Tuesday, 26 November 2013

A superiority complex

There's a sense among the mainland Chinese that some Singaporean Chinese look down on them. When Misha said this to me during our walk along Shanghai's Bund, I could not bring myself to lie. In fact, a lot of my Chinese friends, more than the non-Chinese ones, were surprised I'd bought tickets to Shanghai. Some said they would never visit China.

'Why not go to Taiwan? It's better and the people are nicer.'
'Have you been to Shanghai?'
'Some other part of China?'

There's nothing new about people being presumptuous about cities and countries without them ever having been there. I faced the same questions and looks of horror when I announced plans to go to Bosnia-Hercegovina and Romania. But with China it seemed to me a different story altogether. You see, the Chinese Singaporean has his/her roots in some corner of China -- that's where their grandparents or those further back in the family tree came from. Yet, so many of them today have a problem with the motherland. It's the same with Singaporean Indians I suppose, but from what I gather, the issue is more pronounced in the Chinese community.

Why? A lot of the complaints centre around the PRCs (as mainland Chinese are referred to in Singapore) being uncultured and loud. This perception stems not necessarily from having been to China, but having observed the behaviour of PRCs living and working in Singapore. Be prepared to go deaf in China, some people warned me. I have to admit I did share some of those concerns. Don't get me wrong -- I don't have a problem with loud PRCs, my problem is with loud people, regardless of their ethnic background. The bottomline is, you can't stereotype a whole group of people because of the actions of a few.

This belief was reinforced in Shanghai as I observed people in the trains. Not everyone was talking loudly. Those who did looked visibly different from the city dwellers. Meaning to say, those who displayed such unpleasant behaviour appeared to be from the rural parts of the country. Then again, compartmentalising them would be myopic as well. Even in Singapore, there are people who speak in only two volumes -- loud and louder. But Singapore is largely urbanised to begin with, so where did these people come from?

Having said that, not all Singaporean Chinese detest China. I have friends who are in awe of its history, its wealth of poetry, its art, its landscape. So many of them have moved to China for work or study. They have expressed disappointment that the country is misunderstood. The politics of the country is another matter of course, but by and large, these Singaporeans have had wonderful experiences in China's cities and even their ancestral hometowns where they've made trips to.

But what about me, would I visit China again? Yes. I've always been fascinated with the country, specifically the western, 'restive' region of Xinjiang. Beijing too is a city I'd love to wander around at some point. Some people I know would shudder at the thought, but I'm not here to change their minds. I'm more interested in expanding my horizon further, to what that country has to offer. And if push comes to shove, I'd ask the Singaporean Chinese, who dislikes China, one simple question: don't you dig your nose too?

Sunday, 24 November 2013


Shanghai: a city once called the Paris of the East, and now the showpiece of an economically thriving China. I went without expectations and was pleased to have come away with a relatively good experience. The city itself boasts more skyscrapers than notable sights unlike other major cities. Having said that, Shanghai does have some museums to its name though I was in no mood for them. So here's my list of things you could do in the city, regardless of whether museums tickle your fancy.

A walk down Nanjing Road

The length of Nanjing Road is quite easily the commercial heart of the city. East Nanjing Road (left) is where the older shopping centres are located, including the first department store which opened in the 1920s. Now it becomes an orgy of neon lights at night and has a tacky little tourist train that plies a section of the stretch for a few yuan (it's better to just stick to walking).

High-end brands line the strip that is West Nanjing Road, together with several five-star hotels, restaurants and prime office buildings. You will also find the Jing'an Temple (left) here. The Buddhist temple has a history of over 700 years and is surrounded by high-rise modern buildings.

Statue at People's Park
The two sides of Nanjing Road meet at People's Square, a large public square in the Huangpu district. There's a lovely park here and the Shanghai Art Museum. Do beware of people coming up to you and asking if you'd like to attend traditional tea ceremonies. These are nothing but extortionate in nature and often your companions start off by saying they'd like to talk to you a while longer to practice their English or show you around. I was asked to take a photo for a trio before they launched into a conversation which steered towards whether I'd be interested to join them at one of these ceremonies.

Shanghai Propaganda Poster Centre

This gallery is in the basement of a residential block at Hua Shan Road. It displays anti-US, pro-communist posters from the 1950s through the 1970s. There's a little shop where you can buy postcards and even original posters. At the main gate of 868 Hua Shan Road, inform the guard you're looking for the Poster Centre and he will hand you a card with directions to the block where the gallery is located.

