‘Don’t cry, Shanghai’: Thousands mourn at site of high-rise fire

Crowds pour in towards the scene of last week's fire

Thousands of mourners gathered today at the site of last week’s deadly fire in Shanghai, which claimed 58 lives and injured more than 70.

The 28-storey apartment block in Shanghai’s Jing’an district was undergoing renovations when welding sparks caused the scaffolding to catch fire on Monday afternoon. Flames quickly engulfed the building, and rescue teams said much of the construction material was also highly flammable, hindering efforts to contain the blaze.

Four unlicensed welders who, according to Shanghai police, were illegally welding on the 10th floor of the high-rise, have been detained, with public security minister Meng Jianzhu calling for a full inquiry into the reasons for the tragedy. Illegal sub-contracting and poor government supervision have already been blamed.

I went along to the scene this afternoon. As I exited Changping Lu metro station, not known for being one of Shanghai’s busier stops, the atmosphere was almost one of excitement: something was happening. I was met by a crowd of hundreds laying flowers and writing on posters to commemorate those who had perished seven days ago.

I followed the endless crowd and hit Jiaozhou Lu, the street the high-rise is located on. Police calmly managed the mourners, who could only enter the cordoned-off street with the commemorative items, such as flowers and golden ribbons, that were being handed out. Scattered throughout the sea of people were yellow and lavender chrysanthemums, and monochrome bilingual posters that read, ‘Don’t Cry Shanghai’.

Mourners outside Changping Lu metro station

One of the many bilingual posters found at the scene

The crowd visibly thickened as it continued down the street and approached the building. People stopped in their thousands to pay respects and photograph the blackened remains of the apartment block. A charred, haunting smell penetrated throughout the damp autumn air.

Today's crowd approaching Jiaozhou Lu

The 28-storey apartment block post-fire

At the crossroads with Yuyao Lu the police presence was larger, with authorities cordoning off one side of the street for a lengthy crowd to lead what seemed like a procession. There was no queue jumping (…yet), everyone did as they were told: they continued walking down the street and joined the line at its eventual end.

I carried on following the crowd, which swelled up as the afternoon progressed. By around 3.30pm, more policemen arrived to manage mourners. Authorities seemed on-edge: a uniform look of fear marked their faces as they anticipated unrest or disorder. But, bar the odd person jumping the queue, nothing untoward happened.

More mourners flowing in

I spoke to a few people at the site, and the sentiment – albeit gained from a purely random sample – was unanimous: this was an event to commemorate the dead. A 24-year-old photographer told me it was peaceful, there was no danger; it was simply a Sunday afternoon remembering those who had perished. This was certainly the vibe that rippled throughout the dense crowd.

A local journalist I spoke to added that everyone was united here, regardless of age, gender or class. But as I meandered through the sea of people, 90% of whom were speaking Shanghainese, it became very clear that this was a local tragedy and a local memorial. I, as one of the very few Westerners around, felt as though I was intruding.

As I made my way back towards the metro station, the river of mourners showed few signs of easing, as more and more arrived to pay their respects.

I bumped into some friends who were headed to the site. One of them later said that, in almost a decade in Shanghai, he had never witnessed an event of this kind.

The charred apartment block lingers in a sea of Shanghai high-rises

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[Updated] Parting thoughts on the Shanghai Expo

Note: this post has been amended. The original version included a paragraph towards the end in which I stated, “I was left wondering why so much was doled out on constructing a pavilion that legally cannot be eclipsed by any other, which could have otherwise gone to more pressing demands of healthcare or education.” While I still stand by that assertion, a commenter pointed out the statement was misplaced in the context of the post. I agreed with him, and it’s been removed.

Despite its name, this blog has produced next to no coverage of the event that, it could be argued, defined Shanghai this year: the 2010 World Expo. Why? For one, I was out of the city during the height of the event and, by the time I had returned, it was obvious that two good gentlemen had it brilliantly covered: Shanghai Scrap’s Adam Minter and DeluxZilla’s Zachary Franklin provided news from inside the pavilions, details of the length of the queues and what visiting European dignitaries had to say, and everything else in between, from behind-the-scenes nepotism at the construction of the US Pavilion, to where to take a good nap in the scorching summer heat. So, I decided my two cents would take the form of these parting thoughts, and here they are.

Hot off the heels of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, which aimed to bring China to the global stage, the extravagant Expo sought to bring the global stage to China. Over the past six months, official figures estimated that over 70 million visitors flocked to the 5.28 square kilometre area housing national, corporate and theme-inspired pavilions, split into two and strewn across the banks of the Huangpu River. That’s the entire population of the UK plus an extra 10 million, in an area more or less the size of New York’s Central Park. Last Sunday alone, 1.3 million people crammed themselves in to the national pavilion side, slamming Osaka’s daily record of 836,000 visitors in 1970.

