Chinese football – Silky skills

Beijing Goan and the Winding Sukuks

Beijing Goan and the Winding Sukuks

 

A showcase of Beijing’s best footballing talent was preceded by a trip to the famous silk market – located at the Yonganli exit to subway line 2. Any foreign purchaser must take the following into consideration:

The first challenge is to work out by what factor you are being overcharged at the first quoted price. One bargaining session saw a £45 quoted polo shirt drop to £4 after a scene of pulling, shouting and almost tears at one point. One of our visiting group was waiting for his change – but would only get it after my purchase – a ransom of sorts.

Many stalls sell the same item – it is best to know the price range before entering the gauntlet of negotiating.

Walking away will often reduce the price by 20%.

Don’t enter negotiations or feign interest in an item if you are not sure about it – you will leave the stall with the item in hand – possibly more as bullying into buying is sure to succeed.

Enjoy the process – much of the mild verbal abuse and victim-playing is a well practised art form and retorts of a similar nature are welcomed as part of the theatrics. Just as long as you play the game and don’t get fooled into thinking the product is bone-fide Armani.

Minutes soon turn to hours and before you know it the match is about to kick-off. A quick metro hop across to the Workers’ stadium gets you there just in time to catch Beijing Guoan slide,stumble through a narrow 1-0 victory against an even less convincing Nanchang Hengyuan.

At one point the game was reduced to the fans clapping at their own creation – a Mexican wave of almost exclusively home fans. As there was not one (as far as I could see) away fan in sight it was a strange experience to witness a sea of green become increasingly annoyed at first the referee and then their own team for scuffing numerous one-on-ones.

Bottles were thrown towards the pitch – mild swearing was about as bad as it got. Teams of riot police were merely a precaution as the only order they would be restoring would have spilled out from discontent of disgruntled home fans. But the beautiful game was brought to life during rare moments of inspiration and height from 6ft2 on-loan Ladji Keita in the second half – but the best chances were wasted.

I left with a feeling that although China had experienced rapid commercial westernisation – it would take a considerably longer time for the westernisation of sport to take place – if that is to happen at all. Of course China is famous for its gymnasts, badminton players and table tennis greats – not so much its lanky strikers scouted from African player-farms from a young age. Why change that?

Beijing’s migrant children

Beijing’s migrant children

The outskirts of Beijing are very different form the capitalist cocoon of polished shopping malls, smooth tarmac and construction sites. I see a father playing cards with his daughter on a kitsch sofa outside the front of a dusty shop-front as our bus (organised by the internship programme) passes through makeshift housing establishments. Our coach driver gets lost on the dusty lanes, asking for directions at every turn as there are no street signs in this part of town. A lady on a push-bike directs us around the corner to two school buildings. But this is no ordinary school.

Firstly, the two buildings that should hold around 300 children holds 900 we are told. The children that go here are not ‘Han’ Chinese – the mainstream race in China – but minorities from 27 districts across the country. The main reason this school is different is that migrants are seen as an inferior race – and that includes the children. At least that is how the government sees them – we are told. Of 300 schools run by MCF the Migrant Children Foundation only 60 are recognised by the government which means many children will study but will not get the recognised qualifications they need to progress to the next stage in life.

It may sound strange to hear of Chinese migrants in Beijing – but china is so diverse that there is much internal migration – from poorer districts or rural areas to Beijing or other large cities. Yet the way the system works currently is that each family is registered in a city. If they decide to move city, they will automatically forefit their right to state provided education and health for their children. But it seems sometimes the poor services in the rural areas are so inadequate that parents reckon it is worth taking the risk moving house. These migrant schools have foreign teachers and will provide a platform for children to progress – that is if they are government recognised as are much cheaper than funding a place in a government school.

Portrait of me – masterpieces!

We spent the day posing for pictures drawn by the students – we heard about what MCF did and how it operates – and spent time playing with the children in the yard – skipping, playing basketball, football and badminton. What kind of start these children would have I could not be sure – but it would be better than a start in the rural areas – where jobs are poorly paid and there are few opportunities for young people to grab a rung on the ladder of life. At least this way they might have a good shot at grabbing the same rung thousands of other children are attempting to find. For more details visit MCF.

