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Some Things I Wouldn’t Forget About Shanghai

June 5, 2012

I was back in Melbourne that morning feeling overwhelmed over what I had gone through in Shanghai. Waiting for Skybus at the Melbourne airport, things looked kind of a fantasy to me. I was not sure which world was real then – Melbourne or Shanghai? My whole perspective about universe had apparently been turned upside down, as though I had been duped the whole time in Melbourne, thinking that this was the only right way of living, while in many parts of the world, things were running just as well according to their own rules and systems.

As I saw the 297-meter-high Eureka Tower emerging right out of the clouds of my senses, I began to unpack the different layers of Shanghai and recall the order of events and collect my thoughts scattered in many places. Besides being robbed by a gang of local Chinese men, there were also some other things in Shanghai that I wouldn’t forget.




The moment I arrived in Shanghai, I didn’t feel excited at all. I mean, I had been to Hong Kong the previous year, so why would I expect things to be different in Shanghai? I was, however, very curious about the 6th International Conference on Speech Prosody 2012 because this was my first time attending a conference with such a broader theme than phonetics per se. Here is the number – 372 researchers from more than 30 countries participated in this conference. But again, after listening to a keynote speech and a few oral sessions on the first day, I started to wonder why I decided to join this event in the first place. When I was becoming more interested in the delicate patterns of grand chandeliers hung majestically in the grand ballroom of the Grand Central Hotel Shanghai, I knew that I could be at a wrong place. Maybe Speech Prosody was not my thing.

Outside the ballroom, many posters on Speech Prosody were being presented by excited participants, mostly PhD students like me. I walked past their carefully-crafted posters and, after nodding once and twice and pretending to listen, I walked away immediately. Many times, I couldn’t help eavesdropping interesting small talks among younger participants who seemed to be desperate in building up a network, like a naive star waiting to grab for the next chance available to reach the ladder into the Hollywood of Prosody. The standard flow of conversations normally went like these: Hey, are you presenting as well? What is your research all about? Wait a minute… were you in Hong Kong last year? Which hotel are you staying now? Do you like the food here? Are you joining the tour this Saturday? Gee, that was a boring talk, wasn’t it? Stuff like that.

Sometimes, I wondered whether these participants would hook up with each other after the conference. The way the intellectual discourse flowed and the way they licked their coffee cups somehow led me into thinking that somebody would be dragged into someone else’s hotel room that night. In any case, all of them seemed to be genuinely passionate about their research and about building a mega empire of scholarship and friendship. Thanks to these seductive people, my first day of the conference was not all that dreary.




The second day was nonetheless getting a little better. I woke up as early as 5 o’clock in the morning, feeling fresher and more energized and more optimistic about the world. There was an aura of bliss and peace in my hotel room that I began to wonder whether I was floating in the Seventh Heaven. Heaven or Hell, I would have to come back to earth to present my poster that day at 11 o’clock, which was a bit nerve-cracking since I had never done a poster presentation in my whole life.

A poster tube on my shoulder, I walked out of the Seventh Heaven Hotel with slight nervousness for new experiences waiting for me in just a couple of hours. The conference venue was only a few minutes’ walk from my hotel, so I took my own sweet time walking along the Nanjing Road Pedestrian Street, China’s premier shopping street. A wide pedestrian space was laying before me, which was in complete contrast to the suffocating downtown in Hong Kong. There were many traditional stores, specialty shops and upscale stores lining up both sides of the street: Tiffany, Mont Blanc, Dunhill. You name it.

From afar, I heard some traditional Chinese music lingering vaguely on the air, as though the emperor of the Xin Dynasty from the 9th century was sending a secret message to me: “Fighting!” Saying thank you to the kind Majesty, I then walked past some street musicians who were showing off their lively art at this world’s longest shopping street. Some old men and women were practising what looked like tai chi moves. They were so absorbed in their meditations that I began to envy their spiritual convictions. The sky was gloomy but I felt the clear rhythm and perfect harmony. I said my silent prayers.

I arrived at the conference venue later with some bright-eyed girls waiting so eagerly to serve me. For one thing, I truly admired the spirit and helpfulness of these volunteers who were all students from Tongji University, the main organizer of the event. For another thing, these people were also freaking organized and ready to demonstrate their newly polished communication skills at any given moment of crisis.

