The Laddies Of Shanghai

May 13, 2010

The pre(mis)conceptions about China started to peel away almost immediately. At least for the China as represented by the city of Shanghai just kicking into Expo 2010 gear.

Maybe it was the 8 minute 30 kilometre train ride in from the airport aboard the Maglev train topping out at a speed of 430 km/hr. Or the shiny new subway system that was extensive, easy to use and costing 60 cents to cross the city. (Quaint might be the word a polite Shanghai native would use in referring to the TTC.) The Bladerunner skyline of Pudong peeking out from the drizzly mist across the Huangpu River toward the Bund suggests that we’ve crossed more than the international dateline on the 14 hour flight here. It’s very possible that we’ve rocketed through some sort of wormhole, jumping decades not mere hours.

We’re certainly not the first to say that modern China is riddled with paradoxes but it bears repeating. In a place still operating under authoritarian rule, most people we encounter are open, startlingly friendly, quick to laugh and very eager to try out their English with you. In typical North American fashion, we’ve come equipped with not so much as a ‘please’ or ‘thank you’ in the native language while most folks under the age of 50 or so here can provide quite complicated directions in English. If these people would just stop learning our language maybe we’d be forced to learn theirs. There is a vibrant, challenging visual arts scene that is quietly questioning the country’s direction while attracting international attention and big bucks.

The museum that now houses the site of the First National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party is located in a fairly swanky neighbourhood. So a stone’s throw from where you can learn about the rise of Mao blowing ‘the horns of enlightenment thinking’ and the birth of his New China is a Porsche dealership and Tiffany & Co. An impossible juxtaposition to process at first but less so as you dig further into the history.

It seems that in his fervent but well earned anti-capitalist viewpoint, Mao was something of an anomaly here in China. On other side of him, this is and was a mercantile country. Trade and commerce, both forced and self-propelled is a strong part of the history here. We should not be surprised or sniff at the supposed contradiction of this communist country now being a global economic superpower. Mao seems to have simultaneously helped and hindered China’s progress toward economic dominance and it appears to be a sly insider joke that the Chairman’s likeness appears on the Chinese currency.

What is most obvious at initial glance here in Shanghai is the boundless optimism that permeates the place. Yes, we are seeing the prettiest of faces put on for outsiders as China welcomes the world for the second time in as many years. Yes, there is a certain rah-rah boosterism reminiscent of the 50s sloganeering when you walk through places like the Urban Planning Exhibition Hall. But the vision they are projecting is on a grand scale. They are attempting to develop a true, living, breathing, sustainable megalopolis in the face of very daunting prospects. Even if they fall short, this is going to be a city like few others anywhere in the world.

Compared to this, we in Toronto, in Canada, in North America, are simply standing still, waiting for the future to happen. Here in Shanghai, they are taking the future by the throat and slapping it into shape. This may be the biggest paradox of all. In a country rife with the heavy, heavy burden of a long, choppy past, they have eagerly seized the future while we, mere adolescents, having encountered a few bumps and bruises recently, refuse to face up to it, choosing instead to shrink in immobilizing fear.

shamefully submitted by Urban Sophisticat