Saturday, June 13, 2009

The New First World

Now this is more like it.

Even ignoring my predilection for cities (and Shanghai being one of the largest populations on the planet), the place is just intensely interesting. The main thoroughfares are busy--everything is busy, Manhattan busy--and very much like a bustling European capital, but the side streets remind one of old movie footage of Hong Kong. Skinny old men on bicycles mix with BMWs, and 20-somethings hawk all manner of products on the sidewalks and inside the shopping centers. Down the side streets, everybody has laundry hanging out in the dirty breeze.

Hotel room view. The haze is a regular feature, I guess.

A bicycle courier.

We flew in about 2:30 am local time, and the haze pretty much obscured our view of anything. Likewise, on the long drive into town to our hotel the visibility was about 1/2 mile. This, I am told, is pretty typical, as there is so much pollution that fog forms very easily. After a fitful sleep (in a surprisingly not-fresh bed), I was down in the lobby for breakfast about 9:30, after which I took a cab (clunky-looking, but solid Volkswagens called--like something from a Monty Python episode--the "Santana 3000" model; there are thousands of these in the city) over to a favorite market of pilots on layover, The 580. I had no particular shopping list, being mostly interested to see what things were on offer in contrast to what I'm familiar with from NYC's Chinatown. And it was very much the same: watches, purses & handbags, some jewelery, wallets & scarves, t-shirts, tech gadgets.

Under the bridge on the right, the 580 Market.

Well OK, I might have been looking for a watch. We may recall the saga of The Watch from a year or so ago. I subsequently sold that watch at a party to some guy who took a shine to it (even making five bucks on the deal!). But after this year's NYC trip, I kind of regretted selling it, as I didn't see a single Bell & Ross that didn't seem like, well, a cheap copy. Last year's began to seem like a real find. So when I found an even better version at the 580 today, I figured I better spring for it. I may get a photo of that up later. After several booths with Bell & Ross offerings I did find a quiet vendor at the 580 who had a little nicer selection. I immediately homed in on the most expensive Bell & Ross she had (of course) and she insisted, after coming down about 25% in price, that there just wasn't any more room in the high-end model. Suckered or not, I tended to believe her; and given that it was a better deal than the one I got last year in NYC, I was happy.

After leaving the shops, I was really tempted to walk around. But I stupidly left the hotel without a map or having spent any time orienting myself. So I reluctantly took a cab back to the hotel (a decision I regretted less when even the cabbie had to phone someone to figure out where the Hilton was, even though I gave him a card with the address and a map on it--it's only a couple miles). But after I got back and dropped off my stuff in the hotel room, I went down and got a map from the concierge and set out on foot. And about two miles down the main shopping road from the hotel was... the 580 Market. Go figure. The main shopping thoroughfare in Shanghai is Nanjing Road, running East / West. A couple blocks from the hotel, which is on one end of the shopping district, the road runs three and a half miles East to the Huangpu River. This street alone could keep a serious shopper busy for weeks. I walked the entirety of it, and I must have passed at least 150 shopping centers and countless stand-alone vendors along that length. In most of these shopping centers, booths and vendors are very densely packed. While there is a huge amount of overlap in what they are selling, there are clearly deals to be found for one who knows where to look.

The street culture is a jumble of Chinese and European and American. English words are spread around liberally--there is a lot of English in the city, on a majority of street signs--usually as an accent in a larger Chinese-language context. And there are lots of English language t-shirts, with charming grammatical errors (on a lovely young woman, "And over just here more delight.")

Nanjing Road scenes.

The one big difference in the shopping (particularly the 580 versus NYC's Chinatown) is the assertiveness of the sales people. Many clerks are young kids--early 20s, say--who appear to be running their own little booths. And every single person courts you aggressively, following you and talking to you. A couple guys walked along with me for several minutes, all the while yammering away about what I might need. Many of the merchants touch you as you walk by, and some even try to detain you. One guy in particular held tightly to my arm and I had to wrench myself away. I notice that there were very few Asians shopping in the 580, and those who did were not accosted in the same way as The Great Fat White Westerner. (It needn't be sinister, I know; I'm clearly a visitor, and visitors often come here to shop.) But even out on Nanjing Road later I was hailed by quite a number of merchants and even women who were presumably selling their services as a shopping guide (and perhaps more?). They automatically addressed me in English and assumed I was American. In all this I have no desire to be rude, but there just seemed no point in encouraging anything, so I ignored all of it, just pretending not to understand English (which ruse apparently fooled no one, as they just kept talking to me in English, even when I had not uttered a word).

