13. The Shanghai Commute

Without time to shake the jet lag, I was already due at my new office. Living in Shanghai came with a few perks, one of which was a chauffeur-driven car service to help me and the family get around town. We would use it to take the kids to and from school and for Ming and me to go back and forth to our offices. Ming, who never particularly cared for driving, was over the moon about this perk. I wasn’t quite as enthusiastic.

In New York, I tended to use a car service for one thing and one thing only: getting to and from the airport, and only when I’d be away for long enough that it wouldn’t make sense to park my own car there. I liked driving, and preferred the peace and quiet and sense of independence it offered, especially when compared with airport limo drivers who like to share their latest get-rich quick schemes, stock market theories or why the Giants are the best team in football.

To add insult to injury, in Shanghai I would be riding in the back of a Buick minivan. Somehow these vehicles – which aren’t sold in the US – had become ubiquitous among expats in China, and as such, served as something of a status symbol. I was having trouble wrapping my head around this. To me, driving a Buick meant, “I’ve given up on life and have settled for a car that doesn’t look out of place in the parking lot of an Applebee’s.”

My new office was only five miles from my home, and both were in Pudong, the newer and less crowded side of Shanghai. I expected it would be a 10 or 15 minute ride at most.

Ming and I got into the back of the Buick. The driver’s name was Liu. Ming informed me that I was to address him as Xiao Liu, which loosely translated is “Little Leo.”

“It’s not disrespectful to call him ‘little?’” I asked.

“Nope, it’s totally fine.”

“Really?  That can’t be right. If my boss started calling me Little Erik, that wouldn’t go over too well.”

“It’s okay. Really. It’s a term of endearment, sort of.”

 What a strange place I was in. I sat back and took in the surroundings.

As we made our way through traffic, Shanghai’s skyline started to come into view. We couldn’t have been more than a mile or two from Lujiazui, the financial district that forms the core of Shanghai’s modern cityscape, but I couldn’t see any of the buildings clearly.

“Wow, look at all that smog!” I said to Ming, who would be taken to her office as soon as I was dropped off at mine.

“Oh, that’s just mist, honey,” she reassured me.

“Mist?  You’re kidding, right?”

“No, no. This is just mist. It’s misty today. And a little foggy.”

Scene from another planet?  No, just a misty day in Shanghai.

Mist was a good euphemism for the filth that was surrounding us, and I had heard some locals describe it this way too. I’m sure that’s where she was getting the idea from. Who was I to argue? It’s not like a had an air pollution meter in my back pocket.

This smog was like nothing I had ever experienced.  Even the smog that can be seen on a bad day in LA – America’s smog capital – was nothing compared to this. The only thing I can compare it with is seeing a brightly lit full moon through a light layer of cloud cover at dusk. The difference is that in Shanghai, you do this during the daytime, and the moon is actually the sun. You can even stare through this crust of debris directly at the sun and not have your eyes hurt.

“At least the smog is blocking out harmful UV rays,” I said. “That’s an advantage….isn’t it?”

This wasn’t scoring me any points. I closed my mouth and turned to look out the Buick window again.

After ten minutes, we seemed hardly any closer to my office, but the Lujiazui skyscrapers began to emerge from the haze. At least Little Leo seemed pleasant and not at all chatty.

China had become something of a playground for architects by this time, and world-renowned designers had been flocking to the country with their experimental blueprints. Some say that the results in places like Lujiazui are truly remarkable, leading some to compare Shanghai to New York City. Others lament the garishness and lack of a coordinated style. If I knew anything about architecture at all, my personality would probably put me in the latter group.

The first skyscraper of any kind in China was the Oriental Pearl TV Tower, which went up in the mid-nineties. While this odd looking tower is said to have been inspired by a Tang Dynasty poem, to me it appeared more to be inspired by a Jetsons cartoon. It consists of a tall lattice intersected by three orbs, one of which adorns the top of every page on the website of this blog. I could almost imagine George Jetson parking his space mobile next to it.

China’s tallest buildings: the Jetsons-esque Pearl TV Tower in the background, the Jinmao Tower in the middle, the bottle opener on the right and the to be completed corkscrew on the left.

The Pearl TV Tower was China’s tallest building until it was surpassed by a new neighbor a few years later, the Jinmao Tower. Even though Jinmao was designed in Chicago, it has a graceful Chinese character, evoking the shape of a traditional pagoda. I like this building. To me, as to many in the west, incorporating traditional Chinese style into new structures is a great way to modernize without casting aside China’s rich and unique history.

The Chinese themselves don’t seem to share this view. On a trip to Shanghai back in 2000, a Chinese friend tried to impress me with China’s progress by taking me to a Starbucks. Similarly, in 2007, the Shanghai World Financial Center went up right next to the Jinmao Tower, eclipsing it in height. Nothing about it suggests China. In fact, it looks like a giant bottle opener. Next up, slated to open in 2015, will be the Shanghai Tower, which will result in the skyline being dominated by the world’s tallest corkscrew.

The question going forward is will there be a Jinmao-type revival of Chinese architectural style or will the next building on the horizon be a giant electric can opener?  Regardless of where you side in this weighty architectural debate, the comparison between New York and Shanghai doesn’t go much beyond the skyline.

