“Football is like rock and roll, it’s just ‘bam-bam-boo’. And basketball is like jazz, you know? You’re kind of… ‘Dupee-doo, dupee-do’. It’s all downbeat, it’s in the pocket, it’s like… ‘Dupee-do, dupee-do, dapee-dah’.”

Michael Scott’s astute description of America’s most popular pastimes feels like a nice path to navigate when contemplating the differences between London - the city I’m most familiar with - and Shanghai, a city I spent roughly 48 hours exploring.

You see, there are a million Quora posts describing Britain through the lens of Mary Poppins, but when it comes to the noble art of road rage - a decidedly unreserved act - we’re trailblazers. Or, to stick with Scott’s analogy, we’re pounding the shit out of the drum kit and detuning our guitars.

Shanghai is different though. It’s Coltrane ripping through ‘Giant Steps’ at 40 degrees Celsius. And if you’re not paying close enough attention, it could get you killed.

But before I get into that, this story needs a proper starting point.

***

Basketball Net

I don’t know if you’re aware of this, but if you drop your phone on the floor, or fill it full of water, or set it on fire, or smash the buttons hard enough, they tend to break. I know this because my wife is a clutz, and we’re in possession of a toddler. And not an ordinary toddler, either. Our morning routine consists of eating some breakfast, brushing our teeth, and one of us checking his head for a demonic birthmark.

Anyway, about a month ago, my wife’s phone finally went to a better place. And that’s fine, we all knew it was coming. It’s what happened next that was truly painful: two hours (yes, two hours) in a god damn phone shop. The Ninth Circle of Hell, if hell was 70 people trying to get the attention of two people.

Cars

Once we successfully dodged the upsells, I mentioned checking out the latest phone from Huawei - because, ‘hey, they’re paying for me to go to China soon - they’re clearly very discerning’. Once everyone’s eyes stopped rolling, she picked up the P20, saw what the camera was capable of, and the deal was done.

The point I’m trying to make is this: I didn’t need to go to China to find out about Huawei, or to understand the type of excellence they inject into their products because for the past four weeks my wife has taken every opportunity to point that out to me. However, against my better judgement, I decided to take the plunge.

Neon

Now I know what you’re thinking, and yes I am a prick for even considering passing up this opportunity, but I’ve been on enough of these trips to know how they usually shake out. Rather than doing anything meaningful like - I don’t know, immersing yourself in the culture - you end up spending your time 'networking' with hungry industry people and avoiding PRs looking to plant whatever narrative is required of them to get paid on their end. But if this trip has taught me anything, it’s that life is way too short to let trash like that get in the way of experiencing something new, and that people will often surprise you if you give them the chance (read: everyone on this trip was lovely, including the PRs.) (Which is rare.)

And that’s how I ended up on a plane to Shenzhen in the middle of summer, watching season nine of Curb your Enthusiasm.

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In-Flight Entertainment

The only people that sleep on planes are rich people and psychopaths. I'm enough of a psychopath to try and get some sleep, even though I've never successfully pulled it off, but definitely not rich enough to afford Business Class. Flight purgatory is a terrible thing, but the entertainment is usually incredible. If you happen to fly Cathay Pacific soon, I recommend checking out Jaws (1975), 12 Angry Men (1957), Catch me If You Can (2002), and Network (1976). Honourable mentions: Season 9 of Curb your Enthusiasm, and Nice Lady by Michelle Wolf.

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I’m always impressed by the activities humans choose to undertake - especially feats of endurance. Some people spend their entire lives pushing their bodies to the limit, whether that’s climbing mountains riddled with frozen carcasses or dodging anacondas on the Amazon river. For me, I get the same sort of sick fascination from extreme weather conditions - or ‘extreme’ for a person used to the mayonnaise weather of Britain. But even I wasn’t prepared for the soul-destroying, three-showers-a-day humidity of China.

From the moment we stepped foot in Hong Kong - which provided an ungodly amount of red tape for a place we were merely passing through - it was clear that the week ahead was going to be a battle, especially once you factored in the jet lag.