“I’m one of the poster presenters this afternoon,” I said to one of them, pointing to my poster tube.
“Oh, yes, yes, yes… Come this way!” said a cute girl with fancy glasses, grinning and giggling as if she had just met a Hong Kong celebrity. Before I knew it, they were clamoring over my poster as though it was the best candy in the world. Within a few minutes, I was all ready and set with my colourful, eye-catching, bling-bling poster.


For the next two hours, I spoke non-stop to many brainy strangers with big names who seemed to be all thrilled with my research project. Not that I was the most articulate person on earth nor I was the most interesting person in the conference, but things beautifully fell into place like magic. For many, it was an excellent presentation with an exceptional delivery. For me, it was a task that I had to conduct so as not to make the organizer wonder where the hell the presenter was missing. It was a nice experience and I did what I was supposed to do. Nothing less and nothing more.




Before long, I was “kidnapped” by Chia-Hsin, one of the conference participants, to an exotic part of Shanghai called Tianzifang. He insisted that I should celebrate the success of my poster presentation by exploring an art street and by getting charmed into a real Shanghainese atmosphere, not by getting brainwashed with the cold presentation of a hard-to-please professor in the Grand Central Hotel Shanghai ballroom. I couldn’t agree more.

“I felt like a criminal now!” I said while we walked to the nearest subway station in People’s Square.
“Why?” he asked.
“I should be at the conference now, not sneaking around with you!”
“Do you really want to go back now?”
“NOOOOOO!!!” I said with laughter I couldn’t even understand.

Chia-Hsin walked with such childishness and radiance that I had never seen before in a human being. At 32, this Taiwanese guy looked so much younger than his real age with his stylish round-framed glasses, a complex flowery shirt, rolled-up jeans, and a sling bag with a designer label. Although this was his first time in Shanghai, he looked too confident as if he had been in this part of the city before. I met him the other day after his excellent oral presentation on Hakka. Currently completing his PhD at the University of Michigan, he was at the beginning of a promising career in his life.

“Don’t you love this place, Hilmi?” he said in the middle of our exploration in Tianzifang.
“Yeah, I so do,” I said, feeling the vibrancies of romantic cafes, creative craft shops, lively studios and luxurious boutiques all around me.

This place was simply mesmerizing. Located in the French Concession area of Shanghai, it is indeed a popular tourist destination. The whole neighbourhood was filled with labyrinths of narrow alleyways consisting of endless stream of shops and stores and treasures. Fully captivated, I just wanted to keep walking and be drowned with the maze-like structure of the buildings standing so close to each other. I could clearly observe the old Shanghai lifestyle through all kinds of Shinkumen architecture. Everything here was in fact built with no organization at all, which perhaps made it look so mysterious and inviting. After a few minutes, I would bump into the same tricky lanes leading to another confusing lane that, after some time, I couldn’t be bothered about getting lost anymore. I was completely lost by the loss itself. Thanks to Chia-Hsin, the carefree afternoon spent in Tianzifang turned out to be one of the finest getaways in my life.




The final day of the conference ended with an elaborate banquet dinner and a wonderful cruise along Pujiang River. While I appreciated all of these standard, overrated Shanghai experiences, they were all too touristy and too expected. The next day, however, having nothing better to do, I joined a tour group to Suzhou, a city dubbed as the Venice of the East.

As I sat quietly on a bus for nearly two hours, I saw the locals riding cute motorbikes and bicycles on dedicated bike lanes. There was hardly anyone bold enough to put on their helmets, as if wearing one was a thing of the past, some ancient behavior that existed only in a history book. Most of the streets I saw were lining up with maple trees, which were unimpressively and boringly green. I wondered why the conference wasn’t scheduled during autumn, the season when I could witness the glorious colours of these maple trees.

The tour in Suzhou started in Panmen Gate, the oldest city gate of Suzhou and the only existing water and land gate in China. My eyes were fixed on many scenic spots, like the old Ruiguang Pagoda. While admiring this 2500-year-old gate town, I was kept busy by my loyal companions that day: Nassima, an Algerian girl studying at the Universite Aix-Marseille, France; and Timo, a German guy studying at the University of Cologne. While Nassima was all excited over everything she saw at the splendid Wumen Gate Bridge and the beautiful Grand Canal, Timo was all cheeky and crazy and loved making fun of other people.

“Too many people!” Timo would say with a mocking Mandarin English accent he acquired during the conference, saying people with pee-paw.
“Welcome to our big hall!” I would play along with a similar local accent, making hall sound like whore.

