April 20, 2008

It was a short notice trip. Given the workload that I had to get out of the way, I was left with merely 6 3/4 business hours to prepare. A time too short even for me to buy one of those Surviving Shanghai pocket books. You know, the one with tips on getting around the city, with a little glossary of simple Chinese phrases at the back. I failed to equip myself with the least a lone traveler could have on a trip to an entirely foreign country. So I flew to Shanghai, knowing only five words of Chinese; 'me love you long time’.

My arrival at Pudong International Airport was welcomed by the warm smiles of the flight crews, as well as the airport staff members. It was a chain of smiles accompanying me as I stood on the travellator to the immigration counter, where it ended. My luck with immigration officers has never been better than my luck with women. No matter where I go, they never seem to return my friendly greetings and gestures. And at Pudong, they took it one step further.

Shake that thang now! Oriental momma!

Upon inspecting my passport, the officer’s facial expression turned from indifferent to curious. Never a good sign when others are spending no more than a minute at their counters. Apparently, Mr. Immigration Guy thought that the passport didn’t belong to me. My initial notion was that the guys at the embassy had taken the piss on me by pasting a picture of Snoop Dogg on top of mine. Au contraire, as the officer flipped the passport my way, pointed on my picture and shook his head. That’s me alright; from back in 2005, before I lost a bit of weight.

Another officer came up to my rescue and after comparing my driving license, MyKad, student card and Red Box Karaoke membership card with my passport, they finally let me go. Shanghai, here I come.

Find the hidden massage parlors.

I checked into The Hilton Shanghai at around 4pm and the view I got wasn’t bad at all. The room overlooked Hua Shan Road, a path leading to the many buildings protruding out of the terrains of China’s busy commercial district. Down the streets were businessmen and women in suits, teenagers on bikes, old men walking with their sticks and children in the air jumping in joy, in front of what seems to be a very suspicious massage parlor.

After gazing at the ceiling for a good hour, I took a five minutes walk to City Plaza, a nearby mall. Still nervous from not knowing a word of Chinese, I ran a few simulations in my head as I walked; figuring out the things that I’d have to act out should words don’t help. My imagination ran from making a chugging sound for "train station” to drawing a picture of a Chihuahua for "the Hilton” (read: Paris). When I got to doing the chicken dance to say "you’re quite the chick” though, I got a bit tired of thinking; grabbed myself a loaf of bread, went back to the hotel and dozed off for a good 10 hours. I’m never good at acting anyway.

Seconds before being shoved away by the bakery lady.

The conference that started the next day was alright. Business as usual.

We took the Metro from Jing’an Temple to Nanjing Road East after Day 1 of the conference. Nanjing Road was supposedly Shanghai’s main shopping attraction. Evidently, at my first sight of the area, I could see why. The bright lights from the restaurants and shops shined even through the dark alleys adjacent to the road. Filling the air were the incongruous mix of noises from the electronic trishaws and trams squeezing through the barrage of people ranging from petite teenage girls in skimpy clothing, to wise guy street traders in berets; displaying the latest from the fake watch market.

The fake goods industry in Shanghai is as far as it gets, I believe. If Petaling Street boasts its near-precise copies of Ralph Lauren polos and Coach handbags, Nanjing Road is lined by actual retail shops, of 'slightly modified’ brands of the West. The Adidas logo was made a little less proportioned with the words Wandanu below it. With its alligator given a brighter smile, probably laughing at the brand’s actual owners in Paris, Noumandieyu is Nanjing’s Lacoste. It won’t be long before the world famous Hooters restaurant gets its own taste of Nanjing’s re-branding makeover; turning into Hoojers or Hoolers or something, you know. Something along that line.

Ned Flanders would've loved this one, fandiddlytastic!

A few blocks east was The Bund, 'Asia’s former golden mile of finance and commerce; quintessential Shanghai; experienced best at night,’ as the city map calls it. Initially feeling good that I was there in the evening, I felt a bit 'disoriented’ as I spent more time there. The air was a bit smoggy; mainly due to the heavy traffic. At the very least, only air filled with music by Fall Out Boy could be worse. I thought the view was nice though. Across the Huangpu River were the many office buildings surrounding the Pudong area, including the Jin Mao tower, the fourth tallest building in the world. Further north were these endless stacks of electronic billboards of international brands; a symbol of Shanghai as the convergence node of western and eastern corporations.

All the walking left me a bit knackered and by the end of the day, all that was left from the energy recouped from my 10-hour sleep was used for eating.

A mall name like no other. Eat this Sunway Pyramid!