From Above 2

Speaking of jet lag, have you ever been so tired that you’ve accidentally tried to pay £30 for a £3 flat white from Starbucks, only to be ridiculed in a foreign language? Thankfully the caffeine was enough to carry my shattered bones to a local amusement park, which felt more like an abandoned set from a Wes Anderson film than a place for kids to kill time. Funnily enough, this wasn’t the only place you could feel the director’s work. Anderson’s colour palette seemed to dominate China’s ‘Silicon Valley’ - which is perhaps only the 10th strangest thing to note about the city, the first being its growth.

Over at the Guardian, you can see a pretty mind-boggling timelapse of how much Shenzhen has changed over the past 30 years, but if you’re more of a numbers nerd, get this: in 1985 the city was home to 175,000 people, in 2015, that figure rose to 10.7 million. That’s a 6,040% increase.

Neon Signs

If you’re struggling to get your head around that, just imagine it’s 2038 and every tech company in the world has moved their headquarters to Slough.

It’s impressive, but you still get the impression that the real time to visit Shenzhen will be in another 30 years when its identity is fully realised. Don’t get me wrong, listening to EDM at 2am on a Tuesday morning while drinking rosé-flavoured beer with the locals is a lot of fun, but right now the city feels more like a weekend getaway than a hub for tourism.

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Rice wine is a major problem

When the local guide looks concerned for your safety, it's probably best not to order three more bottles of rice wine. The karaoke section should provide some clarity.

***

One of my favourite episodes of Black Mirror is called ‘Nosedive'. It features the criminally underrated Bryce Dallas Howard as Lacie, a woman living in a world dominated by user ratings (think of it like Uber but for every social interaction you’ve ever had). Now, much of what makes Charlie Brooker’s visions so scary is how closely tied to reality they typically are, but even I wasn’t expecting to see it play out quite so quickly.

It was reported late last year that Zhima Credit in China was trialling a platform with scary similarities, but it was at the Huawei campus where I first tasted the future.

Skyline and running

As you walk through the doors of Huawei University, the first thing that greets you is a screen displaying the information of everyone captured on their CCTV cameras. Using facial recognition, it’ll display the worker’s employee number, the time they entered the building, and a percentage match against the computer’s database of employee photos. There’s also a category called ‘TheSmiling Index’, which is probably not what you think it is, but the fact that I wasn’t given a definite answer on the matter makes for great Chinese whispers.

But look, as cynical as I am about where the world is heading, even I’d find it hard to make the leap between Brooker’s social currency and Huawei’s technology grandstanding (or security measures, depending on how you look at it). Still, it poses some interesting questions about privacy that I’ll leave for much smarter people to discuss.

Market

Speaking of intelligence, the Huawei University is home to a million Matt Damon’s on some Good Will Hunting shit, working on some of the most technologically advanced products that world has ever seen, yet I spent the majority of my time thinking about the fact that the campus had a 7-Eleven. I suppose that’s like having a Tesco Metro at work, but when you’re in a new country, the most boring things seem so magical.

I’ll tell you more about Huawei in a bit, but first, we need to trade this oppressive heat for whatever you’d place slightly below ‘oppressive’.

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The Next Logical Step: Karaoke

Songs that killed it at the karoake: 'I Want It That Way' by the Backstreet Boys, 'Like a Prayer' by Madonna (that slaps hard), 'U Remind Me' by Usher, and 'Fill Me In' by Craig David.

***

From Shanghai airport to the Bund, over the numerous bridges, and past the thousands of skyscrapers fighting for real estate, lives the realisation that I’ll never be rich. I mean, it's hard not to give it a moment of your time when you gaze outside your hotel room window and see the Oriental Pearl Tower. Or, more importantly, when you go to the bathroom and the toilet seat lifts up automatically.

What makes it worse though, is during some downtime I checked my emails and spotted an email from the National Lottery. I can’t remember the exact phrasing, but it was enough for me to start dreaming about my new life as a rich asshole. However, once my VPN kicked in, I found out I’d only won £59.

You know in the Matrix when they have the plugs pulled from their neural interfaces and they come plummeting back to reality? It was worse than that. This feeling stayed with me for the remainder of the trip, mainly because I found myself falling hard for Shanghai.

