Thursday, August 25, 2005

A Random Walk down Suzhou River

One piece of tourist advice you will never find in a Shanghai Guidebook is "Go to the end of the Subway line and walk right back, following the Suzhou River for ten miles through all its bends and turns." Which is precisely what I did, and will describe here. This posting will be longer and larger than my previous updates.

Part of the motivation was to retrace the setting of Suzhou River, a small & quirky art film I consider to be the best movie ever made in the PRC proper. The movie depicts the river as a vast armpit to the city, wildly polluted and populated by gangsters and squatters - but which still holds an attraction to the videoographer narrator.

I knew the scenery would be different from the movie, because the movie is all of five or six years old, which is equal to about ten times that in US city years. Also, I talked to a local girl the day before the hike, she's into the art movies - she says right after the movie came out, there was a huge cleanup of the area.

I took the metro out to ZhongShan Park on an overcast day that wasn't quite the best for photography, but kept me from dying of sunstroke. Between the park and the river is a colorful area combining the back-alley charm of Shanghai with big apartment buildings, with a lot of local restaurants to boot. I was thinking it would be a pleasant place to live when I stumbled across the river. This look at the Suzhou River was a surprise: rather than the neighberhood being built around the river, the river was nearly boxed in by concrete barriers I could barely see over despite my height, and surrounded by warehouses and the like.

Although of course it makes sense if you consider that until recently, the river was basically a sewer. I walked down the dirt road, and it wasn't too long until I could see a row of new apartment buildings across the river. There was a break in the river-barriers, and a small park front where you could look over the river. Also note the laundry hanging in nearly every lanai.

However the barriers went right back up, and there was a long stretch of sparcely peopled road, with small warehouses and the occasional recycling center. And "sparcely peopled" isn't something you often get to say about Shanghai.

I also ran across the occasional alleyway of houses. I'm not sure if these houses were occupied by squatters or if it's a step above that. Either way, the houses seem stuck together with whatever happened to be handy at the time. I hate to dwell on the negative, but these houses don't have running water. Here a lady carries out her Chamber Pot. I presume she dumped it into the River.

Scattered along this section of the river are massive apartment complexes, most of them either obviously very new or still being built. Some of the areas are too far out to attract development, but many of the older areas are being replaced by such apartment complexes. You can see the apartments going up behind this dilapidated area, and it's obvious its days are numbered.

Which leads up to Brilliant City, by far the largest apartment complex I've ever seen. It's located where the Suzhou meets the ZhongTan Light Rail Station, on both sides of the river. The scope is hard to imagine, I made a very rough guess that it holds a hundred fifty thousand people. Rather than blocking off its view of the Suzhou River, it seems to be built around a particularly meandering portion of the river, with the occasional grandstand looking over. A lot of the pathways are closed, however, with willow trees overgrowing them. Here's a quick price guide if interested in moving in and joining me over here. These prices range from 850,000 Yuan to 3,100,000 Yuan - about $100,000 to $400,000.

Up until this point, I had one big surprise. In the movie "Suzhou River," long flatboats formed a kind of backdrop to the movie, but I hadn't seen a single one. Then suddenly they came, one ofter the other. There was about fifteen of them. While that was all I saw of them, it was kind of fun. They had small houses at the rear, with clothes hanging and miniature gardens, just like in the movie. They carried what looked like sand, for mixing in with concrete I guess. And yes, the apartment buildings in the back of the photo are also part of the same complex.

After this, a construction sight cut off access to the riverside. They were still carting off rubble and rather than walk around, I cut through. Nobody seemed to give a second thought to a foreigner in a T-Shirt walking through a construction sight. Sometimes you have to love Shanghai.

Anyway, continuing on, I came to the area that most reminded me of the underbelly depicted in "Suzhou River" - and probably the only part of the way I wouldn't want to walk though at night. It started underneath this bridge. This is just of a few of about a hundred homeless people (mostly families) sleeping and hanging out in the early afternoon.

This was followed by a very colorful but very poor area, where a foreigner walking through was a definite center of attention, albeit I competed with the children being washed in the street, and the odd game of mahjong. I must admit I didn't feel comfortable whipping out my digital camera, but this small area was a highlight of my walk. Afterwards were more abandoned buildings, often gated up or even bricked off. I guess they ran out of bricks halfway through on this one - it was the reception booth to a living area?

