Long Time No See

I learn from Clara (excellent translator for the day) that Chinglish is a serious discussion point in Shanghai, not so much a cause for embarrassment or criticism. I thought it might be a sensitive issue.

There is also Advanced Chinglish. Long Time No See has to be Very Advanced Chinglish as we don’t even recognise its Chinese origins.

So the linguistic movement is to acknowledge its place as a cultural phenomenon and not require perfect translation. Better City, Better Life is everywhere as the slogan for Expo 2010 and it may be perfect, but is it? While the Botanic Gardens’ new signage is clearly Advanced Chinglish but seeming not so to the excellent English speaker who is Chinese “I thought it was perfect”: care for plant, care for future. Finally we gain access to the closed area of the Gardens and meet with Ms Xiu. A surprise visit.

And isn’t Long Time No See about as perfectly expressive as it’s possible to be in English, without spelling it out?

care for plant

The disagreements of Prof Shen Ji and Ms Xiu

Somehow, gaining admittance to the administration building of The Botanic Gardens through persuasion and persistence, felt like a triumph. To actually be talking to Ms Xiu, casually dressed in embroidered jeans and trainers, felt like a small miracle. All phone advances had been rejected. I had some questions prepared. One of them was about the number of bird species resident in the Gardens. Without hesitation she said 150. I gasped and asked how many species there were in the surrounding streets. She had no idea.

So it was with some pride that, in a discussion yesterday with Prof Shen Ji, our ‘square mile’ ecologist, I told him my news. It’s hard to translate a scoff. But there was more than a trace of it. “A hundred, including migrating birds, maximum,” he said. “They’re kidding themselves.”

“And the rivers in the square mile, Prof Shen Ji? ” I said, “they look bad.”  ”They are bad. The rivers have lost their life, due to industrial pollution and human waste. The quality of the water is at 5th or 6th level.”  ”Isn’t there one clean river here in Shanghai? I’ve heard about it.”  ”The Suzhou River has been cleaned. It’s near the M50 artists’ community. It has fish. The water is of the quality of your River Thames in the 1940s.”

I must find the clean river.

The Admin block of The Botanic Gardens

The Admin block of The Botanic Gardens

The polluted river running through the middle of The Botanic Gardens

The polluted river running through the middle of The Botanic Gardens

Suzhou River

Does the proximity of the clean Suzhou River to the M50 art community contain an underlying cultural message? Clean River

Suzhou River runs behind these buildings

Suzhou River runs behind these buildings

Sometimes not knowing is enough

R  It’s a day for ideas, Tania.

T  I thought you already had some.

R  What do you think of them?

T  They’re OK. Could do with a little flesh on the carcass. The simplicity appeals, naturally. Are you trying to prove a point, though? I get that feeling. And why push the river?

R  Are you quoting me?

T  Maybe. How’s your coffee by the way?

R  Cost more than the lunch.

T  Ah, the global reach of sophisticated living. Anyway, respond please.

R  I was listening to this World Service radio programme this morning about how a positive attitude can extend your lifespan by eight years.

T  Does this mean you’re going to be positive on purpose now? How dreary.

R  You may not be able to tell the difference.

T  Yuk.

R  OK. Yes. You may be right. I might be trying to prove a point about how making links with the community here can be achieved for sure.

T  You seemed almost Taurean yesterday.

R  By the way, the new shocking pink external at the junction of Shilong Road is for the Taurus Neighbourhood. We asked who made the colour decision but the guard didn’t know.

T  Sometimes not knowing is enough. Is this a trend?

R  Brighter wall colours?

T  Being evasive.

R  I’m still thawing out from the bike ride and listening to the birds in the South Square Park. There’s a biting north-west wind today.

T  Not everyone is cash rich enough to hit the cappuccino. So?

R  You want me to think about how things would look if I wasn’t trying to prove a point.

T  And took the pressure off the ecological slant. When you already have the Prof on board as resident eco. What were you saying about his roots?

R  Yes. Definitely dyes his hair. Significant grey roots on closer inspection. I did find myself admiring his untainted brunette coiffure last week.