***

Listening Post: Cardi B and Phonte

One of my favourite things to do when visiting somewhere new - other than searching out the nearest supermarket to see all the weird food they sell - is strapping on some headphones and going for a walk. Your brain starts to attach the music to the sights around you, leaving with you incredibly vivid memories. I'll forever link Phonte's 'So Help Me God' to those first steps in Shenzhen. As for Shanghai, Cardi B's aptly titled 'Drip' instantly reminds me of that hangover walk in the rain.

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The city boasts a staggering amount of bicycles.

Whatever constitutes ‘staggering’ to you, double it; then double it again and you’re still nowhere near the number of bicycles on the streets. But rather than the Boris bikes, or whatever system you’re used to, there didn’t seem to be any hubs. Instead, you find a bike and use it. It’s not free, but it’s certainly cheap and convenient. Add that to the infrastructure - actual bike paths rather than a tiny red strip at the side of the road - and you’ve got yourself a city clued up on how to deal with traffic.

However, the rhythm of Shanghai is difficult to pin down. Bikes weave in and out of traffic, jumping on to the curb to park up. Or more alarmingly, they zoom over strips that look suspiciously like Zebra crossings. It’s life-affirming stuff, dodging traffic, but once you take a step back, it’s hard not to feel in awe of the energy exchange that’s happening all around you. How they do this day-in, day-out without getting into fights, says more about Chinese culture than anything else you’ll find in this feature.

And that’s what I’ve come to realise about China and Asia as a whole: they don’t need us. They don’t need our money, they don’t need our culture, and they certainly don’t need our food. There’s a certain level of arrogance sewn into our DNA as westerners. We’re sold the idea that we have the best of everything and that other cultures are merely second-class citizens, but that couldn’t be further from the truth (not that I needed to go to China to understand that).

Huawei exemplifies this notion.

Dogs

At the start of our trip we were all given P20 Pros, as that was the whole point of heading out to China: to put it through its paces. And while the heat was the first thing the group bonded over, all any of us could really talk about on that first night was how great the phone was. And that trend continued throughout the week. The theme of day two: ‘I HAVEN’T CHARGED THE PHONE YET, WHAT IS THIS VOODOO!?’. Day three: ‘WAIT, AM I A PROFESSIONAL PHOTOGRAPHER NOW?’. Day four: ‘I’M SELLING MY OTHER PHONE’. Day five: ‘MY NAME IS HUAWEI NOW. PLEASE TELL MY FAMILY’.

There’s a running joke in my family that I’m the worst photographer on the planet, which owes a little to my attention span, and a whole lot to my ability to make my thumb the star attraction, or to capture your beautiful kneecaps when all you wanted was a headshot. Yet, I’m oddly proud of the photos I took for this feature. But more than that, I still can’t believe a phone managed to produce them.

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More on the P20 Pro: Top 4 Features

Skyline Now1. The Camera: Have you seen the photos in this feature? Here's the specs, just in case you need them: Leica Triple Camera, 40MP RGB f1.8, 20MP BW f1.6, 8MP RGB f2.4, 5x Hybrid Zoom, AIS, dual-tone LED Front: 24MP, f2.0
2. The Battery: It has a 4000mAh size battery. For context, the iPhone X has an 2,716mAh size battery.
3. The Sound: Dolby Atmos! It sounds terrific.
4. Facial Recognition: It's scary fast.

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As a decade-long vet of the Apple cult, It’s been relatively easy ignoring the flirtations of other smartphone companies. Apple have done a great job of selling an ecosystem and lifestyle, while other companies continue to come across as the 'how do you do, fellow kids' meme. But there’s a sea-change happening, and for the first time in what seems like an eternity, Apple are starting to look a bit vulnerable. Strange product releases and dodgy battery issues aside, I just don't think we look at the company through rose-tinted glasses anymore.

But once you’re in, you’re in, right? Not so much. Gone are the times where changing operating systems would’ve caused meltdowns. In fact, the only app I genuinely miss from making the leap is FaceTime, but there are a million alternatives for that.

