Shanghai – old and new

Today, the Shanghai Daily, picked up in the dining room of our hotel, had a piece about home schooling. The picture showed a man with a large cricket on his arm, with the caption, “Biology Lesson”. The photo caught my eye because yesterday when showing our friends around the Old Town of Shanghai we came across a bird and insect market.

Hundreds of crickets were on display in small jars, alongside small carved gourds and hollowed out bamboo stems which could serve as their homes. Cricket fanciers – pretty much all men – were buying and selling small green and rather larger brown insects – more like locusts to my untutored eye. The sound of ‘singing’ echoed around the crowded, enclosed space. If crickets weren’t your passion, then you could buy colourful song birds or even sparrows in intricate cages, kitted out with tiny blue and white ceramic water bowls. Grotesque stones, or were they walnuts, also seemed to be of intense interest to collectors.

Outside the market, we watched a small group of men squatting on the pavement animatedly showing their crickets to each other. This seemed to require poking the insects with thin wires, perhaps to make them annoyed enough to fight. I’ve been interested in leisure and public spaces ever since I came to China and friends have told me how men take their caged birds out for a walk in the park, but this was the first time I’d seen the cricket collectors. The crickets don’t last for long, and apparently this is the season to find more in the fields and breed them for fighting. The National Day holiday (1st October) is the peak time for hobbiests.

Our walk to the bird and insect market took us through narrow streets and alleyways, past traditional food markets and food stalls. Suddenly, we came to a huge building site, where similar tumbledown buildings and streets had been bull-dozed to make way for the next high rise block. It’s just over a year since we first came to Shanghai and it’s fascinating to see the rapid progress of construction. The tallest tower on the Pudong side of the river (the financial district) was about half built last year; now it has been fully revealed, with cladding and scaffolding removed and only the final few metres to be completed. However, when you discover an old market area, where people are clearly making a living, it is poignant to speculate that it will probably be swept away by the next time you visit.

One small shop we found much to our friends’ delight was dedicated to the sale of bras – piles of them in many colours and sizes. My friends are keen readers of my blog, so they insisted on taking a photograph of me in front of the shop, rather to the bemusement of the shop owner, who stared out at us. What were these tourists doing?

Shanghai was getting ready for the National Day holiday – now not just one day to celebrate the founding of the PRC, but a whole week. It is one of the holidays that have been established in the last 15 years to stimulate domestic consumption, including tourism. If you love China, buy, buy, buy! Even CNN – one of the treats of going to Shanghai is access to English language TV – had a discussion of the many Chinese online consumer sites that have sprung up to encourage people to buy home goods, from toothpaste to TVs. It seems these are most popular with people living in second and third tier cities where there are fewer western style goods, but as much aspiration as in Shanghai, Beijing or Chongqing.

The picture of the home-schooler with the cricket on his arm also interested me because I hope soon to visit a primary school in Ningbo. I have the opportunity to do an internship rather than write a dissertation in order to complete my MA. Having spent my entire adult life concerned with education, I can’t resist the chance of seeing a Chinese school from the inside and finding out what life there is really like for both pupils and teachers.

The man in the Shanghai Daily explained that he didn’t like the learning style imposed on his son and felt he wasn’t making fast enough progress. In competitive China, getting ahead in education is a number one priority. The only trouble is that if you take your child out of the national system he or she cannot sit the national university entrance exam, and must go to university abroad. But presumably this might be in line with the aspiration of the newly rich middle classes anyway, as they discard the old ways and embrace the new. Except for those old habits of collecting insects.