T  So maybe grey is not OK. Yet another social faux-pas, Richard. Thinking of a quick colouring yourself?

R  Think I’ll stick to the hats.

T  Good idea.

R  I do kind of wish they weren’t Japanese though.

T  The hats?

R  Yes.

T  Why?

R  Because of the strong Japanese influence here. I experience Japan as western in this context, like Europe and the US. All to be admired (by the Chinese) on some level. And I admire a lot of what may be seen as their old-fashioned, traditional Chinese values.

T  Sounds like we’re coming round to it.

R  What?

T  Those ideas.

R  Well, you know I can’t get off the recycling theme, and don’t want to. Experiencing this constant stream of tricycles laden with discarded materials and collected for cash. It just feels so right, including the pedal power.

T  I wonder if they see it that way. Didn’t Felix say they’re just trying to make living?

R  I’d like to ask them about it, or say how I see this process.

T  They’ll think you’re some kind of business magnate no doubt.

R  I’m going to keep trying on this one, so back off please.

T  I thought you wanted my opinion. No need to get defensive.

R  OK. Go ahead.

T  I know you see some kind of intervention happening in the square mile related to these tricycle guys. And they are all guys I imagine?

R  Almost all.

T  I have a slightly sinking sense of ‘the dignity of labour’, something a little patronising even. I also get a smattering if desperation, a little ‘first thought, worst thought’? We should brainstorm.

R  And consult the I Ching.

T  And remember how everything changes with a translator on board.

Botanical Tricycle

Tricycles parked

Shilong Road at night

Shilong Road at night


I / Increase


INCREASE.  It furthers one

To undertake something.

It furthers one to cross the great water.

Sacrifice on the part of those above for the increase of those below fills the people with a sense of joy and gratitude that is extremely valuable for the flowering of the common good.  In such times of progress and successful development it is necessary to work and make the best use of the time.  This time resembles the marriage of heaven and earth, when the earth partakes of the creative power of heaven, forming and bringing forth living beings.  The time of INCREASE does not endure, therefore it must be utilised while it lasts.

I-Ching hexagram No 42, thrown 19 November 09



Total carbon emission generated by Shanghai in one year is nearly double that of Sydney and triple that of Tokyo, according to recent research on climate change in Asia and major Pacific cities.

With industry generating more than 60% of local carbon emissions, restructuring of industry holds the key, said experts from Tongji University’s College of Environmental Science.

Preliminary results compared carbon emission and climate policies if Shanghai, Tokyo, Sydney and Bangkok.

According to the research, Shanghai, with the biggest population and the fastest economic growth of the four, discharged more than 5400 tons of carbon equivalent a year. That was the highest total carbon emission of the four cities, and also the highest per unit of gross domestic product.

Sydney had the highest emission per person and per square kilometre.

Shanghai Daily, 17 November 09



Asia Pacific leaders are backing away from a target of halving greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, pledging instead to ”substantially” slash them by that date, the latest draft of their summit statement says.

“The 50 percent reduction did appear in the draft, but it was very controversial,” said Yi Xianliang, counsellor at the department of treaty and law at the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, who is negotiating in the climate talks.

“If the reduction was in this statement, it might have disrupted negotiations,” Yi told a news conference, adding the decision to remove the target was a collective decision.

Hopes have largely been dashed that the Copenhagen meeting will yield a legally binding framework for a new climate deal. Arguments over targets have been a key stumbling block in U.N. negotiations and at other forums, such as the G8.

Reuters, Singapore, 14 November 09

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

East of the town

The  yoga class at Yoga Space in Hengshan Road, a few metro stops from the Square Mile, was another reminder of traditional Chinese teaching methods. “Eight, seven, six, five, four, three, two, one…Go!” The Shanghai Museum, considered the finest museum in China, offered me an antidote of cultural authenticity. The intricate and subtle relationship to the natural world is overwhelmingly present in the third floor Painting and Calligraphy rooms.

These qualities must still be deep in the Chinese psyche, even in my Square Mile.

