“China messes with my head on a daily basis….” That observation by Rob Gifford in his book, China Road, expresses the sentiment of most foreigners who have spent any amount of time in China. He goes on to illustrate this confusion by presenting the tension of thinking on one particular day that China will take over the world, and the next day thinking that it will implode.
Sometimes the confusion comes from the more mundane — the everyday juxtipositions of old and new, Chinese and western, elegant and tacky, rich and poor that bombard the senses at every turn. First glances often leave us scratching ourheads and thinking, ‘now what does that have to do with anything???’
Yesterday afternoon, after a morning of tromping around Shanghai looking for places that Esther mentioned in her letters written in the 20’s and 30’s, we decided to take a 1 hour boat ride up the Huangpu River that runs through the city. It winds its way south into town from the mouth of the Yangtze River and is tributary that Esther’s ship would have come into Shanghai on in 1924 and 1933. We thought it would be interesting to get a glimpse of the city from the river, as she had done.
We bought our tickets at the tourist office at the end of Nanjing Road, and set off on the 30 minute walk along the famous Bund (river front). To our right were all the old colonial bank buildings, which are now, of course Chinese bank buildings. Interestingly every single building is topped with flagpoles flying the Chinese flag. Flags aren’t all that common in China, but they are on display here, on the buildings that more than anything symbolize western imperialism, as if to announce to the world (and more importantly to the Chinese people), “these are ours now, thank you very much.”
As we neared the docks where the the boat we were to board was tied up, I spotted something vaguely familiar, yet so very out of place that triggered a flurry of bewilderment. It was a large white boat…with 2 black parallel smoke stacks at the front….and a large red paddle at the back. What? Wait….is that a Mississippi River paddle boat? Here on the Huangpu River in Shanghai? It can’t be. Or did I somehow suddenly get transported back to St. Lous? The competing voices are at war in the brain: WHY??? WHY NOT???
Mark Twain, meet Huck Feng!
Of course the fact that it was a fake Mississippi River paddle boat did not an anyway diminish the enjoyment of the ride; in fact, it kept us chuckling the whole time.
And on our way back down the river (the direction Esther would have been going when she sailed into town), we spotted the scene we were looking for — the one from her photo album marked “Shanghai Harbor.” Take out the high rise buildings, the bridge, and the bright blue Haibao (Shanghai World Expo mascot), add a few boats and sampans, and it pretty well duplicated her photo.
You can judge for yourself.
*I wish I could take credit for the “Huck Feng” line, but alas, I cannot. It was sent to me by text message from a friend in a reply to a message I had sent to him upon sighting the boat. Thanks, Mr. K!