Shanghai’d!

I’m in the midst of writing about my Hari Raya Haji holiday to Penang but was shanghai’d by friend Mrs T’s email concerning her week’s stay in Shanghai, which like New York and London, is indentification enough on its own, without one having to add China any more.

Let me reproduce Mrs T’s breathless enthusiasm is infectious.

“Just returned last night from a week in Shanghai,” she wrote. “Had not been there since early 90s and it was a culture shock! Had heard a lot about how much it had  developed  over the years but still I was amazed by its transformation.

“City is just bursting with life and seems even more vibrant than HK. If anyone wants to forget there is a global recession, then just be in the thick of Shanghai Nanjing Lu or at the stations on Sat night. 

“The shoppers and diners seem to be their own people and they must be quite affluent. Some of the fashionably dressed young ladies one sees walking along the road could be those one sees in Tokyo or NY.”

Oh wow, and Mrs T isn’t someone to gush! More about her here and here… which means she really was ‘wowed’!

Which reminds me of my 3rd visit to Shanghai in 2006 which made me think that if push came to shove, it needn’t be Hobson’s choice to retire to Shanghai.

I reproduce that account, tho the cost numbers have to be read with the awareness that prices, like everywhere else, have increased a fair bit since the article was written. But of course still nowhere near London or Zurich levels…

nanjing lu

nanjing lu

My account dated June 22, 2006:

It was Friday night and after a heavy April downpour in the early evening, half the city’s younger inhabitants were out and about, determined to grab as much as possible of what remains of the start of another week-end.

There I was in the crush to get into a train in the Metro that was reached from the basement link below Raffles City. I barely managed to squeeze myself onboard before the doors shut.

To my surprise, a young woman with two bags of shopping at her feet got up and offered me her seat.  There I was in Shanghai, a city of 16 going on for 20 million people, on a Friday night and I was offered a seat! The first time I was inside a Chinese underground train!

It has never happened to me in Singapore and I’ve travelled on the MRT countless times since it was launched in 1987.

Overwhelmed, I stuttered in fractured Mandarin that I wasn’t that old (even though I was dumpily dressed in my casual holiday worst), I was getting off at Huangpi Nan Lu the next stop and thanks, I could stand, really, really, nodding and smiling my gratitude all the while.

unusual moment

SHG Metro: unusual moment

It was there and then that I thought it won’t be a bad idea to retire to Shanghai. It was a thought that was incredible just a few years ago. Certainly, when I was very young, any suggestion of spending time, let alone my twilight years, in China was as good as suggesting a stint in purgatory or worse.

But now, the question is not “why” but “why not”? After all, our forebears had come to Nanyang from China to seek a fortune and then returned to their motherland to die in comfort, supported by the money they had made.

The toll of war, communism and the excesses stemming from the political and ideological struggles that followed put paid to most of those dreams, though I know the grandfather of one prominent Singapore civil servant actually went back to Hainan to die – as recently as the 1970s.

I had thought then the rented room the grandfather lived in in Middle Road, however drab and lonely, was far preferable to far off China but I was very young at that time and really had no inkling what the old thought or felt. Perhaps I still don’t.

What I know is that in the 60s and 70s, the British super rich went to Switzerland to live to escape taxes while penny-pinching British pensioners went to Spain for the sunshine, sangria and to stretch their sterling.

What I know now is that the cost of living has become a strong persuasion for me to contemplate life in China. The savings accumulated  thanks to Singapore’s immense progress over my working life has made it possible to entertain such thoughts.

While I never bitch about the high costs in Singapore because I’m a strong believer in cutting my coat according to my cloth, I always have an eye for a good bargain. In Shanghai, I reckon, I can enjoy the same standard of living as in Singapore at half the price or less. Or live twice as long and comfortably on the same amount of savings.

A part-time maid in Shanghai costs 8 yuan an hour compared to S$10 in Singapore. For live-in help, the cost in Singapore and potential problems are far higher.

In Shanghai, cabs are plentiful and the sifu – as taxi drivers are called there – honest. Once when I queried a route taken, the driver immediately replied I was to pay what I normally paid, whatever the meter showed. He wasn’t peeved, only trying to allay any suspicions I might have he was taking me for a ride.