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Changing times

Today is a public holiday – Moon Festival day – as you know, for us celebrated without moon-cakes. A beautiful, full harvest moon is visible, showing that the pollution in Ningbo is not as bad as it might be. It seems it is important that the festival takes place this very day, although the extent to which it is a public holiday is debateable. Early this morning, pneumatic drills were to be heard as usual, pulsating as they cut through nearby paths, digging a trench for what look like new pipes. Last Saturday the local primary school was open so that children could take today off without losing a day of education. I wonder if it feels like a holiday to them.
Certainly, there was less traffic around as we noticed when we went out to Metro, where a large number of families seemed to be enjoying their day off. One group who was benefiting were the new kind of traffic ‘helpers’, who have appeared since July. These are usually young people dressed in civilian clothing but sporting a red top with ‘volunteer’ written in English. They hold small yellow flags and apparently have the job of reducing the anarchy at road junctions. It looks like a job creation or work placement scheme of the most ineffectual kind, given that the volume of traffic has grown exponentially over the summer and the many e-bikers completely ignore them. And the little yellow flags have nothing of the authority of the light sabres wielded by the proper traffic police.
It’s taken me two weeks to get over the jet lag, but I think I’ve finally done it. I’ve certainly had enough wakeful hours to ponder time passing. I’ve always been curious about how the notion of one time zone (Beijing Time as it is called) actually operates in the far flung western areas of China, on the borders with Kyrgystan and Kazakstan. Western Chinese cities such as Kashgar and Urumqi are, in one kind of reality, several time zones behind the east coast of China. What does it feel like to be officially told it is 8 o’clock in the morning, when the sun tells you it’s only 4am and your children have to go to school in the pitch black?
I’m lucky enough to be taught this semester by someone who has lived in Xinjiang province in the far north west, for several years, so I was able to put this question to him. His research suggested that time is one way of defining different cultural identity in this region. Uygur people use local time (i.e. by the sun) whereas Han people (the dominant majority in the rest of the country, and the Planters in Xinjiang) use Beijing time. The notion of all China being under one sun results in some curious anomalies. Uygurs may wear two watches, for example, one showing Beijing time and one showing local time. Meeting times may vary depending on the ethnicity of the person you are seeking and whether you are going to an official building or a private house.
The weekend after next we will be going to Shanghai on the new high speed rail-link that was opened in July. The journey time has been reduced from nearly three hours to just under two, making a weekend in Shanghai a more practical and attractive proposition for us. The fare is still under £25 each way. We are stopping in Shanghai en route to Japan. During the National Day holiday in the first week of October we are going to visit Kyushu, the most southerly of Japan’s main islands, and indulge our passion for Japanese culture – especially the hot springs and the food, which we hope to experience in a traditional ryokan inn.
I had hoped to hire a car in Japan but realised too late that I needed an International Driving Permit. In my old fashioned way, I contacted the British Consulate-General in Shanghai, thinking that maybe the FCO could help out by issuing me with the IDP. The Consulate was unable to help. I tentatively asked if I should register as a UK citizen so that the Consulate would know I was in China in case of mishap. The Consulate does not consider this to be their role; they simply provide an update on any issues in China on their Facebook, Twitter and Weibo (Chinese Twitter) pages. Who needs diplomats? How times have changed.

Cultural re-entry

The big news is that this year the university is not buying mooncakes to give to staff to celebrate the mid-autumn festival. Despite earlier promises of banana chocolate, mango and cranberry, and espresso and hazel crispy flavoured mooncakes, the university administration has decided to fall in with the instruction from the Chinese Central Government to ‘encourage thrift’. This must be part of the attempt by the newly installed regime to clamp down on corruption, specifically bribery by and of local officials, and has perhaps been stimulated by the recent trial of Bo Xilai. There is also to be a reduction in spending on entertaining, with fewer banquets and fewer courses – ‘only three dishes and a soup.’ Nevertheless, I find it fascinating that the power of the CCP enables it to impact on the lives of its 1.3 billion citizens at such a microscopic level. It reminded me of a story I used to read my children about how the Puritans tried to do away with Christmas by banning plum pudding.
Gift ‘giving’ – however one might interpret it – is an integral part of Chinese culture and I can’t help wondering if the new President is biting off more than he can chew – to continue the food metaphor. We have ignored the new environment and expressed out thanks as usual with a gift of chocolates to Fintan’s PA who has kept an eye on our flat while we’ve been away.
All was well in the apartment, although some house plants had completely shrivelled up in the immense heat of summer. Landlady has installed blinds as promised, which should stop us shrivelling up in the kitchen next summer and will allow any guests to shower in privacy in the second bathroom. Previously, about 500 people could get a grandstand view from the windows overlooking us.
While the compound seems pretty much the same as when we left, many of my readers will be disappointed to know that my stray bra has disappeared from view. It seems finally to have disintegrated or have been swept off the drying railings by our lower neighbours. My thanks to many friends and relatives who, over the summer, asked after my underwear, and especially to those who made imaginative suggestions about how I could integrate the progress of the bra into the blog both verbally and visually (you know who you are).
I found little time or motivation to keep up my study of Mandarin over the summer in England and was apprehensive about how much I would remember when we got back here. In fact I’ve been delighted by the way my brain seems able to dig up lost words once I’m in the right context. If you’d asked me the word for ‘lemon’ or ‘spinach’ in West Bridgford, I wouldn’t have had a clue, but as soon as I walked into the fruit shop or the market the words just seemed to resurface. So far I’ve been able to negotiate a couple of taxi rides and was relieved to find I still knew how to say where we live. However, I have to confess that any vocabulary about punctures and inner tubes I ever knew has deserted me. In getting Fintan’s bicycle repaired at the weekend we had to resort to pointing (to no avail to Bicycle-Man-Under-the-Red-Umbrella) and to speaking in English (to helpful assistant at Giant bicycle store).
The culture of urbanisation has continued apace. While the new developments at each of the remaining quadrants of our nearest major crossroads have not started to rise out of the ground, progress has clearly been made with the massive foundations. Hoardings in French at one site tell us this is going to be the ultimate in urban living.
I walked down to the market today, giddy from the jet lag and the unaccustomed heat and humidity, to see that a dual carriageway has sprung up as an extension of the existing road. An old partition wall has been knocked down to show the new highway. Quite what it will connect to or where it will go remains to be seen. A plush new industrial building has been finished beside the market and as it was rather deserted this morning (I had set out late at 10.30am) I feared that I would find the market had been knocked down. But the low rise, grubby blue building was there just as before, packed with stalls and market traders and ankle deep in vegetable detritus. I enthusiastically made my way to my favourite stall. Market Man put down his cigarette, gave a smile of recognition and served me just as usual. It was as if I’d never been away.