Wei Wei out there

Enter the world of Chinese contemporary art with the number 798. Ai Wei Wei, the Western-revered Chinese artist-cum-activist is one of many to have a gallery in the 798 district, a disused electo-optics factory complex in the North-East of Beijing.

Area 751 in 798 district

The Danshanzi factory as it is known, was initially to be a project in conjunction with the soviets as part of a socialist-unification programme and implemented under one of China’s five year economic plans. The Russians, however, were unwilling to undertake a programme at the time and shifted the co-opted project to East Germany.

Today, between factory funnels, dormant locomotives, well-angled steel gratings, wooden panelling, glass-fronted galleries and green verges enclose Beijing’s foremost expressive space. It is a Disneyland for art-junkies at its worst, a powerful and challenging voice of politically-strangulated Beijingers at its best. Although some of the exhibitions disappoint, the main showcases do not fail to impress. Between Tibetan enclaves and elaborate gallery entrance halls – much of the space is used to display a rage at the West. I feel as if I am trespassing on a cultural space that is not my own. And of course it isn’t.

Manufactured art

One gallery, set in an arched warehouse surrounded by a moat is a curious gallery of scenes from the bible – all the characters are Chinese – all with their eyes closed, wearing wide Berlusconi-esque grins showing black mouths – I can’t help but get the feeling there is a confusion and fear at Western narratives clashing with Eastern traditions. Perhaps there is -for some reason for fears of a Western ‘colonial mentality’ supposedly ‘civilising’ China. Further galleries express similar messages – one shows 500 portrait pictures of a woman who plans to sell her body to fund her way through life with the money coming from Western customers – another gallery depicts a Buddha holding western foods, gorging on fast-food and spilling energy drinks around himself. The fears are not unfounded – history tells of how Western powers colonised parts of China including Hong Kong – the 99 lease of which ended only in 1997. But this is a different shade of colonialism, although it retains the same colonialist, capitalistic ideology.

500 Photo Hangar

Throughout the day – expensive cars rolled up and down the district – with young Chinese men and women at the wheel – perhaps searching for a way to express their new wealth. I could easily see this space is not just used for the storage of art – although I couldn’t be quite sure what else was going on. After short trip into a Japanese number-light gallery I left 798 with a Tibetan CD and a greater understanding of Chinese fears of the present for the future – expressed through universal symbols. I find a shop devoted to asking the question of the West and its influence in China – change is happening so fast and few are ready for it. How should one react? I’m still finding that out…

A typical street in 798

Japanese number-cruncher

Beware of the Beijing Tea Party

Entrance to the Forbidden City

I had only been in Beijing for a few days – but a new type of scam took me unaware. The “Beijing Tea Party” as it is known is a popular trick played by only a few in an otherwise safe mega-city.

“Hi, where are you from?” is a common opener, followed by a long-winded story about how your new acquaintance – all alone and wanting to practice some English – wants to follow you as you walk around the area in no particular direction to get a flavour of the capital’s traditional ambiance. The space surrounding the forbidden city is poor – shanty shacks are plotted all along the tree-lined streets and many people are hunched on the street corners over a game of mahjong, others stare at ragged scooters motoring through red lights or dodging pedestrians.

I stick to what I know best and attempt to look ahead, ignoring my peripheral vision to focus attention on locating some kind of western fast food outlet after a rather rough start to the digestive week. At a set of traffic lights, the common greeting does nothing to take me off guard, but then after a series of questions a quick chat from a friendly student of English turns into a bowl of noodles and a side of Watermelon (which I didn’t order) and some beer (again not ordered) to accompany my sprite. It’s rude not to, I suppose – chatting about Chinese culture, the recent high-speed train crash in Wuzhou, the limitations of the one-child policy and other social ills that seem to be bubbling under the surface of a fast-changing nation.

