Tag Archives: Shanghai

To Exchange At Lightning Speed

This is the fifteenth in a series of posts about living, teaching, traveling and studying in Southeast Asia during my twenties. This entry is about appearing in a Chinese television show.

My (then) girlfriend and I walked through the shiny, tube-like mall suspended in the sky beneath Hongkou Football Stadium train station. Above or below, connected or adjacent, shopping malls accompanied most train stations in Shanghai, 2010 – and as upwards of seven million people used the train system every day, it’s no wonder. That’s some serious foot traffic and it has only increased since then.

These mini-malls usually sold things commuters could pick up cheaply and carry with them across town, items like trinkets, umbrellas, and electronics. They also invariably hosted at least one convenience store and usually a tea stall or two. We stopped at one of these to order an Oreo milkshake. Not exactly the Chinese tea cultural experience of old, but it’s decadent, affordable, and perfect for sharing.

After a small wait two of our friends arrived: Rui, a Korean-Chinese from Manchuria and Jochen, a Swiss-German from southern Germany. They were both students at Fudan University, where my girlfriend was also studying. We were going to a local pool parlor to rack up, shoot some balls and wait for the cameras: this morning we were going to be on Chinese TV.

I had only been on broadcast TV a few times before and was gearing up for another brush with fame. This could be it! Will the producers be there? Will they see something special in me?

Could I be … the Neon Demon?

“The show is called, well, it means something like lightning exchange,” Rui said as he blazed the trail to the pool hall in font of us, intently navigating on his smart-phone.

“I guess we won’t be on for very long then,” I quipped. Oh, sweet memorable dialogue.

“I don’t know,” responded Rui absently. Shot down.

We’re all very curious about the day’s adventures, and as Rui is the only one of us who has lived in Shanghai for longer than two months, he’s the man with the most information.

“It is like reality TV,” says Rui, “they give money to charity. It is very famous in China”.

After ten minutes of hustling along we strolled into the pool parlor. It was quite a fancy affair, a mixture of bright lights, glittering decorations, plush carpet and faux-gold trimmings, populated by legions of teenagers drinking sodas and shooting pockets to Chinese pop music. This was a far call from the pool venues I frequent in Australia, especially the dingy, chiaroscuro, soft Jazz digs of my favourite venue in Melbourne, the Red Triangle of Fitzroy.

A woman was waiting at the table closest to the entrance. When she spotted us enter she beckoned us over. Young and unashamedly hip, wearing a slightly-tilted black beret, a thin layer of make-up and outrageously cute shoes, she was also carrying, oddly, a Harley Davidson motorcycle helmet. She entered into a passionate discussion with Rui in Mandarin that culminated in the woman spontaneously throwing the Harley Davidson helmet at Rui and running out of the hall. Whoa.

It was bizarre behaviour and, being ever-vigilant, I quickly scanned the crowds for TV cameras. Maybe we had already stumbled into some kind of candid camera scenario and would soon be surrounded by fake Chinese police claiming we had stolen the helmet? My imagination ran wild as I spotted cameras everywhere – in that lady’s handbag, in that vending machine, over there on that dude’s giant hat. But nothing happened. We were not on TV just yet.

Rui sat down with the helmet and stared at the billiards tables gloomily.

“You can play, it has all been paid for,” he motioned to the closest table.

“What did that girl say?” one of us asked, uttering what we were all wondering. Although we were all studying Mandarin, we weren’t very good at this stage.

“We should play pool, and soon the TV crew will come with Annie Yi. Jochen gives them the helmet, but not quickly. They will swap it with you for something else. You have to say it is worth 6000 yuan,” Rui stated glumly, “actually I’m disappointed. I thought this TV show was real.” 

There was a pause as we digested this information. Fake reality TV. Of course. For me, it was even better. Now we had forewarning.

I racked up the balls and began shooting, hoping to get my eye in. If I was going to be filmed playing pool on Chinese TV, I might as well be filmed playing it well. The situation was still a little bit confusing and we deliberated on just how hesitant Jochen should be to let this strange Annie Yi take the new helmet away from him.