The conference ended at noon on my third day in Shanghai. The sun was shining brightly amidst the cold wind of spring; all too perfect a setting for a stroll around the streets. And a 10 minute ride on the Metro took me to the place where Shanghaians chill on a sunny day like this, the aptly named People’s Square. Encircled by endless rows of street hawkers and neighboring the Grand Theatre as well as the Shanghai Museum, People’s Square somehow resembles New York’s Central Park; which was nice. Always nice to have some serenity in the middle of the commotions surrounding an urban area.

Five bucks say he's waiting for Mulan's reflection.

Well the idea was to do some walking around the Square and drop by the souvenir shops nearby to get some things for the folks back at home. Judd’s cheongsam, Ikram’s 'Shanghai Sensation’ boxer shorts and Ticub’s tiger testicle soup. All of which I managed to get except for Ticub’s soup (no more than 100ml of liquid on board, bro -- hope the gambir is still in stock).

As expected, shopping in Shanghai was very tricky. There was of course the language barrier. And then, there’s the superiorly mad bargaining skill that you need to possess in order to get things at the right price. Though I’m not much of a bargaining wizard myself, upon some observations, I realized that the sellers tend to mark up the prices to around 150 – 200% in their initial offer. Thus, starting with 25 – 50% off the offered price would be a good place to start. Knowing the average market price of the things you want would be really helpful nonetheless. Alas, I didn’t do that much shopping myself. Shanghai isn’t quite the place to shop really; be it proper/branded or 'juvenile’ goods as they term it. Items are a bit on the higher side though the choices are pretty much similar to the ones in Malaysia.

Keepin' the city safe.

I spent my last night in Shanghai at a Jazz joint not far from the hotel featuring a quartet of three Latin Americans and a Chinese guy on alto sax. While feasting on the band’s excellent renditions of Billie Holiday and Frank Sinatra numbers, within sight were foreigners getting acquainted, slightly too acquainted, with the local ladies. Speaking of whom, were very nice actually. Never short of a sweet smile and warmth, welcoming every bit of my foreign self to their oriental land. Then again, I suppose they had to, as the only ones I met were the hotel receptionists.

And I left Shanghai feeling 'wealthier’ in knowledge as I’d now gotten a taste of China, the world’s most populated country. On the surface, the Huangpu River separates Shanghai into two; the people oriented Puxi and business driven Pudong. While the natures of these two areas are different, the constantly congested Nanpu Bridge and Yan’an Road Tunnel connecting them embody the balance of culture and progress in Shanghai. While I don’t quite fancy (and understand) the people of Shanghai’s need to be rushing all the time, I suppose it’s all just a matter of me coming from a different background. What seem to be too vibrant to me may be just right to them.

Sadly though, I didn’t really assimilate that much. Even after four days in China, I only learned three new Chinese words; "Want good massaij?".

If I Was Born 25 Years Earlier
April 11, 2008

I would've been born in 1958.

I would've lived in a time when my favorite actors were in their prime; Al Pacino in Dog Day Afternoon, Robert De Niro in Raging Bull and Dustin Hoffman in Kramer vs. Kramer. Great, proper acts they were, and still are.

Simple, cut to the chase, straightforward movies which leave people still talking about them 30 years down the road. Insightful stories with great writing and directing that take the audience deep into the essence of every scene.

Far beyond the grand epic trilogy romantic comedy full-blast action movie blockbuster nonsense that are coming out of Hollywood nowadays.

At one end are three LOTR movies, with a total running time of 2 1/3 days, featuring hobbits from middle-earth trying to fight their way through massive wars involving larger than life ogres. All for a ring that would end up on Jack Black's own little hobbit.

At the other end is a film with Dane Cook playing the main role, trying very hard to be funny while Jessica Simpson plays his opposite, as a cashier at an imaginary Wal-Mart. Jessica Simpson, as a Wal-Mart cashier. Might as well put the words ‘Tom Cruise' and ‘straight' in the same sentence.

And at another end is a real-life, out of this world, state of the art, CGI 3-D R2-D2 remake of the old Saturday morning favorite, Transformers. While most regard it as the biggest movie of the 21st and 20th century combined, Transformers the Movie is no further than the ultimate torturing tool in my book. A glimpse of it and any baby seal would die of severe seizure.

But no, I wasn't born in 1958. I was born 25 years ago, today, in 1983. And while I didn't live in the period when my favorite movies were made, I suppose I've lived a good quarter of a century worthy of a decent film.

Then again I suppose it'll fair no better that Catwoman movie in the cinemas. Nevertheless, thank you very much to all who've made it a great ride.

Photography by Azalia Suhaimi

  • Asrif, b. 1983
  • Subang Jaya, Malaysia
  • asrifomar[@]gmail[.]com
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