Taxi fares are 10 yuan for the first three km versus $2.40 in Singapore for the first km. (Cab fares have gone up about 10 per cent in May in China but are still very reasonable by Singapore standards).

Other public transport – buses, trams and the Metro – is cheaper still, though I don’t know whether they are efficient, as I used only the Metro.

An unfurnished three-bedroom flat in security-guarded new condominiums in Puxi, located conveniently a few minutes’ walk from the main shopping streets of Huaihai Lu and Nanjing Lu, can be rented for 5,000 yuan a month. I won’t get anything similarly priced in Singapore, if I were planning to live next to Orchard Road.

view from my window

view from my window

Food and drinks are inexpensive, even in restaurants, so long as one limits visits to five or six star establishments to special occasions. But then, I don’t do that regularly in Singapore so why should I change my spending habits when in Shanghai? Not enjoying fine dining shouldn’t be a sacrifice at all.

For my April visit, three of us spent under S$300 for meals during our entire stay—and this was at places where there was waiter service. Every meal saw us eating meat, fish and plentiful fresh vegetables cooked in different Chinese regional styles, all washed down with the ubiquitous Chinese tea and Tsingtao beer.

Tipping isn’t expected and in fact on the few occasions we decided to leave the change, it was politely returned to us, not because it was considered too small but because, as the waitress or waiter would explain with a shy smile, it wasn’t necessary.

By contrast, on my first week-end back to Singapore, I was taken to dinner at a classy restaurant on Sentosa where the bill set my hostess back by the same amount that was spent in Shanghai for food over six days! And the service didn’t even match what I got in Shanghai.

For those who enjoy a little tipple, Shanghai’s supermarkets will make them think they have entered a duty free paradise. Local beers have always been cheaper than imported soft drinks but now even American and European brands are plentiful and priced as though they are duty-free. Wine is plentiful too but the labels rekindled a little of my snootiness about things Chinese. I think I’ll pass for the time being, unless drinking at the Grand Hyatt!

Polite service is encountered everywhere even in little shops in out-of-the-way lanes. At the popular, some would say notorious, Xiangyang market, the little stalls offered a level of service I’ve never encountered in Singapore — even in places which have won prizes for good service.

I bought a bag at Xiangyang. Costing all of 50 yuan, the stall-holder threw in a small make-up bag in matching fabric for free. Later, I saw that a thread in the make-up bag had snagged. I was displeased but didn’t think it worthwhile to go back to seek redress, since taxi fares to and fro would cost 20 yuan!

Unexpectedly, a couple of days later, I found myself in the Xiangyang neighbourhood and decided to tell the stall holder about her “gift”. She remembered our transaction and replaced the imperfect bag with a new one, even though I didn’t have it on me to support my complaint or to make it a one-for-one exchange. “Mei kwan si,” she said, the smile never leaving her face.

alas, xiang yang no more

alas, xiang yang no more

In Singapore, whenever I complain about a purchase, I have to bring along the receipt and the reception from the sales people would be frosty at best. I am always made to feel I am somehow to blame for not examining the merchandise closely before plonking down my money. Not in so many words but the body language screams the message.

Of course Xiangyang isn’t a store or even upmarket but therein is the rub. In Shanghai, one may pay peanuts but it isn’t monkey treatment one gets!

In the 1980s, the Adam Smith’s Money World TV programme did a show on Singapore and the host extolled the island city’s progress with the words “the taps work, the lights work and the phone works”. Two decades later, I can say the same of Shanghai without hesitation.

Even the dreaded language gap for an English-educated Singaporean like me has narrowed to the extent that my macabre Mandarin allowed me to navigate Shanghai on my own, with no mishap. This was thanks to the fact that English signs were found where they mattered and the service people managed at least a couple of English words.

With cheap air fares, a flight time of four-and-a-half hours and no time difference from Singapore, Shanghai beckons me strongly — if not as a place to live till death, then certainly as a place to live while one is alive enough to enjoy the good things of life.

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