20 hours in Shanghai, 1 in Kings Cross

19 Jun

Parallel to East Nanjing Road, five hundred metres west of the southbound bend where Su Zhou Creek meets Shanghai’s Huang Pu River, is an upstreet precinct where I spent what was meant to be my last night in China. We nested thirteen floors up a towering Sofitel, outscrapered by a good few rivals. The night scenes are out of this world yet, to borrow.from St. Paul – yes, there’s a Godly slant to this post – decidedly of it: Shanghai being not only China’s biggest city but its richest too.

See 1706 shanghai night; slides manually advance.

Showered and changed after being chauffeur driven, courtesy University of Nottingham, from a Ningbo three hours to the south, we strolled the Huang Pu’s west bank. Across the river, skyscrapers, upstaged by Pearl Tower’s mix of Islamesque minarets and radio transmitter, lit sky and water. Fronting the river on our side lay the Bund, the financial quarter modelled on Threadneedle St, its neoclassic pillared edifices a floodlit yellow nod to Auric Goldfinger; a declaration before Babylon of fiscal might.

On the intersect of Shu Shan Xi and Jiu Jang Road we ate beef and chillhi, snow peas, seaweed, crab and noodles – washed down with Tiger beer – at a China diner soon to close for the night. The nation eats early.

Later, outside the Sofitel where a doorman the size of Goldfinger’s Odd Job stood guard in frock coat and bow tie – earlier he’d urged me to mind how I went on newly washed marble steps – Jackie called it a night, but I wasn’t done. That’s when it began, Shanghai’s guy-out-alone radars picking me out in an instant as I dived down a warren of side alleys; Soho to Shanghai’s Bond Street. Within ten minutes I’d had a dozen offers, with and without massage euphemism, of sex. Most were from women; all declined with a smile.

Where a narrow night bazaar cut into the precinct, two young entrepreneurials had parked a vintage Citroen of poster red, lit by battery powered studio lights in softboxes six feet square on stands. The dudes in control were decked out as early twentieth century triads.

What is it about gangsta? No, don’t answer – it’s not rocket science. Besides car and lighting, these cats had battered Canon 5D SLRs with mid range lenses. Just off camera I spied: period drapes and make-up kit .. speakers hooked to iPhone playing ice-cool jazz .. digital lightroom of British phone booth design, currently a hot look in these parts. Of the crowds gathering, some were here to part with the readies, others, me included, to use the free lighting in shots of our own. And the business? To meet a clearly high demand to be snapped as mafiosa or moll, with a henchman to light your cigarette in or by the big Citroen. You’d then hand back the props and enter the phone booth, where a lad in plain clothes sat with laptop and Photoshop to hammer out jaypegs of your choice, with sepia tones in particularly high demand.

More of these pictures follow the nightscapes in 1706 shanghai night.


Next day I was up, showered, cafeined and out by six. Above the now thinly populated precinct a huge George Clooney, hawking Omega watches, gazed down on pavement strikingly devoid, to western eyes, of litter from last night’s crowds. In a doorway a homeless man stirred; at a zebra crossing another carried bedding away. I couldn’t resist, and though my shot is poor it captures the nobility of countenance that inspired me to take it.

Here and there men and women, none under fifty and few under sixty-five, were beginning their day with martial arts, pausing now and then to gossip. I took few shots (having better in the can from Hangzhou a week earlier) then headed back to the Sofitel to pack.

Pictures here at 1706 shanghai daybreak.


Jackie and I had different flights: she at 11:40 from Pudong, me at 20:50 from Hongqiau. Used to passing time at airports, I was happy to take Metro Line 2 out to Pudong with her, then get the airport shuttle bus to Hongqiao.

Boring. After waving her off I changed my mind, taking the tube back to East Nanjing Road to ask an impeccably spoken Sofitel receptionista if I could leave my suitcase a few hours while I wandered. I should have thought of that earlier of course, instead of lugging it halfway across the city and back, but hadn’t realised how well served – and cheap as chips – both airports are by Shanghai’s Metro.

