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Shanghai goes international in subtle ways
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By Hong Liang

In the two years I lived in Shanghai, I never had a proper glass of iced lemon tea. It always came premixed with some kind of sweetened lemon juice that completely overwhelmed the subtle taste of the tea.

Not this time.

Returning to Shanghai for the first time, a little over a year after I left, I had iced lemon tea at an elegant caf on a tree-lined street off the city's fashionable shopping district. It was almost perfect, except that floating on the tea were two slices of lime instead of lemon, and the polite waitresses didn't seem to understand why I was making a fuss about it.

You, too, may wonder why all this fuss over a glass of iced lemon tea. It was, dear readers, one of the many small, and seemingly insignificant, things, I saw and experienced in a recent visit that, when put together, have given me a strong impression of the rapid progress that Shanghai has made in becoming an international city.

To be sure, swarms of belligerent motorists and suicidal cyclists continue to terrorize people on the city streets and highways. The major subway lines are crowded during most times of the day, and the interchanges have kept their original designs to test the endurance and intelligence of the commuters.

But there are clear signs of change that has made living in this cosmopolitan city a great deal more enjoyable than before. If you want proof, let me take you for a 15-minute walk down the street from my office to my former home.

Little has changed on that short stretch of road passing the huge display windows of an up-market shopping mall, showcasing the latest fashion from Paris or Rome.

Crossing the wide thoroughfare along the way is as harrowing an experience as it ever has been with cars and trucks charging at you from every direction even when the light is green. I did warn you about the chaotic traffic, didn't I?

Once safely on the other side, you are delighted by the cleanliness of the pavement, the orderliness of the shops and uniformity of shop signs. Things were markedly different just one year ago.

At that time, the pavement was dirty and messy, dotted with puddles of waste water of various colors and smell. Walking home one evening, I saw the helper in a noodle shop along the road throwing dishwater right out of the door on to the pavement.

Half the pedestrian walkway then was commandeered by a horde of hawkers with their large push-carts, selling anything from fake Gucci handbags to roasted chestnuts. The pedestrian was further squeezed by the movable display stands of the many small shops along the road.

The badly fitted large shop signs and billboards hanging overhead posed a real hazard to people walking below.

The maze, of course, wouldn't be complete without those dripping items of laundry hanging across the pavement on ropes tied to lamp-posts.

All these are gone now. The clean up may have sucked the life out of the street. But that was really not something that I missed about Shanghai.

Walking along the familiar route this time, I could really feel relaxed, until I hit the next crossroads.

Over the two days I was in Shanghai, I don't recall seeing anyone spitting on the pavement. Maybe I was lucky, or things have really changed for the better.

E-mail: jamesleung@chinadaily.com.cn

(China Daily June 16, 2009)

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