Les Petits Contes

About life's little observations, which matter. About hilarious situations, which illuminate. About stories which offer immense possibilities, open endings, different interpretations and perspectives.

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Location: Singapore

A nature lover; sun-worshipper, manic book-collector, dessert-devourer and a magnet for hazards

Friday, May 19, 2006

Shanghai and Hangzhou Encounters


I have a train to catch
The saying, as fast as the chu-chu train, rings so true last Friday. My friend Anissa, her toddler Emma, the nanny, and her driver and I were driving around in circles in Shanghai trying to find the Mei Long train station. It was for my trip to Hangzhou.

We arrived at what seemed to be the subway station (metro), and the bus station, but could not find the train station, which was supposed to be in the same premises. We asked a few people who gave diverse directions, and even had to drive back to the place, battling heavy traffic and rain. And as the minutes ticked away, I got anxious – I needed time to locate the train platform and figure out the Chinese train system and board the ‘’right’’ train.

Finally someone told us that the only way to get there was walking over some overhead bridge, and that there was no car access to the station.

By the time the driver finally found a place to park, we had to leave Anissa, Emma and nanny in the car, while he and I almost sprinted to the station. (Poor Emma – we had wanted to take her on an ‘’excursion’’ to see the train!) It was a long muddy trek trying to balance my luggage and the umbrella, across polluted bus bays, overhead bridges and paths of potholes.

It just has to happen to Janet Loh! Who would imagine having to get to a train station in this manner? When we finally reached the station I heaved a big sigh of relief – we made it in time, albeit panting.

The driver tried to store my mobile phone number in his cell phone so that he could contact me during pick-up on my return on Sunday, but it was simply too difficult for me to understand his Shanghai-accented Mandarin and for him to understand my Singapore-accented Mandarin! I had told him that he needed to dial the country code 65 and the access code but he just could not understand me.

I gave up and told him I would liaise through Anissa instead. Besides, I simply could not afford to miss the train. ‘’Don’t worry – you still have time, be careful with your wallet and have a good trip,’’ he assured me when he saw my exasperated face.

On the train, I heard from the announcement that it would depart at 6.15 pm (I had booked the 4.14 pm trip) but the British guy next to me seemed unperturbed. ‘’Maybe they meant time of arrival,’’ he said. Much later it occurred to me that they had meant ‘’shi liu dian’’ (16 hours) and not ‘’liu dian’’) (6 o’clock).

Then they created a mini panic by announcing that return tickets for the weekends were fast going and in fact, tickets for Sunday and Monday were almost gone. We were encouraged to get them on board the train.

Gosh. True enough, the 10.51 am train for Sunday was fully booked out and there were only a few seats left for the 6.50 pm train! After a long wait at the noisy sales counter on board, and trying to enquire in vain from the rude sales attendant, I decided to take a risk and enquire at either the Hangzhou train station or at the hotel, instead of buying the 6.50 pm ticket. The British passenger next to me tried to reassure me, that hotels and travel agencies would have tickets aplenty to spare. Or I could take the bus back instead, or hire a car. ‘’And there’s always the horse,’’ he joked.

We chatted about my trip, our countries and our work. He explained that the ‘’grand’’ train station they had been building in Shanghai had run into some problems - that was why we had to trudge through the make-shift one at Mei Long. I told him how rude the Chinese are, especially those on the train, and the woman selling tickets. He laughed – ‘’they are blunt, and the Southerners are known to be more arrogant as they are the new rich’’. (He has to defend the Chinese since he is married to one – a Northerner, he had to qualify!) ‘’No, Singaporeans are blunt, the Chinese are downright rude!’’ I insisted. (So what if his wife is Chinese – love is blind as they rightly say and I, a Singaporean, am blunt!)

Money cannot buy class and grace
Whoever said that the Chinese are hospitable, sweet, gentle and docile must be those besotted ang moh’s fantasising about the demure, porcelain-skinned women they encountered in Chinese legends and in the ‘’charades’’ the modern sluts put up to seduce foreign men, or those lascivious Singaporean men lusting after wealth-seeking China brides (and too coward to date independent, thinking, Singaporean women).

Try visiting Beijing, Shanghai, Xiamen, Tianjin and Hangzhou (I have only been to these places so I should limit my comments to these cities). Try changing currency at the bank in Shanghai and witness the couldn’t care less look of the staff, or a haughty local young chick brandishing both her platinum and gold credits cards to cut queue and get immediate service. Try taking a taxi in Beijing and Hangzhou. Try asking for information at the hotel concierge. Try getting them to reverse the over-charging at the hotel when you check out at the supposedly four-star international chain hotel in Hangzhou. Try asking for clarifications at the boat tour at Westlake. You will be sorely disappointed, disgusted and anaemic (from vomiting too much blood).

The Chinese women – and men – simply have no service culture and no manners. What they do have is bad attitude. Those not in the service industry are plain boars and uncouth. I am not just referring to their yelling, queue-cutting or indiscriminate spitting, but to the way they simply push you aside like a piece of furniture when they want to get out of the lift.

