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life in sHANGHAI -Old Neighborhood streets


I arrived in Shanghai on March 3rd, 2008, in the midst of winter.  I arrived with some sort of respiratory virus that made me quite tired, so I didn’t get out to explore much.  But I did manage to wander around the winding streets of the old town just outside my apartment building. I was astounded to see, in the cold wintery weather, groups of elderly people sitting around outside socializing! They were all bundled up in their winter coats and boots, sitting on fold-up chairs they’d brought along, chatting amongst themselves OUTside! Amazing! Can you imagine a bunch of elderly Americans sitting around outside chatting in the middle of winter?

Other people were outside washing and cutting vegetables and meat at outdoor sinks, cooking on single burners, cutting men’s hair, doing carpentry tasks like sawing  boards and building furniture, playing cards and majong, eating meals at little tables, knitting, drinking tea and smoking cigarettes.  Most little shops in the neighborhood were so small that staff were working outside: not on shop property like a yard, but on the public sidewalks and streets. Bizarre. Everyone else seemed to be socializing outside with their games, hobbies and tea. I couldn’t imagine westerners sitting OUTside in winter playing cards or knitting. In old Shanghai, neighborhood life seems to take place outside, regardless of the weather.

Local people are outgoing, curious (or nosey), friendly and helpful, honest and humble.  I’m sorry to admit that I’d expected Chinese to be more aggressive, dishonest and unfriendly.  So their lovely character came as a welcome surprise.

life in sHANGHAI -Old Neighborhood streets- pedicure
outdoor pedicure

Along the twisting roads and narrow alleys there are a great variety of little shops specializing in everything from socks to towels to tobacco to shoes to pastries, noodle soup, dried fruits, teas, dumplings, yarn, bedding, kitchenware, clothes, pajamas, flowers, fruit, veggies, fish and seafood, eggs, phones, plumbing, electric lighting, grilled bread, and more.  Each shop seems to sell just one product.  It’s a fascinating area to explore.

life in sHANGHAI -Old Neighborhood streets-traditional bakery

traditional bakery

traditional Chinese pastry shop

That’s daily life in Shanghai’s old local poor neighborhoods. But those old neighborhoods are quickly being torn down and replaced by tall apartment buildings, shopping malls and corporate centers. Only a few small pockets of ‘old town’ still exist. So I count myself very lucky to live right on the edge of such a fascinating and convenient neighborhood.

life in Shanghai-Shanghai skyline- skyscrapers

In fact, overall, Shanghai is a vast modern city packed with non-nondescript gray cement buildings, a never-ending panorama of tall apartment buildings and roads, all without much greenery.  Shanghai is a HUMUNGOUS city.  I don’t know how many miles it spreads out from the city center, but I once rode  my bicycle out an hour westward (about 20km/ 12 miles) only to find myself STILL in the MIDDLE of city.  The never-ending apartment buildings are shorter out there, but I could not detect any limit to ‘city’ as far as I could see in any direction. I wondered how far I’d have to cycle to reach fields?

Scattered about the city, in little pockets, are several small neighborhoods with unique charm: some full of boutique shops, some with art galleries or antique shops, some with old western houses or grand buildings from the 1920s and 30s. The hair salon where I work is located in one of those charming boutique neighborhoods called Taikang Lu. In addition, many small but lovely landscaped parks are also scattered about Shanghai. But Shanghai;s most amazing feature is its fantastic modern architecture- mostly museums and astounding, one-of-a-kind super-tall skyscrapers. Despite Shanghai’s little enclaves, parks and modern towers, the overall impression is of non-descript, urban gray sprawl. It’s simply a giant city. Period.

