On The Bund

The Seattle Times
October 15, 2000
By Alex Tizon

SHANGHAI – My adventure involved young pasty-faced hookers with no sense of time, an old man with a live eel, and a gigantic purple rocket ship. It all happened in the span of an hour. I was in a fuzzy-headed stupor at the time. Chronic insomnia plagues me; more so when I’m traveling. Upon arrival I was running on 15 minutes of shut-eye over two days. Sleeplessness pushes me into one of two mental states: the first turns me into a droopy misanthrope; the second makes me a best friend to all, like an affectionate drunk. Evidently I arrived drunk.

Shanghai was supposed to be just a rendezvous point. I was to meet a translator and together we were to fly to Fuzhou, a few hundred miles south, where I had work. I ended up staying three days. I checked in to my hotel and was out on the street as fast as I could unload my luggage. It was early evening. The sun had just dropped out of sight. My hotel was in the heart of the city. The street was Nanjing Dong Lu, which I found out later was famous for its hubbub. I spun looking at everything.

On both sides and in each direction stood immense walls of neon. They weren’t actually walls, but one storefront after another, one restaurant and one cafe and nightclub and towering billboard after another strung out in an endless street mall. Nothing in New York or Tokyo or Hong Kong matched this density of lights. The busiest part of Nanjing Dong Lu — something like 600 stores over several miles — was closed to cars.

People filled the street like water. They moved in vast currents, all eyes and swinging arms and bobbing black coifs. They surged in neon-bathed tidal waves. It was sink or swim. A hotel clerk told me east was better than west. I flowed east. In front of a packed Kentucky Fried Chicken, which I was photographing, two young women asked if I had the time. They might have been teenagers. They wore thick make-up and high-heeled boots. One had long hair, the other had short. Long-hair did all the talking.

“Do you have the time?” she asked again. I shrugged, secretly welcoming the attention. They giggled. Long-hair then asked if I had a girlfriend in Shanghai, then quickly added, “How about me?”

OK. I got it. Still, I didn’t want to be rude. I offered to buy them a cup of coffee. They declined. Having each made our pitch, and been rebuffed, we went our separate ways. This happened two more times on my walk. It was the same scenario: two young women inquiring about the time. Always they approached men walking alone. By the end of my three days, I’d learned to do what others did, which was to brush them off with a curt wave of the hand.

I spotted more pairs the farther east I went. There seemed more of everything in that direction. The crowd thickened. Even the buildings seemed more compressed. The road eventually opened up to motorists and bicyclists. The masses became epic. The cars and bicycles and pedestrians all wove between one another crazily. I was amazed collisions didn’t happen every second.

I spun some more. Shanghai bustled and clanked with the best of the big metropolises. My visit was in the spring, but the bustle, I’ve been told, was a permanent year-round state. The clanking came from all the construction. The city was rebuilding itself in a frenzy. A huge new stadium with retractable roof recently went up. High-rises filled the sky at a rate of two a week. Skylines in every direction constantly changed. The natural landscape was mostly flat and featureless, except for the rivers that dissected the city into districts. Nanjing Dong Lu dead-ended at the Huangpu River, site of the Bund.

To know Shanghai, you need to know the story of the Bund. An Anglo-Indian term, the Bund means “muddy embankment.” This embankment, perpendicular to Nanjing Dong Lu, ran about two miles north and south along the Huangpu. On one side, along the water’s edge, ran a wide promenade with views across the river. On the other side stood a row of massive European-style buildings, as if a London street had been plopped in the middle of the city. The buildings were built by Europeans and Americans in the 1920s and ’30s. At that time of night, the buildings, lit up by footlights, looked grand and imposing. The strip was a museum. The buildings – originally banks and houses of trade and commerce – were relics from another age. Chinese posed for pictures in front of them.

Once upon a time, Shanghai was a sleepy fishing village at the mouth of the Yangtse River. In the mid-19th century, British traders made a killing selling opium to the Chinese masses. Widespread addiction made a mess of Chinese society. Chinese authorities tried to stop the opium trade and fought two wars with the British. The Brits won and essentially took over Shanghai and four other port cities. The Brits also acquired Hong Kong. The French and other Western powers moved into Shanghai and set up shop. The Europeans lived like royalty and created the Bund as a monument to themselves. They called it the “Wall Street of Asia.” The status of Chinese was summed up by a sign at the entrance to a public garden on the Bund: “No Dogs or Chinese Allowed.”

The Western powers turned Shanghai into a teeming cosmopolis, full of color and decadence, a place of tycoons and paupers, prostitutes and mobsters, starlets and writers; of nightclubs and opium dens and preening mansions next to slums that went on and on. Chinese lived in the slums. The author J.G. Ballard, who grew up in old Shanghai, wrote how the premiere of “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” was accompanied by 200 live hunchbacks recruited by theatre management from every back alley in the city.

Shanghai became known as “The Whore of the East” and “Paris of China.” It was the most Western of Eastern cities, the jazziest place in Asia at the height of the Jazz Age.