How ironic for Singaporeans to complain about the arrogance of the French or the Italians or the Americans. But they at least say ‘’Excuse me’’, or ‘’please give way,’’ or simply, ‘’er… ahem’’ to signal ‘’please let me pass’’ – in whatever languages they are proficient in. But to the Chinese, these phrases or ‘’sounds’’ are simply non existent in their consciousness, vocabulary or system. They prefer rough bulldozing, glum pushing, and sullen shoving.

Sure, there will be ‘’exceptions’’ that you have personally met. And yes, maybe some of them in big hotels like the one I stayed in Hangzhou have been painfully ‘’trained’’ to offer some semblance of ‘’service’’ and etiquette. And occasionally you get gems like the driver who picked me up from the train station or the two ladies at the Business Centre.

But the majority of the Chinese I have observed – prosperous, wealthy, ‘’progressive’’ that they are (compared to the poorer nations) certainly have a lot to learn in terms of grace, gentility and courtesy – from the Thais, the Indonesians, the Sri Lankans, the Burmese, the Cambodians and even the Vietnamese. Not to mention in terms of the concept of style and some class to go with their wealth – they sure need to dress less obscenely with fewer gigantic Chanel, Dior and LV logos screaming from head to toe, and not soil these expensive gear with their own spit that travels a thousand li.

Generations of culture (‘’wen ming’’ as my dad calls it), literature, heart-wrenching poetry have been woefully wiped out – the ‘’class’’ of past glory is now replaced by crass materialism of the present.

Money is ‘’not the goal’’
As I write parts of this in the hotel, CNN is blasting ad nauseam repeat broadcasts of an interview with Hangzhou darling Jack Ma, founder of Alibaba.com. The interviewer seemed to be at his funeral, reading a glorious eulogy of his phenomenal achievement – from his self-taught English to the founding of his e-commerce company.

He replied, ‘’making money is not the goal, it’s the result. The goal is to change, influence the world, and make it better’’. What hypocrisy?! Oh p-l-u-r-s-e! If you don’t set up a company to do business, then you might as well set up a non profit organisation. If Alibaba.com is not to make money, then why acquire Yahoo China, why set up AliPay and why not simply work for a charity and ‘’influence’’ them to use the wonders of e-commerce?!

Sightseeing in Hangzhou
The brief walk from the hotel to the Westlake involved crossing big roads and dealing with crazy traffic. But I am surprised at my own audacity. Even the other locals and mainland tourists ‘’followed’’ behind me as I bravely marched across, amidst on-coming traffic. Hmmm… my skills must have been honed by the nightmare of nightmare traffic in the Vietnamese cities of Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City.

I wanted to go to the historical area at Hefang Street. Some guidebooks referred to it as ‘’Qing He Fang’’. I was thankful the taxi driver was not confounded. Much later it occurred to me that ‘’fang’’ refers to ‘’square’’ – like the piazza in Italy. So ‘’Qing He’’ is the name of the ‘’square’’. But I have not figured out why they dropped the ‘’Qing’’ in ‘’Hefang Street’’.

It was indeed a ‘’historical’’, albeit touristy now, area where there are shops and street stalls, a la Covent Garden. I wandered off to another part of the area and discovered a gleaming modern monument – China Finance & Taxation Museum. Wow. Commerce and finance (ie, money money money….) sure is a big thing here.

I gave the taxi driver the street name of the hotel I stayed. He asked ‘’where about in that street’’ and I gave him the hotel name. Without any reply, he drove on. Not sure if he understood, I showed him a piece of paper written with the hotel name and address in Mandarin. He did not bother to look but grunted ‘’I know’’. I realised he did not turn on the meter, and reminded him. ‘’But you are not from China?’’ he asked, surprised. He must have been disappointed that he could not rip me off. ‘’I am from Shanghai,’’ I lied unconvincingly. ‘’Ha ha, but you are certainly not of Shanghai origin,’’ he insisted, though he now took the trouble to turn on the meter, which was what I cared, and not the origin of my birthplace.

Hangzhou drama at check out
The front desk personnel with the fancy name of Neil gave me the chit to sign – it included two nights stay, dinner and car pick up. I signed, but realised that I had already pre paid Zuji, my on line travel agent, for the room and that I should not be charged again. I showed my email confirmation which stated clearly my prepayment in English. He showed me his own documentation in Chinese which stated the opposite. I asked for the chit to be returned to me and for them to re-issue a new one. He refused and yelled (yes, he raised his voice when all I did was to explain in normal tone and asked him to check) that I should pay up.

That opened the floodgate in me. The last straw. Enough of the past few days of patience and ‘’ren’’ (forbearance/ tolerance). I yelled even louder, with all the Mandarin that I could muster. I kicked up a big fuss. I got sarcastic. I created a scene at the hotel lobby full of other guests. I went behind the counter he was hiding and demanded that he made the change, and that he should call my travel agent to sort it out. He simply stood there scratching his head not knowing who to call, even though I gave him Zuji’s number. I gave up and rang using my mobile. I received a prompt reply to sort it out and a promise to return call later.

