Visions of China can vary from beautiful mountain scenery to the Olympic stadia.
A new modern image of China is that of Shanghai and its futuristic skyline.
Colonised by the British and French in the 19th century it has a varied interest in architecture.
It is also the birthplace of the Chinese Communism brought about by extreme poverty and deprivation back in the 1920s. At the same time there were signs were no Chinese or dogs were allowed in city parks.
This is one of the most extraordinary cities that we have ever been to in terms of vitality and dynamism. with over 15 million inhabitants, it is not even the largest city in China, this title belongs to Chenqing.
It is a city of huge contrasts from wealth to old apartments, where there are sometimes cramped living conditions, but still with modern air conditioning.
We arrived in mid summer or low season as they call it during the Olympic Games period.
We were met at the airport by Bin Bin’s family a master’s student at Waterford Institute of Technology. Wei Minliu and Chen Xiangten drove us to the city. While his parents did not speak English a relation, Candy did and she told us all about Shanghai.
The 40 minutes journey from Hongiao airport was along a super highway right up to the city centre area and the Bund, which is the famous old financial district before it went underground through a tunnel to cross over the river.
Later in the week we went to visit the famous Whampoo river that links with the famous Yangzste river, with its barges charging up and down and bigger ships further down river, It was like an Asian version of the Rhine in Germany or Holland or Antwerp in Belgium, cities and ports so active in the shipping.
This massive river affords many parts of Southern China access to the sea, is incredibly busy.
It was the key piece of infrastructure that secured growth for Shanghai back in the 1800s.
Anxious to open up trade to China in the mid nineteenth century, the imperial rulers in China under the Treaty of Nanking, allowed the British, French and later the Americans access and ownership of parts of the city so that it could be developed for trade and shipping.
The foreigners were given residency and property rights here for small compensation in the late 1800s.
The French were there initially as Jesuits to try and convert the Chinese, but the British were there for trade in silk and textiles.
As the foreign traders prospered local Chinese merchants and workers saw opportunity and got involved.
The silk and cotton trade were especially strong for the overseas market.
One negative trade was that of opium the British brought the dreaded opium trade from India and Iran, where fortunes were made on the hapless Chinese who succumbed to the 0piate drug. Wars were fought over it leading to Hong Kong becoming British under a long lease, after trade debts were called in.
This trade originated in modern Iran and Iraq and was brought by traders to China sometimes via the Indian empire.
At one stage it is estimated that hundreds of thouands were users in China, with much of it coming through ports like Shanghai, bringing devastation, similar to what heroin does today.
The Japanese invasion and later takeover by the Communists stopped this terrible trade. Thus the city has some painful origins.
Today you can still see parts of old Shanghai from ancient times to the colonial period and onto the modern Manhattan style of the financial district.
It is a city of many contrasts from the vastly modern to third world style housing and street markets.
For international business visitors and tourists there is luxury style accommodation but not far away you can still find people living in fairly sub standard apartments or modern ones.
It is a city of many contrasts that we found really exhilarating.
There is terrific energy there and a great will to work and succeed.
We felt like we had been to America or New York for the first time in our lives, the vitality of the city of Shanghai is so envigorating.
Shanghai seems less Chinese than Beijing and being a port city you get the feeling that they are more used to foreigners as it is part of their history from its days as a major trading port from the 1860s onwards.
Its reason for being is trade, the city has nothing like the ancient history of Beijing with its forbidden city and Royal Palaces.
Yet often when we travelled on the subway or local buses we were the only white people and provoked much curiosity especially from children.
On one of the last days we visited an old town from the medieval times that had since become part of Shanghai.
This was a real mind blowing experience, an old town on the edge of Shanghai.
This was the real China. We took a local bus from near the Shanghai football Stadium or south train station.
It took us a while to find the 95 bus but we made it in the end.
Locals advised us on which stop to get out and on arrival, we found ourselves in a bustling town with markets, shopping centres and canals.
Our first priority was food and my son found a cafe that sold snacks in the middle of the afternoon.
No one spoke English, nor was there any type of signs to help, we ended up with chicken blood soup, dumplings and 3
colas and water all for 2 euro for 3 persons. The soup included the heart and liver and tasted fine.
