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November 20, 2009

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Metro mavens, metro gnomes and mummy right on track

Maybe the bright shiny new Shanghai Metro system hasn't been around long enough to generate classic subway songs like "Charlie on the (Boston) MTA" (1948) or films like "Taking of Pelham (New York) One Two Three" (remake 2009). And so far there are no great legends, certainly no graffiti artists.

Shanghai authorities are determined to keep the ever-expanding subway a spic 'n' span, well-run showpiece, discouraging some of the eccentric characters who used to call it home and stunned the passengers. And removing some of the less-desirable characters that gravitate to any subway.

At this time Shanghai has eight operational lines, carrying 3 million passengers a day. Six more lines are under construction and will be open for World Expo Shanghai opening next May. The goal is 27 lines covering all districts by the end of 2030.

Since constructing Metro Line 1 in 1990, the city now has around 170 stations covering 250 kilometers.

All over the world, subway commuting is boring, crowded and uncomfortable, especially in rush hour, when it becomes a Darwinian struggle of the fittest.

Still, there's Metro culture and Metrophiles (as well as phobes).

Passengers still miss Deer Man, Superman, the Mummy and Gundam (a Japanese robot), harmless eccentrics who were apparently kicked out last year to improve the Metro image.

Nevertheless, Shanghai Metro culture flourishes among mavens who are really into trains, schedules, equipment breakdowns and all things Metro. They ride and beta-test them, evaluate them, check times, stops and figure out the best ways to get from A to B.

They even have a fans' Website ( and free newspapers with commuter news and gossip.

A young couple, Jasmine Zhang and Peter Wang, bought a mid-priced passenger car early last year, but the recent fuel price hike has turned them into Metro travelers. They don't plan to drive again until Wang receives transport reimbursement from his company next month.

"It's strangely interesting to take the Metro again, after more than a year. We bought the car mainly to get rid of the daily pain of taking the crowded Metro," says Zhang, "but it feels nostalgic to take it again."

Wang used to commute two hours a day on the underground before buying a car. "It reminds me of all the time I used to spend underground, but it's even more crowded now."

He says the city can be divided into those who commute above ground and those who take the subterranean routes.

These days anyone who spends more than an hour underground every day is considered a "Metro-er." That's about 1 million people. Some free newspapers are only distributed in Metro stations. Larger stations also contain many fashion shops and trendy vendors. There are art shows in big stations.

A documentary series about Shanghai's subways is being filmed to show the gap between rich and poor, beggars, touts, scofflaws, entertainers and other denizens. The director, who declines to be identified, says he wants to show the "real" life of "real people."

And once in a while, passengers can glimpse short TV series, with two-to-three-minute episodes to be watched, or entertainment news and funny videos on platforms or in carriages. The series feature commuters and their daily hassles and interactions, as well as colorful local characters and musicians.

Some Metro-ers collect different kinds of transport cards and others enjoy sharing all kinds of subterranean happenings in their netherworld with other Metro-ers.

Some of these topics are quite esoteric though frequent passengers can talk endlessly about new versions of transport cards, the occasional fights, intriguing performances by singers or jugglers in some stations, and of course technical problems, stalled cars, no AC, jammed doors and other problems.

If you're not in the know, it's hard to participate.

More trivia

The fans' Website is a base for Metro-ers, with thousands of registered users and dozens of new posts every day. The site contains basic information about all the operating lines and schedules, those under construction and those planned for the future.

Users give nicknames to the lines as they do with pets or friends. They call the Line 1 trains Xiao Hong (Little Red) as the line is marked red on the subway map, the Line 6 Xiao Xiao (Tiny) as it only contains four carriages.

Online users keep updating information -- from the test operation of new lines to small fights that break out between two commuters one morning.

Some Metrophiles even ask for leave from work and commute kilometers to attend a test operation of a new line in remote district.

"I'm quite addicted to the Website. It's the first thing I check once I arrive at the office and turn on my computer," says Lisa Chen, a frequent visitor to the Website.

"It's fun to learn about all the happenings in the underground world: A line ran into an accident and was forced to stop for five minutes this morning; a thief was caught on a line last night; a line was delayed during rush hour," she says. "I like reading all this because I have experienced many of the same things."

As the number of lines multiplies, commuters can choose different routes. They could take the Little Red and change to the Little Eight (Line 8) or they could take the Little 2 (Line 2) and change to the Little 4.

In Chinese, little or xiao is often used to show familiarity among people.

Chen also like to discuss online the advantages of certain lines and routes over others.

They carefully list all the options and compare the walking distance to stations, whether there is an elevator, the frequency of the trains, the cleanliness, clarity of the signage and the organization of stations.

