An Englishwoman abroad

“My boss is Irish,” the young man explained.

He had fallen for the Englishwoman abroad trick and we were now deep in conversation. Standing anywhere in T-shirt and shorts in Shanghai with a tourist map open is enough to draw any confident Chinese person into your space. The conversation with our young man was pretty standard.

“Can I help you?” he had asked
“Is this the stop for Shanghai railway station?” Sue replied.
“Ah, no, it’s the next one,” he pointed down the line.
“Oh, we have got off one stop too early then,” said Sue.
“The next train will be along in a minute. You will be there soon,” our young man reassured us.
“You speak good English,” I said, “where did you learn?”
“At school,” he responded, “and at work. Some Deutsche, German, too. I work for Siemens.”
He had an easy laugh as he added the comment about his line manager.
“Yes, I get a lot of practice,” he smiled.

Bullet train

I am finding the Chinese to be a careful people who show a peculiar fastidious tendency for order and tidiness alongside a passion for food and shopping.

The roads are pristine; there’s not a speck of litter anywhere. Even autumnal leaves are swept up enroute to the ground by an army of cornflour and lime uniformed cleaners equipped with bamboo besoms and long handled dustpans. These are emptied into small blue hoppers on colleague ridden scooters that are whisked away for emptying. They are aided and abetted by a singng truck that tours the streets in stately dance down the middle of the carriageway, water sprayed in a 5 metre arc from the rear as the melodic warning siren sounds a muezzin call to washing. It’ll do your feet too if you stand close enough.

The singing lorry

Our high speed train out to Suzhou today had a guard who’s job was to tidy the bags on the overhead racks; all trailing straps were tucked neatly away. His stewardess colleague who had welcomed us on board prowled the aisle, trigger finger poised over cleaning fluid hung in a hip holster, looking for sticky messes to clean up. There weren’t any.

Suzhou station

We’re even kept tidy when awaiting boats or trains. Suzhou and Shanghai Railway Stations are enormous, not dissimilar in size to an airport terminal. When shown the time of the next train, I thought the girl in the ticket office was checking that the time was convenient for me. She was actually ensuring if I thought I would be able to get to the concourse before the train arrived. Corralled into a waiting room similar to that at an airport gate, we are allowed onto the platform en masse to board but only if we have satisfied security checks. For a 30 minute train ride we needed passports to purchase the tickets. The passport was scanned and the ticket checked twice, once on the way in to the holding area and again as we left it to join the train. Every item of baggage is scanned too, whether on train, underground or boat.

In Xin Tian Di

When they’re not keeping everything tidy the Chinese take gold medals for their attitude to food, fashion and phones. Every underground walkway at stations is lined with 6 foot deep shops, each stretching for 12 to 18 feet along the corridor. It is possible to buy every phone accessory, all daily meals and any wardrobe item at least three times over in the few minutes it takes to transfer from one underground line to another.

The city never sleeps either. Shopping and eating can continue 24/7 should the need arise with anything from 10 yuan stores selling pound shop items to Cartier, Furla and Dior open until 10pm. And, if you miss the shop on one street, you’ll most probably find its identical twin within a few minutes walk elsewhere. I think I spotted three Longines shops in a square kilometre so, if you need to ponder a watch purchase, it’s easy to find a short route to walk that has regular reminders of the item you are considering.

Look closely – it’s bamboo scaffolding

If advice is needed as to where to eat in town, just look for the cafes with the queues outside and be prepared for surprises. We popped into Yu Bazaar near the river in search of a mahjong set and a street food type meal. We found a cafe open by the canal and sat down. The windows opened outwards, overlooking a beautifully lit up traditional tea house. The changing lights reflected in the water brought a lovely rich glow to our meal spot. Music had been playing in the background but it was only with the arrival of a violinist in evening gown on a small gondola, that it dawned on us we were being treated to a live recital. Our feast of dumplings, soup, spring rolls and deep fried ribs became a banquet under her soaring notes.

The Tea House at Yu Bazaar

I do have to hold my hand up to making the most of the many Starbucks outlets in the area. When the brain cell is working hard at navigating and translating Chinese life, there are moments in the day when I return to default comfort mode and need some familiarity for a few minutes. However, I am totally impressed with the Starbucks Roastery in the middle of the city. Situated in a large cylindrical building it houses a high vaulted copper themed cafe and large roastery where all the magical flavours are persuaded from the coffee beans. If Hogwarts had a coffee shop, this would be it.

We also found a nod to the English colonialism of the twenties and thirties in the Shanghai History Museum. The building sits next to the People’s Park in Shanghai city centre. One used to be the race course, the other the race course club house. We found the garden terrace on the 4th floor and felt it appropriate to enjoy afternoon tea and cocktails in the warm sunshine, raising a toast to that particular historical period, before exploring a little more of Shanghai’s past in the museum below.

A frieze showing the first National Congress participants

Shanghai has worked hard to craft its identity after a turbulent 20th century of invasions and civil war. It is proud of its heritage as the site of the first national congresses of the Communist Party of China yet it holds western aspirations highly too.

We have walked much of the downtown area of the city and realised that the glitz and glamour of designer outlets is little more than skin deep. Right behind the shopping areas, tourist hot spots and commercial high rises is the accommodation of the people who live nose to tail.

Shikumen houses – the equivalent of Victorian and Edwardian villas and now actively preserved.

Every building is festooned with air conditioning units and washing hung out across narrow roads, between highway trees or from airers projecting in cavalier fashion twenty floors up. Scooters and bikes litter the pavements in an orderly fashion.

Groups of card and mahjong players collect cigarette smoking observers in alleyways and tai chi devotees adopt spaces to fill with music and sedate movement. Everyone is in permanent communication with their phone. In the cooler temperatures of autumn the city is being dug up and rebuilt with the tiniest nod to health and safety.

A window cleaner on a tower block was slung in a harness at around floor 25 and we watched a chap up a tree lopping branches with no safety equipment at all. One lane had the debris of a full bombing run after the efforts of four men and a pneumatic drill and we were none the wiser as to why.

This back alley sits behind Shanghai’s main shopping street – Nanjing Road

It is vibrant place that reminds me, oddly enough, of London – the underground system, shopping, river and red buses are immediate points of comforting familiarity.

But it is very much China, Chinese and Shanghainese and I love it.

They start young!