Monday, February 11, 2013


We approached one of the many gigantesque malls recently constructed in Shanghai and entered, somewhat cautiously. The massive structures are connected via aerial and subterranean tunnels and house hundreds of shops, most of which were mid to high-range foreign brands. This was not a mall that catered fake brands being sold (at least not blatantly but does it qualify as commercial plagiarism when the shop is called Ralf Laurene? The mall is a testament to the booking Chinese middle class who, just as foreigners, wants to shop for clothing, accessories and electronics. I read about a t-shirt a woman saw on Tai Kang Lu that showed a little Chinese girl wearing a traditional Communist red uniform who was carrying a Louis Vuitton hang bag and listening to an ipod. Underneath the picture of the girl were the words "What Recession?"

Shopkeepers shout "huan ying guang lin" (welcome) when you enter a shop and for quite some time I was convince they were saying “Good morning” since I was a foreigner. In order to anticipate your every need, a sales person trails behind you but I found this to be genuinely claustrophobic, as though someone suspected I was going to slip something into my back pocket.

We tried to find a lunch spot in the mall where scents emanating from the lovely xialongbao and hot pot on offer made me swoon. Our stomachs were eager but the cues of hundreds of people were unappealing. The only vendor with a shorter cue was offering stinky tofu and over-fried-greasy-day-old-noodles.  Shanghai streets are teeming with diverse eateries so we decided to find an option outside of the mall.

We stopped at the restroom before leaving the mall and I entered to find a mob of women waiting around the stalls. Nobody had lined up in a general cue but rather, they paced back and forth protectively in front of a particular stall. Aware that I needed to quickly learn the rules of this game, I memorized who entered and in what order so that I was strategically positioned. A woman who gave in after me pushing past me to enter a vacating stall but I gently took hold of her elbow and said ‘no’, wagging my finger as if she were a schoolgirl.  She looked confused and tried to shake me off and push her way into the stall but I was thought the door, simultaneously grumbling in English, Polish and Spanish. I should have concentrated less on this woman since I stepping right into the Turkish toilet, but luckily I was not wearing open-toed shoes. Many argue that squat toilets are more hygienic than seated ones. The older generation in China rejects the notion of sitting to the degree that signs are often hung in bathrooms asking people not to stand on the toilet seat. And nevertheless, one often sees footprints on the seat.

Feeling accomplished, I exited to find Andy waiting in the hallway trembling and white. It seems that his first-time-in-a-public-bathroom-in-a-Chinese-mall was not a positive experience. Without dwelling on the topic of public bathrooms for too long, the overview is that Andy entered the men’s restroom to find a man sitting on the toilet, grunting and moaning as he read the newspaper and smoked a cigarette. There was no door on the stall and restroom was filthy, covered in muck and cigarette butts. Flies were rampant and yet, this man had a plethora of bags resting by his side, all boasting the names of high-end fashion brands!
(Fast-forward a few years to May 2012 when Leo Lewis wrote in The Times: “China's draconian 'one-child' policy is well known. But now a new code has come into effect: a two-fly rule now governs public toilets across Beijing. Central to the campaign is ensuring that the number of flies in each facility is never allowed to exceed two. The rules offer no suggestions on how to achieve the exacting standard or how to measure the fly population. The two-fly rule does not specify whether the quota refers to living or dead specimens, or whether to count a fly that, after entering, shows no sign of wishing to prolong the visit. One Beijing toilet cleaner, who gave her name as Wang, said that the rules were vague on what to do if the fly count was precisely two: "Are we obliged to destroy the surviving two, or leave them be?")
We left the mall and walked towards the Bund, discarding our aspirations for a meal as Andy recovered. Vendors selling real Rolex watches or Prada bags swarmed about offering good price. Weaving away from them was quite difficult and they adjusted their walking pace to ours so when I found myself trotting, the watch vendor trotted beside me, exhibiting an impressive level of balance. Smiles and no-thank-you only made us more vulnerable so we finally reverted to an aggressive-hand-up-bark-no-attitude.
We arrived at the Bund (Zhongshan Road), that is the waterfront area of Puxi (West City) facing Pudong (East City), the newer part of Shanghai. The Bund has been regarded as the symbol of Shanghai for hundreds of years, is less than one mile in length, and is a popular destination for tourists since it offers a glimpse of old Shanghai. Walking along the Bund at night causes sensory overload since the entire Pudong skyline is illuminated, including the Oriental Pearl TV Tower and Jin Mao Tower (the 2nd tallest building in the world). In terms of the buildings facing the river on the Puxi side, many of the major firms of the Far East used to be headquartered in these Gothic, Romanesque and Baroque style buildings but now most house high-end fashion brands or haute couture restaurants.
Just do not look at the river where you will find tons of plastic garbage floating in the waters. 
When walking away from the Bund towards some less tourist-ridden streets, an older woman with a shoeshine box blocked Andy on the sidewalk. He shook his head to decline but she insisted and squirted some cream on the tip of his shoe as we walked away. He started to walk faster but she began to swat at his feet with a rag. Hopping-trotting-and-then-running, I watched the old woman take after Andy in full pursuit. He dodged into a German pub and I joined him, my sides heaving from the laughter.
After a few stiff Bloody Mary’s we walked to the Metro to take the train back home.  We stopped at the pharmacy and I almost fell over since a saleswoman aggressively pulled me towards the mirror. Tapping furiously on the glass, she shouted that I had many terrible and ugly eye wrinkles. She shoved a bottle of eye cream into my palm and said my husband would no longer want me unless I became beautiful. 

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