I approached Shanghai with trepidation given China’s history of authoritarianism and its recent demonization in the States. I traveled on a newer 144-hour visa on arrival which allows entry if you remain in a designated area and transit to a third country afterward. The airline agent initially denied ticketing me but after some protests and explanation, she allowed me to proceed. Immigration in Shanghai had only ten travelers doing visa on arrival and hundreds in the regular line. Agents processed each traveler slowly, checking their continuing flight or telephoning hotel accommodations. This tripped me up since I lacked the phone number of my hostel but the agents kindly found this on my behalf and checked my booking.
I boarded the maglev from Pudong airport which took me halfway to my hostel. I felt unmoved given the top speed of 300 km/h; Shinkansen runs at similar speeds. Rush hour accelerates to 430 km/h so I suppose off-peak slows to save electricity. Reading Wikipedia, this project seems more like a white elephant than a prudent infrastructure investment. I felt helpless at Longyang Road station staring at kanji and wandering around looking for the subway. After finding it I was surprised to walk through an airport-style metal detector and luggage x-ray. I continued on the 2 line to my hostel which I could have simply taken all the way from the airport and saved some yuan. My destination, People’s Square station, is enormous with what seemed like a kilometer worth of shops underneath its 20 exits.
I checked into Mingtown Etour International Youth Hostel in Huangpu district which displays tastefully illuminated statues and has an adjoining bar. I got wifi access and the Great Firewall of China immediately reminded me that I was not in Kansas anymore. China blocks Dropbox, Facebook, Google, Twitter, Bloomberg, New York Times, and Reuters for domestic connections but my roaming plan allowed me to access the all-important Google Maps. I had the presence of mind to install Signal Messenger before my trip which allowed me to communicate with friends stateside. Censorship challenged me from both practical and ethical perspectives and disincentivises future visits. Many people use VPN but I endeavored to behave as a good guest. My first night had little excitement other than visiting a nearby vegetarian restaurant, Godly, which satisfied without showing off. I returned to People’s Square station to buy some essentials including a P2.5 mask. During my short nighttime walkabout, three different pimps offered their discovery services in front of the JW Marriott.
The next morning I set out for some favored museums. While the sight of the Oriental Pearl Tower struck me with its unusual design, the heavy level of pollution, rated 229 air quality index, gave me significant pause, given the recommendation to avoid all heavy exertion while outside. While I appreciate the amazing economic progress the Chinese have achieved during my lifetime, the haze powerfully reminded me of the cost. Some estimate that 29% of San Francisco pollution comes from China.
I entered the tower and proceeded to the Shanghai History Museum which has a similar history to Hong Kong of European meddling. It was historically renown for its infestation of foreign adventurers, a reputation I hoped to reinforce. Similar to the Hong Kong Museum of History, the Shanghai equivalent has life-size replica towns which show the average life of people via wax sculptures including shopkeeps and bean curd preparers. The museum also offers historical scale models of the city along the Bund with a surprisingly strong British and French influence.
I broke for lunch and entered the nearby Super Brand Mall. While towering 13 floors, Hong Kong malls impress more in terms of stature and style. My hostel thoughtfully provided me an “I am an ignorant Westerner and I eat only vegetables” card which I displayed to several hostesses. After some halting discussion and denials, I found a higher-end establishment which accommodated my diet and I had a mushroom entrée and the best pineapple sticky rice I have ever eaten.
I continued onward to the Shanghai Urban Planning Exhibition Center, hosting the largest scale model in the world. This awed me as it dominated one of the floors and I gawked at it from multiple angles and from the cutaway floor above. The equivalent San Francisco maps at the De Young Museum and SPUR office do not compare! The other impressive exhibit discussed the transportation infrastructure, notably the rail but also the highway- and port-building. Half a floor discussed environmental initiatives although I struggled to parse this given the obvious damage outside. Perhaps still building awareness? I returned to my hostel to wait for my friend and former co-founder, Ka-Hing, to arrive. While I appreciated his companionship, I felt more confident navigating China with him given his upbringing in Hong Kong. We headed off for a forgettable dinner and a passable comedy show. Most of the comedians were expatriates but the personable emcee stood out. Sitting in the front row earns you some attention but I could not play along with questions about my (lack of) yellow fever and my favorite Final Fantasy game (maybe the first one, I am old).
The next day we set out for Yu Garden with a long walkabout through Nanjing Road. Many older people practiced tai chi with swords and walked backward, the latter apparently works off the years. Some funny signs displayed warnings about false prophets and losing your money. We arrived at Yu Garden and I saw that B.Duck, my favorite Hong Kong designer, has branched into baking — ducks show such initiative! The area had some restored older buildings but we largely came to enjoy dumplings. A strange culinary experience: drinking the soup through a straw then eating the noodle and filling with chopsticks. Ka-Hing remarked that I have been holding chopsticks incorrectly for ten years but he only thought to tell me now.
