You do know you’re not going to like it,” said my friend in Yangon. A colleague from Bangkok wrote: “It’s going to make you crazy – be prepared. Not really your thing.”
“Wow! You’re finally going,” said my friend in Beijing. “You’re certainly not going to love it. In fact, you’ll probably hate it.”
That was the general theme of the conversations and correspondence exchanged when I told friends and colleagues that, at long last, I was going to China – Shanghai to be precise. Until now, in all my travels, I’ve never managed to touch down in China proper. Of course, there has been no shortage of Hong Kong on my itineraries but for various reasons (mostly business related) neither Beijing, Shanghai, Chengdu, Kunming or Dalian have ever wedged themselves into my frequent Asia tours.
It might also have something to do with the fact that Japan has always managed to get in the way (100 trips and counting), that I have a few issues with China and its relationship with the media, and that I’ve never had a Chinese magazine land on my desk that’s beckoned me to get on a plane to sample cosy neighbourhoods, meet sharp entrepreneurs, buy well-designed products or visit inspiring workplaces. Nevertheless, an invitation (received almost a year ago) to speak at a summit for one of the world’s leading players in the cosmetics industry finally got me to the departure gate for a flight to Shanghai’s Pudong airport – with my friends’ comments ringing in my head.
There are better ways to make first impressions than laying on an apocalyptic rain and windstorm for one’s debut arrival in the People’s Republic of China. Before we pushed back from Hong Kong airport, the captain said we were in for some bad weather and he’d update us in-flight. Some two hours later I woke up to his voice explaining we were in a hold and awaiting new vectors for a possible approach. At this point he crossed the “too much information” line and said that multiple flights had been turned away because of the high winds and rain but we should be landing in 30 minutes.
Forty minutes later our 747 entered the clouds and, as it started a slow arc towards the airport, was hit by a strong gust and a wall of rain. As the sky turned a smoky grey and the aircraft lurched up and down, back and forth, I surveyed the cabin to see how my fellow passengers were dealing with this most unpleasant approach.
While a few people were dozing, most were craning their necks to see whether we were close to the ground and if this flight might soon have a happy ending. As the engines roared through more gusts and the fuselage juddered, the crew broke off their approach and we started to climb out of the weather. A few long turns later we descended again and broke through the cloud just a couple of hundred feet above the ground. After a couple of aggressive corrections to stay on track with the runway’s centre-line, we gently connected with the slick concrete.
Rather than creating traffic snarls and tailbacks, the weather kept most people off the road and the journey into Shanghai was delightfully smooth, if a little slow due to the constant lashings of horizontal rain.
Pulling into the forecourt of the Peninsula it felt as if everyone had been diverted to other cities and I was the only guest who had managed to make it through the deluge. Inside, the hotel was eerily quiet and from my room I could see that the side streets were virtually traffic-free. Was this really the beating, commercial heart of the world’s second-biggest economy?
The next day the sun managed to fight its way back into the frame and I ventured out to peer into the shop windows of the world’s big luxury retailers. But customers were absent among the mannequins, vitrines and shop staff playing with their smartphones. After my speech, I headed west towards Nanjing Road and found a few signs of what could only be called life-meets-death, as pedestrians walked out in the middle of oncoming traffic, scooters zipped in between and cars swerved and screeched to a halt.
At the heart of Nanjing’s premium retail district I wandered into a few malls and found myself in the middle of deserted atriums at the tail-end of lunch hour. In one or two shops I was almost molested by shop assistants who were craving any kind of human interaction. And back on the street I didn’t see one person sporting a shopping bag from any of the stores lining the road. So where were all these Chinese customers hungry for luxury goods? Shopping in Macau? Purchasing their Rolexes and Pateks in Lucerne? Living it up in all those third-tier cities we’re hearing so much about? Chastened by a government crackdown on luxury trinkets as bribes? Wherever they were, they made their business and retail hub feel like a rather flat and non-commercial place.
Tyler Brûlé is editor-in-chief of Monocle magazine
More columns at www.ft.com/brule