My girlfriend suggested that Jochen should ask for a kiss in return, to great agreement from myself. We played pool and Rui continued to brood about his disappointment that reality TV is actually highly orchestrated. Five minutes later we were bombarded by people, by light and by cameras. It was over in fifteen minutes.

The next day, a summary appeared on the TV show’s website. Here is the accompanying wonderful translation:

The physical process of a foreigner’s tragic kiss: How is Annie to deal with this?

Annie met in the billiard hall four of Germany’s foreign friends, who promised them that if Annie could meet their request, they will exchange her several thousand dollars worth of genuine Harley-Davidson motorcycle helmet! However, the requirement is to kiss the German’s lips! Annie, immediately surprised, said there is to be a snooker tournament. If Annie and co-host win, then the German must kiss co-host; if he loses, he can kiss Annie’s lips!

Oh dear! Good heavens! It continues:

Mended to Annie’s very poor playing, Annie “die a tragic death,” but the magic scene appeared by virtue of co-host’s “superb” game, they win the game, and the kiss chase scene played as a German friend laughed and turned one around.

Two weeks later Jochen, my girlfriend and I bought some donuts, vodka and fruit and settled down in Jochen’s spacious terrace house to watch the show. By this time we had learned all about Annie Yi, the famous Taiwanese pop star we met, and the concept behind lightning exchange. But the really pressing questions still hadn’t been answered, such as, how will we all look on television? What will the Chinese world say about “Germany’s foreign friends”?

You may form your own opinions … oh to be twenty-four again.

Henry and Stella

This is the thirteenth in a series of posts about living, teaching, traveling and studying in Southeast Asia during my twenties. This entry is about trying to look after turtles in Shanghai, 2010.

I travelled throughout China extensively while living in Shanghai in 2010, but since the country is so large I couldn’t penetrate it very far.  The main visits were to Beijing, Shandong, Shaanxi, Henan, Anhui, Jiangsu and Zhejiang.  While in Xi’an my partner and I checked in to a delightful, homely hostel, with sunny green courtyards, clean rooms, delectable food, plenty of communal lounging space and a bucolic basement bar. It was probably the best hostel we stayed in over the course of the year – but we usually used the ubiquitous business hotels instead.

Whilst recuperating between numerous successful (and some unsuccessful) forays into Xi’an and its surrounding regions I would regularly sit in the middle courtyard of this hostel, watching two peculiar pets, perched high in a porcelain dish.

There was a boon of domestic animals at this hostel, including an always smiling, long-haired golden hound (with a nose for opening doors), two white cats, constantly darting between one’s feet, and four newly born kittens. All lived a happy life, but I felt for the kittens as I often saw them being subjected to the torturous attention of two scary young Swedish sisters. I saw the kittens handballed, stretched, dragged and rubbed, I heard them meow, wail and struggle in vain.

I swear those kittens, if they haven’t yet run away or leaped to their deaths in horror, were scarred forever.

But the peculiar pets that I particularly enjoyed the company of were not of the furred variety, they were wrinkled, slimy, slick and amphibious, like twin sets of a showering grandpa. They were turtles.

About the size of a saucer each, these two creatures spent their days lazily soaking up the sun, eating anything a passing backpacker cared to throw into their bowl, and engaging in an eternal battle of “who can climb on top of who”. Several times I saw one of them mount the other, only to be shaken from his mount by a deft wiggle, and then quickly straddled himself. The emerging victor would immediately look to the heavens, basking in a kind of glory only a turtle can know, before the cycle would repeat.

These two turtles were tremendous company in Xi’an; they glared knowingly as I read Memoirs of a Geisha beside them and devoured my excess bubble tea tapioca pearls. So, when the time came to flee the walled core of Xi’an for the eastern city of Hangzhou, I was a touch saddened. As the train crawled through the Shaanxi suburbs I didn’t think of Xi’an’s tourist destinations, of the terracotta armies, the ancient tombs, the grandeur of the city walls. I looked back instead to those yellow-shelled grandpas, hardy, hungry and full of character.

