In the weeks before Christmas, I flew to Shanghai with every intention to blog about my experiences, working from the Chinese metropolis. The People’s Republic of China, however, had different intentions. Here is the report of my time behind the Great Firewall. China turned out be different from what I expected and was told.
When I was asked to do a two-week stint in Shanghai, I whole-heartedly accepted. Not only would it be a completely new adventure, I would be able to spend a few days with my lovely wife on the way back. Sitting at Suvarnabhumi Airport waiting for my flight back to Belgium, I started writing down the many things that have left an impression.
Before departure, I was excessively warned by colleagues. I would arrive in lonely isolation, have to eat all kinds of unspeakable dishes, work my way through red tape at the airport, drink vast quantities of beer night after night (‘Steven, Chinese culture is like that, mate’) and the kicker, I would have the share nude sauna sessions with my male colleagues (local culture, you’ve guessed it).
Needless to say, I arrived bracing myself and expecting the worst. To my surprise, arrival, immigration and luggage retrieval were a breeze and were not unlike those very same procedures in Thailand. My driver was waiting for me as announced, with a perfectly legible sign that even spelled my name correctly. We found our way to the parking lot, where we located his car and started heading towards the hotel. Granted, his English wasn’t the best. If the hotel was a long drive away. ‘Haha, yes yes hotel’. What his name was. ‘Haha, yes yes name’. OK, so his grasp of the English language was almost non-existent. We got along just fine nonetheless. How well-adjusted was I to Asia? I’d show those drama queens back at HQ.
During the drive over, I was able to connect to my wife over Facebook, without any kind of hitch. Lonely isolation, Great Firewall, … queens. I did notice that my phone credit vanished quickly, so I decided to disconnect until I had a Wi-Fi hotspot available.
May all your Christmases be white. Christmas carols and assorted decoration greeted me in the impressive lobby of my home for the next two weeks. The five-star hotel made a good first impression. The lobby was staffed by a gentleman and a lady, dressed to match. They looked like they had been hired as a set. As the female receptionist was frantically hitting away at the large keys of a calculator, I addressed her male counterpart. To my surprise, the lady answered. I was welcomed and given a keycard. Breakfast started at 6.30 am every morning, she informed me, while never losing sight of her keypad. Rather sparse facilities for such a grand lobby, judging from the limited introduction I received. Anyway, I was tired and wanted to retreat to my room, as I was expected at the office at 9am.
When I connected to the hotel’s Wi-Fi in the morning, Facebook had vanished. My VPN server back home was nowhere to be found and there was no trace of my outgoing mail server. Huh. Anyway, I posted my wake-up picture to the Glitterati Blog and had the system post it to Facebook from the server. Check-mate, China! Next, I logged into the administration panel of the mail server and successfully sent a sign of life home. Check-mate, drama queens!
Oh what fun it is to ride in a one horse open slay, hey. The elevator music continued the Christmas carol music theme, I noticed on the way to breakfast. Still a little groggy from the jetlag, I craved a cup of joe. The buffet spread was more than sufficient but getting hold of coffee deemed to be more of a challenge. It appeared to be served at the table and it took quite some time to get the attention of the staff. When I finally got my hit of caffeine, I did not have any time left for a second dose. That would have to change the next day.
On the way to the office, I noticed that the hotel had a gym with a wide view over the surrounding area. A routine gym user, I would have to check that out later. Work at the office was fine, but exhausting. Without elaborating on my duties (I did not start this blog to talk about work, nor to bore you), my assignment implied that I had to speak for 8 hours straight every day, followed by meetings here and there. At night, I was wiped.
Have yourself a merry little Christmas. Eating at the hotel that night, it quickly became clear that there was no escaping the holiday soundtrack. The lobby, the elevator and all of the restaurants had the songs on a continuous loop.
Back in my room the Great Firewall proved to have done a much more thorough job than I initially expected. All social media and instant messaging was now unavailable. Twitter, Instagram, Skype, Messenger, … it was as if they did not exist. On top of that, Chinese authorities also blocked my blog’s security system. Access was effectively blocked now too. The only things I had left were my newspaper, email and the videos I had brought on my hard drive. Other online resources were available but at a very slow rate. While surfing, it felt like everything was double-checked before it arrived on my screen. Reluctantly, I had to admit that there was some validity to my colleagues’ claims.