"For example, if you choose the busier lines like No. 1, it is more crowded but you don't have to wait long because trains run frequently. The trade-off is to take a less-crowded and more comfortable line like No. 5," says Chen.

"Usually it doesn't make that much a difference of distinct choices, but it gives us a sense of satisfaction to know all the tedious details of these trains and stations," she says.

All kinds of mavens

Our young couple Zhang and Wang confront the universal problems of boredom and crowding. It's difficult to kill time on Metro trains.

They both exchange from Line 1 to Line 2, the busiest lines in the city. Most of the time they are packed like sardines and can barely move a finger.

In the tiny space, there are many ways to pass time. Some play with electronic gadgets, playing games, listening to music, messaging or calling on their cell phones, watching movies with portable devices.

A lot of Metro-ers also study, read newspapers, magazines and books.

It's common to see students or young adults reciting English or Japanese texts or words, sometimes rather loudly.

Those who take the Metro daily for a long time often take naps, some seated, some nodding off as they stand.

Others invite friends and colleagues to come along and help them kill the time by discussing the stock market, office gossips, family problems, national policies, sports news and other topics. Commuters around them join in.

Once in a while, some real entertaining characters ride the trains, soon becoming fascinating topics. In the past two years, five notable denizens -- Chubby Teacher, Superman, Deer Man, the Mummy and Gundam -- appeared randomly in costume on trains, delighting or startling other passengers.

The Chubby Teacher, a middle-aged man, often made a sudden appearance with a loud introduction on Line 1.

"Hi, everybody. This is the Chubby Teacher, and I can speak four languages after many years of self-study."

He promoted his English-speaking corner in some parks. Then he abruptly shouts, "Oh, yea," and disappeared into the crowds.

At first, many people thought he was a mental case. Gradually they decided he was a friendly eccentric with time on his hands. And they liked to point him out to each other.

"Hey, I saw the Chubby Teacher again today," commuters shout. When he disappeared for a while, his presence was missed.

The other four appeared at different lines. They just sat quietly, dressed as a robot, a deer, a mummy or superman, taking the train like everyone else.

At first they got some strange looks, but everyone gradually got accustomed to the unusual fellows.

Some considered it a joke by the same person in different disguises. Others called the comic commuters to be copycats.

When they disappeared, they were missed. Line 1

Xinzhuang -- Fujin Road

Built in 1994, it's Shanghai's first Metro line. In the near future it is to be extended from Xinzhuang to the Minhang Development Zone.

Line 2

Zhangjiang Hi-tech Park -- Songhong Road

Built in 2000, this line is planned to extend to the Pudong International Airport in the east and Zhuguang Road in Qingpu District in the west.

Line 3

Shanghai South Railway Station -- Jiangyang Road N.

Built at the end of 2000, running from Shanghai South Railway Station to Jiangyang Road N. in Baoshan District.

Line 4

Loop Line

Completed in 2007, it's designed as a loop line that passes Shanghai Stadium, Pudong Avenue and Zhongshan Park. It shares some stops with Line 3. Line 5 (within Minhang District)

Xinzhuang -- Jianghai Road

Built in 2003, it has a feeder line from Dongchuan Road to the Minhang Development Zone.

Line 6 (within Pudong New Area)

Lingyan Road S. -- Gangcheng Road

It was built in 2007, running from Gangcheng Road to Lingyan Road S.

Line 8

Shiguang Road -- Astronautical Park

It was built at the end of 2007, running from Yangpu District to Pudong New Area.

Line 9

Songjiang New City -- Yishan Road

It was built at the end of 2007, running from suburban Songjiang District to Xuhui District. In the near future, it will be extended to Jinsui Road in Pudong New Area. Lines under construction

(Compiled by Pan Zheng)

Line 7

It will be put into operation in December, running from Jinqiu Road in Baoshan District to Huamu Road in Pudong.

Line 10

It will open in December, running from Hongqiao Town in Minhang District to Waigaoqiao Free Trade Zone in Pudong.

Line 11

Also opening in December, it will run from Jiading District to Sanlin Town in Pudong.

Line 12

It's planned to open in December 2012, running from Qixing Road in Minhang District to Shangchuan Road in Pudong.

Line 13

It will be partly completed by 2015, running from Huajiang Road in Jiading District to downtown Nanjing Road W. But four stops -- Madang Road, Lupu Bridge, Expo Site and Changqing Road -- will be open for free in 2010 as a special Expo line.

Line 20

It will be completed by 2013, from Hongqiao Transit Hub (under construction, completed in 2010) to Oriental Land in Qingpu District.

Line 21

It will be completed by 2013, from Longyang Road to Lingang New Town within Pudong New Area.

Line 22

It will be completed by 2015, from Shanghai South Railway Station to Jinshan District.


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