It’s been a long few weeks between this and my last post. Partly because I’ve been struggling with how to write about this subject, and partly because I’ve been too drunk, lazy and fat over the Christmas period to type coherent sentences.

What follows is a bit of a sort of loose mashed-up allegory of an aspect of life here. Hopefully it’s reasonably clear what i’m talking about…

This was the first Christmas in our 5 years together that Em and I have been in the same place, so we used our Asian foothold to enjoy a Thai Christmas. Emma writes far better travel blogs than I (and my below-par standard of my photography means I have no interesting, i.e., in-focus, photos to share) so i’ll let her cover the details, but as a seguay to what i want to talk about here just let me tell you about a couple of the highlights…

Instead of turkey dinner, we ate barbecued crab and green papaya salad. Instead of snow, we had beaches. Instead of Christmas trees, we had palm trees. Instead of a boxing day hangover nap, we had massages. Instead of reindeer, we had elephants. Instead of Santa, we had larger, fatter elephants with beards.

We saw loads of elephants actually. They were everywhere. Speaking of elephants, instead of ‘larger, unaddressed issues’…

When we first considered moving to China, one of the main concerns we had was – and bear with me – the well documented elephants in the rooms of large, densely populated Chinese Tier 1 cities. Only these elephants had tendency to occupy the air for extended periods. A bit like…

Disney’s Dumbo. An elephant that occupies the atmosphere.

We’d heard via the popular media that airborne elephants can have a somewhat negative impact on quality of life and if you hang around them long enough they can impact on your longer term health.

The cause of this problem is fairly well documented. Elephants are normally found in places like jungles, plains or woods; but when people burn those natural resources to – for example -generate heat for their homes, or to power factories or cars then it disturbs the elephants causing them to rise in large quantities in the air. For many days in the year you can’t detect their presence, but they definitely are more noticeable during periods where there is more burning than usual (depths of winter and height of summer).

You will already know that as sociable creatures, elephants engage in herd behaviour. When there are enough being displaced or where there are particular weather conditions, large herds can migrate towards population centres. Sometimes the herds can be visible in the atmosphere for several days; though reprieve is available when it rains (because the airborne elephant is fearful of getting wet).

The days on which the herds aren’t a problem outnumber those really bad days by a sizable margin across the year, so on balance it’s a pesky issue but not one which makes us consider leaving our new adoptive home. The seasonality means that these beasts can make some of the months disproportionately worse than others, so you get a bit of concentrated disruption. When it’s bad, the effect can be considerable. I find it makes me really quite drowsy, while others report heavy coughing, phlegm and so on. Visually the airborne elephants turn into a kind of fog which has a yellow tinge as though it’s been shot through a retro Instagram filter.

A high volume of elephants may mean you need to change your behaviour on a particular day. So, if you plan on going out for a jog and encounter heavy, flatulent beasts floating about in the way, you will need to rethink your plans.
There are a few tried-and-tested strategies that a Shanghai resident can adopt when the elephants become problematic.

  • Firstly there are apps that provide a daily report on the concentration of elephants in your local environment. These are great as they give you a recommendation first thing in the morning as to whether or not you need to take precautions that day.
  • Secondly, everyone is by now aware that elephants are afraid of mice. However, mice are notoriously difficult to train, and may attract unwanted cats. It’s actually underappreciated that elephants are rather frightened of ninjas (the silent Japanese assassins). You’re therefore able to limit the impact of the problem by buying a mask and adopting the appearance of a ninja. Unlike those worn by the ancient cadre of silent killers from feudal Japan, modern ninja masks come in a variety of colours and styles. It turns out that elephants are equally terrified of the ‘Broken-Britain-Hoody’ ninja or the ‘face-condom’ ninja, as they are of ‘using Paddington Bear as a nosebag’ style ninja.
  • Thirdly, we use Air purifiers in our apartment which are made in Sweden (ironically the Swedes have no problem with atmospheric elephants, but are nevertheless experts in this area). The purifiers make a loud humming noise that must prove unpleasant to animals with large ears (I’ve not seen the data to back this up, but we’ve not had any rabbits or fruit bats in the apartment so it’s probably true). If any are not put off by the noise, then they are certainly caught by the filters as the air is passed through the purifier which which takes out all but the smallest of elephants.
    These three strategies don’t address the root cause of the issue (stopping putting elephants in the atmosphere in the first place) but solving that issue is a global matter and one which I can’t really go into in this blog.

In summary then, the elephants are a problem (and it’s not good to have them in the air in the first place), but it’s not a deal-breaker for us living in Shanghai and there are a few means to manage it.

Finally, one day when the elephants were out in force, I decided to paint the scene from our window. You can’t see any elephants in the picture, I realise that, but they’d just left the picture, leaving the gaseous fog you can see in the painting in their wake.


The biggest challenge for this one (which I did using similar technique to the alleyway painting) was to keep perspective and to get the atmosphere and colours right. I chose a view that didn’t have anything particularly significant in it (no landmarks I mean, and no people) as the environmental effect was what I was looking to capture. In the background I needed to pick out some of the modern skyline in the haze, but contrast it a it with the higgledy-piggledy older structures that are closer to our apartment (and a feature of the french concession).

Right, done. My next blog will be more straightforward, I promise. Probably about cheese. Actual cheese. Not cheese as a euphemism for the long-term cultural and economic consequences of the one child policy, but the edible stuff you get when milk goes hard.

– Matt

2 thoughts on “Elephants”

  1. I hope there are fewer elephants in the air when we come to visit you. I don’t fancy looking like a Ninja. Great blog once again Matt. xxx


  2. I remember standing on The Great Wall and not being able to see either side of it for elephants – just a year or so before the hosting of the Olympics. Of course the elephants get everywhere. They are not happy when they are displaced by the burning of the rain forest along the Amazon. In fact nobody enjoys the experience of waking up to the smell of burning and smoke catching your throat 😱😱😱

    The new painting is 👌Matt xxxx


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.