Some time later, sitting in the Shanghai apartment most evenings, watching films, reading or writing, could be quite lonely.  So I decided: I would recreate Xi’an.  I would buy turtles. I set off to the pet market around the corner – quite an affair, at once encouraging to the amateur animal hobbyist in its scale but also plain horrifying to anyone with an inch of sympathy for animals.

To put it shortly; I would not call any animal at that place happy.

I browsed a path worming between tubs of fish and turtles and cages of rabbits, dogs, cats and birds. Two turtles caught my eye, a golden backed and yellow blacked pair, and I bought them from their red-eyed, shifty looking owner for five dollars, knowing that I had saved them from fate, possibly a fate worse than death, the fate of being at the continual mercy of crazy-eyed merchants, with all the prodding, poking and starvation that comes with. Charitable fuzzy feelings ensued.  I named the pair Henry and Stella.

We had a great eight weeks before I left for a holiday to Bangladesh.  Oh, the laughs we shared.  I bought little rocks and plants and things for their house and fed them all the delightful turtle foodstuffs I could find (refraining from bubble tea pearls this time). However, when I returned from Bangladesh I found that they had weakened considerably and their shells were, for lack of a better word, flaking. My girlfriend at the time had been looking after them and swore she had done everything she could.  It was a sad moment.

So I picked them up and took them back to the pet merchant.  He couldn’t help me.  I had taken two trusting turtles into my care and failed them.  They would stare at me, blinking, slowly opening their little mouths, hungry? Thirsty? Gasping? I did not know.  Their turtle souls were foreign to me.  They had been plagued by sickness while I holidayed in tropical hillside villages.  I was wracked with despair.

In the end, I gave them back to the pet merchant – who could give no guarantees.  So ended Henry and Stella’s brief stay with a pair of Australians.  I hope they regained their health; I hope they were glad to be rid of us. We ended up heading back to Australia soon after – and I haven’t been to China again since.

An Old Man Who Used To Dance

This is the twelfth in a series of posts about living, teaching, traveling and studying in Southeast Asia during my twenties. This entry is about moving to Shanghai in 2010.

These memoir posts have been largely chronological thus far, but today I’m skipping ahead from 2008 to 2010.  I had just finished my undergraduate Creative Arts degree and moved to Shanghai, China with a vague plan to travel, learn some Chinese and do some writing.  My creative output wasn’t too prolific in the end, but I did manage to see a decent amount of the country and in retrospect it was another formative period.

Anyone who has spent an amount of time living in China feels like it was special; and it always is, for the country changes so fast.  I think tier-one cities are beginning to plateau a little, but the Shanghai of 2010 was markedly different to the Shanghai of 2016, let alone 2000.

My partner and I had arrived via long-haul train and spent our first few days in the city arranging an apartment to live in.  We wanted to live close to Fudan University, but away from the foreigner-laden neighbourhood in its immediate vicinity.  Researching online was a fatiguing experience, for there was a ceaseless gush of expats chronicling real estate misadventures but very little concrete advice.  In the end we got lucky, walking into a random real estate agent in an area we liked and going from there.  I tried my hand at poetry soon after:

research to rent
rights responsibilities the dotted line
anjuke haozu you

incessant whinging expats
endless vendetta on home furnishings
concrete chaos danger don’t screw your fen
adopt an iron smile screw your head on straight

researched to rent
man from anhui woman from henan
friends migrants tingbudong tingbudong

electric bicycles blood glass buhao
deny access! apartments wrong shiny kitchen
time smiles handshakes decisions
iron smile head screwed on straight

After a few truly awful inspections (including as alluded to above, one place with smashed glass and blood everywhere on the floor of the kitchen), we ended up in an old, twelve-storey apartment building on the seventh floor.  We were the first foreigners to live there.  The elevator was scary.  But the people were friendly.  There was a park around the corner, the University was two kilometres away and we had a subway station.  After signing the lease and taking the keys we had a nice experience walking around our neighbourhood for the first time.