Keen eyes will look at the above picture and notice something that also had a prominent place in "Suzhou River" - the advertisements spray-paint-stenciled onto the wall. While the narrator of that movie spray-paints his videographer advertisement on every building he sees in Shanghai, it's rare to see them in other areas of Shanghai. Here they're everywhere. The ads below use a graphic slang for having sex, followed by a cell phone number.

Continuing on, the area gets much more crowded, with a large group of electronics stores, and the occasional apartment complex that looks larger and more lived-in than before, if not actually any nicer. At this point I had to cross the street to get away from the river. There are occasional decks and pathways along this stretch, apparently built for looking over at the river. While there were only a very few young hoodlum types hanging around, it's obviously not a pleasant place to be at night. The decks are riddled with human filth and about as disgusting as anything I've ever seen. I won't show a picture, but this lady could probably tell a story or two - she has a good view over the action!

But it isn't much longer until the Suzhou merges with the downtown area, and abruptly turns into a back street for Beijing Lu, where machine-part stores are gathered. You wouldn't know you're even along the river, as the view is completely cut off by a thick row of plants. By the way, it's also obvious why the boats along the Suzhou are shaped so extremely long and flat. Sure it's high tide, but the clearance to the bridges along this stretch can't be more than five feet.

At this point I reached the end of my trip. The Suzhou flows into the Huangpu River, which flows into the Pacific. Being the dividing line between the historical city center and the growing sub-city of Pudong, the Huangpu defines Shanghai more than the Suzhou probably ever did - on the other hand, you wouldn't even think to create a movie around it.

As a last picture, taken on a different day, you can see the setting of Moudan's climactic jump. Pudong lies across the way, and the Russian Embassy is mid-ground on the left. A small caravan of boats waits at the mouth of the Suzhou for the gates to open, so they can take their cargo upriver.

I took a lot of pictures, some of which are here and the rest of which can be seen at I'll re-trace the trip eventually, so check back later if such is your interest.

Monday, August 22, 2005

Trying to Cross the Road in Shanghai

Back on the mean streets of Oakland, I have a friend who refuses to cross the street unless it's on a green light. I think about this in Shanghai - how could you get anywhere, when the roads look like this?

There's a few key elements the untrained eye might gloss over. First, the sidewalk is blocked off by contruction - which is pretty much on par for Shanghai. Second, the street here is not one way, yet bikes and pedestrians are on both left and right side of the road. Third, there's a truck in the background, headed towards the camera, which will take over almost the entire road.

Lanes are a fluid concept in Shanghai, and how could they not be, between all the road construction, and the freight being carried down the street, both by old-time bicycle crates, or by push-carts. Either can get enormous to the point that you can't believe they can be moved.

More annoying is the tendency of businesses to set up shop on the sidewalk, blocking off pedestrians. Or, the tendency of both bicycles and scooters to ride on the sidewalk. You'd like to imagine the sidewalks as a safe zone where you don't have to worry about getting run over.

There's a certain algebra to the pedestrian traffic: one car is worth seven or eight people. So if cars aren't willing to yield you the right to cross the road, bunch up with a small gang of people and the cars will be forced to yield. Bicycles operate outside these rules. For the most part they won't stop or even slow down for a right turn on a red, and are perfectly willing to cut in front of you. You just have to wait for a moment when there aren't any bicycles around, and then cross. In some parts of town, this can involve a lot of waiting.

But I don't want to imply all Shanghai is like this. In many newer parts of town, streets are wider and more-or-less car dominated, just like in the US. And even in the older parts of town, there are main roads strictly for the cars - which tend to be busses or taxis. The taxis are all Volkswagens, and about half the cars on the road are VWs or Audis - they have a big factory, right in Shanghai.

I hope I'm not sounding negative - I really enjoy and am bemused by the perpetual game of chicken that is getting around in the former International Concession (where I'm now staying). Adding to the charm is the hustling around you, whether from sidewalk vendors or from the numerous small shops which line the streets. But I'll admit, the wider tree-lined streets of the former French Concession are probably more to most people's tastes. While they're crowded, you might even say it's pleasant to walk around.