A less than satisfactory meal (cold noodles with a slap of beef sauce) is made up for by the conversation and linguistic exchange. Yet when it comes to monetary exchange, the situation turns for the worse. Thirty quid – no way that’s right. I look up and around – and realise this is a set-up. Don’t you have any more money to pay, I ask? Negative. Ok – I look across at another street table and sure enough a table of Spaniards are sitting eating watermelon and drinking beer with two Chinese guests. I feel like shouting, but I have let this one go – I got myself into this one. Perhaps I can call the police later, I reason internally. At this point it is really too late – it suddenly dawns on me that I have been too trusting and perhaps naive to let it get this far. A short, sharp exchange with the waitress confirms my fear and I reluctantly hand over the red notes.

Back at the hostel – I realise this is a very common scam and it turns out I got off lightly. The Beijing Tea Party is one of those famous tricks, one where a group of people will invite you for a cultural tea party – and practice English – explain all about the Chinese customs only to present a bill of over 1,000 yuan or (£100). My hostel host confirms the worst when I divulge the afternoon’s events, but he seems relieved I got away lightly.

CCTV tower

Yet my experience of the forbidden city has not been replicated. In fact, Beijing is one of the safest cities I have been to – which is quite incredible considering it has a population of around 18m people. The subways are jammed, but people are generally calm, not rushed and they are incredibly polite – even when you are squashed up against another commuter and air is a premium. As riots erupt on the streets of London, I’d much rather be in the calm metropolis of Beijing – with groups dancing couples taking up squares at night as the older generations gather to sing songs of the communist heydays. (More about that to follow).

There are many places to visit – the Great Wall, the Temple of Heaven, Tian’anmen Square, the Forbidden City, Mao’s mausoleum, the national museum, the Qing dynasty tombs, the Lama temple, the military museum,contemporary art district 798 and many more. Some will feature in this blog – others not. But what will be asked continually is – what is Chinese culture – and where is it going?

Lama temple scooter

Great Wall

Immortality and individuality

If you think you’re not going to reach that ever-waning goal of immortality, why not build over 8,000 unique warriors to continue your reign in the afterlife. Not that you could ever imagine hundreds of thousands of tourists almost two millennia later would be pointing boxes-of-conquest at your creations would be the evidential outcome of such an enterprise, but more that your tomb would not be breached by men with spades.

Terracotta Warriors

If fact it is men with spades, chisels and new technology that have begun restoring these human-resembling figurines to their former glory. Meanwhile people from all around the world have the pictures to prove it.

Emperor of the first Qin Dynasty, Shihuangd was a formidable ruler in BC 200 – a man who united China. His project of self-preservation has lasted the test of time, albeit not in the way he intended.

Today the site of the Terracotta Warriors built in the formal capital of China – Xi’an – is an economic magnet for the people of the city – drawing in thousands of people from across the globe.

Yet what interested me, while fighting for camera space with Chinese tourists, was the scale and uniqueness of the giant soldiers. Each soldier, general, archer had a different hairstyle, and soldier from general could be told apart by their poses – each soldier was given individuality. It is this notion of individuality which is not a common trait in China – as it is in the west – which got my curiosity going the most.

Government entrance exams

Along the trail across the eight-million populated city we took a trip to an ancient university of the Tang Dynasty where young government civil servants have to pass a set of exams to enter government – Xi’an was the capital of China at its cultural and political height.

Old house in Xi’an 

Skipping past the Banpo museum and we reached an old part of the ancient capital. A bare-backed middle aged man was playing with a puppy on the ground when we arrived with a guide – and he beckoned us to cross the threshold of his inset wooden shackle – complete with a wall-covering depicting Chairman Mao. He showed us his silk-covered bed, lion street-party decoration and pictures of his great-grandmother who originally owned the property. This was China as it used to be. Today houses like this and streets like this one have been left by the young for better prospects in the cities our guide mentions. Urbanisation in China is happening at a lightning rate – a blitz of capitalism and no-one really seems to know where it will end – or if it will come to an abrupt stop. So far it shows no signs of slowing…

Xi’an of old

Bamboo boatmen

Attack of the bamboo river boatmen

Bamboo boatmen

When floating down the river Li in the Guangxi region, the last thing one expects is a group of men on bamboo rafts to edge towards you. In an almost attacking formation these local men donning triangular linen-hats line the riverbanks, wait for a liner full of Europeans to flog their wares. Yet these attackers are harmless, smiling at the crowds in search of a few Yuan for their produce. Beaming up at the passengers, they can only but charm them, Spanish and Germans like. Months of practice must be put in to enable these men to hook their rafts onto the mini-liner, without compromising their stock as well as their safety at times.