We walked up the Bund for some time debating the level of air pollution and economic trade-offs. I caught a glimpse of the kitchen utensils, some of Shanghai’s tallest buildings. We stopped at Starbucks for a break; notable differences include higher prices, no toilets, and no trash cans — staff handles trash by hand. After walking more of the Bund we ducked into a mall and happened upon a 70s-themed restaurant with a VW microbus parked outside. I struggle to believe that Chinese have the same nostalgia for the 1970s that Americans have, but lunch featured frog legs and an hourglass which guaranteed your meal in 30 minutes or less. Again I felt fortunate to have Ka-Hing with me since both the waitstaff and menus lacked English.
Ka-Hing left Shanghai to visit his non-English speaking relatives and I set off on a Sisyphean task of finding the World Expo Museum. My improvisational abilities failed — one of the only times that I wish I had prepared better, understood the language, or just had better luck. Google Maps China uselessly directed me to a nearby building under construction, apparently the eventual home of the museum. I backtracked and found the beautiful China Art Museum, which I now believe hosted the 2010 World Expo. I also met some dogs with dyed hair and shoes, proving that pet owners worldwide are crazy. Undeterred I followed poor intuition of using a local map to find the World Expo Museum train station and exploring the area. No real things exist around it despite plenty of construction and the station does not exist according to Google.
After two hours I bailed on this useless task and headed to Tian Zi Fang which hosts many small vendors. Most of the shops sell trinkets although several restaurants and pubs offer the fare. I discovered a horse head, which I know through its American meme, although this relates to a Chinese pun, Grass Mud Horse. This is a solid political joke and explains some bawdy shirts I saw in Hong Kong earlier this year.
I continued onward to another comedy show hosted by the culturally-sensitive Kung Fu Komedy. It has a dedicated venue and funnier jokes, although I mostly enjoyed the two domestic comedians sharing insights about foreign adventurers. The most remarkable came from a female comedian who expressed her exclusive desire for white boyfriends, flipping yellow fever on its head and something I found repeatedly during my travels.
I closed my night with dancing at M1NT, nominally a dance club but most people stood around drinking. I enjoyed myself as much as I could with 70 yuan Budweisers and an adequate DJ, but the scene paled compared to Seoul. Some distracting models went on stage to dance around midnight and I left around 3 AM when the floor cleared. At the coat check, I met a woman too drunk to stand who asked me if I could help find her friends. I worried about her projecting onto me but escorted her out and then got sucked into a half-hour wild goose chase for her missing phone. At one point her purse and laptop bag spilled onto the pavement, which at least could provide receptacles for any sickness. After some back and forth I called her phone, which magically appeared from a forgotten back pocket along with an inebriated smile. Real thing that really happened! Reunited with her digital artifact and her friends, she fell to the ground before I could put her into a suspiciously unmarked Didi car. I ended my evening with a long walk home since I doubted the local cabbies and Uber no longer works in China.
I had a slow start the next day but set out for the Shanghai Propaganda Poster Art Center. The museum hides underneath some apartment buildings in a nondescript area and I spent five minutes looking helpless before a security guard took pity and directed me via a business card and some gestures. I liked the pure China propaganda, especially communist ballerinas toting rifles, but really enjoyed the representations of Americans, varyingly jaundiced, malnourished, canine, racist, greedy, red-nosed, and self-absorbed. I have no doubt of bad faith American meddling in Asia but did not appreciate the extent to which local governments used this to consolidate power. It also makes some of the propaganda coming out of North Korea seem less crazy.
Fresh off my bitter cup of communism I enjoyed a hipster cup of coffee at Farina nearby. This cafe and bakery gives the third wave places in SF a run for their money in both quality and price and I paid 35 yuan for an 8-ounce coffee! The grilled cheese was solid and the minuscule tomato soup was surprisingly flavorful, a reminder of home.
I reunited with Ka-Hing after his family visit and we enjoyed a fantastic vegetarian dinner at 吉祥草素食馆. The restaurant had some clunky iPad ordering at the table and I wondered what would Richard Stallman do — starve? We then headed to the Cotton Club for some respectable jazz. Only the regular house crew performed but I had a great time, especially watching Ka-Hing struggle with an oversized beer glass. We took off early due to the indoor smoking, something we struggled with throughout Asia.
The next morning proved unremarkable; we breakfasted over a powerfully spicy ramen but fruitlessly searched for tarts. At the airport, I spotted Lt Duck, no doubt a relative of my friend B.Duck. While I was less wound-up than when I arrived, I felt relieved to leave China and its censorship, pollution, and challenging environment. I failed to connect with any Chinese locals which disappointed me. Shanghai was the nadir of my vacation, although I would still like to visit Beijing to learn its culture and history. Overall my visits to Hong Kong overlap with Shanghai and recommend the former to casual travelers.