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Re: [carfree_cities] Settling down to a city in motion

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  • Jennifer Ashley
    It might be noted that the author has only been here a year; I think a lot of her generalizations aren t entirely informed, and the photo of the interior of
    Message 1 of 2 , Jul 23, 2007
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      It might be noted that the author has only been here a year; I think a lot of her generalizations aren't entirely informed, and the photo of the interior of her apartment looks like a palace. I've never seen an apartment that looks so much like what I imagine the interior of a NY apartment to look like in China. She also appears to have, from the photos, not only the oven she mentioned, but a clothes dryer. I've also seen very few ovens in homes here (and all but one have been in the homes of expats, and even then they're large toaster ovens, not the built-in style she sports). I've never seen, or even heard of, anybody having a dryer here. Like she says, some people go without electricity or plumbing. But I guess if she's paying $1,500/month she ought to be living like an emperor. She might be living in her lane, but she isn't living the local lifestyle she seems to think she is.

      I've just been watching "An Inconvenient Truth," and like Gore says, Westerners, and Americans in particular, have been the greatest contributors to environmental problems. It doesn't help matters when we decide to expat not only ourselves but our Western lifestyles to places where that might be the goal but isn't--yet--the standard.

      "J.H. Crawford" <mailbox@...> wrote:
      Hi All,

      Interesting article in the NY Times on life in the
      lanes of Shanghai:


      There is one quite interesting photograph in the original.

      You'll have to log in to read it on line, and I think they
      take it down after a week or two.




      Settling Down in a City in Motion

      Chang W. Lee/The New York Times

      Published: July 19, 2007

      At Home Abroad

      THE first week I lived in Shanghai, I was walking down Nanjing Street, in front of Cartier, and a man tried to sell me tiger paws. I was near one of the main high-end shopping plazas, a glittering mass of high-rise office buildings and luxury stores, when the man  rustic looking, darkly tanned and wild-eyed  approached me. Nearby, on a cardboard box, I saw his wares: the dried-out skins of indeterminate animals. He walked up to me and thrust out the two giant paws, clearly those of a long-gone big cat. He peered at me expectantly and waited for his money. I looked down at the moth-eaten paws and up at the diamonds in Cartier’s window, and I felt as one often does here, like part of a Surrealist painting.

      I left Manhattan a year ago, after a lifetime there. I was annoyed at spending $20 for a hamburger, depressed by designer boutiques on Bleecker Street, weary of the hovering specter of Al Qaeda, and still grieving over the demise of the Thalia. I was getting old waiting for the real estate bubble to burst and the city to regain its vibrancy. I decided to move myself and my 12-year-old daughter, Lulu  whom I had adopted as a baby in China  from the old capital of the world to the new: to make a home in Shanghai, a city of the future.

      I knew something about Shanghai, having been here on trips several times in the last few years. The city was always so excited it could hardly contain itself. It is a microcosm of the Asian boom, stuffed with people giddy on hope and thrilled to be changing. It recalls the greatness of New York in the early , except for one thing: Like the rest of China, Shanghai was largely closed to the outside world, and real economic growth, for nearly 50 years after World War II. It is a place where every car on the road is brand new and every pet recently acquired, but the person you just met might trace his family back 70 generations. The modernity and polish that Manhattan learned between 1945 and 1995, Shanghai is cramming for as fast as it can, and it’s fascinating to watch.

      But visiting a city is one thing; making a home in it is quite another.

      The first order of business was to find a place to live. I had researched brokers on the Web and called one when we arrived. She came right over with a van and took us on a tour of the city. Rental brokers in Shanghai, it seems, are your hosts and hostesses. Not only do they find you lodging but they introduce you to the city, serve as advisers and translators, and continue to look after you and your every need for the duration of your lease. This was invaluable to me because it has taken me a year to learn basic survival Mandarin.

      Having looked for apartments in New York in recent years, I was dreading doing it in Shanghai. But the day my agent showed me a fully furnished, 2,500-square-foot apartment in the best part of town renting for $1,500, I was glad I’d come. Of the 10 places she showed me, nine were great. The choice was between apartments built in the 1920s and   Art Deco and Forest Hills-style Tudor, woody and charming  and those in brand-new high rises  “concrete palaces as they’re called  that were light, spacious and airy. (The only worry was the ever-present dish-disinfector, a machine for sterilizing plates after washing them in iffy city water, but my agent assured me that it was no longer necessary.)