We were resting by the local police station deciding whether we should get a terrible beer. It was a balmy evening and many old folks were out for their daily strolls. Not to be sidelined, the young were out in abundance too, but instead of sharing the slow, methodical gait of the aged, they were rushing to and from shop to shop, a bakery here, a fashion store there, full of energy to spend. Instead of the trademark tracksuit pants and singlets of the older generations they wore tight jeans, trendy shoes and tank tops. It was a nice dichotomy, and easily put us into a romanticising mood, a mellow state of rhapsody: hey, we’re in Shanghai now!

Before long the mood manifested itself into a man in the uniform of the aged and plastic sandals. His face betrayed his early provenance, but his wrinkles were not roughly hewn or haggard, they were of soft and undulating, light, small and pleasant. There was not a trace of bitterness in his face. For someone like myself, who is afraid of aging almost more than anything (and therefore a little scared of the elderly), I liked this man immediately.

“Hello,” he said, “do you speak English?”

We chatted for twenty minutes and learned that he was a working resident deeply rooted in and shaped by Shanghai’s recent history. It’s hard to connect the Shanghai of today with China’s pre-Reform years, to the wars, the famines, and the revolutions so often espoused in literature and media. But this man connected the dots, he lived through it all, and continues living.

“Oh yes. Guess how old I am? Eh?” He leaned in towards me, favouring his good ear. I took a pot shot at eighty-three.

“Eighty five! Ha!” We congratulated him on his age and asked where he learned English.

“Oh, long story. I learn before. I learn a long time ago. But I don’t speak anymore. Now it is self-study. I am old, I have stopped work, so, I have nothing to do. Nothing to do,” he paused a little sadly, “so I read the dictionary.”

He spoke very slowly, taking great care when choosing his words and choosing them well.

We told him he was very sharp to be studying English at his age. An eighty-five year old man who spends his free time reading foreign language dictionaries is a rare thing indeed.

“No, no,” he humbly replied, “It’s OK but I need to … I just like to speak to foreigners. I live here, Yangpu district, but no foreigners here. Always at the Bund, ah, as … ah, tourists! Yes, sight-see tourists!”

He got very excited as he pushed his vocab to the limit, and this only increased when I told him we had ourselves just moved into Yangpu district. I asked him if he liked to play Chinese chess, as I’d been practising and wanted a partner.

“No. I don’t like it,” he dismissed the idea with a wave of his hand, “I like to … well, sixty years ago, I used to dance! When the Japanese … but then, they left.”

He continued in this fashion, fleeting here and there between the glory days of his life narrative. They were vignettes, and sometimes a little incoherent, but what the old man made very clear was that everything changed for him when he was invited, just before WW2, to work for a British business. He was introduced to the English language then, while working for this “foreign enterprise”. Unfortunately, the business collapsed in 1949 when the PLA liberated Shanghai.

The man’s exact words were, “when the Communists rose to power we were very poor, very poor.” He said he then worked for a “state-run enterprise” until he retired, but never spoke English at work again.

I pondered the role my girlfriend and I were filling for this chap. He had never left China, he had never had the opportunity to go to Britain or anywhere else in the world, but he had heard of all these places and had developed relationships with their people. He had grown into an adult during a pre-CCP China, in the midst of an influx of foreigners, with their money, power and mystery, and had then seen them leave at the drop of a hat – or the raising of a flag. Now he had the opportunity, time and inclination to reconnect with his early years, but he was old, hard of hearing, and not really up to seeking out tourists on the Bund.

My girlfriend and I were a golden opportunity and you could see in all of the man’s features just how much he was enjoying himself. The English language was significant; a lodestone, the exotic, the different, the non-China capitalist.

We didn’t get his name, but it wasn’t important at the time. He was nameless, a representation of a generation. For a brief moment I was completely proud to be an ignorant, non-Chinese speaking foreign resident of Shanghai (not at all the usual feeling).

Just as we had played a role for him, so had he for us.

This old man, who used to dance, opened the gates of Shanghai to us. He said: you’re welcome here.