Turning Shanghainese

Dr Tafara Estelle Makuni
6 min readJun 20, 2021


Header: Turning Shanghainese

Day one in the office was fairly standard, briefing notes and introductory talks outlining the workflow for the next 9 weeks. In summary my job description involved teaching Maths and Physics to A-Level students in a series of Science Summer Schools for an educational consultancy firm. Departing from London, Heathrow at 17:00 to arrive at Shanghai, Pudong International Airport approximately 14 hours later inevitably results in jet lag. Although, given the 9 to 5 working hours plus the air-conditioning, the office could have been based in England and I would never have known the difference. Outside the comforts of air-con, the humidity levels (amongst other things) gave the game away. Humidity in Shanghai is typically 75%. A hot summer day in England is only 2 thirds of this value at 50%. This higher moisture content did take some getting-used-to, but other than this, there were no other major surprises with the weather (discounting the occasional flash storm and typhoon alerts).

The teaching was conducted exclusively in English hence my lack of Chinese was not a hindrance here.

All the interns were housed in the Jiuting district, 15 miles away from the centre of town. Undoubtedly a residential area, there was no tourism so hardly anyone spoke English. Most people spoke what I assume to be Mandarin, although it is rumoured (Wikipedia) that the region speaks ‘Shanghainese’ — derivative of Mandarin. This contrasted with the city centre where most people spoke some level of English. The swift purchase of the Rosetta Stone Language DVDs and an easy route to our metro station saved the day.

Ten minutes away from the hotel was the Jiuting Metro Station — a gateway to Shanghai’s great feats of engineering. With just over 435 km of track, the Shanghai Metro forms the longest network in the world. Apart from its immaculate layout and design, one of the most astonishing facts about the Shanghai Metro is its rapid rate of construction. Six out of eleven lines (258 km of track) were laid down in the past 3 years. Moreover, the names of the stations with the tourist attractions tend to be fairly self-explanatory.

For example, the Aerospace Museum Station is where the Aerospace Museum is located. This is different from London where there is neither an elephant nor castle at Elephant & Castle Underground Station.

The government plans on extending the number of lines from eleven to twenty-one by 2020 i.e., doubling the size of their network, again to make even more of Shanghai even more accessible. Having said this, the Shanghai Metro is the only network in the world running at a loss; largely due to the fares being so cheap. Instead of just providing you with a transport service to get you from point A to point B, the metro aims to provide you with a transitory experience. To find out what the supposed difference is between a service and an experience please refer to third year module 3E10 for some Marketing chat. A single adult journey costs an average of 5 yuan (50 pence). This is rather low; but like many other subway systems around the world, the ticket price will probably increase over the coming years as the metro becomes an integral part of people’s daily lives. The regional rail transportation service is not as good because most lines are rather slow, and China is rather big. The obvious solution: bullet trains. China is expanding their use of high-speed rail lines. In June 2011, China unveiled its fastest high-speed train yet, the Jinghu HSR [1]. This line links their two major economic zones, Beijing and Shanghai. Again, the construction for this rail was astonishingly quick — 1318 km of track laid down in 3 years! But the glitches and problems experienced with the line during its initial operating stages revealed a flipside to this situation: is China racing to make errors?

On a side note, all but one of China’s high-speed trains (the Shanghai Maglev Train) are conventional trains “tweaked” to go faster. This is pretty fast. The Eurostar — connecting London to Paris in approximately 2 hours — has a design cruise speed of 300 kph; however, the specially constructed Shanghai Maglev Train exceeds the 350 kph “barrier” with an operational cruise speed of 431 kph. Launched in 2001, it was the first commercial high-speed magnetic levitation line in the world. The maglev train runs on a different track to normal trains, with magnetised coals running all the way along them which repel the large magnets in the train’s undercarriage allowing it to levitate between 1–10 centimetres. Once in suspension, the magnetic field created is manipulated in such a way to push the train forward.

In eliminating all this friction, the trains can reach speeds of just over 500 kph.

In comparison, a Boeing 747–8 commercial aeroplane has a design cruise speed of about 910 kph. Engineers predict that maglev trains will eventually be able to link cities that are up to 1,700 km apart. At 500 kph you could travel from Paris to Rome in just over 2 hours!

Speaking of astonishing facts, the Shanghai World Financial Centre (nicknamed the Bottle Opener) is home to the world’s highest observation deck. Like most other high-rise buildings, it contains two tuned mass dampers (150 tons each) to counteract the strong winds. More interestingly, the toilets on the top floor contain state-of-the-art electronic bidets, probably making this the highest place on land you can get your butt washed. Next door to the Bottle Opener are Shanghai’s two other ‘most famous’ landmarks; the Oriental Pearl Tower (also known as the Radio Tower) and the Jin Mao Tower. In most photos you see of the Shanghai skyline, the Radio Tower is usually photoshopped to look like the tallest building. This is false! It is only a meagre 468 m tall (compared to the Bottle Opener’s majestic 492 m height). Furthermore, with the construction of the Shanghai Tower (scheduled for a 2014 completion), the Radio Tower will be the third tallest building/tower in Shanghai. Yes — there is a difference between a building and a tower (Google for some Structures chat). All this and more were showcased at the Shanghai Urban Planning Exhibition Centre which locally is known as “the Window to the City”. The gallery holds past, present, and future development plans for the urban landscape.

Other than the towers and skyscrapers, the Oriental Sports Centre and the Shanghai Expo 2010 were interesting places to visit. The sports centre was currently hosting the 2011 FINA [2] Swimming World Championships so the place was buzzing with energy. Unfortunately, most of the tickets for the popular events were sold out therefore we never saw the inside properly. On the other hand, the Shanghai Expo 2010 — a year on from the end event — was a vast site containing half empty structures. Other than the Chinese pavilion, most countries seemed to have dismantled their exhibits, not leaving much to see. Having said that, a lot of the pavilion structures appeared to be undertaking the process of conversion into mini-shopping malls, which will hopefully lift the atmosphere in that region. The infrastructure (which is excellent) already exists hence so are part-way there already.

Although there are lots of building and structures in Shanghai, amongst it all is some greenery. I cannot claim to know too much about landscape architecture, but Century Park — located right in the centre of Shanghai — is spectacular. Entry fee is only 10 yuan (£1) which is rather good for a tourist attraction. This is 20 yuan cheaper than entry into the Yuyuan Gardens — Shanghai’s most famous garden. Here I thought the scenic design to be generic and lazy; in the sense that there was a concrete landing every 20 meters and just enough greenery to pass a garden. But then again, what do I know about landscape architecture? I am only an engineer… I could better comment on the structural integrity of the concrete landings and patios — which were good as far as I could tell — but that would perhaps make for a boring read.

In conclusion, Shanghai is an amazing city, and full of engineering records. A definite must see for any engineer!

Author: Tafara Estelle Makuni
Written: September 2011
Edited: June 2021

[1] High Speed Rail
[2] Fédération Internationale de Natation