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East is West

Coffee guzzling and garden strolling in China's 'Paris of the East.'

semi-overcast 26 °C

East is West

There is one product that seems to measure how Western a place is in China: coffee.

At the moment, I am sipping my drink of choice, an Americano, at a hostel in Shanghai. This is the first coffee I've had since Beijing, and though I think I've finally broken the addiction (for now), I am reminded how much coffee is the drink of the West.

Across the countryside, in small towns and large, the Chinese, as everyone knows, are tea-totalers.

Hotel rooms come with hot water heaters and carefully doled out tea bags, and often the first service customers get at restaurants are filled cups of tea.

But Shanghai, the "Paris of the East," has a coffee house (including Starbucks galore) on nearly every corner in the downtown shopping area, known as the Bund. And it's not just the lao-wei (or "foreigners" as the Chinese like to say in passing, often to no one in particular), that partake in the consumption. The Shanghai-ers, beautifully donned, seem to love the Western-style sophistication that coffee-drinking connotes.

It's not a cheap drink either, by Chinese standards. One cup typically runs nearly $2, making the drink unaffordable to any middle-class worker.
But no matter in Shanghai -- a city of 18 million that flouts its glamour like the many women here in shorts and high heels -- whose purpose seems to be high-end shopping and hosting international business conferences.


One easily noticeable difference to Beijing are the downtown squares. Beijing has Tian'anmen Square, a massive and monolithic expanse of concrete that creates a feeling of smallness under the weight of the state. The only things to buy are Mao's Little Red Book and Chinese flags.

Shanghai has People's Square -- a welcome shock of greenery in an otherwise garden of neon and shopping malls. The space is also given over to at least three museums and a theater. The square has its quieter spots but hawkers have intruded in many areas selling jewelry, "Rolex" watches, and whatever else sells.

This town has given itself wholly over to buying and selling. There are video screens playing advertisements on the sides of buildings and on boats traversing the river.

High-end international brands are sold everywhere, both real and fake.
Crazy-looking skyscrapers compete for skyline attention -- one that opens into a lotus flower and lights up at night and another that forms a diamond at its top.

We plunked down the $5 per ticket one day to see Shanghai's "20-year masterplan" model and wondered if the city is making a huge mistake in not planning for more green space.

Tony and a small boy "play" one one of the many adult exercise playgrounds in China.

What it's aiming for, it seems, are more high rises and skyscrapers. More dazzle at a distance and more soulless streetscapes. Only 20 years ago, as the pictures in the city design museum attest, Shanghai was still very much a city of intimate, earthy spaces.

A Garden City

China's new aesthetic is curious because the culture knows much about how to create beauty in smallness.

We saw this in the traditional gardens in Suzhou, a town a couple hours to Shanghai's west. Suzhou, which has its own love affair with high-end shopping districts, has kept its dozen or so gardens intact as tourist attractions. They were built centuries ago by wealthy officials and businessmen and still provide a peaceful oasis from the noise and bustle of the streets.

The gardens have three major components: greenery, water, and buildings (usually a pagoda of some sort). And the main structure is the creation of numerous intimate, small spaces within the overall scheme.

Which means it's possible to wander around with hundreds of other people and take a seat in some corner and still feel like you have the place to yourself. That is, until a tour group with loudspeakers arrives in your formerly quiet neck of the garden!

We particularly loved the way the interior windows in buildings framed the exterior scenery, almost like pictures on a wall.


The only downside was the expense. It seems rediculous to complain, until you know the local prices of things, but a ticket into the garden can run you the price of a fine meal. An oasis, maybe, but only for the deep-pocketed.

Actually, the price of tourist attractions is something we've been noticing for some time. Every place in the guide books cost money (even the tunnel under the Huangpo River in Shanghai). If the Chinese government can slap a high-priced ticket on a place of interest it will, affordability be damned. Even as the notion of privacy is so foreign to a country of 1.7 billion people, few spaces are purely public. And everything costs.

The Village Whore

Of course, sex sells too.

Every time I leave Jacob and Tony, they become the instant attraction of Chinese women and pimps. The pimps come up from behind and whisper in their ears "lady massage." The women are less direct, asking them if they would like to be "friends."

Apparently two lao-wei men walking unattended down the street is quite a catch. And indeed, we see examples every day of white men flirting with younger Chinese women on the streets, or as couples out on the town. Call it love, but it's hard to believe if that's all it were we'd seen examples of the reverse.

A man needn't even leave his room to obtain female companionship. At night in our hotel, the phone rings repeatedly with offers. I've taken to be the one who picks up and my voice on the line usually stops a repeat call. This, even though most Chinese women find white men, and all their hair, repulsive.

I've never garnered the same kind of attention, though all over China there are now photos of me posing with Chinese men. In one town, I became an instant hit. I came out of a shop to find Jacob the photo centerpiece for a group of young men, but when they saw me he quickly got pushed out of the way. One by one, each man would stand beside me, his arm around my shoulder, for the camera.
This went on for some time. I joked that I had become each of their "American girlfriend." Or perhaps the village whore?

Posted by ahawkes 08:59 Archived in China Tagged backpacking

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Does all this picture taking give you a small feeling of stardom? But who knows what your photo partners will be bragging about back home?

by HeavyLoad

dear tony and co.
this picture reminds me of north village in so many way's i won't even try to access my meagar means to tell you. How ever you most definatly would be transcribed in to a small infinatly curios,inteligent and remarkabley soulful chinese boy in my my picture. trying to catch up and sad to have strayed. by the way did you write the last entry there were moments that ringed of you. though those could have been risidule effect, cudos to the poetic and concise writing you guys are beautiful and i can't spell.
love elffin

by elffronz

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