Pudong scene


Unfortunately, I ended up quite ‘under the weather’ for my first 6-7 weeks in Shanghai.  I spent most of my time resting in the apartment.  About once a week I’d regain some energy, think I had recovered, and go out exploring for an hour or two. Just walking around the city would completely knock me out and I’d have to rest another 1-2 days.  I began to almost fear going outside, suspecting the poor air quality was distressing my respiratory system.  I was amazed and confused as to why I couldn’t recover from an apparently simple cold virus. I had almost no fever, nor any other signs of serious bronchitis, so I couldn’t justify antibiotics to cure myself. Yet I just couldn’t recover.

life in sHANGHAI - food street vendors
Shanghai residents usually wear face masks for protection against bad air

My friend Ken and I finally concluded it must be Shanghai’s air pollution. I talked to several westerners in the city who said recovering from colds takes them much longer in Shanghai.  I also know a woman with asthma who really suffers in Shanghai’s air. Although I couldn’t actually smell pollution, statistically the air quality is extremely bad. There are days when I wake up, look out the window and see nothing but white! It’s just like being inside a cloud. (I’ve actually been inside clouds at the tops of mountains many times, so I’m not just making an empty analogy here.)  Luckily, the ‘cloud’ usually thins out by midday.  But air pollution is part of life in Shanghai.  And it’s not good for the respiratory system!

Luckily, thick heavy white air is not a daily non-ending condition. In fact, visibility varies greatly from day to day. Quite often it’s actually sunny with blue skies. But there are days when I wake up, look out the window and say, “I’m not even going outside today. I’m staying in.”

I did finally recover from my respiratory illness- by taking my good ole antibiotics, ciprofloxicin.

Meanwhile, I have become sick several times from food, particularly from milk.  I was quite surprised to discover that milk doesn’t stay fresh very long. 1-3 days after buying it, it’s bad.  My theory is that milk is not homogenized or pasteurized.  I also noticed the ‘coolers’ in most stores are not very cold. That means milk is just sort of cool- not a good thing.  Whatever is wrong with it, it must be REALLY bad because within 10- 30 minutes of eating it my stomach wretches it back up and OUT! My body does not want that stuff at all and recognizes it immediately! That’s pretty astounding. In my experience, it takes 2-6 hours before my body starts responding to bad food, then quite a bit longer before I finally vomit it back out.. So whatever is wrong with the milk, it must be SUPER BAD! My reaction to bad foods is not limited only to milk, though: I once wretched up a bowl of oatmeal, sans milk, within 10 minutes of eating it!

sHANGHAI Old Neighborhood streets- street food
street stall around the corner from my apt in Shanghai

Getting sick from food so regularly in China is quite surprising to me. After all, I’ve been living/ traveling in the tropics of Asia for 10 years, always eating local foods at small street stalls and shops. I do occasionally get sick, of course, but certainly not weekly. or daily. It seems mighty strange to me to get sick more often in a non-tropical country.  Apparently bad food is also a part of life in Shanghai.

(Soon after leaving China I read a news article about milk in China killing babies, children and adults. The manufacturers had been putting in a non-food ingredient that was poisonous. Wow, I was being poisoned!)

Another problem I’ve experienced living in Shanghai is a strong feeling of isolation and loneliness. Partly that’s due to my prolonged illness keeping me inside so much. But it was also due to the HUGE sprawling size of Shanghai, which makes acquaintances spread out all over the city. It takes some effort to meet up with anyone- for a coffee, a chat, a drink. Everyone is so busy, each in his/ her own life, work and neighborhood, that it’s hard to find time to meet up with anyone you’re not naturally in contact with on a daily basis, say at work, in your apartment building or at your particular favorite bar.

Puxi district- Shanghai- China
central Shanghai, with its interesting blend of American colonial and modern buildings, flanked by Chinese flags

This situation is completely different from all other places I’ve been living/working in SE Asia: at Boracay, Philippines; Bali, Indonesia; Krabi, Thailand; KL, Malaysia and Singapore.  Places where I’ve been teaching diving are all quite small communities. There, from the moment I leave my room, I meet, bump into and pass by everyone I know, usually several times a day. I can’t avoid meeting everyone! It takes no effort whatsoever to be in contact with acquaintances and friends. In contrast, in Shanghai, besides Ken and George, who I live with, the people I know are scattered all over the city. I never just randomly bump into people I know, let alone on a daily basis. No wonder I feel isolated.