River Li

The shape of Li

One of the most iconic areas of China, the river Li is a world of its own. Hundreds of tourist liners jet through the narrow passageways beneath the mountainous limestone-crags dispersed along the route. Locals opt for low-level bamboo constructions – mini-scooters of the water as they almost effortlessly form a line of movement towards their destination – whether it may be a wooden hut hidden beneath the hillside caves or in the local villages spread out along the river. I can’t help but pretend to be a professional photographer, snapping various angles to create shapes out of the rocks – exercising the power of mental creativity.

Destination Yangshuo

Hong Kong haven

Yangshuo is much like an Oasis town. Not quite a Las Vegas in Death Valley, but a haven of Westernised consumer shops run by the Hong Kongese and hostels for eager backpackers to rest their heads before tackling some limestone rock faces. And no, it’s not raining, it’s so hot in China that people use umbrellas to keep them in the shade. This one Westerner is doing the opposite – walking in a white vest with no defences against the suns cursing rays.

Chinese just want to have fun

Delayed marriages

After a lengthy boat trip and tour of the local area we had a more candid chat with our guide about life in China today. I should not have been surprised that young people (like most places in the world) like to party at the weekend, play basketball (and a bit of soccer) but they don’t have compulsory military service. Something which I only recently found out today, which may be contested but it seems China has the oldest age at which couples can get married. Men have to wait until they are 22 years old before tying the knot, while women have to have reached the age of 20 before marriage. Next there is the issue of the One Child Policy. Minority groups enjoy exceptions to the rule  because they can have more than one child, but our guide told us many Chinese people go to Hong Kong to give birth so that their children can have more freedoms not granted for their area. As in any country there are cultural problems, but as far as I have seen in Guilin, they are at least well hidden. The children are polite and respectful of adults – a group came and watched us eat and chat – fascinated by our Western ways, but asked to do so.

Lovers in Guilin – mystery advert

Guilin Lights

Strolling around in Guilin at night is like walking onto a warm-up session for a non-competitive mini-scooter Grand Prix. Couples glide around on electric scooters embracing as they pass subtly lit bridges, with hues of green, purple, red and yellow reflecting off newly laid tarmac bridges and winding lakes. The Chinese young men chat as they effortlessly motor around the city – almost travelling in circuits, narrowly avoiding lonesome pedestrians and wayward cars. But no-one is in a hurry. This isn’t Shanghai any more. This is a more southerly part of China located in the Guangxi Autonomous Region.

Markets for miles

Miles of market stalls line the central area of the city, somehow all managing to co-exist if not profitable, it provides at least a social event for the locals. There is barely another Westerner in sight, but one does still not feel bothered by intruding glares. The centre of Guilin is a safe area, even at 11pm. The only bother comes from pedal taxis offering to take you home, but it is not the same thrill as scooting around on an electric powered bike. The locals charge their low-powered machines up at newspaper-style kiosks and can last for 6-7 hours, ready for a glide around town. Under and over the bridge, these aimless travellers pass the time through experiencing the city as it changes before them.

Cave lights

Colour is also infused at the Reed Flute Caves, a setting the bikers would feel comfortable in as low atmospheric lights bring shapes of imaginary mushrooms, peanuts, cities and snowmen to life. In the “Crystal Palace” the epicentre of the caves the reed flute was played with a light show, causing a Chinese wave of “wows” through the crowds of visitors.

