Shanghai is the lead character in a movie, the scenes of which I have not yet pieced together. Glorious, technicolor images of rich, gorgeous Shanghai still run through my mind’s eye like rushes from a day of intense filming but the story line isn’t clear. Perhaps I have caught Shanghai partway through her own tale and only time will reveal the meaning of what I have seen. Even so, I am not troubled because somewhere deep in my soul I already know Shanghai. I understand her sound; I recognise her face. Like pieces from different jigsaw puzzles, I have seen fragments of Shanghai before. London is here and New York and Paris but take a moment to pause and look below her western clothes. You will find there beats an Asian heart full of complex relationships and a fierce determination to make the future hers. Though we met only briefly, I already know Shanghai and the rhythm of that beating heart.
Scene One: Laundry
As I approach the city centre heading towards my hotel, the size of the sky scrapers is matched by the hight of the designer heels. Familiar symbols of modern, western sophistication and wealth are unashamedly flaunted and displayed……. right alongside that mornings laundry. It takes me a few moments to realise what I am looking at. There, covering the metal railings edging the footpaths, the balconies of every residential building, regardless of whether its neighbour is an office block, and on washing poles jutting out over roads are duvets, blankets, sheets, pillow cases and,occasionally, clothing basking in a warm, very sunny day. No Victorian sense of privacy inhibits this collective display of domestic bunting. It reminds me a little of Hong Kong but even there the washing stayed off street level. I am thrilled and amused.
My Shanghai guide, Melody, explains quite matter-of-factly.
” It has been raining almost non stop since January and this is the first time this year we have had a few warm, dry days. That is why everyone is doing their big washing.” Seems fair but why is the washing out on the streets and on public railings? My question reveals both my naivety and how much I have forgotten about the life I lived as a child.
“How else would they dry their things? They don’t have tumble dryers and also the electricity would be far too expensive. No one will steal them. Who would want someone else’s sheets?” she states, slightly puzzled as to my intrigue. These few short sentences reveal much about Melody, Shanghai and China itself.
Scene Two: River
I am staying at the devestatingly luxurious Peninsula Hotel on The Bund in a room that overlooks the Huangpu River with a jaw dropping view of the famous Pudong skyline. This is a proper, high octane , fully caffienated, mega watt city and it buzzes with an energy more visceral than that of New York. The busy river makes me feel comfortable. It echoes what I love about The Thames.
To the epic sound of Khachaturian’s Adaggio for Spartacus played from my iPod, through the Suite’s magnificent sound system, into every room, I take stock of my accommodation. It is good. Very good.
There are three Mood Lighting Settings but I like the Privacy Please setting. I want one at home!
I have the usual hair dryer, of course, but today, I even have a nail dryer!
As the sound of Khachaturian’s Spartacus rises with gladiatorial strength to claim freedom from Roman enslavement, an equally strong and profound feeling of happiness surges through me as powerfully as the Huangpu flows outside my window. So I go for a walk.
Scene Three: Flute
I am visiting the water village of Xitang just outside Shanghai’s city limits. The day is clear, the sun is high and Melody is excited. She explains that it is wonderful taking someone so young and fit to Xitang. Usually she has a tour bus of “seniors” who need a lot of looking after and can’t do most of the things Xitang has to offer. I am touched that a 26 year old regards me as young.
The water village is as authentic as it can be given the relentless march of time. It is far less commercialised than other water villages and has an indigenous population which makes its living through village industry. Not fishing anymore but tourism. Catching a different kind of fish, I suppose.
Surprisingly quiet, the waterways that snake between land banks and under beautiful bridges cast a calming spell on visitors and locals alike.
The courtyard of a private house
Laughter at lunchtime
Having walked to the far end of the village, we return on a gondola style boat propelled by one Chinese water boatman and his oar. Impossibly, the pace slows even further and there is time to listen rather than talk.
The breeze is soft; more a caress than a call for attention. It carries messages from the riverbank; the sweet smell of stir fried food, snippets of conversations, shafts of sunlight dropped like silver leaf on the water. Then just as we approach the final bridge, we are are hypnotised by her finest gift: sounds of the flute player.
The sound of flute playing from beyond the bridge
Unaware of our approach, a water boatman is sitting in his boat playing for his own pleasure. Business is slow. It is early in the season so he plays his flute. The other water boatmen are further away on a different boat playing cards. The music is tender and full of pathos. Yet it is the melancholy, a deep, pensive sadness that the breeze has carried to my boat.
As I disembark, I follow the sound to his boat and listen for a while longer. When he finishes, I applaud him, much to the amusement of his colleagues and, endearingly, slightly to his own embarrassment. Although no one else was nearby to hear the exquisite sound of this water boatmen and his flute, it is a precious memory but not a fragile one.
Scene Four: Lunch
Sitting on a small plastic stool in a tiny back room of a street stall, I am wearing thin plastic gloves , pealing the shells off river prawns and crayfish dripping the sauce in which they have been cooked all over myself. This is lunch.
