From Shanghai to the world!

May 16, 2010

Yesterday the Japanese retailer Uniqlo opened its flagship store (39,000 sq. ft.) on West Nanjing Road in Shanghai which will be its largest store in the world – the tagline thus appropriately; From Shanghai to the world. The opening was to coincide with the world expo that kicked off in Shanghai this month.

Shanghai has been undergoing a facelift in the last few months – for the green expo. From new metro lines (which have now made the Shanghai Metro the longest in the world) to a new airport terminal to trees replete with lights that have sprouted overnight to viewing galleries in shanghai’s business district to the newly done up bund on the pudong side to new expo taxis with English speaking drivers; shanghai has had more than a lift and a tuck to look like a glittering diamond. Imagine driving to work on a Monday morning to find the road you take everyday suddenly looking completely different with trees on both sides (literally overnight) or taking a taxi one day and not having to explain the address/ give directions in Chinese! It’s almost surreal – but if anyone can do it; it’s the Chinese! In fact; even in normal taxis  (the expo taxis are bigger and better); a sticker has been put with a number to call on in case of problems communicating with the driver – Shanghai has gone all out to make it convenient for the visitor; though how many will visit only because of the expo remains to be seen. But one has to see it to believe it! Most Indians who visit Shanghai for the first time are completely in awe of what the city has to offer in terms of infrastructure and then admit rather sheepishly that they never thought China would be like this!

Let’s take a look at some of the statistics:

  • Size of expo site – 5.28 sq. km. (20 times bigger than the last world expo in Spain)
  • No of visitors expected over 6 months of expo – 70 million (most of them Chinese)
  • Participating countries and organizations – >240
  • Expense to host the event – USD 4.2 billion
  • Amount spent on infrastructure overhaul – USD 45 billion
  • Number of new taxis – 4,000 (in addition to 50,000 existing ones)

The government has spent more on the shanghai expo than they did on Beijing Olympics. A look at the fantastic pavilions put up by various countries today and one is convinced that no country wants to say no to China today! In fact; they want to go all out to use this opportunity to strengthen their ties with China. World leaders were present for the opening ceremony. This is China’s way of asserting its place in the world today by showcasing how no one can do it bigger and better than them. This is also a way for China to tell its own people about its position in the world today. Most importantly, this is the first time the world expo is being hosted by a developing country! If the Beijing Olympics made the world sit up and notice China, then there is no doubt that the Shanghai expo will go all out to make a big statement about China’s position in the world today!

Of course, all this has not been without its share of controversies; people have been relocated to make space for the expo site and the new metro lines; there have been protests which have been curtailed. The PLA (People’s Liberation Army) has been brought in to beef up security.

Everyone who has been living in Shanghai for last 6 months; has been given a free ticket to the expo; 33 million tickets have already been sold and along with the free tickets 40 million visitors are confirmed – and the expo has just begun. Keeping aside the issue of relocating the locals or causing inconvenience to some of them; one has to agree that what Shanghai has been able to do is spectacular – I have not seen so much infrastructure development in last 15 years in Bombay as I have seen in Shanghai in last 2 years. In that sense; it does live up to the “better city, better life” theme. All this infrastructure development is very futuristic and will benefit Shanghai for a long time to come. The critics say that there will be the problem of overcapacity but with the kind of growth China is seeing; most don’t see that as a big issue. Convenience and ease is top priority as Shanghai has managed to now link both the airports by metro (old airport in Hongqiao and the new one at Pudong). They have also connected Shanghai to cities like Nanjing by high speed trains and plan to do the same for Shanghai and Beijing. In addition; a 165 metre expo thermometer has been put up in the expo park in Puxi along the Huang Pu river to give real time weather information – this is the highest meteorological signal tower in the world! From low carbon consumption to odorless toilets, the expo has it all.

Mr. Vilasrao Deshmukh – you said in 2005 that you want to make Mumbai like Shanghai; its 2010 and Shanghai seems to have gone ahead by light years whereas Mumbai is nowhere close to where Shanghai was in 2005 – in fact the only infrastructure development that Mumbai is proud of; the Bandra-Worli sea link (which took ten years to complete; the same time it took Shanghai to turn whole of Pudong from grasslands to a world class business district complete with a new airport and metro lines) also needed Chinese help (one of the contractors for the sea link was a Chinese infrastructure company)! So while we Indians pride ourselves on our software; when it comes to hardware we really need to keep our egos aside and take some serious help from China as they really know their stuff as showcased by the expo! Being a realist; though I am a proud Indian I would say that Mumbai cannot dream of hosting such an event at a similar scale for the next 100 years! Sigh!

