We wandered down the street and over a couple of blocks. We found the entrance to the subway and went down. It was gleaming and shiny and not at all what I expected. We went down and got to the platform.
The little guy on the subway could have been sixty or he could have been eighty. He could have walked with Mao on the big swing around Chiang Kai Check’s Nationalists, and on to eventual victory in 1948.
He wore a little Mao hat and his gaze was implacable. He was staring at Val’s chest, or he was staring past her chest at me in my trench coat because he was exactly that tall. It was hard to tell. But it was a penetrating gaze, neither friendly nor particularly hostile. It was an intense and unwavering look, like that of a hawk on his prey. I leaned over to Val.
“I think he may consider us to be lick-spittle running dogs of colonialism.”
“But nice” she said. It was pretty clear that even if there were more westerners recently in town, they didn’t hang on the Shanghai subway. We had a lot of fans before we got off.
It was a fine subway, and like everything I had seen in Shanghai, it was first class and totally approachable for English speakers. The station was deserted when Val and I arrived. It was four minutes after nine in the morning, and the place was deserted.
We purchased two yuan tickets, sufficient to get us to People’s Square and ventured down to the tracks. When we arrived, a Chinese man came up to Val, gestured at the sign above us (Chinese and English) and asked her a question in Cantonese, clearly seeking directions. Val pointed at one of the directions at random. He bowed, satisfied, and walked briskly away in the direction she had pointed. Val rolled her eyes.
“Why would he think I would know anything here?”
“I think they like you,” I said as our train pulled into the platform. As we rolled off, we passed below several sites I wish I had seen up close. The site of the first National Congress of the Communist Party of China. The site of the headquarters of the Provisional Government of Korea- presumably the united one under Kim Il Sung, circa 1951. That was the year I was born. I was sorry we missed the residence of Dr. Sun Yat Sen, George Washington of China, still claimed by Communist and Nationalist alike.
Three stops down the line we departed the car and the unwavering gaze of our Long March admirer, at People’s Square. The morning had blossomed into a magnificent day. Still crisp, there were dozens of retired people in the park under the looming eves of the Grand Theater. We wandered along, objects of gentle curiosity. Once we left the park the buildings were those of the West: stolid brick blocks of flats and businesses with quaint and optimistic Victorian facades.
We were disoriented from being underground, and were struggling to make the tourist map coexist with the reality beneath our feet. A middle-aged woman stopped to help us in our confusion, pointing east down a wide mall toward the river.
We were on Nanjing Lu (Road), which according to the literature, is known as the number one commercial street in China. It runs about 5.5 clicks through the center of Shanghai from the Bund on the Huang Pu River to the Jing’an Temple in the west. They claim there are more than 600 stores along both sides of the street.
Further, the locals claim there to be “a satisfactory variety of goods of brand names, high quality ones, special local products and newly developed products, which are a feast for eyes.”
It turned out to be true. Everything under the sun was for sale, and in the alleys off the main drag I found a Chairman Mao cigarette lighter that plays the Chinese National Anthem when you open the cover.
Most of Nanjing Road was turned into a pedestrian mall two years ago. It is not all the way down to the Bund, where the streets narrow. My tourist guide informed me that Nanjing Road is a wonderful view at night, “with colorful and dazzling lights too beautiful to be absorbed all at once.”
I would have been willing to try.
We passed the Peace Hotel, where a jazz band of octogenarians, placed apparently in suspended animation during the Great Cultural Revolution, still plays the songs they played for the Colonials in 1935. Near that corner is an imposing but somewhat forlorn bronze lion in front of an equally imposing Greek Revival Building of commerce, left long behind by the Brits on whose Empire the sun finally set.
We arrived at the river’s edge after about an hour’s wander. Across the river rose Shanghai’s equivalent of the Space Needle: the 468 meter Oriental Pearl TV Tower, tallest in Asia and third tallest in the world. Its graceful spire transitions to a great sphere about three quarters of the way down, just like a snake that had swallowed a basketball.
Silhouetted before it is the only public representation of the Great Helmsman Mao I saw in town, aside from my cigarette lighter. His statue leans forward in heroic pose, wind sweeping his upward-turned and confident face. A line of children, cute as buttons in colorful sweaters and windbreakers moved along the street under the careful gaze of their caregivers.
“Look!” I said to Val. “It’s the Emerging Threat!”
Later, we had collected the delegation from the Consulate, agreed with the People’s Liberation Army troopers at the visa gate that they did not want to be photographed with us, and piled back into the van. We took a measured drive back to the southeast to Pudong Airport. I was a little concerned that we were inside the two-hour advance time I normally reserve for international flights, but traffic was light, and I wasn’t responsible for this trip. We arrived at the “Departing Flights” drop off point about an hour and ten minutes before the flight. In daylight, the heroic proportions radiated confidence. We piled the bags onto travel carts, bade farewell to the embassy driver, and rolled into the vast and eerily quiet hall. We were looking for Asiana Airlines to wing us to Korea. I couldn’t find the airline listed anywhere. I looked at Val, horror beginning to show in her eyes as the worst event in an escort officer’s career began to unfold. It was confirmed moments later by a perky Chinese girl at Information a few moments later.
“Oh,” she said in the most terrifying words it is possible to hear on international travel. “You are at wrong Airport. So sorry.” She smiled.
I won’t tell of the asses and elbows from that point, the broken Chinese, or the horror which dawned in the eyes of the Consulate driver, who we found still at the curb as we hurled bags two or three at a time into the back. He burned rubber on the way out, and the skill and audacity of this Chinese hero and the ostensible forty-minute drive to Hongqiao National was a wonder to behold. The intricate timing of the trip hung in the balance, and we drove places most official vans will never see. At the airport we moved with deliberate speed through the chokepoints of airport tax, ticketing, Immigration and Passport Control, adrenaline coursing through our veins.
As it turned out, we were comfortably seated on the airplane with nearly three minutes to spare. Relaxed and refreshed, we pushed back from the gate for the flight to the Land of the Morning calm. Wondering where the bags were going to go….
Copyright 2001 Vic Socotra
Thank you, Vic, for your guest posts. For those who would like to hear more from Vic, please visit him at Socotra House Publishing.