Today I’m going to write about one of my least favorite places in the world. I have to admit, it does hold a special place in my heart, but for reasons that have nothing to do with the city. Shanghai, China, is a disgusting hole of a city that overgrew its boundaries and never paid attention to the dirt, trash and particulates it was creating. Any day in Shanghai is a day where you can expect to breath as if you smoked a pack of cigarettes, you can expect to get jostled around as you walk through the overcrowded streets and you can expect to get completely nauseated by the smells that permeate the air at every turn. Shanghai is a hole.
My first experience with Shanghai happened within the first couple of months of my moving to China. I lived in a small city called Suzhou, a fairly nice city….by China standards. One weekend, a friend of mine decided it would be fun for a few of the newcomers to explore Shanghai. She had lived there and knew some fun places to go. Another friend thought it would be cool to spend the night, so it was set up that a bunch of us would go to Shanghai for the day and a few of us chose to stay until the next day. The ride from Suzhou to Shanghai was nice (about an hour on the bus), but once we arrived, I was not impressed. I got less and less impressed as I spent time in the city. This city is the first one I have ever been to that has unimpressed me the more I spent time there. I left the next day wanting never to return, but the promise of cheap tailored clothes and fake Louis Vuitton wallets got me to come back.
First, Shanghai is extremely polluted. You hear about the air pollution on the news and you hear people who visit China complaining about how difficult it was to breathe. It IS difficult to breathe, and the Chinese people who wear the facemasks don’t do it for fashion (although fashionable facemasks has become a burgeoning industry in China), they do it so they don’t inhale the dank and disgusting air that blankets the city. The air pollution is the most reported-on, but not the only pollution. Second to that is the trash you will see in the streets. If the stinky tofu smell doesn’t kill you, the trash smell will. The Chinese people in Shanghai don’t seem to know how to use their trash cans. They throw everything onto the street. And, most of what they throw onto the street is biodegradable (a good thing), but when it degrades, it rots…..creating a wonderful bouquet of aromas and scents as you walk down the street. Even the “nicer” parts of Shanghai are not immune. I very often saw (and smelled) piles of trash in nice areas like the French Concession and Xintiandi.
The water is also heavily polluted in Shanghai. The Chinese government have built up a riverfront area for tourists and locals called “The Bund” along the Huangpu River. I don’t know why they have decided this river would be a good place to send tourists. I have never been to The Bund and not seen scores and scores of trash floating in the river. I’m not only talking about a few plastic bottles or candy wrappers. I’m talking about severe pollution; sludge, oil, dead animals…..hell, they even had a whole farmload of dead pigs float through once (http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-china-21766377). This is probably more severe than the air pollution, but it doesn’t directly effect people, so they don’t complain about it enough, and it doesn’t enter the rotation on the news stations as much. So, most things in Shanghai are polluted, it’s not just the air.
Shanghai is also severely crowded. There are over 24 million people in the Shanghai area. They’re all vying for a little bit of space in an overcrowded and polluted metropolis. The Shanghai government has tried to alleviate the crunch by allowing developers to build ever higher and people are now living in apartments on floors above 50. The Shanghai government has also worked hard to expand their existing metro system. It works, and I have to say it IS cleaner than the one in New York, but not by much. It’s definitely more crowded than New York’s subway system and it definitely smells worse (and that’s saying a lot…..as anyone who’s ever ridden in a New York subway in the summer when the air conditioning wasn’t working can tell you). The metro in Shanghai only works if you can get on it, and the few times I actually allowed myself to squeeze into this sardine can on rails, I had to wait for several trains before I could fit in one and then I was squeezed up against too many people to count (many without any concept of deodorant).
The last thing I want to talk about in Shanghai are the people. The people are rude. I don’t think they mean to be. I think years of living in this crowded, stinking place have made them hard. I think they are so packed in like sardines that they don’t realize when they’re pushing into someone. The don’t realize that people need a certain amount of personal space. Not just that, but they are also very “touchy.” I don’t mean that they are sensitive and get their feelings hurt, I mean that they like to touch people. They have no problem reaching out and touching you when they want your attention, or grabbing your sleeve as you’re walking away to try to sell you something. I have a friend with a young daughter with blonde hair. They are always trying to touch her hair. They don’t realize that this is unacceptable. This is something that’s just not done.
They also drive like maniacs. Being a person who used to drive regularly in Manhattan, it’s difficult for me to say anyone drives like a maniac. Shanghai drivers are maniacs. I understand why: they have to dodge the bicycles laden with furniture 20 feet high, the carts selling food that jut out into the street, the people who run across the street against the light because it’s easier than jostling through the crowd when the light changes and the piles of trash in the street.
The food that the people of Shanghai (and China for that matter) eat verges on disgusting. Yes, some of it is very good, in nicer restaurants that are clean and have good cooks. I’m talking about the unregulated street food. The stuff that, when you eat it, you’re never quite sure what it is or how it was made. When you chew it, it has a strange chewy/sticky consistency and a flavor like nothing you’ve ever experienced before. You’ll get to experience that flavor many times in the next few hours as you burp it back up. There are even people who sell food on the street that use oil recycled from trash (http://www.nytimes.com/2010/04/01/world/asia/01shanghai.html?_r=0). Food in Shanghai is definitely not the same as the “Chinese” food that is served in Western countries. That Chinese food has been homogenized and toned down for westerners. You’re not likely to find Chinese restaurants in the US or UK roasting starfish, boiling chicken feet, frying duck tongues or serving jellyfish on ice. I’m sure, if you’ve never been to China, you’ve never smelled the pungent (only way to describe it) odor of fermented tofu that has been grilled on a skewer on an open flame . Shanghai street food ranges from dirty to disgusting to vomit to “oh my god, their frying scorpions!”
I have no plan to ever visit Shanghai again. The only way anyone will ever get me to return to that smoky, nauseating, cramped excuse for a city is if they promise lots and lots of money. Even then….the visit will be quite short. Living in Suzhou, I didn’t particularly like Shanghai, but I spent a lot of time there. It was a different place from Suzhou (which became more and more boring by the minute), but, I have to admit, I liked the relaxed atmosphere of Suzhou. Also, with about 5 million people, Suzhou is considered a small town compared to Shanghai. I don’t know if I will ever be able to bring myself to visit Shanghai again, even with the promise of money. The odors, cramped quarters, pollution and trash are just too much to handle. I have to give some credit to the Chinese government. After their “cultural revolution” tore down anything with any historical value, they have been trying to build Shanghai into a cultural center. They have placed several nice museums, concert halls and other venues within the city. They are architecturally stunning (if you can ever see them through the pollution) and they attract big names. Unfortunately, they are in Shanghai…..and nothing can make that place appealing!