Amazing value, sign language and some Chinese ensured we ate.
From this full on experience we explored further in what was our second last day in China and we were feeling a little sentimental.
Qibao famous for its rivers and canals as well as its cotton and weaving trade in the last century has now been boosted by Government investment in canal frontage with new bridges and restaurants for visiting Chinese visitors as well as the occasion westerners like ourselves.
We went along streets and markets where it was rare to see white people, yet down the road, a Tesco was opening up
for workers at the nearby airport in Hong qiao, the enterprising British supermarket giant is extending into China.
Tesco see China as a country destined for major growth and like in Eastern Europe they are there early.
French supermarket group Carrefour are also in China.
McDonalds, Burger King, Pizza Hut, Papa Joes all have outlets there.
Major hotel chains like Sheraton, Hilton, St. Regis, Novotel, Ibis are all here too.
You can even find an Irish or German pub, an Italian ice cream vendor and many more.
Despite all this the Qibao local market sold food from stands.
Fruit and vegetable stalls were everywhere in the Qibao market, you could buy live fish from a stall and were killed on the spot by the trader when you bought them, chicken were kept in cages, meat was on open display.
Tea was sold by the weight. it was all so real and genuine that we loved it and took many photos and smiled at the people, who smiled back especially the kids.
It was a little like a souk in North Africa, here in what was theoretically still a communist country with market principles.
Bargaining was expected. Bikes and mopeds were everywhere so you had to keep your eyes open. Local police made sure things kept moving and there was no hassle. Few people argued despite the huge crowds.
Shanghai is a great city to explore on foot, we loved walking around the old French concession, or the Bund area.
Early morning or early evening are the best times.
The temperature was 35-36 degrees in summer,which is also the rainy season and only dropped to 28 in the evening so high humidity.
Not the best weather for walking and sight seeing but with a few breaks and some water we managed well.
April and October are seen as the best months for visiting.
We were told coming there that it is a shoppers paradise so if you feel a little hot a run into a department store can also help you avoid the heat.
The Number One Department Store on Nanjing Road or the now American owned Sears Discount store further down are shopper highlights as are the many shopping malls some of which are underground near the People’s Square.
This could be the new New York as one Tramore wag said to me following our tales of China.
After all many of the clothing items are made in the Far East so why travel to the US to buy them.
The People’s Square used to be the Shanghai Racecourse up to the second world war.
Now the old race track was opened to the public by the communists, after the 1949 revolution. The Chinese communist party started off as a political party in Shanghai in the early 1920s, no doubt encouraged by Trotsky and his wish for world revolution.
Famine and poverty encouraged political extremism, when it was alongside large wealth.
The old Racecourse building now houses a fine art gallery and nearby is the beautiful Opera House, all within the old British sector and just before the beginning of the French area.
Shanghai has some Fine French impressionists like Cezanne and Monet plus the earlier Corot and Turner kept well by the old Communists they are now on display.
There is a fantastic collection of old Chinese art and calligraphy in the history museum as well as pottery giving you a glimpse of how some lived in olden times.
While waiting to get into the museum we were asked by a local 9 year old where we were from, we told her Ireland and asked how she had a mobile phone at such a young age but told us that it was a prize from her school for English
speaking and that she was the best in the class, her able mother explained, how she encouraged her child to learn English, she herself lectured in accounting and her husband had a fashion business.
We were enthralled by their interest and they offered to show us around the Shanghai historical Museum, another welcome respite from the heat.
The young girl said her wish when she grew up was to be a boss like her father and see some of the world as she visited the museum with her cousins.
This is just one example of the many Chinese that wanted to engage with us in conversation.
Students were also keen to get in touch with us and talk English and explain about their life their summer job in a
bar or restaurant and how they would love to visit England or Ireland to learn English better.
Also waiting at the museum queue were some Dutch Olympic fans, who had flown to Moscow and then went over land on the Transiberian Express train to beijing, stopping in Mongolian on the way.
They described Mongolia as the best place they had ever seen.
They were at the final Olympic event in Shanghai to see Belgium play Nigeria in the soccer, the latter would eventually play Argentina in the final.