We would laugh over our linguistic jokes, while Nassima said something in English which sounded very much like French. She, too, had problems switching between English and French. For her, as long as French words were “anglicised” and produced like English words, things should be fine. Timo, on the other hand, spoke with a very strong American accent. His ‘r’ colouring was annoying that I had to stop him in the middle of a conversation whenever he said because with becouRse or visa with visaR. In any case, these linguistic phonemena should warrant further research in language transfer and prosody. Who knows?

During the tour, I also got to know Kalu, a conference participant from Nigeria. Being the only black in the group (and perhaps in the entire Shanghai!), he had been thrown in the spotlight at every nook and corner of the city. People on the street would just stare directly at him with no slightest pretension at all as if he were the prettiest creature on earth. I couldn’t help laughing when a local girl stood next to him all of a sudden and took pictures without even asking for his permission, like he was some kind of an inanimate statue. Fortunately, he was such a sport who would smile at the locals’ deep curiosity over a different type of human skin. I was lucky since no one would take me seriously to be one of the aliens. Hey, just like in Hong Kong, I passed easily again as one of the locals. Shieh shieh.

The second destination of the tour was the Humble Administrator’s Garden, the best representation of Chinese classical gardens of the Ming Dynasty. This UNESCO World Heritage Site was breathtakingly beautiful. Holding tight my Sony camera among the endless stream of visitors, I would snap at whatever images and objects that came before me: quaint pavilions, nostalgic bridges, enchanting ponds, tiny islands, old trees, great lawns, dreamlike scenes of a fairy land. It had been a pleasant and humbling afternoon, until the whole touring experience became unbearable with tourists pouring in from every direction. A nice stroll by the lake now turned into a nasty wrestling competition when one tour group bumped into one another. The classical garden, which was supposed to be admired for its serenity and stillness, had become a place filled with grumpy visitors who kept pushing their way through a narrow exit.




After the pleasure-turned-pressure tour, I was back into the hustle and bustle of Shanghai city. I returned to my hotel and freshened up. It was still early in the evening and so I decided to get out and see what’s left of the day. Walking along the Nanjing Road Pedestrian Street, I realized that I was alone on the street without any friends from the conference. But, hey, this is good, I thought. I could finally experience and define Shanghai in my own terms. But again, I had no idea what sort of danger waiting for me here. Because it was on this particular evening that I was robbed.

Like many other typical nights in this street, I had already seen people approaching me with all sorts of offers, from tea ceremonies to massage services and many other interesting invitations. I had already heard that one of my friends was recently scammed and was forced to pay a certain amount of money. But, I wanted to see more than those “hearsays”. I convinced myself that I would not be convinced enough until I experienced it myself. So curious, I accepted a tea-ceremony invitation from a stranger on the street.

“Come this way,” he said, leading me to a place that looked like a karaoke bar.
“I will just look around and leave, right?” I asked.
“Yes, no need to pay anything. Just see,” said the friendly man with a smile that reminded me of the crook in Dennis The Menace.

I was taken to a cozy place filled with sweet aroma and soothing music. Sitting comfortably in a sofa, I was served with an assortment of tea and fruits. I had a sip of tea with hard-to-name flavour and waited calmly for a drama to unfold. A middle-aged lady sitting next to me was talking in an over-friendly manner, asking about my original Swatch watch, about my student life in Melbourne, and about which hotel that I was currently staying. But I kept all the details to myself and trying to play safe while giving the hints that I was not really interested in their so-called tea ceremony. Half an hour passed and I said that I wanted to leave. Just when I wanted to get up and thought the game was over, the music suddenly stopped and the friendly ambience suddenly turned into a kind of a crime scene in CSI. Three muscular men entered the room and looked super ready to cut me into pieces.

“This is the bill,” one of them said, showing a ridiculous bill amounting to RMB9988 (equivalent to RM4972.90 or AUD1623.40).
“No, I’m not interested in your service,” I said.
“Then who’s going to pay for all of these?” he said, pointing to the tea cups and fruits on the table. I stayed composed for a few seconds and tried to be reasonable. I saw no point of being panicked or arguing since I could be physically harmed by these strong men at any time or, worst still, sold into the black market in different body parts.
“Okay, okay,” I said calmly. “Take all my money. This is all I’ve got.” I showed them RMB300 in my wallet.
“No, we don’t want your cash, give me your credit cards,” he said.

