Asia | China | Shanghai – Shanghai revisited
I called A Jian, the guy I met while traveling in Yunnan, so he could show me his hometown like he had promised. The tour started in Yu Yuan, a nicely renovated garden filled with souvenir and antique shops. Quite an expert on antiques, A Jian pointed out an old tin bucket, and he cracked up when I responded that it was a spittoon. It was an iron! Back in the days, it took a lot of expertise to press a long silk robe using a bucket filled with hot water. Then he pointed to a glass box with naked figurines inside. I knew the ancient Chinese were no prude at heart, but still was shocked at the sight of the explicit sexual poses. These were called suitcase bottoms. Since sex was such a taboo subject to talk about even between mother and daughter and father and son, the parents would put these glass boxes at the bottom of the brides suitcase to be brought over to the bridegrooms homes on the wedding day. When night comes, the newly weds would open the suitcase and the suitcase bottoms would instruct them to consummate the marriage.
Onto the Bund, perhaps the most celebrate part of Shanghai and a living museum of its colonial background. Along the Huangpu River, Europeans granite buildings housed some of the biggest hotels and banks in town, reminiscent of Pest along the Danube. Meanwhile, the modern skyscrapers and TV tower across the river demonstrated Shanghais ambitious to build itself into a mini Manhattan.
There was a story behind every building. We wandered into Pujiang Hotel, built as a top-end hotel by an English man at the end of the 19th century and now turned into a hostel, at the edge of the Bund across the street from the Russian Consulate. The ambience brought me back to the old Shanghai that the natives couldnt let go from their memory. The Shanghai that was more than a city. It was a symbol of glamour, opportunity, and adventure for the daring ones. In the hallways covered with dark wooden panes, pictures of movie stars from the 20s glowed dimly under the yellow light. I started humming the swinging beat of jazz from that era as I walked through. Thirteen twin beds were scattered in a big empty room with columns that connect to form arches beneath the ceiling. No doubt this used to be a deluxe suite. I thought back to the pictures on the walls and wondered who had stayed here during the hotels glory days.
Shanghai gave me the first and last impressions of China, and somewhat epitomizes China in its dichotomies of rich and poor, old and modern, and conformity and individualism. Shanghais success to re-emerge as an international city is evident in the clean subway, English street signs, networked ATMs on every block, and Brazilian, Japanese, American fast food, and Italian restaurants that littered the streets. Yet the people still needed a few lessons on mannerism as they tried to get ahead and calculated every penny in the pettiest ways. They cut in line, conned anyone who did not speak the local dialect in the worst way I had seen on the trip, and pushed and shoved on the subway so that the crowd swarmed onto the train before people were even able to get off. The economic prosperity has brought a newly found pride for the Chinese cultural roots, showing through the citys architectural and fashion styles. Yet the inferiority complex from the colonial era still lingered in the continuing uses of older terms such as foreign fire for matches, and foreign building for skyscrapers. One minute Shanghai was a sophisticated metropolis, the other it seemed to have returned to the immigrant village without an identity. Like all other big cities, Shanghai needs to be deciphered little by little.