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Cheap Street

July 14, 2009

By Elena Garcia

Shanghai Clothing MarketsIf you ever find yourself in China and aren’t afraid of some rugged environments, then do I have a vacation destination for you.

Xie Pu Lu (pronounced cheap-u-lou, which is all you need to say to a taxi driver to get your there) is where bargainers and clothes whores go to solicit goods. It’s a place where the weary, timid and confused won’t survive and the place where my story begins. Cheap-u like many of the bargaining malls in Shanghai is a battle zone. With the number of shoppers filling the aisles, cat calls from sales people, and hustlers trying to make money, I sometimes wonder how anyone survives, or if it’s even worth surviving. Is a sale price worth that much?

If you find yourself eager to get a great deal be ready for war! I don’t know if that means one should come equipped to these places with army fatigues and padding but be prepared for the hard elbows from the twenty-something girl forcing her way into the booth with the hot party dresses. Or the aggressive sales girl with the raspy voice willing to scream and rip the calculator out of your hands for making an “insulting offer.” And, don’t forget the children, the ones pillaging through rusty garbage and riding ten-gallon water jogs like horses. My personal favorite is the hustler on the side of the street throwing puppies around like bean bags, from one card board box to another, doing whatever he can to unload the precious creatures before they get to old and he’s forced to add to the stray population. I sometimes yearn to buy them all and save them but that would only perpetuate these kinds of actions. I try to fight the war but puppies will always make weak.

Having heard, from multiple sources, about the infamous Cheap-u Street, I decided to drag Garrett and head down for an afternoon of blissful shopping.

With the Shanghai Summer rolling full speed ahead, I should of considered our comfort level inside the multilevel warehouse spaces with no air conditioning (which turned my blissful afternoon into a blistering one) and the swarms of people a Saturday afternoon would bring. But I didn’t and we went anyway.

OHH my God.

This, unlike any millionaire’s closet, is where clothes came to die.

Inside these massive six story buildings (each floor the size of a Costco) were thousands of booths with clothes, shoes, belts, purses, jewelry, fakes, no names, graphic tees, blouses, dresses, jeans, shorts, small sizes, men’s sizes, tattoo artists, hair extensions, nail ladies, ice cream vendors… THOUSANDS in each of the 4 buildings surrounding the intersection, with even more scattered along the streets. From the moment we walked in, the dinginess took over and the rickety lighting fixtures guided us through. The dirt and garbage cluttered the maze of booths on each floor. The small windows, which prevented in any natural light from coming in (or air) brought a gray bleakness to the florescent lighting that shopping seem more depressing then shopping ever should be.

I can honestly say, that I am a very experienced shopper, probably Olympic team status but not even I could make it through all the buildings. After about an hour of the “Miss, Miss”, “Lady, Lady”, the slow dehydration taking place and the total disregard for our Chinese language capabilities Garrett and I decided it was time to go. Well, Garrett decided and the astronomical beads of sweat gliding down my perfectly mystic tanned face couldn’t refuse.

A few days later having already gotten my bearings I decided to brave it again with Gina. This time we took an afternoon off work and prayed for cooler winds. Instead we got rain, a few less people and the most hostile sales clerks I’d ever encountered. From the moment of our arrival, they followed us. Smothering us with promises of Dior purses and Rolex watches, we just had to follow then to their booth. Our attempts to ignore them went completely ignored, and they persisted. Our attempts to tell them “No, thank you”, in Spanish, English, and Chinese, went misunderstood. My attempt to fake a coughing fit and intimidate them with a potential swine flu scare didn’t even faze them. And even our attempts to beat them with our extended umbrellas went completely unnoticed. It wasn’t until the same grimy man with the bright orange shirt followed us up to yet another floor that I finally had to stop, turn around and scream at him. Then he understood!

As Gina and I explored the towers of mayhem we became more and more disenchanted. We realized that no matter what the vendors at Cheap-u had to sell it wasn’t worth having to push, shove, and scream at people for.

Irritated, hot and frustrated, Gina and I lost patience in the street that shopping paradises try to mimic. Not even the wonder of a perfect gladiator sandal or belted plaid dress could divert the filth of the building, sales people and beggars, off of us.

After, just two short hours, we realized that we could not win the battle and Cheap-u was left behind. Another pair of shoppers scared off by the infamous Cheap-u.

