I spent a week in Shanghai, China, in 1986. I found it a fascinating city, dingy and faded with great bones, like an old actress who had once been beautiful. It was December, quite cold, and all the buildings had what looked like quilted mattress covers hanging over the doorways to preserve what heat there was. I was sleeping in a dormitory at the formerly glamourous Pujiang Hotel; the dorm room had a toilet that didn't work, and a phone that occasionally rang and rang and rang; if someone answered it, a voice at the other end would yell "Wei? Wei?" and then hang up. I had been living in Tokyo, and had somehow expected China to be full of Communist automatons; I was pleasantly surprised to find it quite the opposite; both men and women were loud and argumentative. I found the anarchic chaos of China a welcome relief from the strictures of Japan.
There were two public education campaigns in full swing at the time I was in Shanghai: one anti-rat, one anti-spit. Signs exhorting people to kill and burn any rats they saw were evident throughout the city. Similarly, anti-spitting signs were prominently displayed everywhere; people were advised to spit into the gutters, or into special recessed containers set in the sidewalks, if they had to spit at all.
There was another kind of campaign on too, one that bubbled up from the bottom. The night I arrived the taxi fought its way through quiet but jubilant looking crowds of young people walking down the street, arms locked. It was the beginning of the first mass demonstrations for freedom and democracy. Thousands of people were camped out in front of the mayor's office, ignoring the constant message blasting over the loudspeaker, which a local told me was advising everyone to go home. A huge demonstration formed on one of the main streets right in front of me; I didn't see the police move in, but later read that 400 people were arrested that day for fomenting social unrest.
It was hard to understand what was going on, though, for few people spoke English, and the newspapers were not reporting what was happening. Mostly I spent my days wandering about the gorgeous crumbling city; I saw the old foreign quarters, from which Chinese were once banned, and sat in a dusty Buddhist temple watching old women with bound feet circumambulate the room with a hobbling gait. In the evenings I'd go to Chinese restaurants alone, or with other tourists; because there were no English menus, we'd look at what others were eating and point to what looked good. Later, we'd go down to the Seaman's Club for beer. The bar is apparently still there, upstairs at the Tung Feng Hotel, though the main floor is apparently now home to a Kentucky Fried Chicken. There were no such establishments in Shanghai in the mid 80s.
One night, staggering back from the Seaman's Club through the mist of a Shanghai night, we noticed ghostly figures carrying poles across their shoulders, buckets suspended from the ends. These people were stopping at regular intervals and using a long-handled tool to pick something up and tip it into their buckets. With mounting horror, we realized that they were emptying the recessed containers in the sidewalks of their day's accumulation of phlegm, snot, and spit. Now this must be the most ignoble of professions, to be a member of the Shanghai Phlegm Removal Squad, and I can only hope that the anti-spitting campaign, which I hear is still on-going, will one day render this job a thing of the past.