There seems little point in saying this aggression was off-putting, but really I have to wonder whether the tactic even works. I would have been MUCH more inclined to look through a store's offerings if someone had not been practically undressing me in their attempts to get me to buy (maybe it's my Buddha-like physique). The slightest hesitation at a shop caused a veritable feeding frenzy of activity from the sales staff (on top of the tsales tsunami that greets every passing shopper), often with several people inquiring simultaneously: Watches? Rolex? T shirt? ("We have big size!!" in case I was hesitating on that account.) You need scarf? Camera battery? Camera case? On and on. I saw a number of American couples in the shops, several looking really overwhelmed and out of their depth. The innate desire to be "nice" had them quickly roped into some carnivore's store and there was no getting loose now.

In the 580 virtually every store (each of which is really just a cube, a stall) has a hidden door somewhere with a small back room where the "good stuff" is kept. And a premium seems to be placed on getting a body into the back room. I did go back a couple of times to see if they had my Bell & Ross, but the crush in the back room was even more off-putting than the pitch to get one back there in the first place. In both places, there were more people in the back room than the staff could help, and customers were clearly unhappy at the service. Again, I just wonder at the functionality of the whole model. (In a shopping center later in the day, not the Western-favored 580, the presence of the Fat White Guy took some people by surprise, as chatting girls looked up and, startled, launched their spiel. ("Yadda yadda yadda... Oh you! You need purse? Come here look at scarf!" etc.)

The blood-thirsty salespeople notwithstanding, I could spend days here (not to shop, though I'm happy to do some of that too). There is this strong sense that this part of Shanghai (and this little part of China) is sporting a shiny new entrepreneurial outfit on a very old frame. But for Chairman Mao on the currency (they even left his big, nasty-ass mole in place on the engravings), Shanghai feels about as Communist as Chicago. It's easy here to forget the China one hears about regularly on the news. Evidence of this duality, subtle and overt, is everywhere, from the sparkling and impressively huge modern airport terminal to the back alleys of town which take one back a couple hundred years. And this impression is pretty strong even from a single afternoon walking along a single route. While Shanghai may not quite match New York City's population density (and perhaps it does), it has twice the population, so the crush of humanity spreads over a vast area. Our 40-minute cab ride into town from the airport passed an unending parade of high-rise housing blocks, mile after mile after mile of them. I think I could spend a lot of time getting to know this place (or know it as well as a foreigner who doesn't speak a lick of the language can know it).

Alas, this time it's a mere 24 hours, with a couple sleep periods wedged in. But I look forward to my next visit.

Part bike, part trike, part truck, part personal transportation: the "Truick." (OK, maybe not.)

A 4-way pedestrian footbridge leaving our hotel.

Marco Polo said it best: "Let them eat bread." (Marie Antoinette was a plagiarist.)

Breakfast & Diet Coke: 259.90! (luckily, not dollars.)


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Dzesika said...

These are great! Such an intriguing mix of Western and otherwise. And love the Diet Coke.

wunelle said...

I wanted to get a picture of the Korean Diet Coke that they brought to us on the airplane during our stop in Seoul, but that seemed a bit silly!

Shanghai has stayed with me (perhaps helped by Almaty being--to me, anyway--much less intriguing). Now I'm itching to go back. It's a New-York-like sensory overload.

Stack said...

The great thing about Asia is that EVERYTHING is a barter. Never pay full price and haggle the hell out of the salesman. If they get tough, walk away and they will almost always cave in to get the sale. Like you noticed also, the "good stuff" is never in plain site and you have to search to find what you really want. Knock offs are everywhere though, so you need to do your homework before buying.