Saturday 10th March
“The train to Shanghai will be leaving in no time,”
announces the station tannoy in perfect Chinglish. Despite my raging hangover, I fall about laughing with Bruce at the beautiful butchery Chinese people make of English grammar. But there’s simply no time.
Fifteen carriages of sleek chrome arrive and we find a seat. Within minutes, a speedometer tells me we are travelling at 300 km/hour, but this is clearly a lie as the landscape of warehouses and squat shacks is passing by in a dreamy meander. And yet, 45 minutes later we have travelled the epic 120 miles to the largest city in the world.
A 4 Star hotel in the megatropolis? Don’t mind if I do! It is the poshest hotel I’ve ever been in; there’s a grand piano in the reception; the room has a chaise long, and there’s a giant gold bull outside.
China can be summed up by two sights on the way to the hotel.
In the subway, we came across new recruits going through their pledge of allegiance. Although just lowly train drivers or ticket inspectors, they had the seriousness of high-ranking officers responsible for the upkeep of their nation. I was scared I was going have my camera confiscated.
We also saw the goldest car in the world on our taxi ride to the hotel. It’s like the Communist obsession with public displays of power and devotion has been combined with capitalist greed to create a super-society of gloriously tasteless moneymakers.
Gold cars make sense when you consider that the currency on Mainland China is the Renminbi, which comes out sounding like R’n’B. I like the idea of paying in black pop. 50 J-Los? 75 R Kelly’s? Too pricey! (And then to add to the illusion, Harvey and I ‘Cruz’ through a town called Tai O on Lamau Island. Taio Cruz, geddit!)
BreeDee’s double bed is sumptuous, but there’s been a mistake and the extra beautiful bed they ordered for me is missing; Fifteen minutes later a creaky foldout single bed arrives. Luxury.
Tonight’s schedule involves Paranormal Activity 2 and a meal out, and my bed faces the hotel door and it’s mini hallway of shadowy cabinets and mirrors.
I am going to have to rearrange the furniture to keep the demons out.
If I can use the chaise long to block my view of the door, I can put the bed sideways so that it faces BreeDee’s. My childhood obsession with Three Billy Goats Gruff is proving useful- I can direct the monster to two far more juicy bodies if necessary.
“What are you doing?” asks Bruce
“Oh, just a little feng shui” I reply innocently
“No. I’m scared.”
When I am satisfied that I have protected myself as much as possible, we head out to the Bund, the waterfront where giant buildings glow with 100 foot screens.
In a side street, we find The Best Shop in the World™. It’s a kitsch goldmine of useless crap at bargain prices. It is here that I find the best thing I have ever read; the blurb written on a pack of girlie cards that is so lost in translation it blows my tiny mind. There are NO typos in this:
“They are young (mostly just turned 20 years old), tender was drawn like a pinch of water; their ignorance (at least seemingly ignorant), the eyes, not too much sophistication; their beauty, like the upside down like a summer rose beings; their fear, even a little dress still confident of exposure. They are so invincible youth, smile blossoming, not to mention a man, and she can not help but read and reread.
Not every man is willing to prison high above the intellectual Mature, nor patience to listen to all young women crooning shallow art songs, stepmother face, office facial, all sidelined.
The greatest feature of the contemporary human will, just do not like to live so hard, because life itself was tired. In fact, although the generation of soft mode does not seem so “mainstream”, all the women around me also admitted that, I hope he can grow into (or at least turned it into an … …) Angelababy it, of course, no one would mind their own to keep forever faces of the children! Yes, youth is always an turbulent forces do not want to admit is not OK. Soft-mode wave struck, is irresistible.”
After reading it and re-reading it, Bruce and I cry with laughter so hard that pity and then concern flashed across the faces of the shop assistants.
“Stepmother face” repeats Bruce at regular intervals, and we fall about, while DeeDee looks on in frustration. Bloody children!
“Office facial- all sidelined,” the surreal sequence of images conjured up to sell pictured of girls in underwear is astonishing.
Almost unable to take any more surrealism, Bruce then found a cigarette case with Osama Bin Laden looking wistfully above the Twin Towers. Emblazoned across the middle of this folk-hero style design was the slogan;
“IMPOSSIBLE IS NOTHING”
With shaky hands I bought these contraband and downright weird goods. They are so wrong they ought not to exist. Who made them? What twisted translator was paid for their services? The mind boggles.
Which it also did when we came across a Mr Bean theme café.