By Elena Garcia

HitchcockOne of the many things lacking about Shanghai, is my accessibility to my favorite feature films at the cinema! Unlike the moviegoers at home, I am not able to enjoy Star Trek at midnight, or a girl’s night for Confessions Of A Shopaholic. I am bound to my living room and the “DVD” collection I have accumulated. Of course it isn’t the same, I miss the aroma of Popcorn, the dancing Raisinettes and the lines…

Oh the lines, the ones you have to wait in for hours just to get a 50 dollar ticket so that celebrities get richer, the ones you have to stand in to get into the theatre just to sit in the front row with the back of your head smashed to your chair looking up like a 3 year old looking at Shaquielle O’Neil, knowing full well that for the next week it’ll hurt you to move your neck past a 90 degree angle. And the lines you have to stand in to get a 20-dollar bag of popcorn from a teenager with too much attitude and not enough acne medication…

Oh the lines. Goodness I miss the theatre!

In China Movies aren’t like that! There are plenty of theatres, I just don’t know when the show times are or what movies they’re playing or if I would even understand them! So for the last eight months, I’ve gone without, without the nuances that I dreaded so much and now miss like crazy. For the most part I didn’t even know what I was missing because I’m not swarmed with commercials, trailers and posters but every once in a while a huge movie would come out and I would miss it.

One day while finishing up a long day of work, a colleague of mine mentioned that Shanghai was having an International Film Festival and that they were showing loads of movies. The festival would bring Celebrities like Halle Barry, Danny Boyle and Clive Owen to Shanghai. Excited, I asked her help to look through the listings and discover what cinematic classics would grace the Chinese big screen. It took us awhile and countless efforts but finally we found a segment of the movie listings with American films! Excited, she read me the movie titles and shared in my glee as we discovered that the festival would display a collection of Alfred Hitchcock classics! Garrett and I became huge Hitchcock fans after we Netflicked “Rear Window.” And so, I decided on a few titles I wanted to see on the big screen. Lily gave me the locations and times and I went off to confer with Garrett and enter back into some of the normalcy of western life that I had missed so much!

One week later, on a particularly rainy Saturday evening, Garrett and I went to the Metropol Theatre in People’s Square and purchased tickets for the 8:30 screening of Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Man Who Knew Too Much.”

As we approached the counter, we pointed to the selection on the white laminated piece of paper and gestured that we wanted 2 tickets. The guy at the ticket window rumbled something in Chinese and then gestured toward the next people in line who were standing about 2 inches away from us anyway! Unsure what was going on, Garrett and I refused to budge knowing full well that if we did, we’d lose the authority we gained by standing at the desk. I also took that moment to glare at the couple spooning us from behind. Finally a lady from another counter came over and let us know that we needed to head to the eighth floor to purchase those tickets.

At that moment, we walked to elevator and pressed 8. As the cheesy jazz filled the space we slowly progressed to our destination.

We arrived to the counter, we repeated the ritual that we had done downstairs and pointed to our movie title and time. After pressing some buttons on her computer the cashier gestured toward her screen. Slowly she turned the monitor for us to see and pointed toward the seating chart filling the screen. Directing our attention at the blue seats, which sat at the end of the rows of red seats, she asked us to pick.

In most Chinese movie theatres seats are assigned when you purchase tickets. So the earlier you buy them the better your seats will be. Because we were unaware of the seating assignments, Garrett and I had arrived just a short time before the movie was set to begin. The only seats available were on the sides and at the very front. Fearing the kink in my neck, which would come from being a fly on a windshield at the front, Garrett and I selected a seat to the side.

80 rmb later (about 12 bucks for 2 tickets, not bad) Garrett and I had our tickets and some time to kill. We walked around People’s Square and did everything we could to watch the time pass. Finally thirty minutes before the movie was set to begin Garrett and I headed towards the theatre only to be stopped by the ticket taker. She let us know that they opened the theatre just five minutes before show time… so basically we still had time to kill. She also took the liberty to direct us to the bar across the hall where we could buy drinks and watch the time slip away.

FINALLY, it was time to go in. Garrett and I headed to the concession stand, purchased soda and popcorn (they didn’t sell candy) and headed toward our seats. As the lights dimmed, we began shoveling hands full of popcorn into our mouth, anticipating the warm buttery cloudy morsels melting on our tongue, when suddenly an odd taste filled our taste buds, the popcorn was sweet, and cold…and stale. My big bucket was done… it was not good or fluffy or buttery. It was gross.

Disappointed I maintained my excitement; I knew it didn’t matter because for the first time in a long time I was in the plush seats of a movie theatre. People climbed over us to get to their seats, adjusted their backs to lie comfortably in the big chairs and chatted in whispers as the bright lights of the screen filled the now dark room. The movie was about to begin…

The opening credits began and I realized the whispers weren’t going away. People were talking. Their voices seeming to get louder as the movie progressed. The couple in front of us continued an argument they had started before the previews, a man chatted on his cell phone and someone in the back sounded as if they were regurgitating food for a small bird.

