A Gweilo in 1980s China pt. 7

tai pan 7 copertinaWritten by Tai Pan

For those who want to read the previous chapters before being immersed in this one, you can go to the ‘Story of my life’ section and start from part 1.


As I said in episode 6 – after the famous business transaction that took place in the China Textile Import Export offices – around 4.30pm the Chinese officials kindly accompanied us back to our hotel, the Park International, which was located right in the pulsating heart of Shanghai.

My hotel was one of the most popular ones among Gweilos. Indeed, after it was built in 1932, The Park International accommodated the majority of the foreign guests that were staying in Shanghai, as in the early 80s big hotel chains didn’t yet exist in the country.

After the long lunch we had at the China Textile Import Export offices, my two ‘business colleagues’ and I decided to go for a walk to digest the food. We began to wonder around the legendary Nanking Road, and as soon as we left the hall of the hotel, we found ourselves immersed in the human flow that populated the sidewalks. People were walking frantically, rushing everywhere, and when two would walk on the same pavement, but in two different directions; those two would aggressively clash into each other.

Shanghai Nnkg Road 2

In Italy, in such a situation people would stop and address to each other with both a formal “excuse me” or a more aggressive “look where you’re going!” In Shanghai, on the other hand, I saw that those who jostled seemed to absorb the ‘shot’ almost bouncing on each other! After the collision, they would just casually go down the path without even looking back at the other person. I then realised over the time that people would crush into each other without worrying about whether the other person was hurt or not; it was just the way it was…

We immediately realised that it was 5pm – even without looking at our watches – because we began to see an infinite flow of human beings walking from and to all the directions, to reach the bus stops positioned on the sides of the road. We stopped as we were curious to see what had happened when the bus arrived. I also noticed that there were two men at the bus stop, both wearing a uniform showing a white band on their right arms, which presented a Chinese writing obviously incomprehensible by me.

One of the two Italians that was with me in Shanghai – and who had been visiting China for a long time by then – suddenly turned his face expression into a strange and rather enigmatic smile. As soon as I asked him why he was so happy, his smile even harder; but he didn’t reveal the reason why he was so enthusiastic.

Shanghai strade 1

Two buses arrived at the same time, and when they approached the bus stop I found myself in front of a scene that I can still remember now as if it was yesterday: the mass of people swayed and quivered as if it was a single being and rushed frantically to the bus. While the people were stumbling and pushing each other, I understood what the task of the two men with white band on their arms was! They had to push people inside the bus so that everyone could fit in! I saw the the Chinese inside all pressed against each other in the craziest crazy ways possible, and some were even sticking out the windows!

Shanghai Bus 2

At that point, the other Italian and I, realised that the other man that was with us – the one that had travelled in China for a while –  had disappeared! We thought that because of the confusion, he had returned to the hotel, so we headed back too. However, when we reached the front desk and asked to the concierge whether they had seen him, we realised that he had never returned the hotel! We were getting quite worried about this mysterious disappearance, so we went to the bar to have a drink and calmly think about the situation.

We began to make several assumptions: was he lost in the mass of people? Was he kidnapped? We thought of reporting to the local police that our fellow-countryman had disappeared; but in the end we waited a little longer to see if he was going to come back to the hotel at all.

Shanghai Bus 1

We decided to go take a shower while we were waiting for the other Italian, and at 7pm, right when were sitting in the lobby discussing about whether to go to the police or not, he suddenly appeared!

I immediately spotted the enigmatic smile that was still covering his face! We asked him what happened, and after hearing that, I didn’t know if I should have laughed or cried! He told us that during one of his trips to China, he had discovered that if you move around with public transport, because the people are so squeezed in there, you could easily touch the young Chinese women… After the first time he tried that, he used to repeat this “ritual” every time he would be in Shanghai.

Shanghai lungo Huangpu river

Incredible, grotesque and hilarious at the same time! All this happened in Shanghai in 1983, same year as my very unusual and memorable dinner at Jin Jian Club, where I discovered an alternative way of cleaning services that in Italy it hasn’t been yet discovered. Don’t worry, I will tell you all about it in the next coming chapter.

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