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Shanghai: a crane on every block, chamber pots in every alley

Shanghai, where we’ve just spent a brain-jangling week, is a city of 19 million in one hell of a hurry. Cars whip so fast around downtown corners that we pampered Canadian pedestrians don’t dare trust a green light. Motor scooters career down sidewalks (how quickly we’ve learned to jump out of the way). On every block cranes reach for the sky. Construction hoardings obscure the famous view from old Shanghai—the legendary stamping ground of crooks, tycoons and colonial financiers—to brash skyscrapers that didn’t exist a scant 20 years ago and now stretch as far as you can see (provided you can commandeer a vantage point on a swish restaurant patio, as a savvy tour guide did on our behalf).

You could argue that we’ve picked a bad time to come. Shanghai will unveil a World Expo next May, so pell-mell preparations have the whole teeming, swaggering place in an uproar. Then again, it seems to me we’ve arrived just in time. Old neighbourhoods are being demolished to make way for new condos. (The government sets off fireworks when families do their duty by giving up their homes in the name of progress.) But for now, at least, you can wander down surprisingly peaceful laneways that have scarcely changed since the Communists first came to power. Minutes away from the hubbub, the lives of whole communities spill into the lane (no wonder, with three families crowding into a single apartment). Mah-jong players gather at scared wooden tables. Women cook lunch on outdoor stoves. Laundry dangles outside every window; chamber pots air in doorways. There’s usually a custodian lounging in a chair, scarcely awake. There might be a woman at her sewing machine, stitching up a storm. No one minds the curiosity of passing tourists like us.?

Our guide, an Israeli expat, invited us to peer through a window at an old woman sitting serenely in the dark (to save electricity, he said) in a room about the size of a modest walk-in closet. Asked one member of our group, speaking for us all, “Are these people considered poor?” Answer: “They don’t think of themselves as poor. Everyone here has enough to eat. Of course, they don’t have fridges. They go to the market every day and they only buy what they need until tomorrow.”

In the laneways of Shanghai, we heard no crying children, no voices raised in anger. Back in our hotel room with its king-size bed and marble tub surround, the two of us had a noisy tiff over something I’ve already forgotten. Tomorrow at the breakfast buffet, we’ll eat more than we need because it’s there. And then, if I get my act together, I’ll jot down a few more Shanghai impressions before we move on to Hong Kong. Now excuse me while I change for dinner. Where has Yunnan cuisine been all my life?

Posted by Rona

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