The Bund

A foggy morning at The Bund
This waterfront area is one of the most famous tourist destinations in Shanghai and is home to dozens of historical buildings of various architectural styles. They were once banks, trading houses and consulates. Some have very colourful histories and a number of them have been converted into restaurants and designer shops. The best times to come here are during sunrise when you'll find people flying kites, jogging, practicing taiji, or simply capturing the sun as it comes up. After sundown, it's a horde of people you'll see here, out for a stroll or posing with the Pudong skyline (above left) behind them. The closest metro station is East Nanjing Road, about a five minute walk away.

Cafe hop

Contrary to what you may think, Shanghai is dotted with many cool cafes, some of which have quite a fan following. My personal favourite is Ginger by the Park at 91 Xingguo Road in the Xuhui district. This one's non-smoking, a huge plus point in itself.

There's also Citizen Cafe at Jinxian Road (in the French Concession), which is apparently popular with the French expat community. A couple of streets away at Changle Road is Garden Books where you can combine your need for a caffeine fix with your literary pursuits. I found the books a little overpriced though.

Across the city you will also find branches of 85C Cafe, a Taiwanese chain which has a very affordable selection of breads, buns and coffees. I personally loved their garlic bread (very random, I know).

Yuyuan Gardens and the Old City

The Gardens (above left and right) are located in the northeast of the Old City and was built during the Ming Dynasty (1366-1644 AD). The pavilions and ponds provide a respite from the bustle of the city.

An alley in the Old City
Once you're done here, poke your nose through the small lanes that are part of the Old City. They are grey, drab, and a world away from the skyscrapers that hover in the background. It's not surprising then that this area is fast disappearing (at the time of my visit, there were two plots of land being drilled and hammered to become modern edifices).


Mural at M50
50 Moganshan Road (or M50 as it is better known) is a contemporary art district home to several galleries and studios belonging to more than a hundred artists. M50 used to be an industrial area and took on its current form in 2000 by a local artist who was initially attracted by the cheap rent of the disused space. If your pockets are deep enough, you could consider buying some of the works.

The only drawback about this area is its relative inaccessibility -- that is, if you're not one who's comfortable with walking at least 10 minutes to get somewhere. The closest metro station is Shanghai Railway Station. Take Exit 5 towards Minli Road/Tianmu West Road. At the junction of these two roads, make a right and walk in the direction of traffic till you cross a bridge over the Suzhou Creek. Then take the stairs down and turn right into the road that runs along the creek. Moganshan Road is right at the end.


Outside a cafe in Tianzifang
This arts and crafts enclave in the French Concession developed from a renovated residential area and its alleys are packed with art/photography galleries, shops, cafes and restaurants. A similar district is Xintiandi, in a vicinity to the north; but what sets Tianzifang (left) apart is its success in preserving its residential feel.

Beyond Shanghai

Confucius Temple in Nanjing
The beauty of a day trip from Shanghai is that several destinations are easily accessible by high-speed trains. You could consider places such as Hangzhou or Nanjing (both are up to an hour away). My friend and I went to Nanjing, until quite recently the capital of China. There are many historical sites here for you to while away your time, including the Nanjing Massacre Memorial (right) and the Ming tombs which are on the UNESCO World Heritage List.

High-speed rail at Shanghai's Hongqiao
Railway Station
Duration of Stay

Including the day trip to Nanjing, I spent full four days in Shanghai. Most of my exploration was done on foot at a leisurely pace so if you prefer to zip around in the metro, you could probably end up doing/seeing more.

To/from the airport

Hop onto Line 2 which takes you directly to East Nanjing Road and People's Square. The journey takes about 60-75 minutes though. Alternatively, you could hover in the air for a few minutes with the magnetic levitation or Maglev train which zips you to Longyang Road metro station (where you can transfer to Lines 2, 7 and 16) in eight minutes -- quite the time-saver. A one-way ticket costs 50 yuan. If you have a same-day air ticket, 10 yuan will be shaved off your fare.

Getting around

Shanghai is quite pedestrian-friendly so do exploit the opportunity to see more on foot. Otherwise, the city is very well-connected by the metro system with over 10 lines negotiating the underground space. Base fares are at 3 yuan for trips under 6 kilometres, then 1 yuan for each additional 10 kilometres.