I have come to appreciate the Chinese character. Polite, even if communication is very much limited or lost in translation. A glass of sparkling water became a can of coconut milk, a plate of braised chicken became bony lumps with a claw thrown in. Some cultural differences aside, what makes the Chinese, Chinese? What makes the British, British one might ask. It is still too early for an assessment. But a few things can be said. People here are not overly religious, perhaps more spiritual than religious, they are economically savvy, not brash or showy, they are incredibly talented and hard-working. Some of the more difficult questions still have to be asked, but social harmony really is a feeling I am getting from the place at the moment, at least in Guilin. For example, felt completely safe in this city of 1.9m people, walking around at night.

And finally…

O, yes and I need your help – who is this in the photo?
Ronaldo said he was going to sue over a similar advert…

Who is this footballer?

I got quite a shock when I saw this prolific scorer holding a packet of throat sweets in China!

Jewish Shanghai

During WWII the Archbishop of Canterbury lobbied the UK government to let Jewish refugees into the country before the onslaught of Nazi Germany would cause thousands of families to be sent off to concentration camps. Many were accepted but many more were refused with the exception of the kindertransport mission. Indeed few governments across the globe were prepared to allow a flow of migrants, especially at a time of economic hardship. But there was one government and one city in particular that welcomed ships of refugees to their shores. That city was Shanghai.

Over 30,000 men, women and children escaped to the East on ships set-off from Italy across the globe. The journey took them below the tip of Africa and past India on its route to the Eastern shores of China. There was momentary refuge for these Jewish families in Shanghai as the Japanese were soon to round them up into a Ghetto in the Hongkou district, where the memorial museum stands today.

Documentaries and personal documents tell of how people survived and interacted in the Ghetto area, policed by the Japanese. Michael Blumenthal was one such Shanghai resident who went on to become the U.S. Treasury Secretary.

Nanjing Road

It was surprising, but today I got a dose of more traditional, commercial communism. Department stores with rented-out sections reminded me of communist Russian shops. Nanjing street was not the force of commercialism I had perhaps expected, but it enlarged my perspective of shopping in Shanghai. There is clearly huge demand, hundreds of people filtered through clothing stores to pick their favourite t-shirt or pair of shorts. A stroll to the end of Nanjing Street takes one to People’s Square, at the epicentre of metro activity.

Yet Shanghai is not all riches and glam. From the overground metro I took this picture, showing more shanty-town constructs even in the heart of the city…

Shanty Shanghai

The evening ended with an all-you-can-eat meal at a Japanese restaurant beside the hotel. A Kiwi with his tall Chinese wife told us a few (expat) truths. He spoke of how the Chinese children study six days a week and have tests on the seventh, how in-laws live with the partner after a marriage and how incredibly difficult it is to learn the language.

And with that the Shanghai chapter ends. Tomorrow involves an early trip to Guilin. On the TV Hillary Clinton has just visited China and has spoken of dealing with the debt problem in the USA and three officials from China railway have been sacked after a fatal collision involving high-speed trains.

But tomorrow will bring more of historic China to life.

Cultural Revolutions

Crowds after the acrobatics show

Acrobatics had always fascinated me, but this was something else. Remembering a cultural delight (although not politically correct in the slightest) by the Russians in St. Petersburg of a circus on ice involving Polar Bears on ice skates I had high standards for any circus act.

Yet the Chinese surpassed my expectations with astonishing death-defying acrobatics involving flames, rotating giant rings, body contortion and youths flipping through spinning hoops. We were forbidden from taking photographs but I was not surprised – a quick flash could be the difference between life and death. As two heavier boys jumped from a height onto a see-saw with another boy balancing on a long pogo stick at the other end – I had my hand in my mouth as the ramp swung and the pogo-boy did a double-back flip onto a landing pad held aloft by two helpers. To finish the event off seven men and one woman on motorbikes wowed the (mature) crowd with racing motorbikes around inside a spherical cage.

The future of commerce

After the show – we walked towards a new shopping district, laid out like a mini village with triple-deck flats containing more designer brands in flashing shops than I recognised. This really was the future – flashing lights and designer shops still open at 10pm on a Sunday night for scores of youthful Chinese attaining “moderate prosperity” to spend their cash. On the metro back to South Xangshi Road I noticed yet more shoppers returning after a successful day by the looks of it – armed with full bags from designer stores from the illuminated Huanhai Road.

