My Passionate Encounter in Shanghai and a Few of my Other Experiences

As many of you are aware, I have spent most of the last two months living in Shanghai on a special assignment.  As my time here comes to an end and I reflect on my experiences, I wanted to share with you a few the things I learned and experienced.

Bigger, Faster, Better

Because of the sheer number of people here and the extremely low cost of labor, extraordinary things can be accomplished in record amounts of time here.  My boss, a frequent traveler to shanghai, was with me on this trip.  As we walked around the sprawling metropolis that is Shanghai, with its huge luxury brands occupying huge spaces in prime real estate, he said, ‘it’s amazing that 9 months ago when I was here – most of this was a building site – it didn’t exist…’

This year Shanghai was the host for the world expo and all the infrastructure, retail, transport links, leisure and entertainment facilities were literally built over the last 2 years and to the highest possible standards. Just incredible!

In the world of genomics my other example of this is an institute called BGI.  This institute sequences human genomes.  They currently own over 150 Sequencers and by the end of 2010 they will be producing more sequence output than the entire rest of the world combined! Yes, China will be the biggest producer of Genome Sequence in the world!

All I want is a Glass of Cold Water

Every time I went to a Chinese restaurant I would go through the same drama.  I would ask for Diet Coke and of course they wouldn’t have it or wouldn’t understand what I wanted.  So then I would ask for water.  In every place I went to, it would be served warm.  I would ask them for cold water and they would apparently pretend not to understand.  One day my colleague from China took me to a restaurant and after going through the usual script ‘diet coke, no? ok ill have water please’ and it being served warm, he told me that they would never serve me cold water even if I asked, because its considered very  rude to give a guest cold water – ‘they don’t want to insult you’ he told me  Apparently if you want to insult someone badly in China – you say ‘I wouldn’t even serve him cold water!’

Rich Man, Poor Man

One day, I was asked to go and meet with a Professor in a local hospital in Shanghai.  When we got to the hospital it was one of the biggest displays of chaos I had experienced outside of Cairo when they have won the football.  It was hot and humid, patients everywhere, thousands of them, many of them in beds in the corridors and hallways. Their bedding didn’t look that clean and there didn’t seem to be any sort of order.  When we got to the elevator, we stood in line for about ten minutes.  My Chinese colleague looked at me apologetically and said – ‘you know there are never enough resources in China… ‘

Periodically as people got in and out of the elevators, fights would break out, when people couldn’t squeeze in, about who should get out and wait for the next ride.  They would shout at each other and hold the whole elevator up for over 5 minutes at a time.  I was starting to feel faint from the heat and humidity. Eventually we got our turn and went upstairs to the 22nd floor (although I nearly died on the way up because there is no concept of personal space and I’m not used to having elbows jammed in my ribs!)

The elevator opened to an air conditioned, well organized, quiet floor and we were led to the Professors office. His office was huge, and had the latest scientific journals and books all over it.  Through our meeting it transpired that this professor was going to do some of the most cutting edge genomics research in China.  In this chaotic and crazy hospital!

The Professor was wearing over 20,000 USD worth of accessories, Gucci Shoes, Rolex Watch, Mont Blanc Pen and Wallet and an Hermes Belt.  (I’m a diva I have to notice these things!)

What struck me about this was the vast contrast from the poverty and chaos I had seen a few floors below.  When we came to leave, I headed toward the elevator, dreading the  experience, he said ‘no no you can’t use that elevator’ he made a quick phone call, and before we knew it, a secret empty air conditioned private elevator opened just for us. This experience highlighted the pyramid distribution of wealth in China, millions of people in poverty on the bottom floor of the pyramid (or hospital in this case) and A few super rich at the top, with very special privileges.

The Artificial Baby Makers

Fertility appears to big issue in china and this is exemplified by the size of the IVF market.  Apparently (according to the local paper) there are over 200 IVF clinics throughout china on average conducting 7000 IVF’s per year and currently demand is exceeding supply.  That’s a whole lot of infertility and a huge number of future IVF children.  Family is important to the Chinese and it’s your offspring that take care of you when you get old here, IVF is not only to give you an experience of parenthood and family it’s also an investment in your retirement plan.

The Most Sophisticated Consumer in the World

On my last night here, being a chocoholic, I accidently found myself in the Godiva Café. After ordering the milk chocolate praline hot chocolate and their classic flourless chocolate cake, the owner of the establishment, Franco, came and struck up a conversation with me.  He told me that this was THE ONLY Godiva café in the world and that the luxury brand had decided to open up their first café in Shanghai as the consumers in Shanghai are currently perceived to be the most sophisticated and with the most amount of disposable income for indulgences.

I’m telling you people the Godiva café was pure indulgence. Franco then bought out a flight of chocolate for me to sample all spiced with different types of pepper, Szechwan, green peppercorn and cayenne and accompanied with a desert Muscat that perfectly complimented the chocolate. Diva was in heaven!

He also informed me that when it comes to chocolate the Japanese are the number 2 consumer in the world and the next Godiva café would be in Tokyo.

And finally….

The Passionate Encounter

I know you are all dying to know about the passionate encounter, well –  it’s the most incredible cocktail made of passion fruit that can be found at my favorite bar – Glamour Bar! I’m sorry to disappoint you if you were expecting something a little juicer but it really is very good!

The bar is this fabulous opulent, trendy place filled with sexy expats – when you are inside you forget that you are in China.  The passionate encounter started off an evening for me that turned into an 8 hour party with a fellow expat I met there so I will always remember it fondly…

3 thoughts on “My Passionate Encounter in Shanghai and a Few of my Other Experiences

  1. I quite enjoy reading your words Diva in Biotech! Looks like you had some quite unique experience in Shanghai. China is such a complex society and I don’t think many people can truly understand it even for many Chinese who have lived in the country for their entire lives–the contradiction of fancy modern cities and vast underdeveloped rural areas has greatly divided the country and its people. But the fast pace of modernization and urbanization is really something that makes living in the country so exciting.

    Health care is definitely one of the most fast-growing industries in China and apparently western pharma giants know how to capitalize the market, which I hope will ultimately benefit the people there.


  2. You are absolutely right – people who haven’t lived in China, haven’t experiences its diversity and its contradictions, – this experience really opened my eyes to wonderful world of China! I’m excited about the developments in healthcare that can come from China – like you say its one of the fastest growing industries. The fact that China has such a huge population makes it attractive for studies on the genetics of the Chinese population – for sure this will have a positive impact for the people, the problem will be in the economics of it.

    Thanks for reading and commenting!


  3. suganthi says:

    Hi Diva,

    I enjoyed reading this. Some of my thoughts as I read this

    1. Glass of cold water: You will notice a lot of Indians, especially elderly people, asking for water with no ice in the US. This may have evolved as a practice out of health concerns ( at least as far as India is concerned). I also found an interesting analogy here ( drinking green te without sugar)

    The TED talk is here

    2. Rich man , poor man: sounds similar to India.

    3. Surprised to hear about infertility rates given the ginormous population size.

    4. The passionate encounter: 🙂 😀

    On a serious note, my interest in personal genomics seems to be at odds with my feelings of anguish with respect to the the huge disparity in basic health coverage in so many places. A part of me thinks that perhaps mankind would benefit more solving the basic issue first before tackling billion genomes. It simply is heart-breaking, the complete lack of basic necessities for so many people in this world.


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