Of Chinese love for cute things, of shanghainese men and of Chinese babies & nappies

August 20, 2009

Wanted to post this for a long time now; but travel, viral infection and lack of photographic evidence delayed the same. Since the travel is not going to slowdown, I decided to go ahead and post this and add photographs later.

Let me start with the Chinese love for all cute things – before which I may add that the Chinese people themselves are very cute and endearing for their Barbie doll personalities; specially the women. There is something about the Chinese and their love for soft toys, baby doll dresses, cute clips, hair bands, bling bags, cartoon character car seat covers – the list is endless. While this by itself is not surprising, what stands out is the fact that it’s not just the teenagers who are hooked onto the cute stuff but even their moms. So it’s normal to see a 40 something Chinese lady with a cute pink teddy bear hanging from her mobile phone (which may also be pink) and driving a car which has tweety car seat cushions and her office cubicle will be full of cute little soft toys. Also she would be wearing a baby doll dress with purple mascara or in some cases purple highlights to the hair. Her laptop bag may again be a very girly bag with some cartoon character and she may wear pink or violet sandals. Now, before you get me wrong, I must highlight the point I am trying to make here – The 40 something Chinese woman can carry all this off! Can you ever imagine the average 40 something Indian woman in a baby doll dress with stuff she would buy for her kids? (While our 40 something heroes are in some cases able to carry off a college boy look complete with pink tees, actresses at that age are only offered “maa/ bhabhi” roles). And then you hear people saying how it’s not easy to determine the age of the Chinese – that because they really don’t age; mentally at least.

Now having spoken about the women let me dwell on the average Shanghainese man. He is the perfect husband/ boyfriend every woman dreams of having – It is said that the average Shanghainese man treats his woman like royalty bringing her breakfast in bed, to carrying all her bags (yes including her most feminine handbags) to taking care of the kid. In fact, it is said that the men in rest of China make fun of the Shanghainese men for being so effeminate. But, nothing seems to faze the Shanghainese guy and all over the city, one can see the guy following the girl obediently or walking next to her carrying her LV/ D & G/ Prada handbag (fake one in most cases). I have been told that in some cases this royal treatment is also meted out to the girlfriend/ wife’s parents and the Shanghainese man excels at not just cooking but other household chores too. Now if only Indian men were to take some inspiration from the Shanghainese men (ok, except the handbag carrying part as that can be really effeminate).

And this brings me to the most intriguing thing about China – the aversion to use nappies for babies! The first time I saw a Chinese kid moving around I thought that this kid must belong to such a poor family that he has to wear torn clothes. But it’s only when I saw almost every kid roams around with no nappy and a slit in his trousers/ pants to facilitate parents to help them pee/ poo that I realized that this is the norm here. Unfortunately I don’t have a photograph right now, but will soon be posting one as in this case the adage “A picture is a thousand words” does hold true. I would say one of the most difficult jobs in China would be that of the marketing head of these diaper manufacturing companies. I have also heard expat friends with babies receiving “torn” clothes as gifts as the baby clothes in most local places here come with a slit! Can you imagine how lazy must be the person who invented this slit in the first place!

(Disclaimer – the writer is NOT looking to have a Shanghainese boyfriend/ husband)