And not for nothing, either. An estimated $55 billion – double the amount dished out on the Olympics – has been spent on the Expo and immense sprucing up of Shanghai: we have seen the lightning-speed expansion of the city’s subway system (complete with guards and x-ray machines to maintain ‘public security’), the repaving of just about every potholed street, and a brand-spanking new walkway on the Bund. A media campaign pushing for more ‘civilised’ behaviour and government-led programmes clamping down on wearing pyjamas outside, smoking and spitting in public, all day-to-day fare in the city, have also been set up. Perhaps more bitterly, Shanghai has also seen the demolition of several of its quaint, historical neighbourhoods.

It was during this time (September 2009) that I landed in town: the city’s clean up was my introduction to the Expo. As the infamous food street Wujiang Lu faced deconstruction to show a more sanitised Shanghai complete with glitzy malls instead, I became cynical about the price being paid for this World’s Fair. Given that the pavilions (except China’s) were also due to be torn down once the event finished, I wondered what the point of the whole thing was, without a legacy to preserve the efforts that have gone into creating it.

That lingering air of skepticism stayed with me on my few trips to the Expo. As I walked through the Italian pavilion one evening, surrounded by a display of pasta, a multitude of wine bottles, a giant high-heel plastered with other footwear, and all the while surrounded by model Renaissance architecture, I wondered where I was. This isn’t the Italy I come from or know, I thought to myself. Wandering through the Brazil pavilion, I waltzed under a football net. Hmmm. Brazil = football. I then walked beneath passing shots of Rio’s lush skyline. How big is Brazil? How much of the country looks like this? Whether or not North Korea is a “paradise for the people”, as its pavilion suggests, is also open to debate.

The entire event felt like one enormous cliche of regurgitated stereotypes. Adding to the surreal nature of it all was, for instance, the exorbitant prices charged by some pavilions’ restaurants (a set menu in the Italian pavilion’s eatery went well into the 100s of yuan range). Could the average Chinese visitor afford the food they have seen displayed on the walls of the room they have spent the last fifteen minutes circling? Probably not. They get teased but don’t get to taste.

Other foreign bloggers brushed the event aside. ChinaGeeks‘ C. Custer said

The idea of a “World’s Fair” was understandably appealing in the 1800s, when it served as an important exchange point for technology, and its appeal continued in the twentieth century because of the peerless opportunity it provided to get a glimpse of lots of other cultures all in one place. Unfortunately, in the twentieth century, we have the internet for that. Many countries seem to be treating the Expo as a soft-power branding opportunity, and some countries are just phoning it in. But what seems to be missing from all this is why any regular person would really want to go. I’ve read far more coverage of the Expo than any average foreigner would be willing to, and it still seems like a collection of overly-stylized buildings containing vaguely interactive tourism advertisements. Why would I want to stand in line for hours for that?

Although I’m unsure of what he means by “any regular person”, Custer’s final sentence summed up my sentiments as my uber-enthusiastic flatmate dragged me, the poster child for a moaning Briton, around Zones B and C one balmy September evening. I strolled past the Russia pavilion at around 7pm: the estimated waiting time was still around 3 hours long. Uninspired by the prospect of waiting 3+ hours just to gaze at what I could only expect would be a cut-out of St Basil’s cathedral, I moved on.

But as the evening went on, my cynicism wore off. I realised, yes, the Expo is pure, unadulterated nation-branding. And yes, that entails re-hashing stereotypes, which, as a privileged and reasonably well-travelled foreigner, I am able to spot. But for the millions of Chinese who have travelled far and wide and spent hours trudging across the Expo site, I doubt the issue of stereotypes is of great concern. In the words of Minter,

Could it be, just possibly, that all of those people are curious to know something about a country capable of spending (reportedly) well over $100 million on a pavilion, and lacking the opportunity to travel there themselves (unlike most Expo critics in the foreign media), are taking the only route available to them?

An Expo sympathiser, Minter has lamented the patchy coverage of the event given by China’s community of foreign correspondents. What motivated the Chinese, in their millions, to keep returning to the site, was a missed opportunity for a story, he argues. Earlier this week, he posted an interview with Malcolm Moore, the Daily Telegraph‘s Shanghai correspondent and undeterred Expo critic. Minter asked him whether Telegraph readers and editors back in the UK were interested in the event, to which Moore responded:

There was no interest. We had a senior editor come over, but he was pretty bored by it all. It was a distinctly unimaginative, uncreative, uninteresting event. Let’s face it, everyone loves sport, so everyone loves the Olympics. But what excitement was there at the Expo over the six months it ran? I must have asked fifty people who paid for tickets and queued up what their impression of it was, and around 95 per cent of them simply shrugged their shoulders and said it was “alright”.