Boats

Recency bias is always worth taking into account (who doesn’t like a shiny new phone?), but c’mon man, the P20 Pro is so far ahead of the competition (including the iPhone X) that it kind of feels unfair. It feels unfair from a phone vs. phone perspective, but also to Huawei as a company. Imagine creating a product that’s so much better than anything else on the market, and then having to fly a bunch of Brits over to China to convince them of that fact?

But like I mentioned above, they don’t need us. Huawei are doing just fine. They sell the most amount of phones in the world’s “largest economy by purchasing power parity,” and they’re now the second-largest smartphone maker in the world behind Samsung (and one place ahead of Apple). I think it’s fair to say that we need them more than they need us.

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The Shanghai Top 5

Views1. Shanghai Tower: It's a 632-metre, 128-story skyscraper located in Lujiazui, Pudong, Shanghai. According to Wikipedia, "it has the world's highest observation deck within a building or structure, and the world's fastest elevators at a top speed of 20.5 metres per second." It's also "the world's second-tallest building by height to architectural top." So yeah, it's pretty damn tall and overwhelming.
2. No More Sleep: "Punchdrunk’s Sleep No More is an award-winning theatrical experience that tells Shakespeare’s classic tragedy Macbeth through a darkly cinematic lens." There's absolutely no way I'll be able to accurately describe to you what happened in the McKinnon Hotel that night, but rest assured, it was fucking wild.
3. Huangpu river cruise: The food felt like a test (soft meal bag, anyone?), but viewing the Shanghai skyline while floating down the Huangpu river was breathtaking.
4. Canil: A bunch of scenarios went through my mind when making my way to the dog cafe at the 1933 building, yet dogs in nappies on slides somehow didn't make the cut!?
5. W Shanghai – The Bund: It feels like I'm cheating by putting a hotel on this list, but it really was incredible.

***

Greys

“Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.”

What was it about seat 38D on the red-eye flight from Hong Kong to London that had me facing my own mortality? Was it the croissant that landed on my leg as I was drifting off to sleep? (For those of you taking note, that’s literally the only situation whereby a croissant landing on your leg would be considered bad. Unless you’re allergic to croissants, in which case, I’m very sorry for your loss). Was it my shamefully weak bladder, which resulted in approximately 45 visits to the toilet in the space of eleven hours? Or was it down to the broken audio jack, which meant I had to hold the wire on my headphones at a particular angle to hear anything?

I’m guessing it was all of those things.

Regardless, my mind started to jump between all the things I didn’t get to experience, like the Shanghai Marriage Market (which is exactly what you think it is) - and all the things I did experience. Which caused me to think about my life in a way I wasn’t entirely prepared for.

Trams

Holiday blues tend to hit me hard, not because my life is terrible - that couldn’t be further from the truth - but when you work from home (something I’ve done for the past ten years) it’s easy to become a hermit. It’s easy to forget that the conversations you have with people with over email, or slack, or any number of social media platforms, are almost always better face-to-face. Nobody fondly remembers that conversation they had with a stranger on Twitter at 3am some random Tuesday in July, but the real-life version of that event, well damn - that’s worth holding on to.

Now, this isn’t a call-to-arms to get off the internet. ‘Real’ shit happens here too. People meet, and fall in love. They find jobs. They expand their horizons. They make connections with people that would otherwise be impossible given their circumstances. Hell, if it weren’t for the internet, I wouldn’t be writing this right now. But four hours into that return journey, all I could think about was myself, 88 years old, body crumbling away, regaling my life story to anyone that would listen. And I gotta say, I need to get out more if anyone is going to give a shit about what I have to say.

As for this trip, don’t worry: I’ll make sure people hear this story.

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In Closing: The Big Fat Photo Gallery

7-Eleven-Shenzhen Bikes-in-Shanghai Brutalist-Shanghai Bustling-Shanghai Leaving-Shanghai Mini-Skyline-Shanghai-2 Mini-Skyline-Shanghai redbrick-shenzhen Shanghai-Dumplings Shanghai-From-Above-1 Shanghai-Market-3 Shanghai-Market-4 Shanghai-Market Shanghai-Music-Valley-Shanghai Shanghai-People Shanghai-Skyline Shenzhen-Bus-Stop Winding-Road-Shanghai Women-Crossing-Road-Shanghai yu-garden-shanghai