese and English, all navigation (navigation signs, maps, etc.) is bilingual.
- In unpretentious local diners and canteens (they are called chi-fan), the food is not only cheap, but also of quality: even well-off Shanghai residents love it.
- In case of health problems, it’s best to visit the Renai clinic, where most of the medical personnel speak English (at least the interpreters there work 24 hours a day).
- Sales in Shanghai are usually around public holidays: October 1 (PRC Founding Day), New Year’s Day (European and Eastern), May 1, and the Mid-Autumn Holiday (in 2017, this is the 4th of October). There are also regular seasonal sales.
- A large portion of the outlets is located in the quiet suburb of Sheshan. The discounts for well-known brands start at 50% here, and are valid for the entire year.
- The best price / quality ratio tea is sold in the famous chain store, Tenfu. Here, unlike at the markets, the prices are fixed; on the other hand, you can be sure that you are buying a quality product.
- There are no places where you can buy all souvenirs at one go in Shanghai. Most markets are specialised: Electronics, jewelry, fabrics, etc.
Text: Ksenia Golovanova
Published on: May 20, 2018