“Oh they have them all over China” says Bruce nonchalantly,
“They love him
“WTF!?” I’m sorry, but of all the things to export from British culture, they choose this? Even out of all Rowan Atkinson’s output, this a poor choice. But then I realise that Mr Bean never actually speaks, he just dithers and mumbles like a confused otter. You don’t need to understand English to understand him. Laughing at him is a different matter; why not Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton or Harold Lloyd who are actually funny? Lost in translation again I guess.
There are street BBQs everywhere in China. We pick one near the Indie Club we are trying to find. As I eat the lamb and spiced bread, a gaggle of drunk teenagers run past. Unlike British yoofs, they giggle and play like dyspraxic children.
A teen lesbian couple walk past, one in pyjamas, the other in a floor length coat. They are so cool and cute and fascinating that I want to run away with them, but I am about 2 feet taller and 2 times as old and not cute at all so it would never work out. Oh well; I sneak into a shop and take a crafty photo.
The Indie Club is packed with Westerners and here we encounter our first bad vibes; a tank topped nonce struts around and tries to provoke Bruce. I get a funny feeling, and then realise it’s that feeling of fight or flight I have all the time back in Sheffield, when you have to prepare yourself for some act of violence before it is acted out on you. For all their blatant curiosity, Chinese people have never felt like threats to my safety.
“This is why I never want to live in the UK again” spits Bruce, “What’s the point of feeling like this all the time?”
We head back to the hotel feeling homesick and also relieved that we’re not at home. As DeeDee unlocks the door, I see a bellboy walking slowly down the corridor towards us and feel rising panic that perhaps he is a ghost and we must get in before he catches up; at this moment, DeeDee gasps with horror at what she sees in our room. I cry out, certain that my careful arrangement will have been moved around by malevolent Feng Shui spirits.
DeeDee laughs like an evil genius and I realise I have fallen for her tricks. Which are far from over.
As I brush my teeth, she creeps to the glass partition and is staring up at me with the terrifying look of a ghoul when I turn round.
So it’s no wonder then when I lie there staring into the dark instead of sleeping. As BreeDee’s breathing slows and they embark up the soft foothills of sleep, I wake them up by saying;
like a little child to his parents. They laugh at me but I want my mummy!
“I’m going to get into your bed if you scare me anymore” I warn.
Whatever creepy plans DeeDee had are quickly postponed for another night.
Sunday 11th March
Shanghai’s Old Town looks the same as it did in Indiana Jones’ day. Unfortunately as he is fictional, so is Club Obi Wan, and the cute 40s facades are now inhabited by cheapo souvenir shops.
After a hard morning’s shopping, we brunch with international go-getters Edie and Toto, who work for a high spec fashion magazine.
“Let’s set up a creative agency,” declares Toto, his enthusiasm swelling to fill the room. “We will have Party Horse as house band, and Edie as stylist”
“And me too!” I bluster in, “I’m a writer…even though I’ll be 10,000 miles away, I can still be a part of it…”
You can’t take me anywhere. As we rush to catch our train, I am still giddy from the sheer ambition of a room full of Edies and BreeDees.
“Let’s call ourselves the Shanghai Flyers” I muse. We can get satin baseball jackets with our logo on the back like the Pink Ladies of pan-cultural enterprise.
As always, my daydreams come at the expense of real problems. The alleged 15 min taxi drive back to the station takes 45 mins, and we miss our train.
Chinese people are the biggest queuers in the world. They are also the biggest queue jumpers. The lines I saw at the train station ticket offices filled me with horror and reminded me of rationing scenes from war photographs. After enduring 30 minutes in one queue, watching brazen chancers edge down to the front and butt in with little resistance, we are told that we are in the wrong queue to change our ticket.
“Right” says Bruce conspiratorially, “We’re not going to let anyone push in this time, ok?”
We make a pact.
We glare around us, daring someone to do it. An old gentleman squeezes down to the front, but is refused entry. He spits a massive globule of phlegm on the marble floor and stalks away. We pump the air in triumph.
Another guy edges forward.
DeeDee looms over him and prods his shoulder. He looks around in self-righteousness as she points behind her at the queue. Unfortunately, it turns out he is with someone in the queue. As we reach the front, another chap comes and leans over the counter, talking over DeeDee to the cashier. We shove ourselves in the way but he continues to talk through the mic.
“Put your hand over the speaker!” I say with a flash of moral indignation, and Bruce obliges. The gent is not even put off then. He continues to gesture and talk through the glass. Finally, DeeDee has our tickets and we leave him to his own devices. Fail!