Sighing Wind Among Mountain Pines, Li T'ang, 11th Cent

Sighing Wind Among Mountain Pines, Li T'ang, 11th Century

East of the Town

From office confinement all year long,

I have come out of town to be free this morning

Where willows harmonise the wind

And green hills lighten the cares of the world.

I lean by a tree and rest myself

Or wander up and down a stream.

…Mists have dampened the fragrant meadows;

A spring dove calls from some hidden place.

…With quiet surroundings, the mind is at peace,

But, beset with affairs, it grows restless again….

Here I shall finally build myself a cottage,

As Tao Qian built one long ago.

Wei Yingwu, 8th Century

Global news

The diversity of life on Earth is undergoing an ”immense and hidden” tragedy that requires the scale of global response now being deployed to tackle climate change, according to one of the world’s most eminent biologists.

Prof Edward Wilson, an ecologist who has been described as “Darwin’s natural heir” and hailed by novelist Ian McEwan as an ”intellectual hero” and ”inspirational” writer, told the Guardian that the threat was so grave he is pushing for the creation of an international body of experts modelled on the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

The IPCC, which is credited with convincing world leaders that the threat from climate change is real, includes about 2,500 scientific expert reviewers from more than 130 countries and was awarded the Nobel peace prize in 2007 along with Al Gore. Wilson’s proposed organisation – which he names the Barometer of Life – would report to governments on the threats posed to species around the world.

Wilson said the problem of biodiversity loss had been “eased off centre stage” because of the focus on climate change.

“We don’t hear as much public concern, protestation and plans by political leaders to save the living environment. It doesn’t get anything like the attention the physical environment has,” he said.

Since the beginning of the last century, 183 species are known to have become extinct, including the Tasmanian tiger, the Caribbean monk seal and the toolache wallaby. But this number is a gross underestimate of the true number of extinctions, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature species programme.

The Guardian 20 November 2009


Red is an old-fashioned colour

Red is such an old-fashioned colour.

It’s the Qigong Chicken Form. I can teach you.

The library is my favourite place.

We bring our songbirds here every day between 6am and 11am.

That lady was speaking Shanghainese, so there are not only migrant workers living here.

The (eight lane) road cuts straight through our campus and makes it difficult. There’s so much traffic.

The station’s not an easy place to pick up passengers, nowhere to pull in, too many barricades.

There were many snakes and they ate the mice. Now there are many mice.

The Bus Station is a good place for people watching.

All the vegetables in the market are locally grown in the Shanghai suburbs.

We’re worried about this new mobile phone mast. We think it will be damaging to people’s health.

The biodiversity is already damaged. And people are still coming.

The ‘mile’ as a western concept.

I don’t mind you filming here so long as you don’t give a bad impression of our recycling centre…… Would you like to go into business with me?

A stone from other hills can serve to polish the jade of this one.

I am a foreigner.

The fashion for overly manicured green spaces comes from the European influence in Shanghai.

My mood is different on the way home from school.

I go to the park three times a day.

My room-mates and I sometimes go to the South Station for a meal.

We’re plaiting white rope made from discarded clothes. She cuts the strips while I weave them.

This used to be a place to breed horses, but after the Cultural Revolution it was made it into a park for the people.

He’s telling fortunes with his turtle.

Cream Prune Deops.

11pm, lights out.

The sinister mast

Sinister mast

Making white rope

Plaiting white rope in the park

Qigong Chicken Form master

Qigong Chicken Form master

Quiet transport

It’s 8.15am.

I’m counting pedal-powered, gasoline-free vehicles, standing on the corner of Shilong Road and Longwu Road. This may be the morning rush-hour, or I could already have missed it. I count over a thousand in 30 minutes. That’s two thousand an hour. At one intersection.

The relationship to pedal power here couldn’t be more different from bike culture in London. Here it doesn’t matter how it looks, so long as it moves. Shanghai may be almost uniformly flat, but this is more about a completely practical approach to getting around on whatever you can find.

Cars may be a different and more aspirational story. Every morning the two spotless black sedans parked in front of my window are carefully cleaned by a distinguished looking man in a dark suit. On closer inspection his jacket pocket bears the Shanghai E Arts logo. This is part of his job.