Archive for May 11th, 2008

Not literally lost, as in cannot find one’s way, although that has happened during this trip to China regularly, and I have just given into its inevitability. No, the lost I am referring to comes from a very thoughtful article that I read, naturally enough, on the plane coming here. The author spoke about getting lost in a city, that is, losing oneself in the rhythm, the textures, the sound, smells, and being in a state of consciousness where you don’t react to all of the stimuli; you absorb it, revel in it, feel it, (as opposed to process), roll it around on your tongue as it were. I think that I can do that in Shanghai.

Why here and not in Beijing? After only 2 rainy days here I could sense the difference between the 2 cities. Beijing, as the capital, has a whiff of what I would call, “eau de Ottawa”. Well tended expressways for limousines to glide down, large imposing public buildings, all kinds of military presence around the embassies and government offices. Very orderly. Very controlled. A young Chinese man I just met described Beijing as a lady, dressed modestly, with many layers, who chooses to reveal herself carefully, slowly. Shanghai, he said, was a brazen young women who is all show, provocative dress and is blatantly for sale. Quite poetic for an investment broker. And just based on my short acquaintence with the 2 cities, quite accurate.

While Beijing has been cleaning itself up strategically for its big reveal in August (as some ancient hutongs became sanitized historic districts for walking tours, others are torn down so there are lovely parklike views from the limo windows) Shanghai is just on a tear, period. I could not remove the scaffolds, demolished buildings or cranes from my photos, so I just stoped trying. In fact, I have tried to capture the contrast between the new and the “about to be hit by a wrecking ball.” The same young man mentioned that his firm might take him to Vegas for a XMAS party: he will find some striking similarities. And not just the outlandish buildings, for they say that in Shanghai that you can get anything built if you pitch it to the right person with the right pockets. Ills such as prostitution and corruption have taken hold like they never left. I was walking down a dirty, neon lit narrow street of clubs and restaurants one rainy evening, thinking that if not for the modern cars, I could be in the disreputable and dangerous Shanghai of the 1930’s. Then I saw the bored young women, squeezed into too small black dresses, sitting on a dirty couch waiting for “foot massage”customers. Nothing’s changed on this street.

It is confident, daring, painfully image conscious, hardworking and resolutely commercial. Some pundits say that Shanghai is the future of China. For good and ill.

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