Then World War II came and the city was occupied first by Japanese, then after the war by Nationalist Chinese, then a few years later by the Chinese Communist Party and its army. Shanghai put away its dancing shoes for the next four decades. To be fair, the Communists did a lot of good things. They ran out stragglers from the Colonial elite. They cleaned up the slums. They rehabilitated the addicts and prostitutes and gave them jobs. But they also removed Shanghai (and much of China) from the world’s radar screen. From 1949 to about 1990, Westerners heard very little of Shanghai, even though it was China’s biggest and richest city. With Deng Xiaoping’s “open-door” policy and economic reforms in the late 1970s, Shanghai started to wake again.

By 1990, the city was tap-dancing its way back to the world stage. Still China’s largest and richest city, Shanghai today has a population of almost 15 million and accounts for 8 percent of the country’s economic output. If Beijing is the nation’s Washington, D.C., Shanghai is its Big Apple. It’s the country’s cultural, economic and intellectual center, and the single-most important producer of political leaders. China today is run by a Shanghai clique led by the two most powerful men in government: President Jiang Zemin and Premier Zhu Rongi. Both are former mayors of Shanghai.

With the return of big-time commerce came, among other things, prostitution on a mass scale. Each morning my guide, whose English was not exact, asked: “Were you molested last night?” What he referred to were the constant solicitations by phone to the hotel room, and in person along Nanjing Dong Lu and the Bund. The prostitutes, I learned later, were mostly young women from the interior provinces. Sometimes they had pimps. I met one on my walk that first night. I was strolling along, looking for a place to cross over to the promenade. Then a voice: “Want girl?” The voice came from a compact, dark-skinned man with a mismatched business suit. His eyes were bloodshot, his hair combed back. Something was wrong with his mouth. Only half of it moved. I said no.

“Lookeh, lookeh, first,” he said. “Pretty girl. Lookeh, lookeh.”

I hesitated before turning away. My hesitation made him bold. He took my arm and half-dragged me, while I half-allowed him, to a narrow side street. Shadowy figures that appeared to be women stood a short ways in. But I never got past the man with the eel. As we entered the street, a very old man — he looked like petrified wood — in jeans and rubber flip-flops stood on one side. He was holding a live eel. It dangled from his fingertips like a shiny rope. It writhed. Next to the old man’s feet was a plastic tub of smaller eels. They swam in circles.

The old man said something. I’m pretty sure he was an eel salesman. But that night, and at that moment, in my unease and insomniac delirium, I was not prepared to buy anything from anybody. And I didn’t want to enter that street. I took possession of my arm and walked off without looking back.

“Lookeh, lookeh first!” the man with the broken mouth called out.

To get to the promenade, I took an underground tunnel across the boulevard running along the Bund. On the other side, I emerged onto a long, elevated, curving walkway that hugged the bank of the Huangpu River. Couples strolled arm-in-arm. Crowds of tourists — mostly Chinese — gawked and took pictures. They leaned against the railing and pondered the amazing sight. The object of their attention was across the river, the New Pudong District, or simply Pudong.

The Pudong skyline arrested the senses. It loomed like a make-believe city — larger than seemed possible, all glass and steel, with architectural lines drawn from a distinctly Chinese sensibility. Subtlety was not part of the architecture. At the center of Pudong’s skyline stood a 1,544-foot tall structure that looked like a giant syringe or a rocket ship on steroids. It’s 2 1/2 times taller that the Space Needle and much bulkier. Even from the Bund, on the other side of the river, it loomed monstrously large. The predominant color was purple.

It’s called the Oriental Pearl television tower, and if you wanted, you could rent a room for a night inside one of its immense globules. It was basically a big TV antenna designed secondarily as a tourist attraction. Not far from the tower stood the world’s tallest hotel, the 1,388-foot, 88-story Jin Mao Building, finished last year. It appeared like a towering pagoda. Nearby, crews worked round-the-clock on the foundation for what was planned to be the world’s tallest office building, the 94-story Shanghai World Financial Center. It will stand eye to eye with the TV tower.

You get the picture. Shanghai was thinking big and aiming high. The skyline matched Shanghai’s goal for itself. Pudong has been called the most ambitious construction project in history. The goal was to build the equivalent — in skyline, in economic power — of a Manhattan within 20 years. The project started in 1990. It’s halfway there. And it’s no coincidence Pudong directly faced the Bund. In the way that the Bund, the graying symbol of Western power, used to dwarf the rest of the city, Pudong now dwarfed the Bund.

On my walk back to the hotel later that night, the crowd had dramatically thinned. I saw no sign of the pimp or the petrified man. The hookers seemed to have disappeared too. In fact, by 10:30 p.m., a lot of Nanjing Dong Lu appeared shut down. The wall of neon, though, never turned off. It flashed all night, coloring the scant dreams of eels and rockets that visited me during my stay. I never got a full night’s sleep here. The next morning over breakfast, my guide asked: “Were you molested last night?” I told him no, but I still had two nights to go.