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Around the World in 80 Days

Day 47: 10 November

Michael Palin - Around the World in 80 DaysThe streets outside are meticulously swept, and appear to provide jobs for everyone. There is a car parking warden, with his white cap, and there is a bicycle warden with his red armbands. Old men and women, beyond retiring age, are employed as street attendants. They have red flags and megaphones and are deployed at busy junctions, bus queues and outside popular shops to regulate the pedestrian traffic.

As it is difficult for the average citizen to get travel permission across China, let alone the world, the chance to speak to a foreigner is highly prized. A retired bus conductor spoke impeccable English, which he'd learnt to give him 'a better knowledge of socialism and its international application'. I keep forgetting that the theory of socialism is all Western, not Eastern in origin. For half an hour or so the bus conductor, and an engineer and a couple of younger Chinese ask me about home, as a crowd gathers around.

This old part of the city around the sixteenth-century Ming dynasty Yu Garden, with well-preserved pavilions, gardens, ponds and rockeries, is much more amenable than the Nanjing Road, where I end up later trying to buy some protection against the sudden arrival of autumn.

It's getting dark and the crowds and the dimly lit shops remind me of Sheffield in the early 1950s. The fashions are certainly of that period, and I'm made aware of how much bigger most of us are than the exiguous Chinese. I tire very quickly of hearing 'No got' and return, empty-handed and exhausted, to the Peace Hotel.

Later, in the coffee-shop, a jazz band composed entirely of elderly Chinese gentlemen is thumping out 'Alexander's Ragtime Band' and 'You Are My Sunshine'. This is a happier example of cultural miscegenation, as the Chinese seem to take to black American music with great style. They are retired players from the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra and have been resident here for years. Cities with a 'naughty past', like Shanghai and Havana, have always fascinated me, and as the band breaks into 'Tiger Rag' one can, even in the chaste surroundings of the Peace Hotel Coffee Shop, imagine a little more easily how lively things were in Shanghai in the days when Noel Coward might have slept here.
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  • Series: Around the World in 80 Days
  • Day: 47
  • Date: 10 November
  • Country/sea: China
  • Place: Shanghai
  • Book page no: 164

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