Enraged, I finally worked up the courage to tell the people in front of us to SHHH! They glared but obeyed. And slowly the others silenced as well. It wasn’t until about half way through the movie that conversations began again. A phone rang, a man answered, talked, laughed, and then said farewell and hung up. The lady behind us broke out in song even though there wasn’t any music playing and the couple continued their whispered argument.

When the movie was finally over Garrett and I left our full bucket of stale popcorn on the floor, headed towards the exit and decided that going to a Chinese movie theatre wouldn’t ever happen again!

They did it!

July 8, 2009

By Elena Garcia

Blocked SiteChina  blocked a few websites during the anniversary of a certain Tiananmen fiasco. Chinese officials blocked websites like Hotmail, Twitter, and Flicker.

YouTube is permanently blocked here… at least it has been since I arrived! And some Wikipedia pages (like the one listing what sites are blocked in China) are also blocked.

China blocked Google for a short time, as a threat to the search engine giants to put better filters on their system.

China was even going mandate a filtering software be put into all new computers in an attempt to block out porn (and anything else their little hearts desired). But, according to CNN, the government-set deadline that would have required the software, called Green Dam-Youth Escort, which was to come with all PCs, is being postponed indefinitely. (The postponement wasn’t because they decided to allow some freedom of search but rather because the Green Dam software is filled with technical glitches!)

And of course, they’ve done it again. As of this morning sites like FACEBOOK, and Twitter are blocked! As in no soup for you, you’re not cool enough to get in, stand behind the velvet rope!

This revelation brings me to tears because of my severe addiction to my favorite networking site. As I sit here and type this very entry. the symptoms of withdrawal all sit in.

First the denial

As part of my job I am in charge of some of the online networking sites that my company participates in, so this morning when I tried ever so gently to log into Facebook and Twitter, I was blinded by the big yellow triangle and the words:

Connection Interrupted
The connection to the server was reset while the page was loading.
The network link was interrupted while negotiating a connection. Please try again.

Assuming it was my Internet connection, I tried again.

And again…

And again…

Then the anger

As the frustration from the yellow triangle flashes before me I become livid with all things electronic. Cursing under my breathe, and hoping nothing but negative things for those who would do this to me!

Then the depression

Slowly as I realize my anger will not change the out come I begin to mope. Imagining all the amazing things that I am missing. All the inside jokes that I will not be privy to. All the surveys my friends post because they think people care. All the photos of random people’s drunk 4th of July celebrations… all gone.

Then the acceptance

As people stroll into the office I grab their attention with the news that Facebook, is blocked. Stunned, I see the look in their eyes as they swallow the fact that the site that allowed them to cyber stalk people was now forbidden. Seeing their pain I stay strong and continue trying to access… just hoping that they don’t block my site!

To see a list of a few of the blocked sites click here!

or here!

By Elena Garcia

Mascot HaibaoIf you decide to swing by Shanghai, you’ll quickly notice something. From the moment you leave your gate at the airport you’ll be flooded with images, ads and propaganda of the 2010 World Expo here in Shanghai, set to begin in May. The blue Gumbi like mascot with his big bubbly eyes will follow you through the city, creeping you out and calling you in.

The mascot is actually the Chinese character for people or “ren” and he magically comes to life as a cartoon icon for kids and grown ups to swoon over. He’s the Mickey Mouse of the World Expo.

The World Expo, I guess, is supposed to be like a world’s fair. Containing stations from every country in the world. It was the World’s Fair that brought Paris the Eiffel Tower, San Francisco the Palace of Fine Arts and now, China a big metal look thing.

China is making a huge deal about the event. Shanghai is under construction everywhere. Billboards are plastered every couple feet. And, just recently Shanghai has started running ads encouraging Chinese people to be polite: stop shoving, stop spitting and stop being disgusting slobs like they sometimes are now; all in anticipation for the swarms of foreigners and media outlets which will flood the city during the World Expo. (Apparently they also did this in Beijing for the Olympics.) They also put up a countdown clock in People’s Square (the busiest subway station) so that no one forgets when to have manners or when the event starts.

I hadn’t thought much of the World Expo. In fact, I am still not sure what the point is entirely.  China, like I said, is making a huge deal about this. But based on conversations I’ve had with people outside of China… no one seems to know much about it! I don’t even know anyone who has heard about it out side of Shanghai, and yet, China is treating the World Expo like the Olympics.

