Thursday, June 28, 2007


Realize that for the next few months you will be reading the words of a maverick blogger whose dicey chronicles must be smuggled past the Chinese government’s hawk-eyed censors. Om Away from Home is totally inaccessible from here, forcing me to enlist Andy as my intermediary (he will post what I send via email).

To put it mildly, Shanghai is testing my patience, my politesse, and most of all, my deodorant. There is nothing as foul as humid heat in an urban cesspool. To venture outdoors is to voluntarily swim through a miasma of diesel fumes, sewage, rotting vegetables, and communal sweat, a fetor that makes it hard to keep nausea at bay.

Cirque has housed us, seemingly experimentally, in a brand new Sheraton Residence Hotel in Pudong, a developing district on the eastern bank of the Huangpu River. Puxi, the western bank, is home to the glittering skyline of old Shanghai and its cultural, commercial, and entertainment centers. There is a massive and targeted effort underway to promote Pudong as a financial hub and encourage its ascension, but in my opinion, it has a ways to go. Living in the lavish Pudong Sheraton is like bobbing in a pod of luxury on a sea of slime, and it’s more than a little discomfiting. The Sheraton is so new, in fact, that it is fraught with both over-the-top service and those tiny dysfunctions that make living here rather paradoxical. A chandelier and three plasma TVs, yet a non-flushing toilet and frighteningly faulty elevators… I am reminded of my trip to Russia in 2003 – everything a gilded peel on substandard fruit.

Taking only one step out of my hotel, I am greeted not only by a furnace blast of hot air, but by obvious poverty – bare feet and over-laden rusty bicycles. To me, a bicycle means freedom, wind-in-my-hair mobility and a rugged image, but here in Shanghai, it implies not quite being “with it” yet. “It” being a car, that is. I recently read a Sierra Club Magazine article about the demise of the bicycle, considered for so long to be an institution of the Chinese city. While we Westerners find bicycle travel to be utterly quaint and a tradition that should most definitely be upheld, the Chinese are scrambling for their own piece of the automotive pie. In 1995, according to the article, 60% of commuters peddled everywhere, while in 2004, the number had dropped to 27%! I must admit, in the current heat I am much more likely to jump in a cab, which costs about $2.00 anywhere you want to go, than join the masses of bikers with damp towels draped over their heads or wearing the scary full-face visors that resemble welders’ masks. Still, I’m considering buying a bike here, since Cirque could not transport ours into the country (you need a bike license, requiring a receipt of purchase in China). They cost only around $30, and it could at least get me through the hot streets a little faster than on my sweaty sandaled feet. We’ll see…

I am looking hard for the charms of Shanghai, as I know they will be come apparent to me eventually, inevitably. So far, I am enamored of the old-fashioned practice of walking with a parasol. And I enjoy the drama of the thunderstorms we experience periodically. And I have found (thank goodness!) a beautiful French bakery selling fresh bread with real crust (a rarity in Asia). Entering the bakery, I was met with the call of its two attendants, who proudly shouted my way, “Banjo!” (bonjour).

More to come, more to come, but for now I’ve got a premiere to focus on – Cirque du Soleil’s first appearance in mainland China. Big party to follow, too!