What is it with cities and neon lights?
Are they candles drawing people in from the surrounding countryside? Is it a competition to see who can dazzle the greater number of people? Is there something about city living that has to be bigger, brighter and more exciting then anything else?
These were all thoughts that crowded my dazzled brain when I viewed "Nanking Road" at night. The sheer exuberance and nightly light show were my favourite thing to do in Shanghai. And a nightly wander from 'The Bund' to Renmin Square was like traversing an oriental Las Vegas. Each building was covered in 10ft high Chinese characters moving and pulsating in a myriad of colours. Crowds rush too and thro and lasers light up one end of the street to the other. And all this in Communist China? The China of "the great helmsman" and "the little red book". You have to pinch yourself that it is real.
And the Nanking Road is certainly real. Called "Bubbling Well Road" during colonial times this was where the taipanssent their wives to shop in pre-revoloutionary Shanghai. Shop after shop selled silks, satins, silver, jewels, jades, furs, linens and lingerie. At the end of the road was the Shanghai Race Club where they used to import Mongolian ponies to race. But it was the streets off Nanjing Lu which had the fiercest reputation. My street, Sichuan Dhonglu, was known as "Blood Alley" where there was easy pickings to be had from the drunks, sailors, soldiers and debauchees who lurched there in search of the joys of Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese and White Russian women. This was all cleaned up by Mao and his "Red Guards. But capitalism has returned to Shanghai in a strange chimera-like hybrid. And nowadays, especially if you are a foreigner, you will be approached at night by ladies offering the "same experience". The entrepeneurial spirit is back with a vengeance in Shanghai.
Nanjing Lu is abit more calm during the daylight hours. It begins along 'The Bund' waterfront between 'The Peace' and 'Cathay' hotels. These are two quite beautiful art deco treasures with windows overlooking the street. Numerous restaurants and bars dot this part of Nanjing Lu but as you move west the pavements become quite narrow and you may be forced off into the traffic or through a gauntlet of flyer-givers who hang out around the electronic shops. . Forming their own little area are the cut-price electronic shops where "China-made" cameras wink back at you for ridiculous prices. There are also a number of tailors vying for custom - most of them specialising in copies. I personally liked Silk King which despite being state-owned is literally covered in boles of silk. According to the pamphlet I borrowed prices start at 1,000 yuan and up.
A few blocks west and Xiaming Lu bisects Nanjing Lu. After that the street becomes pedestrianised and either side buildings begin to soar. Money has been spent on this part and skyscrapers of chrome and glass become apparent. They are matched with marble and steel face-lifts given to early 20th century buildings. This is also the part of the mega-stores ie McDonalds, HMV, Starbucks and a massive mall called Plaza 66 where I observed Prada, Fendi and Louis Vuitton arranged around a vast atrium. This is where the crowds get very heavy and there is even a small toy train trundles up and down watched by pensioners on benches.Westerners are also spied by hawkers who rush up trying to sell watches or bags. Don't be fooled after a while they will try and sell you girls not to mention drugs. A polite "no thank you" usually does the trick. I was told that losing your temper with them means you have lost "face".
After that even more money has been spent in a profusion of shiny buildings leading up to the subway station at Renmin Park. Before that is an open area covered in marble and a huge plasma screen. Here surrealistic statues abound and the crowds continue up to Renmin "Peoples" Park. This was where the Maoist parades used to take place in Shanghai. Nowadays it is surrounded by skyscrapers, modern art and plasma advertisements.
I found a little Mao memorabilia off Nanjing Lu. I passed on the Mao alarm clocks and went for a keyring with the great dictators face on it. I have it with me now to remind me of Shanghai.
Ah, Mem-Mao-ries are made of this...