Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Please prepare to alight from the left-a side

Or so says the disembodied voice that informs you that your subway station is approaching. The Shanghai Daily ran an article on oddball translations the other day, and this was one I had actually encountered.

I've spent the last few days rocketing along under the streets on the subway. It's a great system - 7th largest in the world - and riding it is always a blast. Everything about it is designed to be easy from buying the tickets (automated machine with English option) to getting in and out of the stations (4 exits that lead to all possible street corners.) And a nice side benefit is the counterfeit products market that is located adjacent to the station under the Shanghai Science and Technology Museum.

The hawkers start grabbing your elbow the instant you exit the station. "DVD, a-watch-a, bags-a". Failure to ignore them leads to a visit to a booth that you really didn't want to visit. The best strategy is to find a vendor you like, and to always go back to them, ignoring everyone else. Bargaining is not really as flexible as it seems, because the basement prices are pretty much the same across the board.

I headed off to one of our favorites, looking for watches and bags. This gal is really great, has decent products and gives a reasonable price. But the best thing about her stall is the secret passageway - a 4x4 shaft with a ship's ladder that is located behind a swinging panel and leads up to a small attic where the good stuff is. Every time I go in there I wonder if I'm coming out - it's tight for a person of my stature, it's hot and I pray that the place doesn't catch on fire while I am in there. On this visit, her place was upgraded - the secret panel had two electronic locks installed and she'd put a fan in the attic to make it comfortable.

Before she opens the panel, she sends a lookout into the hall and if the coast is clear, she pushes you through the door. I climbed up and she brought out her wares - Good stuff, and exactly what I was looking for. I picked what I wanted and climbed back down, this time sailor-style since rotating and going down backwards was precluded by the available turn space.

She didn't have the watches I was looking for so she grabbed me by the lapel and dragged me down the hallway to her cousin. He said he would get them, opened up another secret panel, this one built into the shelves that lined his stall and climbed down into who-knows-where. I was not invited into this netherworld, which was a good thing because I never would have fit.

Twenty or so minutes later, I had my stuff and I headed out to the next shopping locale - the Hongqiao Market. Outside the subway station, big snowflakes were falling. Snow has been threatening every day this week but so far it's just been localized flurries. I'm glad, because when it snows here, the city stops.

Honqiao Market is only about a mile beyond my hotel and has slowly been evolving into a decent counterfeit source in the time I have been coming here. It's nice because it's far closer and faster than the long haul across town to the other place. There is also a decent pearl market on the second floor that rivals the more famous version that is located down my the old city. Pearl markets are a feast for the eyes, dozens of booths offering thousands and thousands of strands of pearls, every size, color and shape imaginable.

We were looking for our all-time favorite watch lady who used to share a space with the bag lady we had just left. We had a card with an address, but wandering around and around on the third floor didn't produce her stall. One particularly annoying young man kept offering "sex dvds" hovering around us like a horsefly while we stood there planning our next steps. Someone noticed a side hallway that we'd not explored and voila - there she was. After greetings and the offering of bottles of green tea Snapple which we were not allowed to refuse, she pulled back the curtains and led us into a small hallway behind her stall. There, behind a padlocked steel accordion garage door was her watch parlor.

We sat and visited and reviewed the wares and argued about prices for a while and settled on one each, made our goodbyes and headed out for Thai food.

During the course of yesterday, we had an interesting conversation about commerce. It seems that westerners head to China, buy loads of inexpensive knock-off goods, purchase a couple of cheap suitcases, load them up and head home. From the other side, Chinese come to the US, head to Costco, load up on inexpensive goods, buy a couple of cheap suitcases and head home. Someone remarked that the latter case was ironic, since all these things are made in China. But, designed for the US market, they are not available over here.

Finally, we're closing in on the Chinese New Year and the whole city is decked out. 2008 is the Year of the Rat and so you see all these strange rat depictions in displays on buildings and thoroughfares. In some cases, they look like our old cartoon characters, others, Aztec images or whimsical renditions. Very strange. I've included a couple below for your enjoyment along with what I thought was a nice shot of one of the hundreds of construction sites you pass while traveling around the city.





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