Searching for Mumbai’s Shanghai
In November, I visited China’s New York and Mumbai’s envy.
And I’m relieved I don’t live in it, despite the six years I spent, until last March, in the Mumbai of Shanghai dreams.
I was counting down to my first visit to Olympian Beijing’s competitor, the city of skyscrapers that rose science fiction style on a muddy fishing village in the Middle Kingdom.
So I was puzzled when Indians in Beijing didn’t share my excitement. “Dirty and crowded like Mumbai…take care of your purse,” said a young Indian professional. “One day is enough to see Shanghai,” said an older businessman.
I booked my air tickets at a travel agency where the Chinese staff had not heard of the world’s fastest magnetic levitation train that shoots between Pudong airport and the city fringes in less than eight minutes. Finally in Shanghai, we did not land at the futuristic Pudong airport, but its poor cousin Hongqiao, because it was near our 60-storey hotel.
Hongqiao makes Mumbai’s renovated Santacruz airport look good. Outside, we saw a fleet of ageing and grimy taxis…a surprise after the capital’s spotless fleet, whose drivers suffered pre-Olympics fines if inspectors found even a strand of hair on the seats.
As we drove slowly into congested Shanghai draped in thick grey haze, my father declared that he wanted to return to Beijing the next day.
From my 56th floor hotel room, I looked down on China’s largest city and saw a claustrophobic clutter of rooftops brushing each other with none of the green spaces that dot even business neighbourhoods in Beijing. Is this really what Mumbai wants to look like, I wondered.
There was no sign of the sky during our three-day stay, so we didn’t go atop China’s latest tallest building, a bottle-opener-shaped 101-storey skyscraper that rarely peeked out of the haze.
Just before the Olympics, Beijing’s beggars were ordered out and pirated DVD sellers and hawkers of counterfeit designer goods briefly scurried underground. It seemed like they all fled to Shanghai.
“Louis Vuitton bag, Rolex watch,” yelled locals clutching designer brochures on the streets, where the uneven and narrow footpaths took getting used to after walking Beijing’s wide new pavements.
“Money, money,” chanted children, men and women of all ages begging everywhere, even by the Bund overlooking the skyscrapers of Pudong district. The Bund’s famed skyline was fogged out and my mother slipped on the fruit peels littering the walk.
Whenever a police patrol approached, hawkers on the Bund skated away on wheels attached to sneakers. They pretended to hide in full view of the police, who pretended not to notice.
I left Shanghai thinking that for the latest in urban planning, the policy-makers at Mantralaya in Mumbai could look at Beijing instead. Shanghai has China’s tallest buildings, deep underwater tunnels, busiest port and expensive night-out options. But Beijing packs 17 million people with parks around every corner, wide tree-lined boulevards for the 1,000 new cars hitting the roads every day, indoor markets instead of pavement sellers, and constant additions to city-life, like an all-glass Village of restaurants and shops.
I had been desperate for a break from Beijing. But to my surprise, Shanghai made me miss it.