And big ups to the sister, for mailing a phone-picture of a Night Blooming Cereus, in bloom! It's been too long since I've seen one, plus it's a cool picture, so I'll link it up. They don't have these in Shanghai but it would be great if they did.

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

A Lack of Propoganda

I'll admit, I love the old Communist propoganda. In form, not function, of course - it's hard to be a big fan of the Cultural Revolution, or the Russian Soviet propoganda machine. The art of Communism, however, with its goal of conveying ideals to the public rather than impressing a sense of artiness to an elite, is much more approachable in theme and subject than most Modern Art. And of course the bold design aesthetic is striking - particularly if you compare it to, say, the look of American posters from before Photoshop and desktop publishing. And I can't deny, there's a certain kitsch appeal to the simple themes, often out-dated and generally over-dramatized. Have a look at Stefan Landsberger's Chinese Progoganda page.

I realize that the glory days of this propoganda is in the past. However I expected at least some visible remnants. Maybe a Mao here or there, some kind of statues, even a few posters. Instead, I was surprised to see that state propoganda is not to be seen on the city streets. For the most part, not even a flag - I don't have to say how common state flags are in the United States, along with reminders of 9-11, signs in front of minority-owned businesses reminding people that they're also American (so please don't throw a rock through the window), and crucifixes.

In contrast, take XinTianDi (please). It's a trendy international-esque shopping center with a lot of popular bars, all of which are secretly desperately uncool. I'd been a couple of times before I realized it also houses the original meeting-place of the Chinese Communist Party. I went in to have a look, and was surprised to see a straightforward presentation of the various events that culminated in the Communist revolution. Mao Zedong, one of the thirteen attendees, was given one (1) photograph. There wasn't even a Chinese flag to be seen, although there was a flag of the Communist Party prominent in the lobby.

Photos are a form of lying, though, and I can collect pictures and make it seem like flags are all over the place. For instance, they mark most government buildings and offices, such as the Immigration Office. These government buildings tend to be concentrated in the city center so that makes them more visible.

You'll also see them in front of most 5-star hotels, such as the Marriot. It's right behind the American flag they use to show off being an international chain. Please note that I am staying in a hotel that is a far sight short of displaying any flag in the front. Similarly, a row of flags will sometimes mark the recently-built, elite shopping centers or office buildings.

But for the most part, you won't see them at all on the streets of Shanghai. They're rare enough that if you do spot a Chinese flag in front of a store, you'll know it sells medals and trophies, for sports tournaments and the like. It's similar to barber-shops having a striped pole in the front (which is a Shanghai practice as well).

The search for Mao is even more difficult. I've heard about holdover portraits from the Cultural Revolution at select sights, but I haven't actually seen any. Ironically enough, the two places to see Chairman Mao's mug is on T-Shirts aimed squarely at foreign tourists, or on the currency. As a quick tangent, I find it pretty cool that Chinese Paper Money doesn't just use the Chinese/Han language, but also various other languages spoken in China, as well as the Chinese written in Roman characters.

However there is a little more propoganda to speak of. In addition to my earlier picture of the Soldier's Statue in People's Park, there's also a statue of Marx and Engels in the corner of Fuxing Park, which is probably my favorite park in the city. The statue wins extra cool points by being from the eighties and managing to both look its age, and look classically styled.

So I don't mean to say there's no state propoganda in China - just that it's primarily migrated into really boring News programs. And this blog itself is blocked in China - along with the rest of the blogspot domain. Blogs are supposedly getting big in China, but were blamed with assisting large anti-Japan protests several months back. Blocking this domain is perhaps some sloppy attempt at control.

It's easy (if trite) to say consumerism is the new propoganda. While it's the exception, there are definite areas where the advertisements and conspicuous consumption are the raison d' etre. On Nanjing Donglu, you're always within view of McDonald's, KFC, or a "Haole Die" (supposedly a Karaoke Chain, but I remain suspicious). But I think the new propoganda is the cityscape itself, with wild buildings that can't help but impress, especially if you look at how undeveloped these areas were just a decade ago. Pudong is lit up at night to make it a symbol of economic might, rather than to keep the burglars away.

