My first day ever in Shanghai.
I admit, I was extremely apprehensive and cautious when I first arrived at the airport. Even though I spoke the language, my command of it was only just functional and I wasn’t confident of ensuring my own safety.
I felt quite safe taking the cab however. I didn’t feel like I would be robbed or worse in the taxi. However, I did feel that I may meet a car accident. Let’s just say that Shanghai drivers are much less amiable than drivers in Singapore or London for that matter. The road belongs to those with aggression and who are unafraid. You have to assert yourself on the road by weaving through the traffic and honking periodically.
Half the time, I had no idea what the cab driver was talking about, although I’m quite sure he is speaking mandarin.
The place that I’m staying in looks nothing like the Shanghai that I imagined. It looks more like my idea of Shanghai 20 years ago. The disorder, chaos and lack of wealth made me extremely conscious of my appearance, my lack of knowledge of the street I was walking along, and safety.
The road was big enough for only one car to move along. Motorcycles and bicycles dominated, competing sometimes with the rare car that cruised slowly along the road. On either side, open-concept shops selling fruits, vegetables, buns and other sorts of food added to the chaos of the place. I saw a plastic bag with chicken feathers bursting out of it. I’m not sure if I dare to buy anything on the street to eat.
After a long walk and asking for direction a few times, I managed to find the subway system. After the chaotic walk, I found the subway system very pristine and clinical. There are even x-rays at each ticketing entrance so that the security could inspect the bags of people entering the subway system. The trains were smaller than I had expected, and much less crowded as well. I was travelling to the city on a Saturday evening and the train was not even half as crowded as Singapore’s trains are on an off-peak time.
I emerged at People’s Square and headed off onto nanjingdonglu. There were lots of people, but again, nothing like the crush of people seen in Singapore or Hong Kong for that matter. Shopping centers rose high up on either side of the broad street and every now and then, the tourist ‘train’ would chug along beside the pedestrians, bringing tourists around to sightsee Shanghai in the comforts of a sheltered train.
Yes, it was drizzling. And the wind was absolutely nuts.
Walking along, I spied a crowd gathering near the entrance to one of the malls. Two old men were playing a song with their musical instruments and a small crowd of 20-30 people had gathered around them. As the musicians played and sang along to the song, the crowd joined in as well. The sounds reminded me of the faint memory I have of Chinese Opera.
But it was the spontaneity of the crowd and these two men that touched and amazed me. Here in the alienating city, strings of the past are pulled and it draws a community instantly from the mass of strangers in the city.
Walking along nanjingdonglu, I felt much more at ease. Anonymous, surrounded by people of great diversity, I didn’t feel like I stuck out as much. I could do whatever I want, observe whoever I wanted and just relish being ‘lost’ in a city. Take in the sights, take a picture if I wanted. The public space belonged to me at that moment and I felt safe in it. Of course, I still guarded me belongings fiercely. This was, after all, a foreign place.
Finally, I reached Shanghai bund. The oh-so-famous Shanghai bund. The view was just absolutely amazing. Despite and perhaps even because of the rain, the mist that descended over the Pudong bank gave the buildings a mysterious, almost magical feel. I stood there for a while, lost among the many tourists and Shanghainese (this was possibly where I encountered the most people), just drinking in the view.
What a beautiful city. And I wondered, if people thought that way when they look out at Marina Bay or Clarke Quay/Boat Quay?