Starbucks

Mandarin characters replaced Starbucks and McDonalds sings where English letters usually rested – perhaps showing how even these foreign brands were becoming Manderised (as opposed to Anglicised)  although many of the billboards along the high street were still showing white models as the ideal.

I took an afternoon stroll away from the hum of the main streets to find some evidence for the real Shangahi – which is not seen in the commercial centre. I found some evidence of what standard living conditions could be like, a row of terraced flats hidden behind by bars and cafes were less polished as a woman sat outside her home with a dirtied bra hanging from a piece of cord. Men played chequers near a much-out-of-place-lawn while others, while a policeman was shouting and pointing a crowd of bystanders after a car had collided with a motorbike – so it seems social harmony doesn’t always prevail.

Off the beaten track

I use the phrase “Social Harmony” because, just as the propaganda film I have just finished watching on CCTV 9 – an English speaking channel which contains programmes about China – has introduced me to the concept. “Social harmony” is the ideology of the CPC the Communist Party of China, something which has been furthered by educational and cultural programmes, with lower cost social housing made available in 2005 according to the programme.

Towards the close of the day we ate at an Italian restaurant – not unusual for Shanghai – from where we could hear the beats of the bar/club upstairs. It was a Sunday, but that didn’t stop the party. It made me question…does China have the same concept of a weekend like in Europe? We discussed the hard-working nature of the Chinese people. The perception at least was a sharp contrast to the laziness and self indulgence apparent in Unionist culture in Northern Ireland and indeed in many places in England I have been to or read about. I was almost ashamed of my own culture. Here (at least so far) polite, co-operative, private and unhurried Chinese put my home culture to shame. It was much less frantic than London, although the road junctions were somewhat of a mystery – while a footpath is often mounted by a cyclist or motorcyclist.

The roads are notoriously dangerous – Shangahi daily reported bus drivers were dying at the wheel because of stress. I’m not too sure I could believe that headline, but it is true that driving here is not recommended!

Shanghai – Business Class

Pudong – China’s Financial District

Centre-Stage

China almost needs no introduction as a fascinating fast-changing country. With unprecedented growth in the past couple of years stories of miraculous development have been hitting the front pages of the Financial Times and other media outlets in the UK and across the western world. The world’s most populous country (containing more than 1.3 billion people)  is soon to overtake USA as the world’s largest economy although GDP per capita remains 94th in global rankings. A communist state created in 1949 it is hard to believe China is a powerhouse of the world economy. But rather than read all about it, I took a plane to China, the world’s next superpower to find out for myself what all the hype was about.

In this blog I will be documenting my experiences – the sights and sounds – of a country on centre stage. It will be a discovery of the Chinese as much as a reflection of the media, inter-dispersed with anecdotal tales of personal interactions, searching for evidence of development and cultural showcasing. My journey will begin in Shanghai, with visits to Xi’an and Guilin, culminating with an internship at a Chinese company in Beijing.

Business on the Bund

Business-Class

As I took my seat at the very back of a Jumbo airline from Amsterdam, I was already eyeing up the co-travellers, all too aware of the party of children on some kind of football tour of Europe. Lamenting my fate, I took my seat with a reluctant slump into the cushioned armchair, while chest-height youths dropped footballs on unsuspecting passengers.

It was going to be one of those flights – I thought – the only problem was that it was to last 11 hours, racing towards the sun, cutting out time for much needed sleep. But today was my lucky day. A Chinese-looking attendant explained I was to give my seat up for a family of four, to be upgraded to Business class. Without a word of questioning I took my bag and marched to the front of the plane, quietly hiding any doubt that I was meant to be sitting in business class in the first place while concealing joy at the prospect of sleeping to the hum the massage-lounger chairs. As it turned out most of the people sitting in this area were transferred from economy class for myriad reasons, but I was not going to let that take away from the experience.