The garlic loaded, butter drenched scallops are amongst the best I have ever eaten. The thinly sliced grilled potatoes on skewers are a nod towards balancing this meal but it is all about the shellfish…..and getting my hands dirty. My nephew, who is responsible for feeding me this “street food” is smiling . And so am I.
Scene Five: Picture
It is early evening. The sun will soon be setting and I decide to walk along The Bund. Stepping out of The Peninsula to cross the road towards the embankment, I am approached by two young, Chinese girls. Wearing skinny jeans, short jackets and scarves against the cold, they can’t be more than 18 years old.
” Hello”, the taller one smiles, “please can you take picture?” She is offering me her mobile phone and indicating that she would like a picture taken of her with her friend. I have realised this is not unusual in China so am happy to oblige. As a lone traveller I have asked the same question myself on this trip.
After the shot, I hand back the mobile.
“Can I take picture of you?” she says still smiling. I wasn’t expecting that and look surprised. “You got beautiful eyes. We got no foreigners at home. We from Szechuan. I wanna show my family you big eyes.” I am still slightly thrown but agree in the spirit of friendliness.
As the shorter girl, who has been silent, prepares to take the shot, the taller one continues. “Where you from? London?” I nod. She doesn’t miss a beat.
“First time in Shanghai? My first time too. You alone?” She makes a sad face just as my city instincts start to kick in at her line of questioning.
“You wanna join us?We going to party, have fun. Come and join us. Not be alone.” And there it is. I am not sure what the scam is but these are no innocent tourists from Szechuan. I say no politely but firmly and walk away.
Moments later I turn to see if they have left, hoping I misread the situation and they really are off to have fun somewhere else but I am not wrong. They are hovering by the crossing, looking for who else is stepping out of the hotel.
On turning back to continue my walk, less than 60 seconds after leaving the “Szechuan Twins”, I hear another female voice. “You got beautiful eyes. Where you from? You alone?” This time I am wise and do not engage. This happens twice more in very quick succession. It is like a patch being worked. Each time I turn round to look back on what I have left behind, it is the same scene. Two young girls, dressed like tourists, speaking to foreigners walking alone.
Within the hour, the sun has set. I have taken some photographs and been perfectly content to “have fun” on my own.
Scene Six: View
In a bar at the top of the world’s third tallest building waiting to be seated for dinner, I am sipping a martini with a handsome man nearly half my age. Earlier we were in another bar across the river at the top of another building looking at where we would be going next. We went there for the iconic view.
We have spent the day together in the Yu Gardens, the Art District and Nanjing Road and though he has tried not to let it affect our day, he is troubled. A business issue has kept him on the phone for parts of the afternoon and is still on his mind as he sips his beer.
He is in Shanghai to make his fortune. Half Asian, half Dutch, he lives here but is not of here. One thing is for sure, he is in the right city at the right time and my migrant ancestry applauds him for taking up the challenge. He is also charming and very good company so the evening flows easily.
I am taken by his view of Shanghai, the view across my table and the view across the river. A perfect way to spend my last night in China.
Scene Seven: Skyroads
A shiny black car is taking me to the airport. It is early but traffic is building.
Looking out of my window, There are roads below me. I am on a flyover, on the fourth level with another above me. Five layers of roads from ground to top. Shanghai is on the move and I am on my way home.
China Closing Credits
BA is flying me back to London. It’s a long flight and I have much to think about. China has been at once a revelation and an enigma; complex and complicated.
On the flight, the adjacent seat is occupied by P. P breaks the ice and effects an introduction with a broad smile, a light Liverpudlian accent and some humour. I am charmed. Before the plane even leaves the ground we have begun what becomes a long, intense, personal and, for P, emotional conversation. P’s soft speech and easy manner belies a long hard career in the male dominated, macho, automobile industry. We talk about our work, managing teams, hiring, firing, diversity and unconscious bias. We talk about China, of speaking sympathetic English, the excitement and the challenge of working with a society where labour is cheap but technology expensive and the importance of gender, status and formality.
We talk of our upbringings, our parents’ values and how that shapes us. We talk of our children. P’s are much younger than mine. P tells me stories that reveal their characters, P’s as well as the children’s. A casual observation from me reaches deeper than I could have known and P is moved to tears. The struggle of a single parent stretched to the limit is revealed. I share the story of the big stones in the glass jar and P generously says this is reassuring.
It seems no part of P’s life is without complication. Emotionally involved with someone who is still married and someone else who is seriously ill, P is spinning many plates all the time. As we prepare to land, I reflect that P too is complex and complicated and like China, has given me the privilege of seeing a little of what lies below the surface; a glimpse at the hidden depths of a life being fully lived. It is an honour I do not take lightly.
I have travelled a long way East and am now ready for home, secure in the knowledge that in a few short days everything home means to me will be in my arms.