Of Bikes and Shanghai Street Mobs

Shanghainese had an inbred flair for the theatrical, participating in as well as watching spectacles. For this reason, as one amused American, Julian Schuman, observed, “street brawls were an accepted part of the city’s life, had their own rhythm and ceremony, and never failed to attract an enchanted audience.” These featured “a great deal of shouted bluster and insult, some of it fairly inventive. But rarely was a blow struck. The conventional windup was an appeal to the galley for adjudication, which was willingly rendered and usually abided by.”
– Stella Dong, Shanghai, the rise and fall of a decadent city.

By Willow Neilson

So many things in Shanghai seem to draw a crowd. Being a foreigner, sometimes your appearance alone attracts attention. When bartering with stall keepers, people will often mill around to eavesdrop on the interaction, sometimes offering a commentary to or asking the opinion of their equally ogling counterpart on the unfolding interaction.
I noticed a habit of the locals when it comes to dealing with merchants, the raised voice and the shocked or mocking expression accompanied by scoffing laughter when hearing the price is not seen as rude, but as the prelude to an unfolding drama, the raised volume of the conversation becomes a public relations spectacle.
Dramatic negotiations transpose to areas beyond commerce. When witnessing the chaotic spectacle of Shanghai roads, it is not surprising that road accidents become enthralling matinees for gawking onlookers. The greater the accident, the greater the crowd; from a distance one often sees throngs of spectator’s gathered around some spectacle made anonymous by the shroud of their backs.

For the first time I found myself at the centre of one of these Shanghai traffic melodramas. My girlfriend, a Chinese girl from Zhejiang province, and I were riding our bikes home. We had just come from an all you can eat and drink sushi and sake bar where we had taken the “all you drink” part very seriously. When turning a corner, my girlfriend ran into the front of a car stopped at the lights. She rolled off the bonnet, but it looked as though she would have no more than a bruise.
I rode over to the car as a pot bellied short Shanghainese man stepped out of the car. He was wearing Fubu pants, basketball sneakers, and sunglasses, at night. As I helped my girlfriend pick herself and her bike up we were joined by the other people in the car, it appeared they were on a family outing: husband, wife, aunty, grandma and some indistinct man.

Sure enough, money was mentioned within the first seconds. “It will be more expensive for you if you don’t wait for the police to get here, then we can claim insurance and you will not have to pay much,” was what my girlfriend translated to me.
I said to her, “shall we just get out here? These guys are going to try and extort us.” But my girlfriend decided it was best to stay, the husband was already on the phone to the police, his wife began to yell at my girlfriend as she assumed a pose of apologetic submission, the curtain call for onlookers to begin to mill around. Before I could convince my girlfriend to flight, a policeman arrived on the scene with incredible speed.

The Chinese traffic policeman ride bikes that are reminiscent of the comic book character “Judge Dredd.” Powerful engine wrapped in shining silver leg guards with utility compartments on both sides towards the back near the flaring exhaust pipes. Upon their heads the policeman usually wear white helmets similar in shape to the WWII German helmets, blue Chinese characters “jing cha” for “policeman” emblazoned on the sides.

His arrival was almost as if there was a call of “action” on the set. The wife started pointing an accusing finger at my girlfriend and firing the machine gun consonants of her Shanghainese dialect louder, loaded with invective, partially translated to me by my girlfriend, who continued to apologize, admitting it was her fault and asking the crazed woman to calm down and please lower her voice.

By now the nosy audience had swelled to a large group, their invasion of our privacy a gabble of slack jawed gawking. I was getting bored and agitated, not understanding much of what was being said and resenting the attention. The husband, who had returned in a taxi after leaving the scene of the crime to return home to get his driver’s license (not sure how that works in Chinese law) gestured in an arrogant fashion as his frantic wife and aunty wailed into an hour of my time.

“Was all this really necessary when it is just a matter of paper work for insurance,” I thought, staring back at the onlookers asking, “Is this really interesting to you?” in Chinese. After a while, it seemed to be established that their insurance would cover all costs and that the scratches on the front of their car, some with rust in them, would all be taken care of. My girlfriend had left her identity card number with the policeman and it seemed that we might be free to go.

Then the petty couple injected the plot twist, insisting that we pay them 200rmb for the trouble, in order that my girlfriend “learns her lesson to be more careful,” placing themselves as magnanimous protectors. We refused and the family resumed playing to the crowd, their outrage pronounced. As it raged on, I watched the people in the surrounding jury confer with one another. The policeman remained to keep a watch on things but chose not to intervene. My girlfriend translated, “He says that by law we can leave, but we have to handle the crowd ourselves.”

We jumped on our bicycles, to be surrounded not only by the family but by the meddling people from the surrounding crowd. It was almost as if they were trying to perpetuate their entertainment, not approving of the plot ending abruptly, they wanted to see how we were going to get out of this one, no “to be continued.” They chose to surround my girlfriend and her bike particularly, holding onto the handlebars.

I had had enough, I was tired of wasting my time on these people who had nothing better to do than to quibble over such a pedantic amount of money for no reason. Within me also welled a rage, for having to constantly be on guard for the scams, schemes and lies of so many locals and their insistence that I, the foreigner, deserve to pay more than everyone else unless I hassle myself with arguing with someone who has nothing else better to do than to waste my time.
“I just want to get out of here now, this is not entertaining any more. Let’s just pay the money and go.”
“I don’t want to pay these people, they are bastards,” my stubborn girlfriend insisted.
“How about I give it to them in a rude way?” I suggested as a compromise.

With that, I removed the notes from my wallet, scrumpled them into balls and threw them into the face of the wife and aunty, as I couldn’t see the husband at that moment. As the notes fell to the ground, the crowd erupted into furious outrage. Not only was I a foreigner misguiding a Chinese girl but I was a disrespectful one. I reinforced their reasons for hatred with my actions and retribution was at hand. I had modulated the situation from a traffic accident to blight against China by a foreign devil.
Three men from the crowd and the husband moved towards me, fists clenched.

Strangely I didn’t panic. I breathed deeply, breathing my anger deep into my belly. I handed my saxophone to my girlfriend, surveyed the situation and put my hands up into a boxing guard. To my right was a weak looking skinny young man, in front of me a middle-aged man and to my left the husband sneered, stationary. My nearest target was the old man, I stared into his eyes and yelled with a deep growl “Ni zhen de yao ma? Wo hui sha ni!” (Do you really want this? I know how to kill you.)
“Yes, we want to fight.” He said moving forward. In my mind flashed my strategy. It looked as though the moves from my Thai kickboxing training were actually going to be put to use. In my minds eye I pictured delivering a flying knee to the face of the middle aged man, reverse elbow into the jaw of the weedy guy and then a head kick to the pot belly husband after dodging whatever attack he was about to throw. I almost felt the crunch of skull against my knee in anticipation. As I took a deep breath and called for the policeman, so as to witness them throwing the first punch, I thought, “Do you really want to be seen kneeing an old man in the head and smashing that weedy guy in the face. Not really a chivalrous move.”

Luckily for everyone involved, they were just trying to look tough for the crowd, making a cameo appearance in the drama. The husband seized my bicycle and hurled it to the ground, jumping on it with more childish tantrum than any real menace, punctuating the whole event. It seemed the drama had reached its conclusion.

As we rode away into the night my girlfriend and I giggled hysterically. It was a stupid and drunken mistake, but much better entertainment than the Transformers film we went to that week and the same price.