Jingle all the way. Amidst all the festive music merriment I solved my coffee issue the next morning by simply making my own. My approach fazed the staff for a few days. Did that foreigner just use the coffee machine himself? How should we respond to that? During the confusion that followed, I was able to get my two cups in time. Victory was mine, but not permanently. By the end of the week I was banned from the machine and a dedicated waiter was assigned a coffee can to fill cups on-the-spot. Sadly, this reintroduced the original problem, as he usually was oblivious to what he was supposed to do when called over to my table.
Going into the office slightly early the next morning revealed a peculiar phenomenon. Taking the elevator up, each time the door opened motivational group yelling sessions sounded through the halls. Kind of similar to Maori Hakka war cries. Over the next mornings, I tried to capture this, only to have the videos ruined by at least one person talking, every time.
With busy days at the office, working hours passed along quickly and a routine set in. Wake up, shower, listen to carols at breakfast, work, listen to carols at dinner, sleep. To break up this pattern, I decided to explore something different every night. First up, the gym I had spotted from outside. It was decent enough, but with the place being desolate, apart from two gym assistants carefully studying my every move I felt like a test subject in an experiment. For similar reasons, I never tried the otherwise impressive pool. The life guard, sleeping in the elevated chair, would probably wake up and turn into a lab assistant as well. Well, either that, or I would have to hang with the Eastern European looking over-sized gentlemen wearing under-sized Speedos in the Jacuzzi. Sorry Vladislav, that’s a pass.
Something I rarely pass on though, is a good massage. As a one-hour Balinese treatment was promoted for RMB 364 (around EUR 46) on an in-room flyer the hotel spa was up for exploration the next day. The facilities looked spotless and I was greeted by a cheerful girl, in her early twenties. ‘Good evening Miss, I will have the Balinese massage please’ I announced triumphantly, looking forward to some relaxation after a stressful day. A figurative question mark appeared above her head. Not one to easily give up, I grabbed the list of spa treatments and pointed towards the one of my choice. She understood and smiled. ‘RMB 880, please ‘. Confused, I asked why the Balinese massage was priced at RMB 364 in my room. The question mark swiftly returned, only larger in size. She started typing on her smartphone. Hm. Was this conversation over? When she handed me her smartphone, I could see that she had been using an app to help her translate. The result read ‘My English not so good, please type here’. After I entered my question, the question mark made way for a big smile. ‘Yes, more expensive here.’ WINK. Did she just wink at me? She clearly noticed that the question mark had switched sides. WINK WINK. I decided to let her deal with her eye affliction and announced that I might return later. ‘Hope to see you soon’. WINK.
With nothing more to explore inside the hotel, I gradually started to scout the surrounding area. Most of the streets around the building had nothing of interest to offer, except for a collection of seemingly closed sports bars, a seafood restaurant, a laundry shop, three massage parlors and two supermarkets. One supermarket was an obvious copy of a 7-Eleven and immediately catered to my snack craving. It also offered drinks significantly cheaper than the hotel’s mini-fridge. The sports bars were a strange sight, with their doors colorfully illuminated but all the windows heavily tinted. Even though they sometimes gave way to a glimpse of some kind of movement, I wasn’t going to stroll into the unknown by myself. The mystery was solved a few hundred meters down the street when a door flew open and an obese lady with particularly colorful make up lunged herself at me yelling ‘Beautiful boy, you buy me drink?’. These were bars with working girls. Walking into one of the otherwise respectfully looking massage parlors revealed another receptionist with an eye affliction WINK. This was a red light district.
Straying further from the hotel only revealed an unusually large amount of barber shops. Easily recognized by an LED version of the traditional barber pole outside, they would later be identified as another type of working girl venue by a local colleague. That ruled out anything of interest, close to the hotel. Any further exploration would require use of public transportation or a taxi.
For the remainder of the first week’s week nights I ventured out in Pudong, the Shanghai area East of the Huangpu river that is home to the financial district and our company offices. The new area, as it is called, was barren land just 30 years ago and now looks futuristic on a grand scale. Impressive, to say the least. However, what took me by surprise is how this area is littered with colossal shopping malls and Western franchises. Starbucks, Apple, Swatch, Gap, H&M, Haagen-Dazs, Hooters, Sephora, Nike, … they are literally omnipresent and it does not end there. Traffic mainly shows Western automotive badges: Mercedes-Benz, Volkswagen, Audi, Lincoln, BMW, Porsche, Bentley. Wasn’t China a communist country?