While all this was happening two couples from other parts of China got impatient and demanded to be attended to – ‘’What are we waiting for? We want to check out now!’’ they yelled. The currency in China seems to be more than cash and platinum cards – it’s a loud voice. And no, Singaporeans are not the only impatient ones!

Finally Zuji must have knocked some sense into Neil the insolent front desk and he re-issued a new chit, sullenly. I demanded for the old one to be shredded. He refused. So I went behind his counter again and rummaged it, and threatened not to sign the credit card bill. That got his cooperation, but it was accompanied by some rude mumbling, retorts and further raising of voice.

I hopped into a taxi, hopping mad. I tried to explain that I wanted to go to the train station – the main one, not the one in the East. It’s the one that’s only 10 minutes ride, I tried to be helpful by saying that (since the other one is much further away). The crude driver shouted, ‘’why 10 minutes? I can take as long as I want to.’’

Fine, fine. Take as long as you like, I am never going to return to this city and it might well even be my very last trip to China, I hissed under my breath.

As we neared the station and waited at the traffic jam, a bunch of yelling hooligans carrying bags ran towards the taxi. One of them opened the car door - the side where I sat - and just as I froze and thought they were going to drag me out and bludgeon me to death, slammed the door close and the whole group ran off, chanting. Meanwhile the taxi driver coolly turned around to look and simply drove on.

My last day in Shanghai
Almost immediately upon arrival at her home, Anissa was raring to go out to lunch. She took me to M on the Bund, a resto serving value for money brunch. It was packed with Caucasians. Is this where all the whites throng to on weekends, I asked? “I guess so, the expats here need to get away sometimes to find some civilisation,’’ she replied. I can more than sense her weariness of living in this city.

In the evening, we went to a local joint for local food. We can’t be pretending to be (and spending like) the whites, could we? We were relieved there were photos to accompany the menu. Between the two of us we tried to figure out the Chinese menu – they were in cursive and in traditional Chinese (instead of simplified) Chinese. She recognised some words - ‘’soup’’, ‘’prawn’’ … and I some others – ‘’fish’’, ‘’tofu’’… and so we managed to decipher something and order a decent meal. But desserts were tricky. We asked for the menu again and were thrust with one, opened at the last page. She assumed it must be the dessert page but the items seemed savoury – vegetables, meat, fish… ‘’Maybe it’s this section,’’ she said. ‘’No, that’s rice,’’ I replied. We stared at it for a while and decided to give up and leave – no point asking for ‘’help’’ in a non-service oriented place. We could not help laughing as we left, saying – our school teachers will be grieving in their grave if they know how little Chinese we have retained from our school days.

Rubber time
It happens on the world-class-efficient SIA too, especially in China I guess. First the captain announced that they needed to change the tyre and that the delay would be about 10 minutes. Then it was another 10 to 20 minutes. Then they said they had managed to change it but the engineers did not know how to remove something or other. But not to worry – they are in contact with the engineers from Singapore, he assured us. I could just imagine their long-distance call trying to explain how to remove something so that we could take off.

Finally they managed to remove ‘’it’’, but, ‘’unfortunately’’ they needed to re-schedule the take off time… the long and short of it – the supposed 10 minute delay became a two-hour affair. Kudos to the cold efficiency of Singapore they managed to re-schedule the connecting flights of some passengers and even announced the new flight number and time. But as expected, they totally ignored the human aspect of what I would call ‘’wait management’’.

They could have learnt a thing or two from KLM when, a few years ago, they immediately dished out ice creams to keep passengers occupied. No, it’s not just a freebie that we are after. It’s the goodwill and the idea of keeping us ‘’occupied’’. They could have distributed magazines, books, jigsaw puzzles, crossword puzzles, cards or games (shouldn’t it be part of their crisis recovery plan to stock up on magazines, books, portable games and cards?). They could have had better training for the pilots to ‘’say the right thing’’.

No matter how I thank him for all the honesty he showed by repeatedly using the words, ‘’problem’’ and ‘’unfortunately’’ at every sentence and announcement (unfortunately problem with the tyre, unfortunately problem with changing it, problem with local engineers, problem removing something, unfortunately we removed it but now problem taking off…) I can’t help shaking my head in despair at how poorly he ad-libed and how much more anxiety he was creating. All because there was no pre recorded message or script for him to read out, and no one to help him with the message.

Instead, we were treated to two hours of absolute silence and stillness, punctuated with the captain’s ‘’unfortunate’’ and ‘’problem’’ updates. Plus, the smell of stinking cuttle fish as my neighbour decided to keep himself occupied with some snacks.

I kept myself occupied with sms – telling my family and friends of the delay, the ‘’problem’’ and the smell.

Finally we landed and as I reached for my mobile to sms them about my safe arrival, I gasped in horror. It had been left ‘’on’’ (again!) and it even had two messages from Maxis and a Thai operator – about their roaming services. I must have received them when we flew over Thailand and Malaysia, safely, with the brand new tyre….

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