Perhaps it should have, but it didn’t surprise me that the Chinese girl sitting beside me had the Financial Times in her hand, and adorned an expensive looking coat. She was a student of International Business on her way home to Shanghai after completing an undergraduate degree at Coventry. She immediately introduced herself as Nancy, clearly an Anglicised version of her Chinese name, upon which I asked what my Chinese name would be. She said it was a brand name “Phillips” Great, I thought, I will be associated with a microwave or a fridge-freezer while living in this country. Perhaps “Phil” is how I will introduce myself from now on I thought. We discussed the front page of the Salmon-coloured broadsheet, and I joked that China was buying the West, purchasing Euro-bonds and holding trillions of dollars, while Obama was having difficulty raising the debt ceiling. She didn’t laugh but excused the programme – explaining it would bring more opportunity to us (although we would owe the Chinese big time in the future for borrowing so much money.) So there I was on a plane, escaping from economic woe to the prosperous East, discussing the demise of the Western economies as we knew them.

Yuyan Gardens as night approaches

Shanghai-Nights

Shanghai is  a city of the night. The attention of any visitor is drawn vertically to neon lights, giant glass buildings separated by leafy streets and a light smog illuminated by red and white tree-lanterns. In China it is not uncommon for a westerner to immediately feel taller yet more conspicuous, looking down in the air-cooled tube, trying to decipher unintelligible characters on the TV screens. Each station reminds me of Canary Wharf in London, glass barriers and shiny floors separating commuter with the outside world. The tarmac is freshly laid, Huanhai street is illuminated with brand names, fancy shoe stores and shop attendants armed with fashion-dog helpers. Revellers can be heard on street corners preparing for a night out, while older couples waltz in the open air to a ghetto-blaster rendition of classical tunes.

Donghu road in downtown Shanghai

Shanghai-Days

In the morning I come across a standard problem for the Western traveller while getting measured for a tailored-suit – the heat. There are various ways of preventing a deluge of bodily cooling liquids, or at least concealing them. Unfortunate as it may sound, not even the Chinese are immune to humid atmospheres. I try to emulate the male tactic of wearing a light cotton t-shirt with shorts and open trainers, but this does little to close the glands. I suspect I am the butt of jokes while getting fitted for a navy suit, as a sweaty white-man unable to fend off nature’s affront. The picture of Rafael Nadal on show in the front window does nothing to dispel momentary embarrassment either. But I walk out of the shop with my pride intact. Meanwhile I have seen many women carrying sun-umbrellas, fans and light tops, while few men go topless, wear sandals and walk slowly. Ok – It’s not London – so walking more slowly should not be a problem.

Back outside, the streets testify to a seemingly dichotomous atmosphere. As in any city poverty is a fabric of Shanghai, but it is well hidden as far as I have seen so far. The gleaming towers of Pudong look out over the Huangpu river carrying industrial shipping vessels, and stares at tourists and locals lining the Bund. Tourist trap shops are well concealed in contemporary commercial units fashioned out of traditional-chinese architectural structures – as roof lights illuminate the sky above the Yuyan Gardens.

After spending only one day in the cosmopolitan capital of China, I almost feel at home. Even with little understanding of the language – it is straight-forward enough to navigate the streets with English signs, and order a coffee with ready-made English menus.

As I finish this piece, the TV is showing a talk show in English about the rich Chinese youth, making their fortunes in shipping and discussing their fast cars. Their American accents are not matched with american enthusiasm, but a blasé explanation of their purchases. Other channels are showing highlights of the diving Championships in Shanghai, while the swimming contest was waters reach up to 30’c, just under the limit for competitions. Films, trivial talent shows and  soaps remind me that most of the channels in my hotel room are part of CCTV – China Central Television, a state controlled broadcaster operating since 1958 and is headed by Jiao Li who was formerly the vice minister of the publicity department of the Communist Party’s Central Committee.

Great Firewall of China

And I write with the realisation – that I can’t access Faceook, twitter, youtube and Google + – some of the many sites blocked in China – so I hope you will still be with me tomorrow.