I find that a lot of times I’m averse to things that are too popular, whether it be places, foods, or brands. It’s not that I never liked popular things, but I never liked the most popular one, like when I was young and never bought Nikes, preferring by far Reebok and Adidas. In the same way, Shanghai was not atop the list of places in China I wanted to visit. Sure it was on the list, but it was behind Nanjing, Beijing, Huangshan, Sichuan, and so on. I mean, those are well-known places too but Shanghai is so uber-popular. Almost any kind of article or report about the future or China mentions Shanghai. Shanghai is the new New York, the ultimate place of the future, the center of the universe, if all these reports are to be believed. Yeah, yeah, I felt, whatever. But as it was, I started off my trip at Shanghai, welcomed by relatives who I had never met before and whose hospitality I was about to test.
My flight into Shanghai was uneventful. The flight was delayed and departed Taipei half an hour later than scheduled but otherwise, things were smooth in landing, passing through immigration and collecting my luggage. Getting out of the airport however was a different matter. As I was about to pass through customs to the waiting area, I heard a small commotion. In the back of the luggage collection hall, like some scene out of the American reality show COPS, a man ran down an escalator, being chased by several security guards. Within a minute or two, they had cornered him and eventually held him and escorted him away. I knew I wasn’t in any danger but I was a bit shocked, but I couldn’t help looking on until the guy was taken away. As soon as I walked through the doors to the passenger pickup area, the surreality of what had just happened inside was instantly replaced by the normality of my relatives waiting for me holding up a sign with my name in Chinese because we only knew each other from photos. We greeted each other warmly, shaking hands but not hugging as is the Chinese way, and walked to my uncle’s car in the adjacent parking lot. We asked each other the usual questions that distant relatives who were meeting for the first time asked. I am glad to say my limited Mandarin held up, on that night and for the rest of my trip, but my relatives were good enough to accommodate me linguistically, slowing down and simplifying their Mandarin for me.
Because the airport is in the far eastern part of Pudong and my uncle lived in Puxi, it was a long drive back to my uncle’s place. I saw a lot of bare land and factories, with not much housing, for a long stretch in Pudong. Even though Pudong is famous for being the site of Shanghai’s famous futuristic skyscrapers, those towers are located on only a small part of the area. Pudong used to be just agricultural land a few decades ago and even now, a lot of it is still relatively undeveloped land. The farms and fields might be largely gone, but parts of Pudong are not as built up as other parts of Shanghai. Soon though we crossed a bridge from Pudong to Puxi, and I caught a glimpse of those famous skyscrapers shining and lighting up the landscape with their bright colors. We drove through broad streets with steel railings along the sidewalks. I saw the bike lanes at the side of the road, just like what I saw on my previous visit in Shanghai and Suzhou, something that is completely lacking in Taiwan and is just one example where public urban planning seems to lag behind that of the mainland. Despite telling them I had already had dinner on the plane, my relatives drove me to a restaurant. It had a bunch of Cinese dishes displayed in a counter which many I had no idea what they were or didn’t really want, but this place also served Western-style food so I had a beef fillet dinner, which was similar to ones I’ve had in Taipei. I also had a Tsingtao which was quite nice and which led to my relatives ordering beer for me every time we had a meal for the next few days. I hope I didn’t give them the impression I loved to drink. I ordered the beer to help settle my stomach because I was worried my stomach problems would flare up. The last thing I wanted was to be disgust my relatives on the very first night at their place. The meal went down well and so did the beer, and they picked up the bill which was nice. This was just the beginning of their hospitality which would not cease for the rest of my trip.
I’ve only met two people from Shanghai in my life before this trip. They were nice, a mother and daughter, but I admit I was a little apprehensive before meeting my relatives. Not because I didn’t trust them, but because of the commonly-held perception of the arrogant Shanghainese. From what I’ve heard, they especially look down on a lot of their own countrymen and me being a non-fluent Mandarin speaker who is basically a HK-born overseas Chinese who doesn’t have much of the heritage of his parents’ native Taiwan or HK, I wondered how they’d perceive me. Well, over the next few days, my Shanghai relatives would really shatter this perception. They were kind, generous, open, tolerant of me and went out of their way to take me around and pay my way and help me in my traveling.
A shot of Pudong stretching all the way into the infinite horizon with the Huangpu River curving its way along the left. The World Financial Centre and the Jin Mao Tower are on the far right. As you can see, Shanghai is huge.