I gave them my Malaysian credit cards, which were certainly going to be declined since those cards were already reaching their limits. When they came back with disappointment, I gave them my Australian debit master card and, to my surprise delight, it was successful. Standing close to me, they forced me to sign a transaction and write the word AGREE on another document. I waited for the next dramatic scene to appear, but they let me out a few minutes later. Walking back into my hotel, I felt like I had just walked into someone else’s dream. But I could still taste the sweet tea in my mouth, feel the hidden fear inside me, and curse myself for the stupid game. Still, I was relieved that I could recognize myself in one piece that night. It was not until the next morning that it finally dawned to me that I had just been electronically mugged.




I woke up feeling so exhausted, as if all the energy had been drained out of me completely. Still thinking about my utter ignorance and costly curiosity, I called the bank in Australia and cancelled the card. I also called my mum afterwards for familiar comfort, though I wouldn’t tell her what had happened to me. I felt a sudden pang of loneliness and a desperate urge to fly back to my home country at any cost. Then I remembered my promise to Timo – I was supposed to meet him that morning to accompany him for what he called the “Last Pilgrimage”. I didn’t feel like doing a bare-footed pilgrimage after getting robbed, of course, but, as they said, there was no use crying over spilt milk. I told myself that I had to move on. Maybe a pilgrimage would do a good thing for my soul repairing, so to speak.

Pulling all my strength together, I met Timo and tried to distract myself from what happened. Timo was surprisingly supportive, despite his “American” meanness and all that. He told me not to worry, since that was always the way with traveling. I felt like smacking his face on the street, but then I wanted to smack mine when I knew that he was damn right. He was only 25 years old, but I admired his easygoingness, straightforwardness and uncomplicatedness. Maybe that’s the way with the European upbringings – simply venture the possibilities of the world and make do with their sweet and bitter results. No wonder he won the best student paper award at the conference.

So off Timo and I went into the clean and naked streets of Shanghai with no local guides. Most of the time, I was just walking blindly while Timo navigated the exploration with his Lonely Planet travel guide. We walked past myriads of sights and smell and colours: beautiful urban gardens filled with old couples singing and dancing in merriment; backstreets filled with local women enjoying the cool early summer afternoon; old towns filled old architecture, temples, foods and souvenirs. It was a thrill to just have a quick preview, a “touch ‘n go” sort of experience over people’s everyday livings and immediately leave the scenes as they were. Being able to have a taste of everything in Shanghai backstreet alleys was simply amazing.

If there was one thing that I could nominate as Shanghainese national favorite pastime, it would be spitting. As far as my 7-day limited experience was concerned, I couldn’t help to notice that people were spitting casually on the street as if it was the most natural thing to do on earth. Timo and I tried to imitate this spitting activity, but we were too polite to even accumulate the ample amount of green mucus in our throats.

Occasionally, we stopped by at a local store, trying to buy something and using a sign language at our best to bargain for the right price. We ended up, however, not buying anything since that was not our primary target – we just wanted to have fun without getting too monetarily involved. But too late, we were also almost victimized by these greedy, sneaky, scamful people.

“Gosh, they were so brilliant!” said Timo after we were almost tricked into believing that there was indeed a genuine “tea festival”. Three fake tourists from China had just approached us and pretended to be interested in tea tasting. The moment I realized that they took us to a private store, I sensed the danger right away and pulled Timo out of the scene. It was another well-planned scam to rip off tourists’ money.
“Yes, they are a master of trickery!” I said. “Would you believe that this has just happened to me last night?”
“Sneaky people!” said Timo with his trademark humour of pee-paw.




We ended our “Last Pilgrimage” at one of the best places in the world – the Observatory Deck on the Shanghai World Financial Center, the world’s highest observatory. We came an hour early before the sunset, so we waited patiently for the night to fall. Standing tall at 474 meters above the ground, I saw a glittering world slowly appearing around me – The Bund sparkling horizontally before me, the Oriental Pearl Tower sprinkling its neon lights on my right, Jin Mao Tower standing proudly right in front of me.

I stood here for a long time, thinking of all the events that had dragged me up until that point. And I was thinking, I should no longer fear for the unknown if I was capable of achieving what I wanted. No matter what happened, at the end of the day, I was the one who would finally decide how high I wanted to stand up.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. June 5, 2012 9:19 pm

    You were literally “Shanghai-ed” in Shanghai!!!! Phew! Am glad you came back in one piece. purrr….meow!


  2. Azrai permalink
    June 6, 2012 7:59 pm

    This was a truly an adventure!!! So colourful, from the plain sighst to the most glittering views, from the boring and expected events to the drama and thrillers. Take your time to chew them. Like Angelina, I`m glad you are ok.


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