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‘Memories of Life in a Shanghai Eyrie – 2006’

To live and work in Shanghai was too good an opportunity to miss. Friends and family all said ‘That’s brave!’, ‘Why do you want to go there?’, and many other comments and questions which suggested it was a strange decision.

The reasons for taking the opportunity are many, but one of the key reasons was that it was an amazing chance to see and experience a culture so alien to my British upbringing.

An added bonus was the potential for interesting photographs. This was definitely too exciting to miss!

The pressures of work limited the time available for adding to my bank of images, but the apartment I called home for twelve months allowed a wonderful viewpoint into a microcosm of Shanghai life.

It was important for me to avoid the ‘expat bubble’ The point of spending time in China was to be involved, and attempt to understand, a culture that is so different, especially when viewed through my westernised prism. A lifestyle of living in enclosed housing estates, being driven to and from work, socialising with people of a similar mindset, did not appeal. I wanted to ‘feel’ what it was like to live in Shanghai.

A tenth floor dwelling of an 11 story block was home for the duration of my stay. There were 12 blocks, each housing between 250 and 500 apartments. 11 story’s was the lowest, with the highest reaching 20. Even with a conservative estimate of a third of the apartments being empty, there must have been a population of at least 6000.

Décor in my particular residence could be described as ‘70’s’. Furniture made from chipboard and laminate, curtains with patterns and colours reminiscent of an early 1970’s British sitcoms. It was comfortable, if a little lacking in character. It did have air conditioning! The summer really tested my environmental attitudes and beliefs in deciding whether to switch it on.

Surrounding the apartment estate was a low wall, with security guard’s at the two entry and access points. The necessity of these checkpoints appeared to be to provide an image of quality and ostentation rather than any security requirements. The wall itself was only 1.5 metres high, and the local children took great delight in scaling it to rescue errant shuttlecocks!

The air of superficial quality is emphasised by the gardens between the residential blocks. They are beautiful, and well manicured. There are many ponds, often providing homes for the ubiquitous goldfish which form such a part of Chinese culture. But the swimming pool is empty, the many fountains never working. A sense of superficial beauty is undermined by poor quality and sense if ephemeral. These buildings will be around as they look good enough for those with aspirations to be attracted to living there. More importantly, as long as they are making money.

The overwhelming majority of residents are up and coming Chinese workers. Most in more prestigious employment such as information technology, accounts and engineering. The few non Chinese residents are short term engineering and IT consultants from the Indian subcontinent and Korea. Those of ‘western’ origin working as teachers in the English schools, or studying in the many universities. The latter group could be counted on the fingers of one hand.

My 10th floor eyrie became a view point on both sides of the economic divide. The enclave wall becoming a poignant, symbolic, barrier separating the cities inhabitants. In the last few weeks of my stay in Shanghai I was struck down with a stomach complaint. Not wanting to wander around in the high heat and draining humidity, as well as being too far from a toilet, I spent time observing the comings and goings around my block, and over the walls outside the complex.

Grandparents occupying their grandchildren while mother and father were working long hours to maintain this new apartment lifestyle.

Migrant workers collecting plastic bottles for recycling, giving Shanghai a ‘greener image’ at the same time as enabling them to earn much needed Remimbi (the Chinese Currency).

Outside the wall the properties are small houses interspersed with allotments giving a glimpse of what this area of Shanghai was like 20 years ago. Remnants of the reclaimed land used for farming until the massive city expansion twenty years ago. It is anyone’s guess as to how long these small oases of vegetation will last, but it is likely to be counted in months, rather than years. The people living here are migrants and very low income populace who were attempting to reap some benefit from the economic ‘miracle’ going on in other parts of Shanghai.

During the heat of summer it is common to see those who do not have access to air conditioning making use of the natural cooling process of the rivers, canals and drainage channels that crisscross the city. Late evening individuals, and even whole family groups, lay out their grass mattresses on bridges over water, seeking the slight breeze that reduces the sense of humidity and heat. Hoping to gain some much needed sleep.

This tenth floor eyrie provided a distinctive location to see the variety of life in Shanghai. At the same time it provided an insight on the difficulty the city, indeed the nation, faces. China is unique with its political structure and control over the movement of people. It want’s to develop, but not at the expense of the systems that have maintained control over the past 60 years. Shanghai is a conduit for business’s entering and establishing in China. I mixing bowl for China and non Chinese cultures, lifestyles and business.

The eyrie I lived in for 12 months provided a wonderful view of the various strands of the new, and developing, Chinese lifestyle.

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