January 12th, 2008

“Give Them Bread and Circuses, and TV Ads on the Subway”

Posted in Asia Pacific, Transportation by Siqi Zhu


The usual assortment of passengers on the train:
cellphone fiddlers, ad-gazers and the lone reader

With typical New China audacity, even hubris, Shanghai authorities opened up more than 100km of subway tracks on a single day this past December, nearly doubling the metro system in a single stroke. This puts it well on its way of becoming the world’s largest–at least by the length of trackage–in two or three years of time.

Yet there doesn’t appear to be anything about the Shanghai Metro that marks its soon-to-be special status; nothing like the claustrophobic confusion of the Tokyo Metro, the steam-punk appeal of the NYC subway, or the hi-tech sheen of London’s Canary Wharf underground station. Superficially, what the Shanghai Metro does offer are the familiar standards: free daily newspapers, automatic vending machines, contactless smart cards, platform screen doors, annoying LCD screens, inoffensive-looking station interiors, neutral voices announcing the next stop, and respectable-looking riders mostly engaged with their cellphones.


I think I caught him red-handed

Shanghai 16, Mob scene inside the metro

Rush-hour mob scene

One may credit this anonymousness to the Metro’s young age–after all, the system is only a little more than ten years old. Others may contend that it’s a result of the city’s historically cosmopolitan outlook. The efficient and business-like environment seems a little out of place in China and indeed, this feeling is only exacerbated by the torrent of advertisements for Adidas and Coca-Cola, and a chain of in-station pastry shops inexplicably called Christine’s.

So is the Metro (which are German trains, incidentally) an agent of the worst excesses of global consumerism, hurling the city towards some horrifying, beige-coloured future? I suspect people on the ground hardly care; as someone who lives in a city with a Sunday-in-the-Victorian-Age sort of subway system, I myself have come to appreciate the cold efficiency and brash commercialism of the Shanghai metro.

Commercialism may actually be the most distinctive trait of this young metro system; it is certainly a fitting one in this most business-y of cities. In addition to the aforementioned pastry shops, one may reasonably expect to find at least one book dealer and one Chinese deli in any given station concourse. Come to the larger stations, and we are talking about a whole range of shopping options, from cellphone accessories to clothes, bubble tea to hard liquor.


In the Shanghai metro, they mean business

Further evidence of this commercial spirit lies immediately outside the station, where you can browse DVDs with suspicious packaging and Russian dubbing. On days when the Chengguans are on a relaxed watch, there are even a small troupe of enterprising counterfeiters, hawking Louis Vuitton bags.

A final vindication that this city means business is the ubiquity of advertisements in the Metro. Not only have ads infested columns, walls, car windows and handle bars, they have made an appearance on the in-car LCD screens. Starbucks and Pepsi have recently commissioned a unique blend of advertising and soap operas. Called “a Sunny Day“, it chronicles the relationship between an angelic country-girl-in-the-big-city and an improbably rich and handsome subway musician, much of it unfolding at Starbucks over iced frappaccinos.

Judging by the signs of enrapturement, the odiousness of the situation is lost on most of the passengers. I myself have even started to enjoy “a Sunny Day” on its own terms. Surrounded by advertisements for Calvin Klein underwear and Mont Blanc pens, watching a show made by Starbucks, all the while travelling in a spanking new train hurtling at 80km/h beneath the metropolis–it doesn’t get any more Shanghai than this.

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  1. Patrick Donovan says:

    I was unimpressed with the Shanghai metro system – it is bland yet functional. The crappy flickery fluorescent lighting in most of the stations certainly didn’t enhance the appeal. I also found it confusing at first for a non Chinese speaker, as there’s very little English around unlike the Hong Kong, Guanghzou, or Beijing metro systems. Certainly nowhere as exciting as what is going on above ground in Shanghai.

    January 15th, 2008 at 2:54 am

  2. Mary Soderstrom says:

    My stay in Shanghai was nearlly two years ago now, and things have obviously changed, but I don’t remember having trouble getting around. At least I found enough signage in English to keep from getting lost, althuogh I rode the system three days before I realized that the announcements were being given in English as well as Mandarin. Let’s say the accent wasn’t standard mid-Atlantic English!

    But one of the things that 100 more kilometers of Metro with their attendant stations will mean is: more places for young lovers to meet. Late afternoon the suburban stations seemed to be liberally sprinkled with young couples (15 and up) looking soufully into each others’ eyes and etc. They weren’t there an hour or so later, and I surmised they were high school kids who had to get home for supper, but who had no place to hang out until then.


    January 15th, 2008 at 8:50 am