Mapping the Amorphous City: I Attempt to Plot a Walking Tour of Shanghai

Where to begin?


One thing I have learned from two years of writing here (and from approximately 30 years of writing in general) is that I can be factual, accurate and interesting- but never all three at the same time.

Most of my university career was spent writing wildly ‘factual’ papers that my professors deemed interesting enough to merit a steady stream of As, but which had the added caveat of being, typically, disturbingly inaccurate. As one prof noted on a paper about the spread of Islam in the 7th century as compared with that in contemporary times, my piece was very well argued, remarkably convincing, but fundamentally wrong.  I’m not even sure I did research for that paper.

My research methodology at that time typically boiled down to something along the lines of, ‘I have no idea what really happened but I’ll start writing (at midnight, before the deadline) and hopefully a point will come to me eventually’.  If I did any research, it was typically done as I wrote, hence my ability to type 45 wpm with just my left hand whilst holding source material in my right hand. Sometimes this grasping-at-straws approach worked fabulously. Sometimes it failed in a rather big way.  On a paper about Milan Kundera’s novel, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, my first year lit professor scrawled, ‘bold and original yet thoroughly incomprehensible’.

As noted in my piece on memory, a goodly proportion of my emails and blog posts over the past 17 or so years have all contained one or two grains of truth amongst the glitter of hyperbole and the balm of omission. Things I write may or may not be true, and the things that are true may not have happened exactly as described. Anything that is particularly interesting is probably only half true.

Which is a bit of a problem when you’ve been hired to write a series of Shanghai walking tours for a very professional European smart phone city guide app company.

They commissioned me to do this back in, um, October or so. I’m still working on the second, out of three total. The process has proved to be much harder on my brain than expected for a number of reasons. Trying to create something that is detailed and accurate and interesting is proving to be my albatross. Or my white whale. Or my giant tuna. One of those metaphors has to be the right one.


Shanghai isn’t an easily mappable city.


Seriously. Especially the fiddly old town bits over by the Yu Gardens. I dare you to find a detailed map that is accurate enough to lead someone step by step with just their smart phone and your soothing voice-over for directions. Remember, you can’t just tell them to go wander off and explore the area, taking in the sights and sounds and smells and blah blah blah. They are like toddlers; you must lead them by the hand. You mustn’t let them get lost. Every metre, every turn counts.


Good luck following these directions (seriously, they don’t actually point toward anything)


Whole blocks in this city are demolished without warning; key lanes and entryways are blocked off with construction; scaffolding obscures signs and street numbers (if they are even numbered, which they frequently aren’t); lanes and paths that are marked may not be marked in English or pinyin or the names may have changed in the year since the map was printed; small but pivotal lanes that are marked on a map are frequently unnamed, as are the cross streets.


I dare you to find your way around using this map sent to me by the Shanghai Tourism Board (apologies for Photo Booth mirror image and for chipped nail polish)


I’ve ordered maps from tourism boards that left me even more lost and confused than before I attempted to orient myself using their directions. The Lonely Planet Shanghai map of the old town is nice and clear… until you hit the part that really needs detailed instructions if you intend to follow a very specific route, which is when it devolves into a jumbled mess of numbers and arrows pinpointing a dozen sites, all clustered so tightly together that there is no longer any room for stuff like, say, roads and lanes and whatnot.

I’ve spent over a month now trying to write a coherent tour of the old town area, starting up at East Nanjing road, heading down the Bund and cutting across to Yu Gardens. Should I also note that all the maps I’ve got completely omit the fact that the Bund was totally overhauled two years ago and that their entry and exit points are generally all wrong?

If left up to me and my brain that struggles to accept the concept of facts or accuracy existing concurrently, I’d just leave vague instructions for the walker to head roughly in the direction of, say, that fake city wall in the park near the bottom of the Bund, then go off and explore by themselves within, say, the delineated parameters of X, Y, and Z streets (so they don’t wander off and find themselves in Suzhou or something). Instead, I need exact intersections, GPS coordinates, precise distance covered, turns made, navigational landmarks, and a series of specific sights that must be seen.

Which leads me to the other difficulty.


I have no clue what is interesting to others


I mean, seriously- I blog about mops as a hobby. In Istanbul, most of my photos were of cats and tea cups. In Myanmar, I was fixated on trying to take pictures of doorways and biryanis. Thailand was a series of power lines and electrical transformers, Thai beige-themed hair dyes, mops and brooms, and signs that I deemed hilarious.