Ye who go by tube – as commuter or rubberneck; in London or Barcelona, Glasgow or Delhi, Paris or the Big Apple – spare a thought for old Harry Beck. The fact you can navigate, at drop of proverbial hat, every such system on the planet is down to the electrical engineer who back in the thirties cracked a nut that had defied the best cartographic minds of his day. For decades the latter had strived and failed to map – in ways easily decoded by the multitudes amid the steam, grime and confusion of subterranean London – the world’s first undergound railway.

Like so many masterstrokes, the simplicity of Harry’s genius was obvious with hindsight. He saw that much of the info a map is expected to convey was redundant here. Yes, you need to show north at the top, south at the bottom, west left and east right. Useful too – in a London divvied into those who live north of the river, and those who yearn to join them – to throw in a heavily stylised Thames. But that was all. For the rest, what was needed was not a map but a diagram. Who cares if the line curves this way or that between Euston and Kings Cross? Who cares if Kentish Town is closer to Tufnell Park than to Camden Town? All that matters is sequence of stations and where lines intersect – where to change trains on your journey from Waterloo to Victoria.

Beck’s profession is by no means incidental. Just as circuit diagrams betray none of the details of wiring runs, only their organising principle, so had this man recognised that at the heart of the problem – maps that overwhelmed with needless detail – lay a literally tunnel visioned failure to grasp the high levels of abstraction, hence elegant simplicity, required of its solution.

As I passed stress free beneath a city of twenty-three million souls, one I was visiting for the first time, I gave silent thanks to a Harry Beck now hard at work, depend on it, on circuit diagrams for systems in the sky and far beyond mortal ken.


With only camera kit to weigh me down I revisited Bund and Embankment. Turning away from the river, headed for Old Town, I passed an upmarket hotel just as a dozen men in black suits and white gloves sprinted out in single file, military formation, to line up in a street closed to traffic. ‘Fashion shoot’, read signs in Mandarin and English. In a land unashamedly deferential to success, I guess this passes for quietly understated greeting.

The guy second from left looks Vietnamese, a resemblance more striking in the other pictures – next link below – I took of this scene.

Against the barriers, a small crowd gathered in anticipation. I joined it, camera at the ready, lens trained on the doorway I figured the big shot would emerge from. I soon got bored, realised China’s answer to Kate Moss – or for that matter Moss herself – could step out with me none the wiser, and peeled off to pursue my favourite pastime, photographically speaking.

Street snappery is where it’s at, and in my two weeks here I’d been starved of opportunities I take for granted anywhere else in Asia. China’s eastern seaboard is either thoroughly bourgeois – I use the term descriptively, not pejoratively – in its aloofness or, on the few occasions I saw its seamier side, more introvert; less penetrable than its Cambodian, Indian, Thai or Viet equivalents. I could make guesses as to why that is, but that’s all they’d be. For once I’ll refrain, and accept I just don’t know enough.

Old Town was more to my liking, though its curving lanes struck me as a pale shadow of their equivalents on Old Delhi’s Chandni Chowk, smiling Chiang Mai or Saigon’s choking vibrance.

I did my best; it wasn’t much, but with results – 1706 shanghai afternoon – I can live with.

Not till I got to the Temple of the City Gods did things start to look up, but first another tube story. On an overground section of the Delhi Metro in March, I clocked a rich girl standing close to the doors. Hair and jade sari immaculate, she weaved between English and Hindi on a gold iPhone 7, exuding class and a particular form of beauty, sophisticated but to my jaundiced eye skin deep. But as we passed a Shiva Temple her free hand made obeisance not unlike the sign of the cross – in the name of the Father, the Son and Holy Spirit, Amen   – in its economy of genuflection; a rendering to God, from the realm of Caesar, more common to rural peasants than the Sloane Rangers of New Delhi.