Shanghai teems with every kind of traffic – cars, trucks, mopeds, bicycles, and tricycle carts with precariously balanced loads of junk piled impossibly high – all swerving, speeding, cutting each other off, passing in the oncoming traffic lane, driving on the shoulder whenever there is one, and generally risking their lives every few seconds for no reason that I could see. It just doesn’t make much sense to the outsider. Then there are the pedestrians walking in the street in active traffic lanes with their backs to the coming onslaught. Overloaded diesel-spewing trucks whip by, often missing them by just inches (and occasionally not).

You must admit that real skill is required to pull this off.

A guy wearing a suit on a moped with a cigarette dangling from his mouth zipped past us in the tiny aisle separating two lanes of cars, then suddenly darted diagonally to the other side of the intersection, without noticing or seemingly caring that he had just cut in front of a truck that slammed its brakes and swerved to avoid flattening him.

A woman riding a bicycle with an infant sitting behind her on a rack – not an infant seat, but a metal rack, the kind better suited for securing packages – veered directly into our path, causing Little Leo to take evasive action. If you see this kind of thing in New York City, even with its heavy and often chaotic traffic, it sticks out as something spectacular and unusual. But in Shanghai it’s a constant occurrence. It’s not uncommon to see a family of three – dad, mom and a young child – piled onto a moped navigating through this mayhem without helmets. Safety awareness just isn’t part of the culture.

Okay, I didn’t actually see anything this bad, and I suspect that Photoshop played a role here, but you get the idea.

Clearly, drivers have to be extremely vigilant so as not to accidentally mow down whatever appears in front of them. For a while, I thought that this cat-like readiness would help balance the situation and keep the accident rate in check. If all drivers are expecting dangerous moves at all times, perhaps it all works out in the end. But I checked some statistics and found that this was not the case. According to the China Traffic Safety Forum, in 2007, China recorded 5.1 road accident deaths for every 10,000 motor vehicles on the road, the highest on the planet. The world average is two deaths per 10,000 vehicles. The World Health Organization painted an even grimmer picture, reporting 445 deaths per 100,000 vehicles in China (almost 10 times worse than the figure that China reported), verses 15 deaths per 100,000 vehicles in the US, and only 7 in Switzerland. Traffic accidents remain one of the leading causes of death in the United States, but China’s fatal accident rate is nearly 30 times as bad!

Shanghai (l) and New York (r) both have traffic, but I’m not seeing the similarity.

The real problem is that 30 years ago, even 20 years ago, there were almost no cars at all in China. How do you teach a billion people to drive? In America, dad would take his son or daughter to an empty parking lot to practice in the old car. But until very recently, China didn’t have any old cars, parking lots, or dads that knew how to drive.

I later learned why Buicks had something of a following in China. Nearly a century ago, China’s last emperor was driven around in one (presumably without the cheap plastic interior that mine had). From my perspective, this unforgivable act of atrocious judgment should have been enough to foretell the emperor’s pending demise. But the Chinese people didn’t see it this way. Buick remained in their minds and imaginations so much so that in the late 1990s, GM reintroduced Buick to China as a high-end brand.

We completed the five-mile trip in 45 minutes. At this rate, I was doing nine-minute miles, which would have been impressive had I been traveling by foot. Our destination was Times Square, one of two places with this name in Shanghai. Little Leo stopped and pushed the button to open the sliding electric door for me, then pointed at a building across the street that housed my office. I dodged a line of mopeds, bicycles, pedestrians and taxis. Times Square was crowded, dirty, and had a faint smell of sewage to it. In this regard, Shanghai really was like its counterpart in New York, perhaps even worse.

As I passed through the main doorway into the new office complex, the chaos of Times Square evaporated behind me. The interior, with its marble floor and walls, and banks of elevators with sleek stainless steel doors, was in stark contrast to the turmoil and confusion I had just crossed through.

I had given myself more than ample time to make the journey, and I arrived a good half hour early. I used the time to look around the complex. It was part of an upscale mall with the lower floors housing such brands as Gucci, Brooks Brothers and Omega. Giant ads featured a variety of westerners. George Clooney showed off his Omega watch while driving a James Bond-esque boat. Next to him, a blonde European model was decked out head to toe in Gucci. This was the new China that everyone wanted a piece of. There were clearly two economies at play:  the old world laborers and the new world business people. Shanghai was creating millionaires at a rate far surpassing the West, yet the city was still home to millions making barely a hundred dollars a month.

Also on the ground floor was Starbucks, McDonald’s and a sit-down Haagen Dazs ice cream cafe. I went into the Starbucks, and trying out my Chinese, ordered a zhong bei mei shi and a lan mei mai feng. The Chinese barista turned to her co-barista, also Chinese, and relayed to him in English: “Tall Americano and a blueberry muffin.” The co-barista then asked me, in English, if I wanted the muffin heated. I was going to pretend that I didn’t speak English, but thought better of it.

I found a comfy Starbucks chair at one of those round wooden Starbucks tables – the kind with that swirl of words like “sunny Costa Rica” and “Frappuccino latte” just as in any Starbucks the world over – and pondered the juxtaposition that I would come to see again and again in Shanghai: crazy and chaotic here, familiar and mundane there.

I finished my coffee and muffin and made my way to the 23rd floor to find my Shanghai staff waiting for me.



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