While demand in the West for all things Expo may have been low, it seems the Shanghainese can’t get enough of it. Xinhua reported that surveys conducted by Shanghai-based Touchmedia through touch-screens installed in the backs of taxi headrests, around 60 percent of passengers among the 130,000 surveyed expect another Expo in the Middle Kingdom.

For all its quirky stereotypes, insane crowds (complete with sly folk jumping queues), overpriced refreshments and hasty demolition of some of Shanghai’s more beautiful spots, it’s undeniable that the Expo has been a defining feature in the city’s development and China’s growth more widely. It has seen the Middle Kingdom reach out to the rest of the world far more, and bring those nations, albeit in limited terms, to its own people. It set out to be the victory lap for 2008’s coming out party, and some are optimistic that it achieved this goal. Speaking to Adam Minter, Zachary Franklin said,

You’re not going to find a single pavilion at this Expo walk away saying they failed. Every pavilion had some measure of success. Some pavilions wanted visitors going home knowing where the country was located on the map, other pavilions created extensive cultural and business programs for six months.

So it is goodbye to the Expo, a farewell I am saying from the comfort of my flat, rather than among the millions of visitors who beat me to the punch in securing tickets for the final day. Thank Christ the sun’s out.

The Shanghai and Rio spring cleans

No more of these to be sold on Ipanema?

It seems it’s not just Wujiang Lu and Shanghai’s historic houses that are suffering a severe shake up, or, in many cases, total demolition. In hastily tidying up the city for the 2016 Olympics, Rio de Janeiro’s beaches are also subject to spring clean at the hands of mayor Eduardo Paes’ “Shock Order” programme, the New York Times reported today.

The Times’ Alexei Barrionuevo said,

Citing health reasons, the mayor has outlawed the sale of boiled corn and freshly cooked foods like steak and shrimp on the sand. And for still less obvious safety reasons, beachgoers are prohibited from playing paddle ball or kicking a soccer ball near the water’s edge between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. Pets at the beach? Forget about it.

In the program’s first month, city officials confiscated 2,375 items on the beaches, including portable grills, drinks, push carts, clothes and cooking utensils. Shock Order agents also arrested 62 people over the past two weekends for not availing themselves of the 4,000 chemical toilets that have been set up around the city for Carnaval — twice as many as last year.

For anyone who has hit Rio’s beaches, it’s hard to imagine them without the array of clothing, food and drinks vendors selling everything from towels to skirts, pastries to shrimp, freshly-made caipirinhas to huge coconuts. But it’s not all bad news, as Barrionuevo reminds us: “In the case of maté, a Brazilian iced tea sold by vendors shouldering small metal kegs, the reaction proved too strong and a ban was relaxed.”

The results appear to be mixed: while the jobs of these vendors are clearly at risk, many of Rio’s residents are welcoming the change and asking it be extended beyond Avenida Atlantica to their own neighbourhoods. Unlike in China, then, it seems these attempts at a clean up aren’t based simply on ‘sanitary’ aesthetics.

Yi dianrrrr (and sad news)

First off, a merry merry Christmas to all.

I am typing from my quaint hotel in one of Beijing’s amazing hutongs, my home for the next couple of days. Since I’ve been here, I’ve been grappling with the Beijing dialect, lost and regained feeling in my toes, zoomed around the Forbidden City with two equally frostbitten family members, gracefully sipped tea at the Lao She Teahouse and celebrated Christmas dinner with a divine Peking duck. Not too shabby.

The sharp, crisp air is a far cry from the damp smog that lingers about Shanghai, and the two cities could not feel more different. To those already familiar with China, this is no surprise; but to a newbie like me, the taking-in process is still very much in its exciting stages. Beijing has an almost eerie, mysterious feel to it; Tiananmen Square has an aura similarly strange to that of Moscow’s Red Square. Driving past hutongs and traditional buildings, I was awestruck by the culture oozing from every corner of this city. I found it to be in total contrast to the constraining pressure of Shanghai’s consumerism under which culture often feels buried.

But any excitement I had about exploring more of this amazing part of the world dampened once I learnt that Liu Xiaobo had today been sentenced to eleven years in prison. As I have written before, I uphold Liu for his voice and continued strength. Yet, irrespective of the futility of foreign pressures in calling for his release, it is a sad day for civil society in China.

I could go on at length, but I won’t. Instead, my thoughts and conclusions are perhaps best summarised in the words of Ai Weiwei:

This does not mean a meteor has fallen. This is the discovery of a star.

For a touching commentary on the topic, check out C. Custer’s post from ChinaGeeks.

我的中文好吗?

According to a highly reliable source, Chinese is the language of the future. For me, that future has not been so forseeable given my paltry Putonghua. I’ve had taxi drivers yell at me and tell me I was completely fabricating a metro station (f.y.i, Dabaishu DOES exist) and received less than friendly deadpan looks from restaurant staff when mispronouncing chǎo miàn (I meant to say fried noodles and ended up saying, well, not a bowl of oily carbs). And true, I deserved the yelling and the stares, though I’m less sympathetic towards the taxi driver who was talking absolute b******s.

