“Come on a cruise on the Huangpu River! Buy your tickets here!” a pimply teenager in a sweat-soaked vest droned loudly into the bustling crowd, “Our deals offer you value for money to see beautiful and modern Shanghai,” he asserted somewhat unenthusiastically.
His colleague, skinny with floppy hair, fanned himself furiously with the sales flyers while thrusting them blindly into the hands of passers-by. A man browsed one disinterestedly and tossed them on the ground as he walked off.
As the sun crept noon high, the oppressive heat pulsating from asphalt and concrete wrapped around me like a suffocating blanket. Each gulp of air was like a slow burn in the lungs. In the distance, a LCD screen flashed mockingly from the side of a building: 39 degrees, and a corresponding picture of a smiley sun icon that quickly blurred in the heat haze. My palms, slippery with perspiration, glided over my Iphone which flashed: 41 degrees. It was one of the hottest days in Shanghai on record.
Yet the heat didn’t stop the seething mass of humanity that descended into the city at the peak of summer. Imagine jostling through the crowds in Manhattan’s Times Square or London’s Oxford Circus on a Saturday in July, this is what pawing through Shanghai’s Nanjing East Road – the artery that feeds into the Bund – can feel like.
Unlike China’s wealthy who jet off to Europe, Asia or luxury resorts dotted around the Indian Ocean, many locals plan their family vacations to China’s major tourist sites with all three generations in tow – two grandparents, two parents and one child. They travel on tour packages in crowded buses, overnight itineraries and budget dinners at 5pm. Shanghai receives over 8 million tourists a year, but the summer holidays are a special kind of hell.
Just then, a large group of Chinese tourists walked by the Peace Hotel (和平饭店) in matching caps; a collective of indecipherable accents. “Ok ok!” A tour guide raised her voice in Putonghua Chinese, “Is everyone here? Are you listening? Is everyone here? We have to board the bus to go to Pudong, where the tall buildings are. We have to hurry.” She mopped a glistening brow furrowed in frustration.
A young boy tugged his father, “But Daddy, the buildings here are already so tall!.”
His father flapped his shirt to cool off, exposing a protruding and smooth belly, explained, “Over in Pudong, the buildings are even taller. Like on TV.”
Exasperated by the lack of response and still missing bodies, the tour guide finally pulled out her portable microphone, “IS EVERYONE HERE?? WE HAVE TO GO!”
Suddenly, two middle-aged ladies in chunky heels sprinted over with large shopping bags, panting and giggling apologetically. Everyone clamored into the tepidly air-conditioned interior of a tourist bus. As it made a U-turn towards the tunnel, their faces pressed against the window, taking in one last time the European splendor of the Bund as they hurtle into the embrace of Pudong’s modern financial district.