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A grassroots tour with true grit

LONG-TIME taxi drivers know their town, their hidden lanes and many of their untold stories, and they'll tell you everything you want to know - and some things you don't want to know - because they're great talkers.

One of them is Mr Chong (that's all - just him Mr Chong), a retired cabbie who now gives bilingual walking tours around Suzhou Creek.

He speaks a little English but when enough people sign up for a tour - and want English - Mr Chong brings along an interpreter.

These are tours of the "real" Shanghai - no identical fake facades on spruced-up longtang, no typical tourist spots.

"There are lots of tours of fancy Shanghai, with lots of artificial things," says Chong. "This is the real Shanghai."

Chong was running tours for five years as Real Shanghai Walks, but a year ago they were renamed to Mr Chong's Tours.

He gives tours whenever enough people sign up (see below) and the three-hour (about half a day) jaunts start out from Waibaidu (Garden) Bridge or Boshi (PhD) Dance Hall along Suzhou Creek. They wander around and end up in either place. There's a lot of spontaneity.

Chong, a native Shanghainese, is now in his late 50s or early 60s. He once worked for the Shanghai Mint, then for a logistics company as a driver, then a cabbie - he's been driving taxis around Shanghai most of his life.

Chong bubbles with enthusiasm and has all kinds of stories to tell about city life, factories and rural life.

The trip starts from Waibaidu Bridge, goes to the Shanghai Postal Office and then visits an old community in a longtang (lane), then checks out a flea market where locals buy and sell household castoffs, and a wet market where they shop for live fish and fresh produce.

Most people don't share toilets these days and the city has installed a lot of indoor plumbing in the run-up to the World Expo 2010. But on this trip, Chong visits a community still living together in a big house and sharing one toilet.

He will show locals cleaning their traditional toilet (tanyu) and shower room and how they share one kitchen and cook together in a life that is simple and warm-hearted.

The highlight, and the end, of the trip is Boshi Dance Hall, where many of the patrons are middle-aged and elderly taking a spin on the dance floor. They put younger folks to shame with their two-step, fox-trot, waltz and other ballroom moves, plus a bit of swing.

When they need a break, the dancers just stop for tea and chat with locals at nearby tables.

Chong himself isn't a bad dancer, he can really cut a rug.

That's where some tours end. For others, the dance hall is just the beginning and they work backward to the flea market, wet market, authentic old neighborhood and other sights.

Chong enjoys talking about the old days, you can ask him anything and he probably knows the answer, one of many answers, or at least has a colorful story to tell.

He promises the day will be memorable - not only with great views of magnificent sites, but also with lots of grassroots warmth and history, what Chong calls "real life."

He hopes Expo visitors will take his informal three-hour tour of unvarnished Shanghai.

"Through this trip I hope foreigners can learn more about Shanghai people's lives," says Chong.

Those who are interested should wear light clothes or shorts, comfortable shoes, take water, sunscreen, a camera and extra tissues.

Tickets: 250 yuan per person (free for toddlers, half price for older kids)

Venue: Yana Adventures, Bldg 12, 1025 Nanjing Rd W.

Tel: 5169-2240 (Shining Liu)

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