Is this interesting? I included it in the tour. I hope it’s interesting. It’s an old pharmacy that’s super-touristy now.


I feel utterly presumptuous compiling lists of supposed points of interest, as if what I think is interesting would also be interesting to others. When I comb tourist websites for objectively worthwhile sights to include, I find my brow wrinkling and the gears in my brain making horrible grinding noises. However, I can’t just tell the hypothetical tourist that I’m leading to go have a look at that weird papier mâché’d bicycle leaning against that soon-to-be-demolished wall. For one, I’m sure they really aren’t interested. For two, the wall and bike will probably be gone by tomorrow. For three, how can I write 500 characters (not including spaces) about something so ephemeral and impressionistic?

Thus, I stick to points that are already established points of interest, with a history and important dates, with things to look for architecturally, with accompanying trivia. By doing this, I have facts and accuracy but I feel my writing suffers for it. It feels heavy. It doesn’t feel like something I wrote. It’s someone else’s voice.


I’m easily discouraged/distracted when I attempt to construct something linear


My first attempt at walking my hypothetical tour of the Yu Gardens area was a bit of a disaster. I couldn’t even find half of the points I’d written down in my list. The massive crowds in the faux nouveau-bazaar area made me want to jump out of my skin and the circling touts made me want to punch the next person to approach me. I ended up cowering for a while behind some lion statues, consoling myself with fried dumplings found in the temporary street food fair that was obscuring most of the sights, signs and lanes that I was trying to map.


Almost as effective as valium


After circumnavigating the entire Yu bazaar complex a dozen times and feeling increasingly confused and overwhelmed and no closer to a solid clear path that could be followed than I had before I’d even started, I crossed out a half dozen sights on my list and contemplated re-training as, say, a carpenter or noodle maker. I was obviously not cut out to be a writer of anything that involved research or reality.

With my much-modified new version of the Yu end of the tour roughly mapped out, I decided to tackle the much more linear Bund end of things. I took pictures of all the important old colonial era buildings but forgot to note their names and addresses. I now have a day’s worth of work that can’t be used until I head back out there and try to figure out which building is which. Several of the buildings that I included on my tour (and diligently photographed) turned out to not be relevant enough to merit even a Wikipedia entry, much less a footnote in a respectable historical tour of the city. No 500 character summaries there. My list of sights was growing ever shorter.

Up at the East Nanjing road end of things, with the end in sight, I dodged the Hello-Watch-Bag-Hello touts and tried to figure out what, if anything, was actually interesting there. I kind of loathe that end of town. It’s crowded, invasive, full of chain stores and pick pockets. I chose a series of specialty shops that purportedly dated back to [insert dynasty here] and sold [insert hyperbolic adjective here] foods, clocks, traditional medicines, calligraphy brushes.

The research I had done on them was frequently contradictory, with dates and details shifting subtly between the various sources. Some of the  Chinese sources praised [insert very famous shop name here] for achievements that had obviously been run through the Google Translator and made no sense at all (case in point, what exactly is ‘glue of tortoise plastron’ and why is it so important that people from all over China come here for it? And why would people seek out home made donkey skin?)

I ended up returning home with more question marks on my check list than definitive answers.


How do I tell someone how to get from here to there? Seriously.


I’m trying to figure out whether my brain-aching struggle to plot out my series of tours is my own fault (most likely, really) or if Shanghai is just a really hard city to pin down.  It feels like a moving target sometimes. This is a city that keeps re-mapping its present and rewriting its past. Maybe I’d be better off just making the whole thing up. It would probably turn out to be just as accurate and most definitely more interesting.


But wait, there’s more!


Still think you might want to follow my lead around Shanghai? My apps are out and available for purchase via Pocket Guides!

There are 3 tours and they can be bought individually or as a slightly cheaper bundle. I busted my butt researching them so I can vouch for their usefulness. All the tours are GPS enabled, with lots of pictures and narration and stuff. I’ll take you to where you need to go.


Available tours are:

  • The Bund and Old Town
  • Communist Shanghai
  • The Former French Concession


Just click on the ad below to download the Pocket Guide app for iPhone or Android, then you can search their listings for Shanghai.

Easy peasy!


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...

About MaryAnne

I live in Hanoi. I used to live in Shanghai (hence this blog's title) but I left in 2013. I tend to travel. I cook stuff. I read a lot. I try to scare myself silly with regularity. I write about it all. A lot.