A marxist and materialist, I muse often on religion. Those who ridicule its fairy tales, and think that in so doing they demolish its premises, have not understood those premises. That highly intelligent men and women, known as such through their achievements in other fields, believe in a supreme deity certainly does not confirm said deity’s existence but should give us pause for thought. What’s going on?

Explanation of life’s origins and putative teleological purpose seem to me the least of it, easily blown out of the water; most resoundingly by a Darwin whose key conclusions would in our life time, though sadly not his, be hugely corroborated by technologies not available to him. But religion offers other benefits not to be sneezed at. Most obvious are its political advantages, and I don’t just mean hoodwinking the masses. The great strides forward, after the neolithic revolutions, were enabled by the nation-building glues of Judaism and Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam and Christianity. But that aspect isn’t my focus either. The one I return to over and over is our very human yearning for transcendance. I could write a book on that, floating my thesis that spiritual transcendance is not different from its aesthetic version: the humbling power of finding oneself alone on a Helvellyn snow clad and sunlit .. our marvelling at an elegant mathematical proof or snatch of Coleridge in full flow .. that silencing awe, way beyond mere arousal, as for the first time a lover undresses for us ..

You say I took the Name in vain/I don’t even know the Name/But if I did well, really, what’s it to ya?/There’s a blaze of light in every word/It doesn’t matter which you heard/The Holy or the broken Hallelujah.  Leonard Cohen

At any rate, my moment of greatest immersion since arriving in China was my hour or so at Shanghai City Temple of the Gods. It’s a beautiful space, in its architecture and icons both, but these too were secondary to my focus. Above all I wanted to catch the faces of those taking time out from rendering to Caesar that which is Caesar’s to satisfy, however fleetingly, needs less earthbound. But what struck me – underlined by the fact no one gave the slightest sign of noticing, far less objecting to, my snapping away with kit about as inconspicuous as Ray Chandler’s tarantula on angel food – were the workaday expressions of people of all ages, seamlessly combining sacred and secular as they lit incense and bowed; greeted friends and laughed at jokes I’d never get.

More at 1706 shanghai city temple.


That Thursday night at the Sofitel would not, after all, be my last in China. My Friday evening flight to Guangzhou was cancelled – along with scores of others grounded by typhoons in the South China Sea – and, with it, all hope of making my connecting midnight flight to Heathrow. China Southern’s mishandling of the sitch, and of hold baggage yet to arrive, are a tale in their own right. Let’s just say I washed up at Kings Cross, jet-lagged and sleepless, early evening on Saturday. Emerging from the underground – no stories worth the telling – my spirits lifted. On this hottest day of the year to date, the skies had yet to acquire that insipid powder blue. Azure depth, offset by cotton white cumulus, smiled down on a London out in celebratory force. My weariness and discontent fell away as, suitcase-free once more, I snapped the sunlit joy. Then, still with forty-five minutes in hand before my 18:58 to Sheffield, I entered the world’s loveliest station.

I’m biased of course. Let me tell you in brief why St Pancras, first encountered just days before Christmas 1963, holds a special place in my heart. Mum having died in April, we’d been housed – for reasons and with consequences I keep threatening to go into but now is not the time – at Spurgeon’s Homes for Children on the Thanet coast. Dad had us home during school holidays, the drill being that we were driven back to Birchington by a courtesy uncle, end of each holiday, but at holiday start always came home by train. The first leg was to Victoria, where a maternal uncle from High Wycombe would meet and escort us to St P, etching the station on my soul as doorway from – but never to – a place of much sadness and not a little cruelty on the part of men and women who believed the most fantastical things, but rarely the words of their charges; not one of whom had not seen his or her young life blown apart.

So even before its magnificent, post millennial revamp, this station would always be special. Now though, with its stupendously arcing roof of steel and glass, its giant lovers’ kiss, its trains from Paris – with shops and cafes to match – it’s a photographers’ paradise on such an evening.

More at 1706 kings cross st pancras. This is the end.

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