paul merton in china (4/4)
Comedian Paul Merton concludes his six-week tour of China for Five. Tonight, Paul heads to futuristic Shanghai, where he plays golf, meets match-making parents, dines with socialites and visits a bizarre recreation of an English town.
The last leg of Paul’s journey sees him enjoying some new experiences – the first of which is a trip on the fastest train in the world: the $1.2 billion rail link from Shanghai’s airport. The train reaches 270mph during its eight-minute journey, and Paul is astonished by the quiet, smooth ride: “It’s wonderful – exhilarating,” he says.
Shanghai has developed more than any other city in China: 20 years ago, there was just one skyscraper; now there are over 300. Paul’s hotel is the tallest in the world and his room is over 80 storeys up – not ideal considering that he is afraid of heights, and cannot even go near the balcony that overlooks the vast central shaft of the building.
“Money is what Shanghai does best,” Paul says, before meeting Rupert Hoogewerf, author of China’s Rich List. Rupert describes modern China as an example of “raw capitalism”. With no inherited wealth, there is a first generation of rich people who are enjoying the economic boom. Shanghai is at the heart of this new wealth: “It’s a city on steroids,” Rupert says. Paul sees this firsthand when he joins a businessman on one of the city’s top golf courses. This is another first for Paul, never having played the game before, and he hacks away a good bit of the course before finally sinking the first hole in a mere 74 shots.
Elsewhere in Shanghai, Paul finds parents busily engaged in match-making their children in the People’s Park. His translator Emma soon becomes involved in finding him a mate, and encourages a bemused Paul to lower his age and talk up his prospects to potential parents-in-law: “I’m going to end up married by the end of day, just by accident!” he says.
Paul’s string of firsts continues as he is fitted for his first ever tailor-made suit by the ludicrously happy Tailor Lee. Then he explores the nostalgic side of Shanghai by visiting a 1930s dance hall, where a dance instructor named Lina gives him his first taste of ballroom dancing. Later, Lina takes him to an antiques market and encourages him to pose with her in a photo – in 1930s period costume. Lina is clearly smitten with Paul: “He is very gentleman,” she titters.
Paul’s “brief encounter” with Lina is followed by dinner with a group of wealthy female socialites, who wax lyrical about the freedoms they enjoy in modern China. Host Vivian Chow surprises Paul with her views of the exaggerations of the western press: “To tell you the truth, I don’t think China even has any political prisoners,” she says.
And Paul’s six-week tour is wrapped up with a homecoming – of a sort. His last stop is a bizarre, half-finished recreation of Britain called Thames Town, complete with Gothic cathedral, shops and pubs – all of them mere facades. The site is popular with couples who want their wedding photos taken against English backdrops, and Paul is even more bemused to learn that most of the houses are empty because they have been bought as investments rather than homes. “It’s very Chinese,” he says. “It’s all for show.”
As Paul looks back on his trip, he finds it difficult to choose a highlight: “I’ve experienced so much, it’s hard to take it all in,” he says. But he is enormously grateful for having had the chance to experience China in all its many aspects.