Sightseeing by sidecar is like a portal to the past
Sammy Florez has found a novel way of exploring the city’s past: by driving his deafening Changjiang 750 sidecar with the Chinese name Li Lianjie (Jet Li) through old neighborhoods and narrow alleys.
It took the American five years to decide to quit his job at a hotel management company in San Diego and move to Shanghai at the end of 2008 after falling in love with the country.
“I could not help coming to China for vacations since I spent a three-day trip in Beijing in 2003, because there are so many historical stories waiting for me to explore,” said Florez, who is in his 30s.
He said he began studying martial arts and developed a keen interest in Chinese culture after watching the popular US TV series Kungfu with his grandfather when he was a child.
Before landing in Beijing for the first time to see the Great Wall in person, he admits to knowing little about China except for its being a communist country famous for its Shaolin Temple.
“My impression of China changed when I arrived for the first time, as I didn’t feel like I was in a reserved country as I had heard. Everything here is quite relaxed,” he said.
In 2008, he sold his car, apartment and belongings and bought a one-way ticket to China, without knowing whether he would find a job or not.
He secured a position with a leasing company at first and became an English teacher for kids aged three to 11 at a language center one year later.
It was not until he had lived in the city for almost two years that he started to become interested in the history of Shanghai and its unique style of architecture.
“There are still some places in the city where you can see writings from the ‘cultural revolution’ (1966-76) and pictures of Chairman Mao painted on the walls. All the new developments take center stage, but there are still many old things hidden in the background,” he said.
In his free time, he likes to take his beaten-up old sidecar for jaunts through the old streets. Otherwise, he strolls around old neighborhoods to find remnants left over from earlier times.
“Being on a sidecar in Shanghai is like being on a time machine. It makes me feel like I’m in a different time period, maybe 50 years ago. So I can see those buildings from the same time period and feel how wonderful it must have been during that time,” said Florez, who spent over 50,000 yuan ($8,060) on the sidecar.
He recalls driving past an aging villa with two red stars painted on the gate many times before its elderly resident invited him inside and showed him pictures and music from old Shanghai in the historical and dusty house.
Some people in less well-todo neighborhoods also invited him into their tiny homes. One old couple showed him their wedding pictures taken 40 years ago.
“I think these people want to show me the inside of their homes to say this is how we live and we are happy here. A lot of people living in the old neighborhoods don’t want to leave,” said Florez.
One of his favorite structures is an old two-and-ahalf-storey building he found on the Internet. It used to have a red star on top, but this was later taken down.
“Later I learnt that it used to be the Shanghai Chamber of Commerce in the 1920s. After the Communist Party took over, they added an extra floor and the red star,” he said.
A photographer friend of his who is also interested in old Shanghai took a photo of him under the building with his sidecar.
Now Florez has a girlfriend and a whole group of friends who share a common interest in exploring the city’s past. He said he has no plans to leave and may stay here permanently.
“I wish I could quit my job and just explore for six months and see everything in the city that is hidden right in front of our eyes,” he said.