Malcolm Moore is also right in that China can be an incredibly lonely place if you can’t speak the language. My mother, a languages teacher by trade, wasted no time in drumming into us that language is a sure-fire bedrock of cultural understanding. Of course, there’s the old saying of making an effort, but this is China: everything is ten times harder, ten times more intense, and ten times more likely to surprise you. The language requires more than a little effort, and it is a miserable language to learn, unless you’re fond of dire repetition. For this reason, perhaps, in Shanghai it is all too easy to fall into an expat bubble of Western bars, folk and media. There are people who’ve lived here for years with little more than xie xie under their belts.

But, for my sins, I decided the best way to spend my month off from university would be to go to boot camp. Chinese classes for one month. 5 days a week. 6 hours a day. 1 hour+ commute each way. Nice.

But the intricacies of Chinese will surely soften the bumpy road. My Hong Kong-nese flatmate told me the word ‘privacy’ is a relatively new addition to the Chinese vocabulary, due mostly to Western influences. “It’s not abnormal or wrong for a Chinese parent to listen in on their children’s phone conversations,” she told me.

Also, for instance, the words above (shàng 上) and below (xià 下) are also used in far more ways than in English (shàng 上午 literally means above noon, i.e. morning; and shàng can also be used alongside the word for class – 课 – when lessons start). Tania Branigan was also mesmerised:

Mandarin’s categories are almost as distinctive to British eyes – the measure word for trousers is the same as for dragons, but different to that for a shirt. Why? Because both are long and skinny.

There you have it. Needless to say I’m anticipating my intensive language course with an equal amount of fear and excitement.

And if I can finally decipher what our handy man keeps yelling at us on Saturday mornings, I’ll be even happier.

A foodie’s nightmare: Shanghai edition

Wujiang Lu in happier times

Food, glorious food. It’s the easiest way to my heart. I grew up in a house where eating was an institution: dinners would be loud, discursive, collective and never half-hearted. Food was to be enjoyed and savoured, not feared or dismissed.

So, unsurprisingly, one of the highlights of my last few months in Shanghai has been the divine grub the city has to offer. From the street vendors selling succulent pork buns and meat skewers to 3 kuai xiao long bao houses, the tantalising smells of the peppery frog and sweet roast duck restaurants beneath our apartment to the hairy crabs that have been delighting our icy winter, and the 6 kuai hole-in-the-wall steaming noodle places to the smoke filled restaurants filled with simple dishes and drinking games, this city has it all. Without it, I’d be a lost cause in this town.

Which is why I screamed a shrieking WTF?!! to my flatmates upon reading this on Shanghaiist earlier today. One of Shanghai’s signature food streets, Wujiang Lu, will be completely demolished and relocated into a “sanitised mall-like environment” for the Expo by Chinese New Year in February.

… (pause for roar).

Wujiang Lu is a beacon of light in central Shanghai, with its shopping malls on overdrive and barrage of Western brands at every corner. Yes, 6″ meatball subs are nice, but nothing beats a box of jiao zi for 5 kuai (although I’ve not gone through half a dumpling without the roof of my mouth being scalded) or a couple of juicy lamb skewers for 6 kuai. While there are other food streets, such as the fantastic Yunnan Lu with its steamed chicken and sesame balls aplenty, losing Wujiang Lu still cuts out a chunk of one of the city’s simplest and best offerings in a perfectly central location, both in principle and practice.

It goes without saying (but I’ll say it anyway) that Shanghai has no shortage of malls. Given a history of abject poverty, an obsession with consumerism is hardly surprising or unjust. But it is still unsettling to see hordes of crowds hang around Wujiaochang (my local) on the weekends, and the enormous queues outside Haagen Dasz and Starbucks, whilst cultural activities cost a bombshell and bookshops are few and far between. Materialism hasn’t really had the chance to mature or pace itself among the nouveau riche, but that is perfectly understandable.

The bottom line is that it’s sad that simple pleasures, like street food, have to be wiped out to make room for ‘sanitised’ consumerism ahead of the Expo. Paul French, from China Rhyming, says

it’s symptomatic of the people-unfriendly environment being constructed – a spa for the rich, a hotel for the rich, an office building for the rich suits and not even an attempt at a park!! (…) We truly do live in an age that has lost all sense of style and taste.

I guess during times like these I can be glad I live out in the sticks, on a street with a million hole-in-the-walls, each filled with several colonies of roaches, and where I’m often the only white woman sat fumbling with chopsticks. But, Christ, the niu rou mian is a dreamboat and sets me back 70p.

That’s my kinda China.