“Right, when we get to the taxi queue in Hangzhou, we are going straight to the front” says Bruce, his dander up.
And we do. With fake nonchalance, we push to the front, but I am bringing up the rear and can feel daggers in my back. I am too scared to look round, but finally we have a cab and we are running and jumping into it and speeding back home.
Hangzhou is many things all rolled into one; innocent and yet brutal; cute but grotesque; principled yet dog-eat-dog.
On my last night, we visited AJ in his club. It’s a renovated warehouse with a cargo-rail in the middle that bands play on. He was skyping his girlf when we came in, she is studying in London and had dumped him for 4 days during which the extent of his rebellion was to scrawl “No Girlfriend” over a cutout of semi-naked fashion models. How sweet.
The toilets had urinals made of old pipes. Amazing, but impractical as it looked and smelt like there was no way to flush the wee away. How nasty.
While Claudia, DeeDee and AJ taxied it to the restaurant, Bruce and I took a white-knuckle tuk-tuk ride through the city streets. We were all dog-tired which made the surreal meal that followed even harder to comprehend. Here again, you are expected to cook your won food, and I had the humiliation of asking for a special ‘not’ hot-pot to cook my food in. Yes, yes, I’m a wuss.
The problem with this cooking was that all the food shrivelled into nothingness after a few mins in the broth, so when you tried to get it out there was nothing really to get.
As we tweezered AJ’s eel tails into the pot with chopsticks one came to life, writhing in its dish and making me, DeeDee and Claudia scream like girls. Luckily, they were girls. We never really recovered from this horror, and soon after retired to bed.
And finally, a decent night’s sleep under the watchful eye of Popo who seems to have grown used to the smelly giant on the airbed.
Monday 12th March
Up at 6am to catch the 08.00 plane back to Hong Kong. I meet Harvey at Starbucks again in the airport; this reviled coffee shop has become my one stable point of reference in an unfamiliar world.
After 5 days in Hangzhou, I have finally mastered the right way to say ‘Goodbye’ in Mandarin, only to realise that no-one understands me because they all speak Cantonese in the Hong Kong. Typical.
Today Harvey is showing me around Lantau Island, where the airport is situated. We bus it to the Big Buddha at Po Lin, and order coffee from a woman in a swastika apron (yes I know it’s reversed and means Good Luck over here, but it’s still shocking!).
“Go To Big Buddha” orders a sign, alright, we’re trying but there’s 100 steps up there and it’s so smoggy you can hardly see the damn thing.
There are wild water buffalo here (“Don’t forget to enjoy their presence!” a sign encourages. Their presence! Almost right, but so wrong…)
and incense sticks the size of me;
And a sign that says I’m a long, long way from home!”
Get me out of here!
Then on to a small coastal town, where cats queue in the post office;
and chrome shacks look out like retro jewellery over the South China Sea, and a market sells freeze-dried aliens
I am knackered, but Harvey is an inhuman freak who runs marathons and sails Dragonboats and rips apart puny humans like me with his bare hands. His tales invariable involve a ridiculous situation that he “somehow” ended up in; being half sucked into bogs, being chased by warthogs, wearing a purple wig and wolf mask to Cambridge University lectures. For a genius, Harvey is a damn fool.
We walk across a mangrovey beach where stands a lonely art deco lifeguard station, where a Poirot-era Baywatch could be filmed (slo-mo longjohns)
Round a deserted fishing port, ending up in a Turkish restaurant where a stroppy longhaired teenager seethes as his dad chats away to another barrel-chested ex pat. Harvey the alcoholic is plying me with beer again, and I am dog-tired, tired of the constant stimulus and adrenaline of being somewhere utterly unfamiliar.
Tuesday 13th March: 00:35am
The flight home is uneventful; I watch Submarine and Warrior because Esther will never let me watch them at home; I have the luxury of a whole row to myself on Emirates Airbus no. 2 and lie down full length for a nap the duration of Eastern Europe.
The rest is sketchy; all I remember is an obtuse Manchester Airport train bloke making me pay for a ticket to Piccadilly.
“I’ve got a ticket for Manchester Stations. Surely Manchester Airport is a Manchester Station (you big damn fool)?”
“No sir, we’re in Cheshire”
Stomp, stomp back to the ticket booth, finally the fatty lets me past.
And finally back in Lisa’s house, Esther sobs noisily on my shoulder for a full minute while I look on with the emotional range of a zombie. I need to sleep until I’m in the right timezone.