Wandering through the metropolis, you could be forgiven for mistaking Shanghai for New York, or even Tokyo. Traditional buildings have fallen to the wrecking ball of modernity, replaced by the lethal smile of George Clooney and his Nespresso compatriot. Starbucks crown the corner of any street deemed sufficiently affluent, and the well-heeled scramble through the city, in search of the next big thing. Shanghai is a city of superlatives, the tallest hotel, the busiest port and in a few decades, if economic predictions are to be believed, the richest city.
Despite a veneer of Westernisation, established Chinese traditions remain. When selecting a mobile phone number, I was confronted by a cardboard sign with lists of numbers scrawled on. The phone numbers endowed with more 8s were being auctioned at ten times the price of numbers that were not gifted with such a lucky digit. Without wishing to anger the phone spirits into a storm of promotional texts, I went for the second cheapest number.
Elsewhere, the supernatural haunts the mind of many a local. Working for That’s Shanghai magazine, I have noticed that the government are happy to let all manner of profanaties swagger through the censorship net, but venture into the realms of ghosts and the axe of restriction is wielded. Whilst this may be a minor inconvenience, I count myself fortunate not to work in the magazine office of my German flatmate. Here, writers ply their trade under the mechanical gaze of a network of security cameras installed around the office, including the bogs.
Embodying the Chinese tradition of copying, Shanghai is known for its fake markets. Here, you can trawl through laminated booklets of Lacoste trainers, Prada handbags and Mont Blanc pens. After hearing my order, the shopkeeper barked commands to his daughter- and apparently his sherpa – who then ran the gauntlet to an offshore warehouse. After a twenty minute wait in the company of the owner, populated by sporadic head-nods and nervous laughter, I saw her return, clutching the sealed bin bag as if it were the last child on earth.
Others are more ostentatious with their wares. Equipped with a generic shirt template, a sowing set and a magazine of GQ, they have amassed a collection of luxury brand shirts that would rival the polished showrooms of Regent Street. However, with the lingering shadow of the law hanging above, brands that would attract the attention of the police- such as Armani – have to be fished out of hiding in a closet at the back.
A true spectacle of the fake market is the technique adopted by its female sales assistants. Having come from India, I was expecting a seething wall of gesticulating palms lining the doorway of each shop. Instead, with bowed heads, they view you nervously until you have passed their store before offering a lethargic murmur of ‘Shirts?’
The fashion offerings have their perks but, in order to fully appreciate Chinese talent, you have to engage with the pirate DVD market. The day a film is released onto the cinema, you can guarantee there is a concealed video camera amongst the audience. Stuffed into paper wallets, newly-released DVDs can be bought for a pound, and my find of the trip was the entire ten seasons of Friends for the princely sum of two pounds. There are, of course, roadside establishments offering cheaper prices, but the bargain-hunter risks falling foul of some moderate film-tampering. Said movies are played out in some unknown and lively dialogue, whilst others are entirely different films, with only a similar genre to connect them to the original.
Unfortunatley, DVD stores have become a, temporarily, dying breed. If the saturation of advertising around Shanghai was not sufficient, then the government has done all in its power to herald the arrival of Shanghai’s World Expo, a chance for countries to exhibit themselves in pavillions around Shanghai, in April. Similar to the Beijing olympics, measures have been taken to gloss over the city in preparation for the influx of tourists, and pirate DVD stores are amongst the casualties. That is, until the Expo finishes and they can re-open. Not content with being immobolised for two months, some have taken their goods underground. I recently went into a shop that was selling souvenirs as a front. After some discourse, a wall was slid back, revealing a glittering array of DVDs.
Preparations for the Expo do however have some perks, in the form of a skeleton guard of female English language students. As part of a free help-line, they are tasked primarily with translating tourists’ destinations for the cab driver. After numerous experiments, I have discovered that their services extend reluctantly beyond this to directional help, culinary advice and, in some cases, an emotional outlet.
When requests stray into unsultry territory, thanks to a quiet nod from the government, they refuse to give directions to the fake market and feign ignorance when asked about buying pirate DVDs. Even if they are watching the whole season of Desperate Housewives inbetween calls.
That Chinese government, they’re everywhere. Google had a pop, but typing ‘Mao was an areshole’ into their search engine is still banned.