The Fifteenth Floor


 I’m reminded of the folly of thinking we can understand much in such a short time.

One morning we walk to the Montessori pre-school our grandson will attend. A few blocks from there, a man is lying on his stomach on the sidewalk. It’s 10:00 a.m., a weekday in late January.  The temperature is around 45 degrees Fahrenheit. This man is shoeless and shirtless, both arms extended in front of him, like he’s a swimmer diving into a pool. Under his left hand, visible between splayed fingers, is a small pile of banknotes. He’s talking, maybe he’s begging; to me it sounds like chanting or singing. Something tells me, even if I knew Chinese, I might not understand what he’s saying.

“Over there,” our daughter tells us, pointing across the street. “The school is over there.” She cups her hand around Gabriel’s cheek, gently turning his head to redirect his glance, and steers us across the street.

In three weeks, this is my only encounter with a street person in Shanghai, a city of 24 million people.  Connie Maturana, writing for Western Independent, an Australian publication, observes, “It is during the quiet hours after midnight that Shanghai’s homeless quietly begin to appear.”

Which explains why I don’t see them.

Another reason: the government takes care of them. Manages them might be a better term.

Rescue stations located around the city offer the homeless food, a bath, a place to sleep, provided they agree to be registered.  Maturana writes, “Every homeless person now has their face photographed when they are registered into the station. For those that cannot be identified, their photograph is sent to the police database for identification. If within seven days no identification is made, a DNA blood sample is collected and sent to police for DNA matching.”

cop yawning

The government doesn’t mess around. The preferred solution to the homeless situation is to ship homeless people back to their villages, which, it can be argued, is slightly more humane than what local governments in the the US do: buy them a bus ticket in San Francisco and ship them to Denver. In both cases, however, the goal is the same. Get them off the street.

I get the idea that homelessness is primarily a consequence of migration. China is in the midst of a massive migration of its rural population, moving people from their rural homes to urban high-rises, mostly by fiat. In 1970 the population of Shanghai was 5.6 million; by 2020 the projected number is 27 million. In 30 years the urban population of China has increased by 440 million, to about 660 million. (To get a feel for the magnitude of this mass of humanity,  consider that according to recent census data, the urban population of the US is 245 million.)  Some people, not surprisingly, slip through the cracks. To qualify for local services a Chinese migrant needs “hukou” status, which is local household registration. The government wants to know who you are and where you are.

We talk a lot about infrastructure in the US: roads, bridges, airports, the power grid. China, it would seem, is good at all these things, and despite the numbers, is also on top of keeping track of people.


You certainly see infrastructure here. There are cops everywhere, starting with the horn patrol, keeping the Shanghai streets quiet and civil. Then there’s traffic patrol. All day long, on street corners and on the shoulder of roads, you see cops writing tickets (or more accurately, printing digital printouts that look like cash register receipts).

The main streets and sidewalks in this area are cleaned–washed, scrubbed, and swept–every couple days.  On the way to coffee every morning, I see a man picking up cigarette butts and small bits of paper with giant chopsticks. Within ten days of our arrival, the road in front of this building was totally redone: resurfaced; lane lines painted yellow, bike and scooter and parking lines painted white. I never heard or saw a machine. The work literally happened over night. Like the homeless, the road workers must come out after midnight.


Which explains why I didn’t see them.

Like everyone, our kids live in a high-rise apartment building. Their apartment is on the fifteenth floor. The near view: tile roofs of the French Concession buildings dating back to the 19th and early 20th centuries. The far view: miles and miles of skyscrapers and high-rises, many of them brand new.  I say to my wife one day, “You don’t hear much traffic noise.” And it’s true: the newly paved street, used by electric scooters, bicycles, and electric cars and trucks, monitored by the horn patrol, is very quiet. When our kids lived in lower Manhattan and we went to visit, traffic noise was constant, and deafening. Then again, here we’re on the fifteenth floor.  The noise may be diminished; it’s also way down below.

school is out

My wife says to me one day, “You don’t see many kids.” When we’re out walking, I’ve noticed that too.   China has had a one-child policy since 1969. The results of one study I’ve scanned suggest the policy prevented 400,000,000 births (and created an aging population). Then again, we’re on the fifteenth floor. If you’re on the street in front of this building at 11:15 a.m. or 3:30 p.m., when the school across the street lets them out, you see kids, many hundreds of them.  So many you have to turn yourself sideways on the sidewalk to let them by.  One day we visit the Shanghai Arts and Crafts Museum.  We have the pleasure (really) of queuing up with hundreds of elementary school kids.