China PavilionThey sell stuffed animals, t-shirts, posters, and throw parties in honor of an event that is nearly a year away! Recently, they had a huge lighting ceremony for the China exhibition (which is a monstrosity, a huge metal temple style building with red panels and a million steps).

And the most exciting part? Drama! Controversy of the US’s absence from the World Expo fills Expat conversations. (The US has yet to confirm or decide really, if we will attend with rumors that Dell and Pepsi would sponsor the booth if we chose to do it!) I’ve even heard one lady mention, “It would be the biggest mistake we ever made.” As if electing George W. twice didn’t already win that prize!

With all the debates and hooplah over an event that no one really knows about, I wonder, is it going to be a huge deal? Am I just in the dark?

World Expo StickerRecently, after a weekend trip, I returned to something so shocking that it nearly blew my mind. The taxis, because of the World Expo, were changing. No, the drivers didn’t learn to drive or obey traffic laws. Instead they have started offering a free translation service to passengers.

In Shanghai, taxi drivers don’t speak English. Not one of them. From the HUNDREDS of taxis I’ve taken since living here I have yet to encounter one who could utter more than the normal  “Hello,” “Thank You,” and “Good Bye.” To be perfectly honest, their lack of English skills has been a big motivation to learn Chinese. Somebody has to be able to know where I am going, and it isn’t going to be my taxi driver.

So after my short trip away, while going on a shopping escapade I noticed a freshly pasted sticker on the scratched up plastic partition of my taxi. My little blue World Expo friend was waving to me in excitement, attempting to gain my attention and let me know that if I needed translation services because I didn’t know where I was going, I just had to call the number listed and an operator could help! I was shocked. In the few days it had been since I last took a cab everything had changed.

No more frantic phone calls to my Chinese friends when cab drivers couldn’t understand me.

No more written down addresses on crumpled up pieces of paper to pass into the grimy hands of my hostile taxi driver.

No more pronunciation practice before even hailing a cab and subsequently, getting hissed at by my taxi driver for not saying it perfectly!

This changed every thing. This sticker rocked my world. And all because of the World Expo! I may not know what it is, or why, or the drama behind it but I do know that the sticker… is the best thing to happen to Shanghai since I arrived!

Learn more about the World Expo here!

By Elena Garcia

Let's proudly wave our American flags made in China

Tailor Made

July 2, 2009

By Elena Garcia

Fabric MarketDisneyland is probably, hands down, the happiest place on earth. As a society, the idea of Mickey’s big ears and Cinderella’s blonde locks are the fundamentals of happiness. But unfortunate for Disneyland; I have found THE actual happiest place on earth. The Mecca that Buddha, Jesus and Mohamed all spoke of. The one place were imagination, excitement, hope and FASHION all come together… The South Bund Fabric Market!

Everyone at my work had spoke about Chinese fabric markets, how incredible, cheap and amazing they were. How with a picture and a dream any person could go and have a dress, outfit or suit made for a very low reasonable price. Desperate to see this holy place they spoke of, I dragged Garrett and headed to the address written down on a scrunched up piece of scratch paper by one of my Chinese co-workers.

When we arrived I was taken aback by the chaos surrounding us; the beggars outside of the giant building, the construction clogging the streets around it and the traffic that followed. When we finally got into the warehouse style building I was in complete awe. Hundreds of small booths filled with silks, cottons, nylons, polyesters, denims… the walls were covered with shelves of fabric rolls in ever color, every pattern, every texture that one could ever imagine. It was like the fabric stores they show the contestants of Project Runway shopping at. Swarms of people in booth after booth filling the path ways.

The cascades of flowing fabric coming at us from every angle hid the dingy lighting and dirty floors, booth after booth was filled with silks or cottons or synthetics… the only decision one needed to make was who! Who would be chosen to design my next dress? So we made our way through the grimy corridors, the cat calls from vendors (of which I have all to sadly become accustomed too) rang. “Miss, silk dress?” “Gucci Suit?” “Miss…” “Lady…”

After making our way up to all four floors I decided on one vendor to make my dress. She would be the chosen one.

One afternoon, after this initial shopping escapade I decided to peruse the pages of Saks.com, Bloomies, Niemans, and Barney’s. Page after page contained the dresses of my hearts desire! And for the first time I didn’t have to calculate when they would go on sale, or whether I would be able to eat based on the price. For the first time they weren’t just a twinkle in my eye, they were reality. I could have every single on of those things, made in the color, fabric, pattern and SIZE of my choice!

Five dresses, two shirts and one skirt later my closet is slowly starting to resemble the websites of my favorite department stores. Where else can I get a 400 Nannette Lepore dress made for less than 20 bucks and couture at that?

Ohh China!!