On Friday night I was invited to dinner with the local colleagues. The traditional Chinese dining experience I was expecting ended up taking us to another mall. Friendly banter and an informal atmosphere allowed me to dig a little deeper into the observations I had made throughout the week. With my Honor smartphone a point of interest at the office, conversation started off with Andrew finally asking me the question. ‘Steven, why do you have a Chinese phone?’. When I explained that it offered amazing value for its price, I picked up on a double standard that increasingly showed its face. One part genuine pride for Chinese products, another contempt for the Westerner who seemingly cannot afford an iPhone or Samsung.
This remark allowed me to carefully steer the conversation towards my main observation so far: how to situate this type of materialism within communist China. Our local managing director Mark explained: the People’s Republic of China is a socially-corrected market economy. Sounds very salonfähig, I would label it an ultra-capitalist economy.
You might have noticed that I refer to the colleagues with Western names. Mind you, Andrew, Carl, Raymond, Mitchell, Mary and Linda are Chinese. They explained that when starting their professional lives, there are all proud to choose their own Western names to make interactions with the West easier. Westerners don’t get to pick their own names, do they?
Contradictions like these are present throughout Shanghai society: nationalist pride and ambition, but measured by Western standards.
On Saturday, I visited the remaining landmarks in Pudong. My first attempt at taking a taxi failed: no matter how I pronounced or drew the Oriental Pearl Tower, the cabby did not understand where I wanted to go. Even though akin to a Paris tour guide not knowing what the Eiffel Tower is, I eventually gave up and resorted to subway. Not that anyone is more helpful in the underground, but the maps and diagrams are extremely clear. I ended the day at the knock-off market near the Science & Technology museum.
On Sunday, I ventured across the river to Puxi (pronounced ‘poo-gee’), the older part of the city (across the river), with a red double-decker bus tour, similar to the ones in London. This is an extremely affordable and convenient way to explore Shanghai, especially if you have limited time. The tour has different routes past all the tourist sites, where you can hope-off and hope-on as much as you can.
Shanghai is definitely worth the visit, but in general I was a bit disappointed in the lack of heritage. The most authentic part, in my opinion, is the former French Concession. Watching elderly dance groups in People’s Park was also very charming and amusing. Do have a look at my videos, available here and here.
I ended the day strolling through East Nanjing Road by night. East Nanjing Road is not too dissimilar to walking streets in Europe like Antwerp’s Meir or Paris’ Champs Elysées … even the brands on offer are the same. As a single man, walking Nanjing Road quickly grows irritating as every 10 meter a tout tries to lure you to a barbershop yelling ‘Massag-ee! Massag-ee!’. On closer inspection, side streets and alleys are littered with barber poles.
Another source of frustration was finding dinner. Several restaurants simply did not wait my table or understand what I wanted, asking for the menu. Luckily mall restaurants did not have that problem.
After dinner I watched these street perfomers for while, and headed over to the stunningly lit nightly Bund to take pictures. Absolutely beautiful and my favorite location of the day. After dusk, a suspiciously high number of pretty girls with a flawless English accent started addressing me. ‘Where are you from? Do you live here? Are you an artist?’. No, I am not bragging, it’s a known scam. Pictures taken, I called it a night.
With many late nights at the office, the next week did not allow for much exploration. My colleagues, having heard my frustration with restaurants, did take me out to lunch every day … which was absolutely amazing. Faith in Chinese restaurants restored, absolutely delicious meals every time. Noticing that I was a bit of a tech geek, they wrote down instructions that enabled me to take a taxi to a technology mall, only to be dropped at an old discontinued location. You win some, you lose some 🙂
My visit to Shanghai was definitely interesting, but early Saturday morning I was happy to fly out and spend Christmas with my wife in Bangkok. She will soon be moving to Belgium. A whole new type of adventure is coming to this blog. Stay tuned.
Oh, and John … thanks for the advice. But the naked sauna sessions with a bunch of dudes … you’ve been had there, mate 😉