by Ainslie Paton
I’ve never felt so in danger of losing my eyes. Having them poked clear out of my head with the blunt end of a steel spoke.
It was 1987. It was cold, wet and the entire population of Shanghai, all 14 million of them, which was the entire Australian population at that point, was on Nanjing Road, wielding a black brolly.
There were two relatively safe places: The Bund, which was crowded with these enormous Mongolian sailors who weren’t scared of the rain, and the Friendship Store.
So you know, there was nothing friendly about a Friendship Store.
This was early days of tourism in China. It was tightly restricted, highly controlled and incredibly disorganised at the same time. Just boarding a China Airways Flight was an exercise in faith and stupidity. Think open luggage racks like on a bus; during take-off and landing it was not uncommon to see people standing holding onto their luggage to stop it raining down on suspecting heads. I did it myself, under the approving gaze of a stewardess.
I digress. This is a story about my love affair with the phenomenally inspiring city of Shanghai.
Back to the Friendship Store. Only foreigners could shop at a Friendship Store. It sold everything from shoes made out of car tyres to dodgy electronics and fabulously embroidered tablecloths. Not that you could actually buy anything very easily. Not only did the store stock things you were unlikely to ever want, the staff were just as unlikely to want to serve you. When they did, it was all about the pointing.
The official staff training manual must’ve read something like this: Under no circumstances make eye contact. Avoid being summoned to serve for as long as possible. When unavoidable, move as slowly as humanly possible. Misinterpret pointing as frequently as possible. Sigh often—a sigh works in any language. Slap random goods on the counter and retreat immediately. Take money with as little grace as possible, with as much pointless administration while glaring with the kind of expression customers will feel as sudden pain in their kneecaps.
Can’t say I blamed them. The whole exclusive set-up was awful.
The idea of the Friendship Store was to corral tourists into carefully approved places, but we were Australian and not readily corralled. Which is how I came to think I might lose my eyes traipsing down Nanjing Road to places I wasn’t supposed to go unsupervised.
At the end of the street, past the Peace Hotel, is Zhongshan Road with its glorious 1920s and ‘30s buildings and the waterfront itself stretching for a mile along the Haungpu River. It was a stone wall then, impressive in its own way, but unlike the grand Lovers Walk expanse it is now. It looked out on Pudong—low-lying farmland where animals grazed and crops grew.
This is a Shanghai where I was glad I knew how to use chopsticks because there were no forks to be had. There was only weak beer, or pop so sugary you knew you were sprouting instant cavities drinking it.
Students wanted to practice their English on you, because ‘Hello tablecloth’ only went so far. Or buy your jeans and runners. Beggars made you feel like you should give them everything you had. I ate dog, and turtle caught off the back of the boat, and didn’t enjoy either.
Skip forward to 1997. I’m not a tourist this time. I’m there to help an Australian airline launch its Shanghai route, attend a training program, and hang out in the Shanghai office of the global consultancy I work for.
The airline party in a posh hotel was a blast, with a private performance by John Farnham. Hanging out in the office meant of course, working. Hello Nike, yes it’s difficult to sell sporting equipment to the youth of a country who see sport as something run by the government that you’re drafted into, not a legitimate use of leisure time for which there is little actual concept anyway. And hell yeah, we have to build the basketball courts before we can sell the shoes.
In 1997, Shanghai was booming. Ninety percent of the world’s big cranes were suspended in the sky. It was still more bikes than cars, but the traffic was fierce. Friendship Stores had long been closed to give way to more regular retailing, and the big metropolis was coming—like a rocket. We drove for ages to a housing estate built for hordes of foreigners yet to arrive, just to eat Mexican food. The restaurant was packed. The estate was otherwise a freshly minted ghost town.
I wandered through the old French Concession and was charmed by the gracious historic homes and leafy streets. And down at the Bund, it was all about looking at the Pearl Tower. You could see the Pearl Tower from everywhere in the still relatively low-rise city, but it was the only structure built on Pudong. It looked like the rocket ship waiting to take off again.
On that visit I tripped up and down Nanjing Road without the fear of losing my sight, could shop anywhere I wanted and explored the old city with its incredible curios, antiques and housing.
It’s 2007, and I’m desperate for holiday. I’ve just finished what I think is a single project with a large global consultancy. I want to see Shanghai again. I’m standing in front of the Pearl Tower in Pudong—now a city centre bigger than Sydney, looking back towards the Bund, which is crowded with prosperous tourists. My client phones. Could I stay on, do more? I’m delighted.
I’m less delighted the old town was knocked down. The old town was Shanghai. This new Shanghai is vast, with gleaming high-rises in a marvellous variety of whacked-out shapes. There are rows of condominiums, stretching into the heat haze. I find them frightening for the density of their occupation. There is a fast train from the airport, the metro train system is clean, simple and efficient, and everyone is polite. Nanjing Road is a pedestrian mall and I stay in a boutique hotel in the French Concession that was once a gangster’s house and is now just up the road from five-star shopping and international dining experiences.
Every fast-food chain and high-end retailer you can imagine has a flagship store. There are shops with goods too expensive for me to contemplate. I see diamond-studded Nokia phones. Every car on the road is an Audi, but you can still get knocked over by a bicycle.
Shanghai, with its blend of entrepreneurship and fabulous history, part wild frontier where anything might happen, part global sophisticate, was the only place I could possibly set for a foreign devil like Will Parker to build his empire, an opportunist like Darcy Campbell to threaten it, and their surprising love story to play out.
I sat in Will’s Confucian temple and walked the street where I imagined his house was situated. I baked in the hot sun on Lover’s Walk where Darcy stood in the press pack and gazed in the shop windows on Nanjing Road where she was tempted to spend money she didn’t have. I looked with envy towards M on the Bund and wished I was eating there like Darcy and Pete, and I sat in the backseat of chauffeur-driven cars with my own version of Bo, hired for the day, and wondered if there were quantifiable road rules.
I’ve been royally shanghaied by Shanghai. My three visits over 30 years have made me witness to the explosive change and growth the city experienced. It’s China’s largest city, and the largest city by population in the world.
It must be time to go back.
Detained is a story about risk and safety, secrets and lies, truths and self-deception. It’s about hopes and dreams and impossible romance, and a city that knows it’s extraordinary.