By now, I’m afraid I’m making Shanghai sound quite horrid, what with my complaints about bad air pollution, non-ending urban sprawl, getting sick from food and feeling isolated. But Shanghai is not actually horrible.  Despite the negative aspects, life in Shanghai has lots of merits.  As usual, there are two sides to every story.

Take, for instance, my illness causing me to spend so much time inside the apartment. Aside from not having any energy, that was actually wonderful.  After spending 10 years living in simple thatched bungalows and single rooms, staying in a modern western city apartment has been quite a treat. I have hot showers, cable TV with movies and CNN/NBC, unlimited internet access, a fully-equipped kitchen, astounding views of Shanghai’s major skyscrapers- everything I need, including a cappuccino machine.

I realize I’m describing simple, normal everyday life for most of you, but it’s all quite a novelty for me. Having a kitchen is a novelty, as is cooking. Having regular access to TV channels- National Geographic, Discovery, CNBC and movie channels is quite a novelty, too. I’ve inadvertently slipped into a spurt of modern western home life in Shanghai, China.

In addition, I’ve been making great use of my ‘down time’ these many weeks. I’ve been building my first website. I started monthly ‘diving updates’ for all my diving students. I’ve been studying the financial markets, contemplating various investment options, and learning financial accounting, from George’s MBA Accounting book. It’s certainly is complicated. I had no idea accounting was so complicated, but I enjoy it thoroughly.  Most recently, I bought my very first digital camera and have been wandering around snapping shots of the city for the website.

Yuyuan Temple Area- Shanghai
Yuyuan Temple, Shanghai

Recently, having regained my health, and having bought myself a bicycle, I’ve been finally exploring the city more extensivlely. I’ve visited many small parks and gardens, a few temples and the Shanghai Museum, which is full of Chinese ceramics, paintings and calligraphy, coins and other artwork. While Shanghai doesn’t have nearly the number of temples and traditional architecture as Bangkok, Thailand  or Kyoto, Japan, there are some. Shanghai does has several excellent museums, which I hope to visit  before leaving.

Shanghai- Urban Planning Exhibition Center

Shanghai- Urban Planning Exhibition Center

Shanghai Museum of Art

Shanghai is also famous for its nightlife. That, unfortunately, is one aspect of city life that I haven’t been participating in. Even after recovering from my ‘cold’ I haven’t been in the partying frame of mind. At this stage, I’ll just have to miss out on Shanghai’s notorious nightlife.

I always enjoy getting a good dose of big-city life once in a while.  I’m also finding plenty of new experiences in China, even after living and traveling through Asia for 17 years.  But I won’t pretend to prefer Shanghai, long-term, to life in the tropics, living out on beaches and islands, diving on beautiful coral reefs.  And as far as Asian cities go, I have to admit that I’m still stuck on Singapore, the best city in the world.  In the meantime, I’ll continue exploring Shanghai and enjoying it’s intriguing old neighborhoods, delicious street foods, and the unusual habits of its Chinese residents.


Have you been to Shanghai? What did you like or dislike about it? 

What city do you enjoy living in? 

You might also enjoy:

Cycling in Shanghai
Why Singapore is the Best City in the World
10 Free Things to do in Kyoto, Japan
Photo Gallery:  Shanghai’s Old Town
Photo Gallery:  Shanghai Modern 

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6 pings

  1. Suzy

    Sounds like Shanghai might not be the place to go if you are sick! I don't think I could live in a place without clean air.

  2. LASH

    Hey Suzy,

    Yeah, it was weird because the air did NOT SMELL bad, so I usually couldnt tell it was polluted! only from stats. But there were several other aspects of China that really turned me off- like the fact that they put non-food items in food and the way they treat animals… Just made me feel 'something is wrong here'

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