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Saturday, December 7, 2013

Santa in the smog

Santa Claus and my daughter engage in meaningful, substantive talks on a variety of Christmas present-related issues

If you've been following the news, or at the very least have read my recent Facebook posts, then you know the weather here in Shànghăi 上海 has been atrocious. According to the local Shanghai Daily, the city's PM2.5 density peaked at an incredible (and life-shortening) level of 602.5 micrograms per cubic meter at 1 p.m. yesterday. To put the number in perspective, China's official tolerable limit of these nasty little particles is just 75. Do the math, and you can get a sense of how toxic the air was on Friday.

I tried taking some photos around lunchtime yesterday, but my camera isn't good enough to convey just how thick the photochemical soup actually was:

I also tried getting a shot of how things looked in the evening, at around 6 p.m. as I was returning home from work:

For a more professional description of yesterday's smog emergency, a Google search can direct you to several stories, including reports from National Public Radio and the Huffington Post. The choking air has been blamed on a combination of several factors, including atmospheric conditions, polluting factories, the burning of coal for heating in winter and the explosive growth in the number of privately-owned vehicles (as anyone who has been stuck in Shanghai's rush-hour traffic can attest to). It all comes down to the extreme short-sightedness that has been the lynchpin behind China's rapid economic growth, namely the desire to get rich in the quickest yet cheapest ways possible, no matter the environmental, health and social costs that the Chinese are going to be paying in the not-too-distant future when all these choking chickens come home to roost. 

Today was another smoggy affair, but nowhere near the apocalyptic conditions of Friday. Which was fortunate in many ways, one being that we didn't need to wear masks when venturing outside. And venture we did, as this morning was "Breakfast with Santa", held at the main U.S. consulate building located in the French Concession. The consulate property was established in 1921 by Jardine, Matheson and Co., and went through several ownership changes before being acquired by the U.S. government in 1980. The chancery building and consulate grounds are attractive, but the needs of American government functions soon outgrew the spatial limits of the property, which is why the visa section where I currently work is located above a shopping mall a ten-minute cab ride away. 

Amber and Santa reached an agreement on the disposition of gifts, conditioned on a certain young girl's behavior between now and December 25. 

The breakfast was held inside the chancery building. On the wall are photographs of all the U.S. Consul-Generals who have served in Shanghai.

The kids were kept busy with various arts-and-crafts activities

My daughter misuses government property

On the grounds outside

The tasteful period architecture of the Consulate-General is in stark contrast to what can be seen elsewhere in Shanghai (as well as the other prosperous parts of China). A popular buzzword these days is tǔ​háo 土豪, meaning nouveau riche, or to be more specific, how the newly-affluent are going about flaunting their wealth. Tuhao takes the form of bling, expensive cars, sluttish-looking fashion (think leopard-skin prints) and, as in the picture above, tastelessly designed apartment buildings. Nothing screams wealth more than living in a Greco-Roman inspired eyesore. About the only good thing one can say about China's choking smog is that it obscures sights like the one above.

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