Rather than delve into deep thoughts, I'll link to a postcard view of People's Park at dusk, taken from a walking bridge near my hotel last night. I'm studying and teaching on the far side of the Park - you can't see the building in this photo, but it's right next to the tall building with the triangles encasing the ball.

Saturday, August 06, 2005

Shanghai Underground

I'm braving a typhoon right now, the first I've ever been caught in. Making it even more fun, I decided that would be a good opportunity to take the Subway across town to an Internet cafe I like, near the ancient Jing'an Temple - and next door to a Burger King.

The Shanghai Subway is my method of travel when possible. Sure a taxi is only a dollar or two (possibly three), but the subway is even cheaper, and is a good opportunity to scope people out. It's a work in progress - there's now only two underground lines and a BART-esque light rail, supposedly there'll be four more lines in the next five years. There's also a transfer to the magnetic-levitation train which takes you to the International airport at 270 miles/hour, or the train line.

The adventure begins with buying a ticket, which is quick and cheap. A yuan is about twelve cents, so the marked prices of 2 or 3 yuan really isn't much.

Inside the subway is a bunch of signs, some of them more helpful than the others. Trains come every four or five minutes - in this case 3:35 to the next train, then 7:53 until the train after that.

A sign pretty clearly marks which direction you're headed in. It's easy even if you don't speak a word of Chinese! Well almost. The signs translate select words into English ("Lu" into "Road"), when usually these words are just romanized, and most people (include taxi drivers) have no idea what the word "road" means.

And while I hate to resort to cheap shots, I'd really like to print the following sign on a shirt, or possibly make a bunch of posters and display them across town.

My favorite aspect of the subway is hard to photograph: rather than wait for people to get off and then get on, everybody tries to get off and get on at the same time. When there's a lot of people doing both, the two masses basically collapse into each other. It distinctly reminds you of the offensive and defensive line in football, right after the ball is snapped.

On most subways are LCD TVs which show advertisments and teach English idioms ("u-turn" or "on the rocks"), which is kind of fun. The scoping is hard to beat. My friend Emiko complained about the smell, but I don't think it's all that bad, especially in the larger scheme of Shanghai.

When you're off the subway, the adventure isn't quite finished. Some of the stations are huge, and the distance you walk to transfer between the two underground lines is absurd. Also, some of the stations empty into underground malls, or shopping centers.

Thursday, August 04, 2005

A Quick Word on Elephants

At the risk of being really boring, I'll say a word about the Shanghai Zoo. It wasn't my choice but Emiko was set on seeing the pandas, and you don't argue with Emiko. So, we took a $2.50 taxi across town to have a look.

The Shanghai Zoo ended up being a lot of fun. It's essentially on level with San Francisco's, with the "cages" being a mix of concrete boxes and outdoor areas blocked off by water. Most of the animals (including the Pandas) were sleeping in the shade, which was probably a good idea given how hot it was outside. Visitors tried banging on the cages and feeding the animals their lunch, but for the most park the animals didn't move (except for a hyperactive hippo). The Zoo also has some nice fields and would be a great park if there weren't so many other nice parks closer to the downtown.

The definite highlight that I'd recommend to anyone was the insane Elephant Show. It takes place in a small amphitheater surrounded by a ring of seats close to the stage. At the beginning, the elephants march by close enough to touch, which nobody did, although some people bought cucumbers which the elephants grabbed out of the spectator's hand.

This progressed to showing the elephant doing tricks. Is it just me, or does having an elephant stand on it's rear legs on a four-foot high beam seem unsafe?

However if it's dangerous for the elephants, it's much more dangerous for the humans. My jaw was dropped as two very brave volunteers came from the audience and were repeatedly stepped on by the elephant, and then felt over with the trunk, a process that involved being wacked repeatedly. You could hear the slaps as the trunk hit the ground (and their bodies) - I wonder if they got bruised.

Afterwards you could pay a dollar or two and get a picture of yourself either sitting on the elephant's trunk, or being picked up and laid on the elephant's tusk. I didn't want to brave the line - or the elephant - but I'll have to some other time.