In my past month in Shanghai, I’ve learnt and experienced many things. While there have been far too many to deal with, here are a few highlights:
Shanghai is growing: Fast
There are only a few places in the world where you can see the city grow and develop as you watch: Shanghai is one of them. This place has seen real estate values soar in the past five years in a manner as you can easily read in the newspapers. What you might miss is that while the prices are somewhat flat, that just means that it’s growing at 5% or so for the next few years while foreign investment restrictions are in place. The reality of reality is that the values here are still severely less than any comparable cities. Shanghai will be certainly competing with New York, Paris, London, Sydney and certainly Hong Kong – any other major city that you might like to live. Compared with any of them, Shanghai is very cheap to live in, and is likely to continue to be so – at least until the Expo.
The coffee is getting better
I’ve found a few amazing places – Coffee Bean is a great chain, though the odd little cafe (like Gallery Mondu in Luwan, just near Xintiandi) is sensational. Fortunately or unfortunately, smoking is still very common and prevalent indoors and out. Of course, it will be interesting to see how the Chinese government responds when it realises how much lung cancer is costing the society.
You can survive without speaking Chinese
I did. In fact, I deliberately spoke no Chinese, just to test whether one could survive here without Chinese. Of course, it helps – a lot – but strictly speaking, you don’t need to speak Chinese.
Storeholders will try to rip you off
Because you’re a foreigner; because they think that you’re rich. There remains the attitude that if you have money, you should give it away. While the beggars are somewhat better behaved and more entertaining than I recall from my time here last year, they are still all over the place – just today, there was a child whose face was horribly disfigured walking through the train carriages. To be the change that we want to see, we need to reinforce and support those behaviours that are desired and starve the rest until they cease: To me, the way to deal with this is to not tolerate being ripped off and to not give money to beggars. For salespeople, I live by the principle “win-win or no deal”, which means that I’ll happily walk away if they won’t give me the obscenely low price that I offer after a while – theyâ€™ve muttered that Iâ€™m not here for long, that my Chinese friends are wrong for wanting to save â€œthe foreignerâ€ me money at their expense, and have even increased the prices for my Chinese friends because of my presence! Iâ€™ve become adept in ignoring people yelling â€œBag? Watch?â€ as I walk along Central HuaiHai Road – soon theyâ€™ll learn that I still respond to, â€œExcuse me, sirâ€¦â€
Development is happening fast
The elevated highways have already been constructed and the subway network is very rapidly expanding. Trains run all through the day, and vary between being overcrowded and very overcrowded.
Networks are critical
There are many of us who need to have a social network in order to emotionally survive. Beyond this, there are many things here that only happen by knowing somebody. Creating a trusted network fast isnâ€™t something that is easily accomplished anywhere in the world – by its nature, such an asset is expensive and time consuming – however, in some ways it is even moreso here.
Wealth, especially extreme wealth, opens doors just like it does throughout the world. Everybody knows a lot of people; if you want to be in China, youâ€™ll need to know even more, and one of the best ways to achieve that is through having the resources to attract other interesting and connected people into your sphere. Be unique… There is nothing as useful as having something unique to contribute. Whether in conversation or in business, you need to have something to offer. There are some areas of high development in foreign domains, though realise that locals will learn quickly, so youâ€™d better be learning as fast or faster than they are, or youâ€™ll be replaced very quickly.
The government is everywhere. From firewalling parts of the internet to building the infrastructure with little opposition, you need to be aware that this remains the most executed society in the world today, and the government does run things. While you can work with the government, their interest in the rule of law is increasing though remains subject to the obsession with maintaining control and stability. This is not a communist state and hasnâ€™t been for many years; excellence, uniqueness and making things happen that serve national interests are what count.
China has a strong central government, but in a remarkable move, it would seem that they are learning faster than we might have expected. In the news this morning, the government has started talking about banning smoking in public places, especially those around children!
The streets do smell
Sometimes itâ€™s the rubbish. Sometimes itâ€™s a sewer. But this is a city busy growing up quickly, and there remain many olfactory challenges. Part of the challenge is the massive divide between rich and poor: Remember that the girls who make your US$4 cappucino at Starbucks are being paid US$1/h. You really can live very happily here on the welfare payments that people receive in Australia. Yet, despite that, the people here are generally quite happy to work hard and focus on living their lives.
Lifting up the value chain
As China grows, we are seeing an increasing focus on the development of services and experiences that are higher up the value chain. Theatre, design and art galleries are growing and will follow the affluent individuals that can afford the luxury of supporting them. While European design is the current focus, local design quality is increasing and we will start to see more and more local designers tackling the world.
Moving upwards and onwards
We must continue to pursue what weâ€™re best at – as individuals and as societies. What China most loves about the West, we must strive to take to even greater levels. Itâ€™s not just about exporting and importing; this is a case of rates of development. As China – and the rest of Asia – develops, the Anglo-American and European worlds must continue to raise the standards. In my mind, that challenges us to pursue higher standards of consciousness and personal quality of life. We have enough â€œstuffâ€; soon China will too. I believe that we have started to pursue finding the right â€œstuffâ€, though the step beyond this, I believe, will be focused on increasing the subjective quality of experience. Once we have a television in every house, we want to have one in every room; once we have one in every room, we want to have a better television. But once we have reached the limit of the benefits to be gained from increasing the quality of the television, we need to move towards increasing the quality of the programming available, and enhancing our ability to create personalised viewing experiences – making it easier and faster to create and get the experiences that we desire, both the ones that we know that we want, and the ones that we donâ€™t yet realise that we will want. With that runs enhancing our ability to appreciate and enjoy those experiences.
(originally written 20 December, 2006)