The Messi led Argentinan team beat Brazil in the other semi final even with Ronaldinho being the star Brazilian.
Later we met a Shanghai student in a local pub, who spoke great English and told us how much he loved English soccer and Manchester United a team he would love to see in China.
English soccer clubs can really grow their fan base here and would be a great location for a future world cup
This would boost soccer in this country that rarely qualifies for the world cups.
Shanghai has also many foreign workers, some are teaching English in the various English schools like the Wall Street language Centre or the various English schools and universities with English departments.
The Chinese like to recruit English speakers but these must be over 25 years, they earn a good salary and live well on Chinese terms.
Other foreigners we met worked in catering, banking, manufacturing, information technology and tourism.
All were proud to be working in this vibrant but sometimes crazy city.
Crossing the road was an ordeal, a green light for a pedestrian did not mean you could cross, as taxis turning left or right kept going.
In Beijing during the Olympics the authorities and neighbourhood nannies kept a close eye on traffic violations.
The free market seems to reign supreme here and cars crossing lanes without indication is part of the scene.
We were travelling in one taxi from the station area to a subway stop, the short 2 euro taxi ride was interupted by a minor accident as one taxi hit the other. The damage was minor with the door panel being dented.
In the matter of 5 minutes the dispute between the drivers was resolved by the payment of 30 euro for damage, no police called and traffic got on its way again after a lane infringement and short delay for those travelling behind, who were honking horns heavily as taxi men do.
A trip to the airport saw the taxi man go at 80 mph.
Slightly worrying we asked him to slow down, we are normally not squeamish having driven on German auto bahnen at high speed, but this was reckless as he beeped at traffic lights in the early morning to deter crossing traffic, cyclists or pedestrians.
80,000 die each year on the roads of China, several times the rate of Ireland given their lower car density and car ownership.
We drive safely in comparison, except for drink driving the Irish have a good record.
If people complain about Dublin and its traffic, it is mild in comparison and the taximen drive safely and in good humour. In China it is very different.
We did ponder cycling but with the mopeds everywhere too we felt that we were not up to their style of driving, where often in the suburbs, cyclists are allowed use part of the pedestrian lane rather than the road to save on accidents.
Buses were everywhere and were a cheap form of transport too, just 30 cent to travel to outer suburbs.
You really had to keep one’s wits about one on footpaths and crossing roads.
Going to a park was a welcome respite to the din of the city.
Many foreigners are going to work in China for a few years and enjoy the cultural change.
Many see it as a good career step, they learn Chinese, its customs and know how to do business in Asia.
One Chinese business person joked that getting a Chinese girlfriend is the best way of learning Chinese for a young person.
The foreign worker staff liked the life in China and the culture change, but would not live here forever.
Taxes are low and so are living costs even if the wages are less.
The pollution was one of the negatives as it does get at your throat said Tom an American working for Honeywell there.
A Swedish man we met goes there regularly and like oursevles fails to tire of China even when some days the work does not go well or there is a communication problem.
The people work well, but attention to quality and details in some complex manufacture can improve he felt and will.
He was overall very satisfied to do business there.
Starting language schools and teaching English are other ways for Westerners to go there and do business.
There is a great hunger to learn the language.
The young Chinese do look outwards a bit like the Japanese in the eighties.
They wear western clothes and T shirts with English sayings on them.
We were amazed at how they adapt, but they still love their own culture and history.
They have mobiles and e mail addresses just like people in the west and want to stay in touch.
In Beijing, some computer teacher or head of a firm would contact us with a great knowledge of English and tell us about life in China.
They learn what happens outside the normal news through the web and knew about the West and Tibet.
The grapevine works there too it seems.
We talk about the Government a little but they do not criticize it much and put up with it.
There is certainly less complaining that there is in Ireland, we could win a world record for moaning.
Maybe the weather has us this way.
We remarked at how the Chinese just get on with life, whether they are rich or poor, there is a will to live and get by. Living in such a large population perhaps has this effect.
Family is important and people help one another, there seems to be a spirit of co-operation and less stuborness.
The common good is important in the overall scheme of life.
Society seems less selfish and there is a willingness to help one another.
more in later editions