      I couldn’t make a decision, but it brought me back to the time when apartments in New York cost $150 a month and were yours for the taking. I would have to decide by considering who I wanted to be: Should I go with the Huangpu River view in the artsy section of Hongkou not far from the Bund, or the 1,600-square-foot servants quarters of a turn-of-the century Chinese mansion in quiet but stuffy Changning?

      Then the agent called with another possibility, a little lane house in the former French Concession, an area of the city that was conceded to the French government after the Opium Wars. It is the Greenwich Village of Shanghai, with streets lined with plane trees, cafes and faded art deco apartment buildings, behind which are labyrinthine lanes with three-story concrete or brick houses, mostly from the  and . I decided to go with the old instead of the new.

      Many single-family houses in Shanghai were opened to the poor after the Communist revolution of 1949, and made into multi-family dwellings, sometimes with as many as five people living in a single room. My little house had recently been leased from the government on a 70-year lease hold by the landlady, a Singaporean woman, and turned back into a one-family house. Four floors in all, with a tiny concrete-walled garden in back, it still has original features like a scholar’s room, a small square room behind a half-height wall on the second floor which the householder traditionally rented out to a scholar for his studies, and a balcony over the lane off the master bedroom. Lane houses usually have a rooftop space to hang out laundry or to gaze at the moon during the fall Moon Festival, but in this house, the space had been turned into an attic bedroom. When my daughter saw this woody aerie, the deal was done.

      WHEN you rent a place in Shanghai, the landlord gives you presents. This is a terrific shock for a New Yorker. My agent told me I could ask for special furniture, TVs, gym memberships  the landlady would actually take me shopping.

      The kitchen already had an oven, a selling point since the majority of Chinese do not use them, preferring to cook in woks on burners. Each room had its own air conditioning and heating unit, and in each of the two modern bathrooms, there were heat lamps for the winter.

      I was flummoxed by what to ask for. Finally I requested a washing machine and window screens to keep out mosquitoes. Otherwise, I took the place unfurnished, thinking I would buy secondhand furniture and get a look at the town in the process. My rental agent was so upset by my reticence that she insisted that the owner throw in a big TV and pay for the satellite service for a year.

      I assumed we could move in immediately  we’d had enough of our cheap hotel  but the landlady told me that the house was not ready. It had been painted, but waxing the floors would take a full week. In Shanghai, floors are highly waxed, layer upon layer, rather than polyurethaned. A result is that spilled liquids bead on the surface and are not absorbed. A gleaming floor is a sign of prosperity. You never wear shoes inside the house, and you provide slippers for your guests.

      We moved in on Sept. 1, and I set about assembling a new life. I went out to search for secondhand furniture and quickly found that there was none. There were some antiques, but the kind of thing we Americans call secondhand furniture did not exist during those 50 years that China was closed to the world. With an entire family living in one room, there wasn’t much space or money for more than a loft-type platform and maybe a table and chair. Furniture was kept until it fell apart.

      I ended up going to one of the new Westernized Chinese furniture stores and spending $250 for a fat yellow leatherette couch and two fat armchairs that look like giant toads in my living room. They are remarkably comfortable.

      There are two types of life coexisting in Shanghai: the Westernized life which is becoming more or less like New York’s, and the old lane life still lived by a good many of the city’s inhabitants, now including myself and my daughter.

      Each lane is a perfect little ecosystem. There is a lanekeeper who watches over the lane and a lane sweeper who comes morning and evening to clean it up, to whom I contribute about $5 a month. At the end of each lane is a little house with square windows, which covers garbage bins on one side of a wall and a communal sink on the other.

      I can also leave garbage outside my door against the lane wall. The first time I did , I was embarrassed: I put out a big garbage bag stuffed with unnecessary junk while my neighbors had almost no garbage at all. It was clear they used no paper products and ate every bit of food. I have not bought paper towels or anything that I can do without since.

      There are recyclers who travel the lanes in bicycle carts and collect boxes, making their living by taking them to recycling stations. They ring their bicycle bells to announce their arrival and you bring out your brown paper or cardboard boxes or bags. They fold every bit ever so neatly and tie it all up with string. Sometimes their stack is four feet tall and four feet wide, a huge burden delicately balanced as they ride slowly away.

      There are also bottle collectors and tinkers who announce their presence through loudspeakers or in singsong voices. There are fruit and vegetable sellers who wander through and sing of their wares. My neighbors, who include retirees and office workers, go in and out of their houses all day long to buy and haggle and chat. There are, as in New York, little brown city sparrows that chirp loudly, and many people own songbirds, which they hang outside to take the air.

