'SIR, SIR, Sirrrrr! You want an iPhone?"
"No thanks, I've got one - see."
"Sir, sir, sirrrrr! iPhone for nothing."
"Sir, sir, sirrrr! I can get you whatever you want."
"No, thanks," I say as I pick up my walking pace, while trying to dodge the stream of early evening Shanghai shoppers.
"Sir, sir, sirrrr! You want a girl? I get you a girl."
I attempt to remain unsurprised by the question, as if it happens to me all the time.
"No, thanks," I say, pointing to my ring finger.
"Oh, sir is married. Sir still want a girl?"
Welcome to Shanghai, a mega-city of 22 million that seduces with its unadulterated chutzpah and exuberance.
It's the one-time Whore of the Orient and centre of the opium trade. Now, says one resident, it's China's "marketing arm".
What's the message?
Look at the national flags fluttering from every opulent building on the Bund the famous stretch at the city's heart that could be London's Embankment, transported. On the rooftops the party crowd, cocktail and champagne glasses raised, toast the night away at glitzy bars overlooking the river and the soaring towers of the financial district, Pudong.
Through the polluted haze that scratches eyes and throat is a huge statue of Mao Zedong. China's "Great Helmsman" looks out over a streetscape that includes Chanel, Louis Vuitton, Prada, Versace, Armani, Chopard and Ralph Lauren. The chug, chug of the barges, that appear to form an uninterrupted line along the Huangpu River, give a deeper voice to China's economic dragon.
A few blocks away from the river's edge, around People's Square, there's a statue of a mother and child, shopping bags in hand, looking delighted with their day of consumption. Communism is dead, long live that other c-word: capitalism.
Shanghai has always been different. Our guide, historian Peter Hibbard, says it's often been wealthy and it likes it. In the 19th century it was unique because it was a safe place to do business.
The internal ructions elsewhere had little impact and the first Opium War, with Britain playing the bullying drug dealer, resulted in the creation of five treaty ports where foreigners were allowed to reside and do business.
Soon affluent Europeans and Americans were making a beeline for the city and living in the concessions granted by the Qing emperor, seduced by the money being made and the good time to be had.
In the late 19th and early 20th century the Astor Hotel was one of the places to be seen. Its glory is a tad faded, but it still stands proudly by the Huangpu River, a tributary of the Yangtze.
Hibbard jokes that its beautiful ballroom, where the rich smell of decades of drinking and smoking still lingers, was Shanghai's first disco. For seven years from 1990 it was home to the Shanghai Stock Exchange, which seems somehow fitting in these crazy financial times. Disco inferno.
However, the party crowd are always on the move and pre-World War II, one man was Shanghai's emperor of good times: Victor Sassoon.
A bon vivant with a load of money, he built the iconic Peace Hotel and threw lavish parties in its roof-level ballroom.
These often had themes, which included his dressing up as a headmaster and everyone coming as students.
Old film footage shows a Christmas party where his chef makes a great game of cutting up a very large turkey out of which jumps a scantily clad young woman.
By 1935, six years after the Peace Hotel was built, Shanghai was already home to 3.5 million people the relative security of the foreign-controlled concessions a great pull for internal migrants.
Just a block back from the splendour of the Bund, the Chinese were jammed into terraced housing built by the British, who had realised there was a buck to be made on something other than opium.
Some of these houses remain, but their meticulously clean frontages and the little communities that flourish there face the threat of eviction as a series of high-end developments creep ever closer.
As one local explains: all land is leased, so it's easy for the government to move people on.
"What's yours is mine and what's mine is mine," he says warily.
Elsewhere in the city, more terraced housing has been torn down and rebuilt in a similar style but with shops and restaurants as the tenants places likes Xintiandi, which, strangely, has a vaguely southern Californian feel. There's plenty of grit to go with the bubbles though.
Simply walking into a food market, like the one at the series of lanes known as Tian Zi Fang in the treed French concession, which retain their original early 19th century character, is a good reminder that high life, for the majority, is a long way off.
Live chickens jostle for space as they await the inevitable, eels try to slither out of their tanks and turtles you don't want to know. This is no place for squeamishness. Outside the market I watch as a large crowd jostle and yell for 20 minutes over some slight or another.
Hibbard says no-one obeys the rules in China, and even less so in Shanghai which is home to hundreds of illegal, but very public, societies.
Down the road, our bus driver makes the mistake of parking in front of a news agent he and she exchange unpleasantries for some time.
Shanghai is a city rediscovering its many voices after a long period from 1949 when Mao's particular version of communism dominated the conversation. The incredible nature of this can be seen in the charming but odd three-roomed Propaganda museum in the basement of an apartment block in the French concession.
The posters are great those made to mark the founding of the republic show the Bund with the buildings decorated by innumerable flags (just like now), Mao being welcomed, Christ-like, by joyous Tibetans.
Western leaders are fiercely caricatured Americans drawn with evil, sunken faces and deep hollow eyes; defeated nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek is a dog.
A number feature strong Chinese factory and rural workers on tractors pushing the evil US menace back into the sea or crushing them. Workers are portrayed, joyously, clutching their little red books and heading for the communes to join the catastrophic Great Leap Forward.
Many times, the Soviet Union is referred to as the stronghold of world peace. The best poster features a troupe of female ballet dancers, their party armbands on, poised on one leg aiming rifles. Stalin and Mao, then Mao and Nikita Khrushchev, are the best of buddies.
What's real and what's fake? Part of Shanghai's brash, wild-east charm is trying to work out how many changing faces the city has.
One message has never really changed: Shanghai loves a good time and wants you to have one too.
Cathay Pacific flies daily to Hong Kong, with connecting flights on both Cathay Pacific and sister airline, Dragonair, to Shanghai. Return economy fares to Shanghai start from $1850 plus airport taxes/charges of $79 and business class fares start at $6000 plus charges of $79. If Cathay Pacific does not have a same-day connecting flight from Hong Kong to Shanghai, the airline will provide complimentary hotel accommodation. For full details of fares and schedules, visit, cathaypacific.co.nz
Glen Scanlon flew courtesy of Cathay Pacific and stayed at the Peninsula Hotel.
- © Fairfax NZ News