The lessons of the chance encounter

It took a while to come across it. Slightly off to the left as you approach the Shanghai Station South from Shilong Road along the main driveway. Access is an issue for most of us, taxi drivers, ‘black’ taxis, motorists, cyclists and pedestrians. This building and its environs, I now realise, are so iconic and so significant in terms of local regeneration, that they might prefer to keep us all at a distance, on some unconscious level, in a slightly detached nether land where the Mall is easily accessible but not much else.

It looks like a glass pavilion by Dan Graham, with a centrepiece of a shattered glass cubicle containing living bamboo. When I first used it I thought it was, without question, the finest piece of architecture in the whole complex. Was this public toilet the showpiece of a junior designer in the team? Or did the lead architect, Etienne Tricaud, of the French firm AREP VILLE, ensure his stamp was on everything? Or could this be the work of one of their Chinese design partners?

The inner bamboo, with open roof above

The inner bamboo, with open roof above

I was so affected by the whole experience that I asked to take a photo of the attendant as I left, using straightforward gestures and holding up my camera. To my surprise, and slight concern, she grabbed the camera and also a fellow customer. She deftly turned the tables and insisted on taking our photo instead. This started an unspoken dialogue, as I became a regular customer, which could only deepen when I returned with number one translator and loyal assistant, Clara, a few days later.

The fellow customer

The fellow customer

They spoke at length. Clara explained that this was within my square mile and who I was. Ms Guo told her with pride that she was learning English for half an hour a day, in preparation for Expo. I said lightly “perhaps I could help you with your English?” She replied with an invitation to her English class the next day at 1pm. We would meet her here, at the public toilet, and she would take us. They exchanged phone numbers, Clara promising to let her know if there was any change.

We arrived early. Ms Guo had already sent a text to Clara to check if we were on our way. She led us about 200 metres to a concrete arch beneath the station infrastructure. This was a large staff room, meeting room, classroom or a combination of all three. Ms Guo wears green overalls, while the lady we met had a blue work coat. This was a significant differentiation, as it turned out.

There was an aquarium of large orange carp with two mynah birds in separate cages in front. One occasionally said “ni hao” and was being asked by the lady in blue to say the same in English, “hello”, but no luck today. We were invited to sit down and Ms Guo left, going back to work. I’d assumed she’d be staying but she has her lesson before her shift begins.



People in green filed in, all women, mostly with distinctive features. Clara explained later that they were mainly migrant workers from the South. Presumably they had arrived by train or bus close to this very spot, and had settled. They began to sit opposite the blackboard, which had today’s lesson laid out: ‘Making a telephone call.’ “Hello, I’d like to speak to Miss Li,” and so on. A sterner lady in blue entered, holding a stick. She was the teacher. I thought it best not to speak to her in English, in case she didn’t understand me and would appear humiliated in front of her students. She kept her distance in any case, perhaps for the same reason.

Clara's picture of the rest of us

Clara's picture of the rest of us

Suddenly there was total silence. She began reading from the blackboard, in Mandarin and English, while they replied in complete unison as she pointed at the words with her stick. Clara later told me this was a traditional Chinese teaching style “but no way to properly learn a language.” I was invited to contribute and remembered my confusion in navigating the station underpasses, which lasted for several days. “I think visitors would find it useful to be told that if you look closely there are directions in English on all the sign boards.” So this is what Clara and I failed to teach them, despite my resorting to the stick method. But at least they all broke out in hysterics as we said “bye bye” and repeated it back to us with phenomenal gusto. This was a world I was only hoping to infiltrate. And we were invited to return.

The entry point

The entry point

1 comment to The lessons of the chance encounter

  • Chris Seeley

    This post has a different feel – ah! contact at last… I felt a frisson of something starting when I read this one – the stick, the women, the toilet. It made a different kind of sense to me. I wonder what the language women might make of what you have been noticing so far?

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