My friend Lynn and I found ourselves, especially the first week, spending our evenings exploring the Jinqiao mall near our apartment building. The mall is broken up into 6 ‘blocks’ each housing uncountable shops, booths and restaurants. For dinner on the first few nights, we let the mall be our guide, wandering around until we found something to eat. A Sichuan restaurant one night, KFC another, Korean, Japanese, McDonalds.
One night, we were on the top floor of block 5 and, as we were walking down the hall, the path began to open up. The people became more scarce, and the lighting darker. We wondered if this part of the mall had just shut down or simply wasn’t full yet. Then we walked by a railing that overlooked three stories of jungle-gym, slides and play space. The entire was room was painted to a jungle theme, and housed an entire ecosystem of caves, ball pits and plastic toys. On the far left side was a basketball court where a group of high-school kids, the only people occupying the entire room, played a game of basketball.
As we continued down the hall, we came to two stories of high-tech arcade. Also empty, the arcade was open. Several guys our age worked the counter, but no one sat in front of the machines. I felt as if I had entered a dream, as if the outside of the mall was simply the entrance to an entirely different Shanghai. This area, to my knowledge, was not advertised. In fact, as we explored more malls, we would find similar things, giant play spaces—sections themed and pardoned off for children and teenagers.
One of the largest differences between the Chinese city and the American one is the vast frontier of indoor public space. In a place like New York, these places are few and far between, often littered with security guards signing people into fowl-smelling restrooms, drifting wanderers spreading their belongings on every available surface and those without an indoor space moving through to warm up, if not just for a moment. In China, on the other hand, malls line almost every street corner. Barely advertised, they provide a small door into a sprawling indoor ecosystem of walkways, escalators and tunnels. Malls provide the pedestrian space that was stricken from the outside by weather, bikers or pollution. They are not unique, nor do they even attempt to differentiate themselves, with each structure rolling into the next just across the street.
If you find yourself in the seemingly endless kilometers of subway tunnels in Shanghai, the mall extends below into the stations. The two are parallels of each other. In the mall, people are on their best behavior, walking slowly from shop to shop, barely buying anything. In the station, they are at their worst. People push, they nudge and spit, shove and maneuver in a survival of the fittest fashion. But the architecture is more or less the same. The escalators from seemingly endless layers of a sprawling human machine. Heaven above, hell below.
Later, we were in the subway station. We waited at the doors and, when they opened, were swept into the cramming mass of people in front and behind. Among the chaos, its hard to tell whether you are in the car or outside of it. Along the walls of the subway tunnels, kilometers of bright lcd screen display ads that move at exactly the same pace as the train, as to look static as you look out the window. The lights, moving and shifting, for some reason, reminded me of Times Square.
I’m trying to say that exploration in Shanghai is different than my experience in the American city. Walking on the sidewalk, moving from park to park and peeking into shops and exhibits just doesn’t cut it here. The treasures, the things that are different, are strange, are beautiful are hidden—brought into the public indoor spaces. And it takes a different kind of adventurous spirit to seek them out.