Tall Tales From A Trip To Shanghai

In Search Of The Waving Cat

Now. I have nearly arrived in Shanghai, China (not that I am a big fan of such ideas but it does feel like my body is here but my soul is in lag somewhere over Tibet).
I am here in search of the Waving Cat.
I know I must take a Forever bicycle to find him.
I have already seen several models in the street but they are all too rusty.
I must use guile and cunning to track that cat down and to find the bicycle to get to the place where he is hiding. The trouble is the only Chinese I can remember is Tsing Toa – This Shit Is No Good Try Another One. Where to begin? Where oh where to begin?

Better City, Better Life

Being a foreigner in a big city, every stroll, every step reveals something, a new thought, a new connection, a new idea. Every moment is an adventure.
I go to the hotel gym and run nowhere for half an hour. Uphill or flat (it doesn’t do down), always staring at a screen, listening to the bleeps of monitors and measurers and the grunts and sighs of the heavy weight lifters.
Then, I walk down Century Avenue and encounter the community: the old ladies dancing a waltz to the sound emanating from speakers placed in the street by a man on a bicycle; the old man stretching his leg in, it has to be said, a most impressive manner, on a bin; others practicing their Tai Chi moves on the pavement.
This feels so much more sensible, satisfying and sustainable than the regulated, measured, controlled, repetitive gyrations in the gymnasium up above. How much cheaper, how much better, how much more real and beautiful.

The Martini that won the 1951 Martini competition in Chicago

Of course a story with a title like The Martini that won the 1951 Martini competition in Chicago has to end up in a nightclub called Mint where we are promised Lady Gaga and Lewis Hamilton and our own private table and get western girls dressed as geishas, bad electro house played on a soundsystem with no bass and a warm beer at the bar.
But before that there is the small matter of the Martini, served just-so for the past 50 years.

Up in the lift at M on the Bund there is a bar called the Glamour Bar. It’s owned by an Australian and seems to be full of the mix of global travelers and tourists that we have become part of for the duration of this trip. Andrew and I peruse the cocktail menu and both of us stop in the same place. The Martini that won the 1951 Martini competition in Chicago, I must have one of those, we both shout, in unison. But I’ll have The Martini that won the 1951 Martini competition in Chicago with a twist, vodka instead of Gin, adds Andrew. I concur, I say, playing with the complimentary matches as Pete begins a destruction of the candle that continues for the rest of our stay.
The drinks arrive, are delicious, despite the addition of an extra, and frankly quite unnecessary, olive to the requisite two. The drinks are despatched a little too hastily and, without breaking step, my one cocktail rule is broken. I know I will regret this in the morning.
Here, in case you are interested, is the recipe for this the classic version of this president of the republic of cocktails:
1/2 oz Dry Vermouth, 2 oz Gin, 2 t Cointreau (to wash the glass), 2 anchovy-stuffed olives.

Duck Blood in Stinky Sauce

When you are a foreigner in Shanghai with no grasp of the language and everything is an adventure, ordering some noodles, eating some noodles, all small challenges become mountains, each small progression a historic victory. Colours are brighter, more vibrant, sounds become symphonies, a humble bin turns into a great work of art.
If I had unlimited resources I could keep travelling like this forever, on and on, round and round the world. I wonder how long before I forgot who I was or where I came from? I wonder how long before I tired of hopping time zones and longed for stability, stasis? I wonder how long before the international date line turned from a dream in the mid ocean to an everyday? I wonder how a long till all I really wanted was a local vegetable shop and my own bicycle?

Is it anything being an observer of small details? Is it important to anyone that a picture of a bicycle leaned up against the wall in the French Concession in Shanghai appears in a blog posted online from a first floor flat in south London?
Can I capture the beauty of the dappled spring sunlight in a wall in the International Settlement? The pleasure shared in watching a game of Mahjong on a street corner? Does it mean anything? Does it matter?
Only, I suppose, because this is living. Life. Sharing, beauty, joy. These tiny fragments are the stuff of life, it’s fabric, and finding pleasure in these small things makes life worth living, worth savouring. I want nothing more than to keep finding these things and to keep sharing them with you.


And then there’s the gig, the reason we are here, of course, not the big reason we are here reason we are here but the reason that I am in Shanghai. The reveal of the 21st Century Beetle, with new shape, new styling, masculine, iconic, authentic.
Dr Hackenberg explains all this in his speech, in great detail, in German, as we listen on headphones with convenient translation, nibble on canapes and sip sparkling water.
We play music, Pete and I, building up to this moment, and it feels good, us in our bomber jackets, playing for the suits and the journos.
And afterwards we admire the new car and play in the old one, that just happens to be Herbie, star of the 70s movies of the same name. And I get shot in the driving seat, feeling special for no special reason.

