Monday, September 25, 2006

North of the Bund

The side streets north of the Bund are my favorite place to wander in Shanghai. There's nothing grand about them: if anything, the area's most striking characteristic is how low-key it feels in comparison to the nearby shopping street of Nanjing Lu, or Pudong just across the river. You can almost forget where you are, and then suddenly you catch a view of, say, Lujiazui's crazy-ass TV tower.

The Bund, and Nanjing Lu, are Shanghai's most-visited areas, with ritzy restaurants, nice hotels, and chic clothing stores. The Bund has sweeping views of old Shanghai on one side, and Pudong's very new, very tall, very weird buildings on the other - including what's going to be the world's tallest.

On the other hand, North of the Bund is defined by the machine shops along Beijing Lu:

It has a lot of older brick buildings, generally four or five stories tall, with shops on the first floor. I've never been inside, but from the outside they look charming:

The area also has an unpretentious feel, something like the distant area of Shanghai I used to live in, but a lot more crowded and fun, without all the Soviet-style buildings. It has a lot of street food and hole-in-the-wall restaurants, I think the restaurants and snacks in this area are pretty much decent, plentiful, and cheap. Here are some Shengjian, frying in a pan.

While there's a subway on Nanjing Lu, it gets to be a bit of a walk for a lot of the area, and the streets are so small that the bus isn't very fast. Bicycles are the way to go, the area is extremely crowded with them:

The area contains the most scenic part of the Suzhou River, not just the large downtown buildings in the background, but older ornate buildings such as the central post office and the Russian Embassy, built to take advantage of the view:

I'm no expert on the area's history, but I believe the brick buildings just north of the Bund are of a generally higher quality due to their proximity to Nanjing Dong Lu, and also because some of the cheaper brick buildings were knocked down to put in modern buildings. The area has a more permanent feel - unlike a lot of Shanghai there's not so many new buildings coming up, and it doesn't feel like many new buildings will. But as you get more North, the area feels more in flux. There's a lot of decrepit buildings standing right next to top-quality apartment complexes, in Shanghai you have to believe that situation won't last very long.

Especially right near the Suzhou River, you can see a lot of buildings getting knocked down, and huge apartment complexes coming in to replace them. In all honesty I would love to live in an apartment in the area, and one of these new apartment building complexes would probably be the only way - snagging an apartment in one of those old brick buildings is impossible. There's the obvious paradox that the character of the neighborhood is being sacrificed to make way for these high-rises.

I went to an apartment in a high-rise located just a little to the east, and took some pictures looking down, stretching on across central Shanghai and Southern Hongkou. It's funny, the area looks almost orderly when viewed from above.

I wish I had brought a better camera for these pictures - anyway, zooming down on the houses, you can see drying laundry and a miniature potted garden. It's about on course for any lanai in Shanghai.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Finding an Apartment

With my first apartment I moved in with somebody who had an extra room, they took care of all the details - when I moved out, I still didn't know what my landlord looked like! With my current apartment I wanted to live by myself, in a busy part of town. This involved some footwork. You can rent apartments off the Internet or a classified, like with the US, but the normal way to do it is through a real-estate office:

I just wandered around - first I found the neighborhood I liked, and then I wandered around until I found a real estate office. There's lots of them, all around, so if I wasn't happy with what they had to offer, I just went to another one.

Some of the offices look upscale, but a lot of them have the feel of back-alley black markets. They're not particularly clean, office furniture looks like it had been rescued from a dumpster, people sit around gabbing. Even now that I'm not in the market, sometimes I look at the signs they have posted in the window, or on A-frames, listing apartments to rent or buy.

They make money from taking one third of the first month's rent. There's limited leeway to bargain - in my case, two different real estate agents has listed my apartment, so the person helping me was able to play the two off each other, and get a discount. And, the rental price of the apartment can also be bargained. Again, I sat back and let the person I was with take care of that. I'm out of my league, trying to bargain in China!

How are the apartment prices? Top business publications rate Shanghai as one of the most expensive cities to reside in. Living in a prestigious foreigner-owned apartment complex is going to cost at least as much as living in the SF Bay Area. The apartments listed below are cheaper. They probably house a lot of foreigners, but aren't quite in a prestigious part of town. They are listed by the RMB (eight RMB is about one US dollar) and by the square meter (one square meter is about eleven square feet). For example, the apartment on the bottom right is $1000/month, but is 1400 square feet.

My furnished apartment is about a third of that, and I consider it very nice, near the subway, and in an upscale part of town, although it's a little small. On the other hand, most of the young and fairly well-to-do Chinese people I know rent apartments that are around $200 or $250 per month. They're every one saving up to buy a house. Owning a house is important in America, but to people I know in Shanghai, it's even more so - generally people won't get married until they own a house.

It's kind of a surprise, but while most of the real estate operators are independent, Century 21 has a small presence here. They mailed a brochure to my apartment so I might as well show it here:

The houses below range from $90,000 for a 500 square foot apartment, to $250,000 for a 1,300 square foot aparment. Both are in a nice and central part of town.

To be honest, at the premium to own rather than rent, I'm not sure it makes sense to buy an apartment, except as an investment. And I'd be suspicious of Chinese real estate as an investment - there's certainly good opportunities, but there's a significant chance that Shanghai real estate is in a bubble, and the government has shown a willingness to suddenly apply relevant laws on a whim - last month suddenly adding a capital gains tax, last year suddenly regulating mortgage rates, etc.

Just as with the US, real estate in Shanghai and a few other cities is drastically more expensive than living in the countryside. Chinese cities don't really have a suburbanization movement, and I consider that ideal as I really don't like suburbs. On a drive to the airport, you do catch the odd glimpse of foreigner suburb enclaves - I hear these rentals are massively expensive, and the buildings are in a thoroughly Western style, you could forget you're in China.

For many Chinese people, having the apartment be brand new is one of the most important factors. I don't think newer apartments are necessarily any better, although as a general rule, older apartment buildings tended to be built in a more utilitarian manner - for example, they may be missing elevators.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Chinese Silent Movie: The Goddess

"The Goddess" is a B&W silent movie filmed in Shanghai and released in 1934. Its immediate interest is due to the time the film was made: at the last gasp (and possible peak) of "Old Shanghai". The film shows a partially Westernized city overrun with prostitution and petty gangsters, with traditional moral codes that shouldn't apply, and with the occasional oblique allusion to the Japanese invasion taking place, that would overrun Shanghai in only three years. That probably sounds very interesting, in all fairness I must say it revolves around a simple and silly melodrama, and mostly utilizes a small number of indoor sets. Also, while there is obvious technical skill to the cinematography, the filmstock is very degraded and there are weird scene-cuts throughout.

I chose one segment that shows the most of Shanghai, and also encapsulates the basic melodramatic thrust of the movie. Things to look out for include: stock footage of what I'm guessing is the Bund, sets depicting its night life, a rickshaw driver, the clothing worn by the men & women, the clear class differences, and the cheap apartment. The clip is about four minutes long:

This movie stars Ruan Lingyu - people I asked weren't familiar with "The Goddess" itself, but they all knew who Ruan Lingyu was. From watching just this one movie, I would describe her as almost beautiful, and half a step away from being a great actress - as it is, the movie works almost entirely because of her performance. She commited suicide the following year, supposedly due to the pressures of tabloids. The movie was the first directed by leftist filmmaker Wu Yonggang, who made a number of movies over the next forty years.

This post varied from my normal 1st hand observations because I'm recovering from the flu and not disposed to going out and snapping pictures!

Update 9/24/08 - This movie can be downloaded in its entirety from