August 8, 2009

Language… has created the word “loneliness” to express the pain of being alone. And it has created the word “solitude” to express the glory of being alone. ~Paul Johannes Tillich, The Eternal Now
My house in Bombay is in the centre of action with a children’s garden, wedding hall and some popular south Indian restaurants in the neighbourhood. Unsurprisingly, for a city that never sleeps, there is never any time when there is no traffic and no noise. Even at 1 am I could walk down 20 steps to find the road side pau bhaji wala and juice centres; all doing roaring business and buzzing with people, energy and activity. Dadar station is the closest “fast” station on the western line to my house. There would be very few places in the world as crowded and chaotic as Dadar station. People visiting Bombay for the first time tend to get overwhelmed at the sight of the crowds running like their life depends on the last local; particularly at the big stations like Churchgate, VT, Dadar, etc. For Bombaites it’s a way of life – we know it no other way. Most of us have taken the last train home and also spent times painting the town red till 6 am such that we reach home when the doodhwala arrives.
So when I got to Shanghai and realized I could live on either side of the river – Puxi, which in energy and spirit reminds me of Bombay or Pudong, which is the quieter commercial and residential area; i surprised myself by choosing to live in Pudong. Not because I wanted to be close to work (as I travel 45 mins to work one way) but because I wanted to experience what one rarely gets in Bombay – SOLITUDE! I live in an area called Jinqiao which seems completely surreal to me – my building apartment stands in the middle of long alleys with trees on both sides; shops are so in descript one would barely notice them and though there are lot of people who live here, one never gets to see them. There is a Carrefour and community centre at a 10 minute walking distance – this place is frequented by people of so many different nationalities – it seems like a complete melting pot where the world has come together. It’s a congregation of a different kind and seems quite unreal.
A friend from Puxi recently visited me and she was so shocked at the tranquillity and stillness of the surroundings. She asked me how come I don’t feel scared living alone in such a quiet area. That’s when I realized that though initially the solitude had seemed very new to me; I had come to embrace it and like it in more ways than one. There are no screeching, honking, music blasting cars here. I have neighbours but never feel their presence. Of course there is no shaadi ka band bajaa which I am so used to (since I have a marriage hall right next to my house back home). The only time I remember hearing sound in my surroundings was when the Chinese New Year was being celebrated with fireworks. Otherwise the serenity and calmness is lovely – it’s quite something to be able to hear the sound of rain with no other sounds to dilute the effect. I wish I could walk into my balcony and have a sea or beach view – what I have instead is an artificial lake and villas for a view. This quietude has had amazing effect on me; making me reflect, introspect and even change a lot. I am getting so used to this that today when I speak to family and friends back home and can hear the loud traffic in the back ground, I find that disturbing enough for me to tell them to speak to me when they are in a quieter place. Truly such peace and quiet is difficult (and expensive) to get in Bombay – and that makes me value this even more!

Busna Ae Haseeno!

July 29, 2009

A bus ride in Shanghai.
It was late in the evening and the bus was amazingly crowded, but I got in nevertheless. There was hardly any space and it was difficult not to step onto each other’s toes. While standing there, trying to balance myself in the midst of a lot of local Chinese; it struck me how I would never be able to travel in as crowded a bus in India with such ease. Earlier in the evening, I had read about the stripping incident in Patna in broad daylight. A 2006 report by the National Crime Records Bureau said in India a woman is raped every half hour and is killed every 75 minutes. And considering that only one in 10 rape cases get reported, the actual statistics would be mind numbing. Also, almost every woman in India would have experienced some form of leching, eve teasing, etc. When I pointed out to a friend that Chinese men don’t even look, forget staring, leching, eve teasing, bottom pinching, etc; he said it may be because they are careful when dealing with foreigners. This led me to discuss this with a few of my local Chinese female friends who also confirmed that they have never felt a man stare at them or try to misbehave while walking on the road or using public transport. This is in fact one of the cities wherein a woman feels safe unescorted even at 3 am. Another friend jokingly speculated on the testosterone levels of the Chinese males. I dismissed this logic immediately as to me the reason for the Chinese men being so well behaved and decent is largely attributed to the fact that there is more respect for women; percentage of working women much higher compared to India and the society here is more open in terms of acceptance of women as equals.There is an equal amount of pride in culture , civilization & ways of the past. However there are no taboos on sex, sleaze & porn. There is also a certain degree of openness about sex and u wont find too many people gawping when couples snuggle in the open. Nor will you find too many self proclaimed guardians of moral values of society who abhor ‘promiscuity’ of any kind and are a law unto themselves.
And this brings me back to the experience of my firang friends in India; most non-Indian women friends of mine have shared with me how they feel unsafe to walk on the road in one of the supposedly safest cities of India, Bombay. In fact, in India tourists are often soft targets. So while I enjoy the bus rides here, I wait for a day when I can board a bus anywhere in India without hesitation!