      People buy fresh food daily. They buy clothes directly from clothes carts or in markets. Things like nail clippers and cotton swabs are sold from carts in the street outside the lane, as are dishes and cups and most other household items. I went to buy some string one day and the man cut me a 12-inch piece. People buy only as much as they need. They do not hoard and their homes are not full of items they never use.

      My house is very solid and I never hear my neighbors. In all but two of the other houses on the lane, three or four families still live in very close quarters. (People seem amused and curious, rather than resentful, about the difference in the ways we live, but I am often embarrassed by it.) Windows are always open, even in winter, but the ethic is that one does not look in. Privacy in China is mental rather than physical. You make yourself unaware of who’s right next to you, whether it’s someone shelling beans or having an argument or brushing his teeth in his underwear.

      People sit out in the lane during the day and chat and laugh. In the evening, if it’s warm, families set up tables and barbecue. Young men who don’t seem to have much to do stand around and smoke. Sometimes, men play cards. At the entrance to the lane, where it meets the street, there is a barber shop, as well as a stand selling slippers, sandals and knockoff disco CDs, which boom through ancient speakers. The amazing thing about the lane is that once you are inside it, you hear only its own sounds.

      I learned more about my lane when I brought my dog over from New York. Once we had gotten a bit settled, I hired a pet relocator and my dog, Skippy, a 15-pound miniature pinscher, was flown to Shanghai. He went by KLM and stopped at a doggy hotel in Amsterdam where he spent the night and, I hope, for what I paid, saw the sights and ate in one of the city’s best restaurants. He spent a week in quarantine here and was then delivered to our door, his little eyes spinning in his head.

      It is against the law to walk a dog in the city between 7 in the morning and 7 at night. To have a dog at your house, you need a license, which costs $200 and includes a checkup and rabies shot, but which most people cannot afford and consequently don’t get. Pets are new to Chinese people and they don’t know very much about them. Dogs are not neutered and they are walked without leashes. Many people are terrified of dogs, particularly given the country’s serious rabies problem.

      Twice when I was walking Skippy, young women caught sight of him and screamed in terror at the top of their lungs. Because having a pet is so new, there is a video showing how to pick up after a dog and wash his paws after his walk, which appears many times a day on a huge video screen on Huaihai, the city’s other main shopping street.

      The first night I walked Skippy was the first time I went out the back door to the lane behind our house. I discovered that it was totally dark. My neighbors on either side were home but, it seemed, had no electricity. It was pitch black inside their houses. Only the sound of a transistor radio playing Chinese opera emanated from the buildings. (It is a tribute to the safety of the lane and Shanghai in general that I walk the dog down that lane every night in total darkness without any fear.) In the morning when I walked him, I learned that some of my neighbors also have no plumbing. I watched them bring their chamber pots out into the lane to a special truck.

      AS I thought about my plumbing, it occurred to me that I had no idea how to pay my water bill. I had a bank account, but there are no checks in China.

      Having money and regularly using banks is still new here, and the banks are reorganizing and trying to cope. My rental agent told me to take my bills to the post office or a convenience store, both of which are open seven days a week, as are many banks. I pay my water, electricity, cable, DSL and phone bills in cash.

      Once I forgot to pay the water bill and the water was turned off immediately, but unlike in New York, it was turned back on immediately  with no penalty  as soon as I paid.

      Most other bills in Shanghai are paid up front, even for meals in many restaurants. Many people use debit cards instead of cash. Credit cards were recently introduced, and just last week banks announced that they will issue and accept checks, but only for people’s wages.

      When I go to the bank, I take a number and sit on a metal bench until my number is flashed. It can take anywhere from 15 minutes to three hours. The tellers do everything from opening accounts to regular transactions, and each step requires a sealing with a chop  a name stamp  which is very time consuming.

      But there is a grace about living here that I love. People do things here that machines do in America. Instead of a parking meter, there is a person who takes your money and helps you park. When you buy a plant at the nursery, a man comes and plants it for you. When you buy a computer, a person comes to set it up and another person arrives to install the programs. Designers use patterns for clothing and shoes from the 1930s. It is not unusual to see a female office worker in a 1930s day dress and high-heeled sandals holding a parasol to keep off the sun.

      Thirty years from now, Shanghai will probably be just like New York. But I don’t care about that now. When I finish writing this, I’m going down to Xiangyang Park, past the poor men from the north who are just arriving to sell animal skins, to find the group of my neighbors who set up a boom box at twilight for ballroom dancing. They don’t mind if I join in. The more the merrier.

      This is the first in an occasional series of first-person
      articles on making a home in a foreign country.

      ----- ### -----
      J.H. Crawford Carfree Cities
      mailbox@... http://www.carfree.com

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