Wednesday, October 14, 2009

[Travelogue] The two faces of Shanghai

When I first moved to Los Angeles I was struck by how quickly the face of the city could change. One street in particular, Los Feliz, illustrated this better than any other. As you go West on Los Feliz you drive through one of the richest neighborhoods in L.A. Movie stars live here. Then you make a 90 degree turn to the South and BAM! you're in the euphamistically-namd heart of Hollywood surrounded by bag ladies and liquor stores. (Actually, that part of town has become gentrified in recent years, so the contrast is not nearly as stark as it once was.)

All this is a pale reflection of the contrasts in Shanghai. On our second day there we decided to leave the beaten path and walk through some of the older parts of town. To call it squalor would be a disservice to the word. We saw evidence of people living literally in ruins -- half-torn-down apartment blocks with laundry hanging up to dry. And these places are, sometimes figuratively and on occasion literally, in the shadow of ultra-modern high-rises.

The city seems to be full of culinary gems hidden in improbable places. We happened to stumble into two of them by sheer dumb luck, which means there must be a lot of them out there to be found. One our first night there we took a shuttle bus from the ship. These shuttles normally drop you off in an interesting part of town, but in this case we drove past all the interesting looking bits and ended up in the middle of nowhere. Empty sidewalks. Closed-up storefronts. Dark. Spooky. We all (meaning all the people on the shuttle) were utterly nonplussed.

Nancy and I started walking in a random direction. We had no idea where we were. We had a map, but all the street signs were in Chinese. We couldn't see any of the high-rises that normally provide landmarks, and even if we could it might not have helped because we were on one side of the river, the landmark high-rises were all on the other side, and the river makes an S-turn as it goes through town. So even if you can see the high-rises that still doesn't really tell you where you are.

By sheer luck we ended up on Nanjing street, a major pedestrian mall. The place was buzzing. All the shops were open and it was chock full of people. There were also lots of what in China are considered top places to eat: McDonald's, KFC, Pizza Hut. Not exactly what we were looking for. We did find one establishment called "The Good Old Place" where we had a "Good old drink" (seriously, that's what they called it) and an order of samosas (which weren't samosas, but they were tasty and took the edge off our hunger). Then we followed that up with some Margaritas (which weren't really Margaritas, though they did seem to contain some tequila) because we figured that it might be prudent to have a little alcohol in our systems after having consumed some of the local tap water.

We kept walking and ended up at the riverfront in an area called The Bund. This used to be the colonial part of Shanghai, where Westerners built fancy buildings for themselves in the 1920's and 30's where Chinese people were not welcome. In front of one of the buildings we saw a sign for a restaurant, so we went in. A concierge directed us to the fifth floor. We stepped off the lift into a completely bare landing. No restaurant. No indication that there was or had ever been a restaurant. All there was was a black door. We opened it gingerly, and behind it turned out to be a spiffy establishment called Mr. and Mrs. Bund. It was something straight out of Sex and the City, full of trendy-looking young people, with a spectacular view of the Shanghai skyline. Unfortunately, they didn't have any tables available except in the smoking section, so we decided to just have drinks at the bar. We started chatting with the bartender, who turned out to be the owner's son and was apparently impressed by the fact that we had found the place by accident. Ten minutes later we were seated at a table by the window -- in the non-smoking section -- and proceeded to have an incredibly tasty meal. When it was over, we stepped out onto the balcony to watch the skyline and take some pictures. Ten minutes later, they turned out the lights.

I don't mean they turned out the lights of the restaurant, I mean they turned out the lights of the *skyline*. Across the river, just after 10 PM, Shanghai went dark. All of the lights on the skyscrapers were turned out, except for a few to signal errant aircraft (not that there were any errant aircraft -- there is nearly no general aviation in China). It was another stark reminder that we weren't in New York, and how profligate we in the West are with energy that we would take it for granted that city skylines ought to be lit throughout the night.

The second day we had a similar experience -- walking through some of the seedier parts of town and stumbling onto a top-notch restaurant by pure accident. This one was a Chinese restaurant, and we could tell it was high-end because it had a whole section of different kinds of shark-fin soup (we did not indulge) and birds nests. Yes, they are real birds nests, as in nests made by birds. No, we didn't try those either. There' a limit to our adventurousness.

I've come away with very mixed feelings about China. On the one hand, they've accomplished some amazing things. Just building a city like the new Shanghai in twenty years is impressive enough by itself, but they've repeated that feat in Beijing and Dalian, and presumably in other parts of the country as well. I am given to understand that living standards in the countryside have gone from appalling to merely run-of-the-mill poor. When there are 1.3 billion people in your country that is no mean feat.

But on the other hand the Chinese also seem to be shooting themselves in the foot in many ways. For example, by insisting against all reality that they are practicing Marxism (with Chinese influences of course) they are raising an entire generation to think that it is OK, even expected, to deny obvious truths. And this attitude leads to further national self-mutilation, for example, by continuing to insist against all available historical evidence that Tibet has always been a part of China. It hasn't. This claim was invented out of whole cloth by Sun Yat Sen. Everyone alive in China today has been raised to believe that it's true, but it isn't. That, combined with the cultural pressure to not lose face, makes it all but inevitable that China will continue to live this lie, and will continue to burn capital and national prestige for no apparent return except to avoid having to admit that they were wrong. Not that they are the only country ever to make that kind of a mistake. But I -- any many others (including Don Gibbs, from whom I learned a lot about Tibet today) -- would have hoped that the nation that invented gunpowder, paper, moveable type and the stern-post-rudder would be smarter than that.

Oh well.

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