Saturday, October 29, 2011

Shanghai: Disappointments and Surprises

This is Shanghai

My feelings toward Shanghai will always be tainted with association as the city that blocked access to my blog. I think, more realistically, Shanghai was probably not to blame, but the hotel submitted to government censorship. Try as I did, I couldn’t circumvent their server, whereas in Beijing, the hotel was more interested in the comfort of its customers than obedience to the Chinese government. And by the way, did I mention, the hotel in Beijing was government owned, where they send their VIP guests?
Self Portrait in Shanghai
Once I got over my frustrations and I started to look around, there was not so much to endear me to the place. Word is out that Shanghai is an exotic “Paris of the east.” Alternatively, it is known as the rival to neighboring Hong Kong for business, the hub of a thriving Asian economy. There is no doubt, this is a wealthy city: money oozes along the streets in big cars, neon lights oversized shopping malls filled with every name brand under the sun. Shanghai is wealthy because of its long historical entanglements with the West, and of course, as the destination of the opium trade in days gone by. And today, it’s wealthy because of its every growing expat community, here to head up manufacturing, sustainability, construction, oil, and to trade the markets. Add to all this a less obvious working poor, streets not as wide, a brighter sunnier climate, faux colonial buildings, and a neighborhood such as Jìng’an begins to look very much like gentrified Georgetown, Washington DC. Venture further inwards to Nanging Road and Shanghai with its intense neon lights and teeming crowds looks a lot like a cross between Hong Kong and Las Vegas. Beyond its looks Shanghai is a city with a lot of appeal for Chinese business.
My dinner companions
With my mind already made up, I couldn’t leave without making some effort, however small, to find traces of traditional China in the streets of Shanghai. And what better place to begin my search than People’s Square. My evening was made not by the square, but by two Malaysian men at a dumpling joint on Huanghe Road on the edge of the park. Always slightly ashamed of my non-existent Chinese, I had my face in my dumplings when the older of the two began talking to me. It’s these moments that make me so happy for shared tables. Not only do I get to share dinner with others, but I get fun and interesting conversation into the mix. As we ate out of our tin dishes that looked like they dated from the Cultural Revolution, we talked together with the man sitting next to me about living in Shanghai, about beautiful places to visit in China, and about traditional Chinese food. Sadly, I can’t relate much of the important facts of the conversation because I never fully understand the Chinese names and places. Every now and then I would be distracted when the guy in charge of pan frying the dumplings on the street had to wait for the next batch to be steamed and he hung his head through a window, a hole apparently cut in the glass for no other purpose than him to stick his head through and talk.

The chef
No sooner had we finished eating than the older man promptly told me I had to have a foot massage at 30 Yuan (about 4€) for 90 minutes. There was no suggestion I might not want a foot massage, but rather, I was brusquely led across the road and before I knew it was lying back in the upstairs parlor of Hanlu’s with my feet in a bowl of hot water. If I closed my eyes, I felt like the chosen concubine as my feet were slapped and pulled, rubbed and kneaded. There were no candles or rainforest sounds, just a room filled with cigarette smells, a television playing something that was of great fascination to all of the masseuses in the room, and constant chatter mixed in with the sounds of men being massaged behind a screen. Every now and then, the girls massaging two men in suits, still on their telephones, in front of me would continue their labor and announce in a very loud voice something that obviously had to do with me. Everyone would turn to me and with a smile that was almost a laugh, break into intense discussion. When I clearly had no idea of what they were saying, the masseuse would slap the man extra hard, and order him to translate. The first time he obeyed, asking “What country you from?” Given the continuing hilarity of all but me, I have a feeling something was lost in translation. Later when the same thing happened again and he asked, “You want full massacre?” any doubts were dismissed.

View from my hotel window in Shanghai
When 90 minutes later I hobbled out of Hanlu’s, my feet fatigued from the realignment of Qi, I reflected on my conviction that language is in anyway necessary to a therapeutic relationship. Indeed, in the inconsistencies and mis-interpretations, I realized its potential danger where physical exchanges can be transformative. Who would have thought that I would learn this, in Shanghia of all places? I can't say my night at People's Square endeared me to Shanghai, but it did reassure me that there are gold nuggets of all kinds to be found in even the most unlikely of cities.

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