We’re here for a month, helping our daughter with her kids (one is three years, the other four months), while she and her husband settle in.  These four weeks we’re sticking close to home. I walk the neighborhood every day. I like to think I’m getting a feel for local living. Again and again, on the other hand, I’m reminded of the folly of thinking we can understand much in such a short time. This is a difficult place.

The day we decide to go the The Long Museum to see the Rembrandt exhibit, it’s raining hard. A good day to do something inside.

Like most of the corporate ex-pats who live here, our kids have a driver. Wang takes my son-in-law to and from work; on crappy days (because of bad weather or dangerous air quality), he’ll drive my daughter and the three-year-old to and from his pre-school. If he’s available, he’ll drive me and my wife around, too.  This day he is not available.

It’s raining; otherwise we could walk.

“Take a cab,” my daughter says.

That sounds easy enough. I look up the museum on my phone, photograph the name of the museum, written in Chinese, to show a cab driver. When I show my daughter, she tells me to make sure we have the museum address in Chinese too.

“The driver might not know where the museum is,” she says.

“I could say ‘The Bund’.” Where the museum is, down by the river.

“He might not know what that means in English.  They’ll help you downstairs,” she says.  “Get the address.”


When I ask James downstairs at the desk, he says he’s never heard of The Long Museum.  I show him the museum name, on my phone, written in Chinese.  He shakes his head.  He and the young woman working the desk have a lengthy conversation in Chinese, after which she does a computer search, takes out a post-it and writes on it, handing me the name of the museum, with it’s address, written in her beautiful script.  Then she opens a drawer, takes out a card for the high-rise where we live.

Believe me, I’ve thought about this potential problem many times. If we venture far from home and get lost, how do we get back? Exactly where do we get back?

get home card

James calls the cab.  Waits, and waits, and waits.

“It’s raining,” he says.  “No cabs.”

Right, like when it rains in Manhattan.  No cabs.

We wait another five minutes, which I admit is pretty half-hearted, and decide to save this adventure for another day. We take the elevator back to the fifteenth floor. I feel kind of relieved.

Like most corporate ex-pat families that live here, our kids can hire a nanny, an Ayi. A few weeks after we get here, Hong comes to work in the apartment. She’s in her late 40’s. She’s worked for a number of ex-pat families, Spanish, French, Japanese. On the day we interview her and two other candidates, she’s the only one who is comfortable holding the baby.  We’re all a little freaked out. This is new.  There is no nanny history in our family.  Still, our daughter will need help. Hong will look after the baby when our daughter walks the three-year-old to school on a good day, or rides with him on a bad-weather or bad-air day. Hong will cook, do laundry, buy groceries, be all-around helpful.  She speaks a couple words of English.

The day she arrives, Hong and I take my son-in-law’s shirts to a cleaner. It’s over by a soup place where my daughter and I have eaten. My job is to show Hong where to go.

On the way we stop at a fruit market.  I pick up bananas and a bag of mandarin oranges. She takes the oranges from me and touches the skin on a few. She palpates a few more and shakes her head. Not good. She goes to the crate and picks up bag after bag, then sets them down.  She turns and says something to the fruit vendor.  A lengthy conversation ensues. The vendor finally gestures to a spot near the back of the store. Hong goes to that spot, bends down, and starts selecting oranges from a bin, one at a time. Finally she stands up and hands me a bagful, smiles and nods. The vendor calculates a total. When I pull out too much money, Hong shakes her head. I’m pretty sure she rolls her eyes. She must think I’m a babe in the woods.  At times I tend to think that too.

On the way there and back, she walks a step behind me. She carries the laundry bag; then she carries the bag of fruit. When I offer to carry something, anything, she smiles and shakes her head. In front of a looming Bank of China, we stand at a crosswalk, waiting for the green. When the light changes she hooks an arm through mine. There no confusing it: this is a protective gesture on her part.


Hong knows things I want to  know.  I’d love to circle the block with her, stop at the fruit and vegetable stalls she likes, with the gorgeous fresh greens and baskets of eggs, past the hanging meats and fish baskets and the dried eels and ducks. Explain all this to me, Hong.

Back at the apartment, we sit down to the dinner Hong has prepared.  Night falls quickly. Hong will ride 40 minutes home on her electric scooter. I stand at the window, looking down, watching and listening for I don’t know what.

night skyline


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