Tourist Culture

I am on the Bund, shooting the skyline. The last time I was here, in 2006, I did the same thing. Now I have the same picture again, on a different day. Last time I thought – I must take it, it is beautiful and I may never return. Last time I held the camera at arms length to get myself in the picture to prove that I was here, to place myself at a location, to grid map myself into space and time. This time I thought the same again.
I wonder about what the point of being a tourist is. Me and all these other people, shooting the view and each other, each other and the view, to prove that we exist? In case it disappears overnight? To share it with friends and loved ones who are not here who can google the same view and not be here any time they want to? To show that we have been somewhere that other people have been? To show that we are rich enough and individual enough to travel the world to go to the most obvious place to go in the city we visit?
I don’t know, but I couldn’t help it, and I’m sure that if I ever come here again I will find myself, older and none the wiser, doing exactly the same thing again.

The former Shanghai Quality Supervision and Inspection Station of Telecommunications and Broadcasting Products

That’s what it was in the 70s, this place, somewhere in the night down a lane in the French Concession. Now it’s Surpass Court (A New Landmark of High End Shopping, Dining and Offices). Will that description sound as quaintly fascinating and out of date as it’s former title in forty years time? I’m sure it will. Landmark is already so overused it means nothing. High End translates as expensive in any language.
We are here, Duncan and I, in a roof top bar, 80s indie drifting from the wall mounted speakers. He drinking tea, me Tsing Tao, talking about Chinese security officials called Sabrina; the shocking problem of the late arrival of last year’s Xmas present-containing container ships from China; the fact that this bar will probably disappear before we next meet; the significance of the large picture of a chicken in the foyer;

how razor-sharp cool kids and bespectacled internet geeks saved a lorry load of dogs from slaughter and, somehow inevitably for people like us, house prices and the pace of change.
Last time I was here there were two metro lines, now there are nine. Compare that with London’s efforts to think about talking about finishing Crossrail before the Olympics.
We have been to a Malaysian restaurant in an old rubber band factory. He will return to his house near the elevated highway built on land now worth more that an equivalent space in central Tokyo.

Erhu (pron. Are-who)

I am in a music shop. I listen to Mr David Dai as he plays his Erhu. For a time I think it’s called a Wuha but Google puts me right. The Erhu is a Chinese violin type instrument with a bow and two strings. It tells sad tales with it’s sad melodies. Mr Davie Dai translates the sad tales into language I can understand to go with the melodies that I can simply feel. The story of a wife whose husband goes for a walk and never returns; the musician who wrote the most famous melody the Erhu has ever made but still lived in poverty for his entire life; the story of his brother who is the big boss of a steel factory in Canada who hasn’t called him for ten years. His fingers dash up and down the two cat gut strings, wringing tears from the pattern of notes. I watch him play, trying not to stare at the rip in his trousers, till his wife, convinced that there will be no sale, jingles the keys and indicates that it is closing time.
I feel so bad but I cannot buy one of these instruments. I do not have the fingers or the fortitude to make it tell it’s sad tales of love and loss, of pain and failure, of striving and death.
Tomorrow I fly away and leave Mr David on the Jingling Road with his Erhu and his ripped trousers and his troubled tales.

Bobo and Dickwad

By the way, there were no laughing cats to be had. The search was fruitless, so i got a harmonica and some shots and some stories instead. Here is the last one. it happens on VS251, Shanghai to London. I don’t normally like to talk about the travel because it is boring and by definition, mostly the same, but there is a point this time.
Because here I am in seat 64H, at the very back of the bus. To my right sits Bobo, the super-bright Chinese student. He is studying English with special emphasis on engineering terms, at Oxford. He’s young, articulate, cool and he has the most perfect angular hair I have ever seen.
To my right is Dickwad (not his real name, but one of the many things he called me). He is offensive, homophobic, racist, alcoholic and fat. He drinks too much, burbles, mumbles abuse at anyone within earshot (but mostly me) and generally deserves, to put it polite, a good kicking.
It makes for an interesting journey. To my right, if things go to plan, the future for China, vibrant, intelligent, eager, interesting; to my left, if we leave things as they are, the future for Britain, fat, dying, ugly, brutal, stupid, ridiculous, sad, useless and drunk.
And exactly who will be buying the waving cats from whom then?