City of Sound is about cities, design, architecture, music, media, politics and more. Written by Dan Hill since 2001.

Shanghai Diary #2

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Second instalment of Justin O’Connor’s Shanghai Diary (here’s the intro and context to this series). Dated 29th/30th July:

"The Huangpu river flows through Shanghai. The photos show Pudong, the new international city centre of Shanghai, built on paddy fields and now boasting (as everybody does) amongst the tallest buildings in Asia (they all know that Taipai and K-L have the first two slots, but they’re working on that). On the opposite shore is The Bund, the old international concession, which sort of looks like Liverpool (this is the big myth; and Liverpool is twinned with Shanghai) but actually more like a composite Victorian Manchester, Leeds, Bradford laid out on a river front. The big tourist thing to do is get a river tour. After 15 minutes you leave the big office buildings and the docklands begin. There are some new looking residential towers, but these come bereft at any attempt at landscaping or upgrade of the site. The view must be the thing and as long as security and car parking are sorted, well, who needs the landscape? From the elevated Metro you can see some more landscaped developments, but the vertical rise is the real landscaping – leave the mess below. From the river cruise the docklands look like docklands everywhere; tourists finally at rest, not quite bored, get brief glimpses into other lives, other spaces. Container ships with unknown cargo – Shanghai is the biggest port in China, so that’s big – line the banks. But the big docks must be elsewhere because whilst there are a lot of ships, these seem small scale operations (small scale = just the one container ship). And then lots of small rusting boats, shacks, concrete buildings, tips, plastic and metal drums.

The trip down river takes about an hour and a half. After that time the sea looms into view as the river opens out. Only this isn’t the sea, it’s another river, the Yangtze, the third largest on earth. The Huangpu looks like the Thames; imagine the Thames then going into the main river of which it is the final tributary. This is where the docks are -– and you can’t see them from the boat, they’re lost on the horizon. The shift in scale takes you from a London-sized city to a huge continent and it makes you dizzy. Shanghai is like Victorian Liverpool (and stick Manchester in as well why not) perched on the edge of country it prefers not to know about. The British sent the gunboats up the Yangtze, the first foreign forces to do so for hundreds of years. When they reached a small city just before Nanjing, they were attacked and quite easily defeated the city defense force, who fought doggedly. The British were only there to make a bit of a point really, sail up there and make a bit of noise. But the surviving defenders then killed all their wives and children then themselves, shocking the British. The Chinese were defending civilization against barbarians; they’d failed and were not prepared to live with it. The gaping mouth of the Yantgtze is the portal to a huge interior, and until they built a bloody big dam up there you could sail in a cruise boat to within sight of the mountains of Tibet.

Scale is something in China. Guangzhou (Canton as was) is 2000 kms from Beijing. That’s like London as capital of a country whose southern port is Naples (and whose far reaches take in Moscow!). The temporal scale is just as great. China was unified in 226BC; but it had some sort of common political culture from 1000BC. Confucius (of which more) was born in 551BC, which is around the time of the great days of Athenian Democracy, and just as currently influential, in fact more so really, than the Greeks. Confucianism is seen as key to the non-western modernisation model. I run a Masters course on European Urban Cultures, which we call Polis – but can you imagine a hard-hitting well-connected development think-tank calling itself Neo-Platonist? So, if I can indulge in a bit of very bad history: China is as if the Roman Empire did not collapse but continued as a more or less continuous political entity until the present. China is a world; you feel its nationalism is not ‘petty nationalism’ but the defense of the planet. All nations and cultures faced with the pressing crisis of modernisation have attempted to find ‘their own way’, and somehow attempt to preserve some local heritage and meaning in the face of the homogenisation – or westernisation – seemingly demanded by the doing of what it takes to become modern. But something about the size of China, its power and its history, make this something unique, and maybe world shaking.

This is both the hope and temptation of China’s rulers and intellectuals. The reason – and every Chinese school kid knows this – the British started to import opium was that there was nothing else the Chinese wanted. The story (it seems, after reading some revisionist histories – British bien sur) is more complicated – but in essence we have a country whose technology and socio-economic system was perfectly capable of producing anything the West could – and to a higher quality. The Chinese sent silk back to England wrapped in Manchester cotton cloth – that’s all it was fit for. The exception was guns and ships; but it held true until the last third of the 19th century. Every school kid knows also how the political structure of China failed to cope with the threat posed by the modern West – although this found its sharpest form first in Russian and then in Japanese imperialism, both ‘feudal’ powers. The narrative of the communist party was clear – uttermost collapse was the only way forward to modernity. In this they opposed the Nationalist’s ‘bourgeois’ modernisation programme. I’m not glossing over the work of Mao (maybe later…) but it seems that China could be seen to be back where it was a hundred years ago – but this time talking from a position of strength and intelligence. 1979 was the date when ‘the reforms’ were announced by Deng Xiaoping; what struck me was an accompanying statement that China was still now in the ‘primary stage of socialism’. Is this a vision of a socialist future or a uniquely Chinese future (someone said: ‘is socialism saving China, or China saving socialism?’). Or both. And if both then what is to be the distinct legacy of Chineseness – where does it come from? Marxism or Confucius? I’m not able to answer this; it just strikes me as possible only for China to pose the possibility of a distinct, a separate, a unique modernity. One that would not just be left alone, like Switzerland, or become some regressive nationalist authoritarian regime using culture to justify repression, but whose weight and scale (every fifth person on the planet is Chinese; already the 4th largest trading nation; set to become the second largest economy in 10 years etc.) actually tip the balance. What balance and in which way is something else.

You can feel this in Beijing. The Forbidden City is in fact a city, not just a palace complex. And there is a sense there, an hour’s drive from the Great Wall, of Planet China. It is a capital established by invaders – Genghis Khan et al – and adopted by the next two dynasties – one of which was also an invader. It was the South, on the Yangtze where Chinese culture was held to thrive – where the mandarins and the literati ruled, not the court Eunuchs. But it remained the capital – here power counts. China’s cultural influence extended beyond her borders, across to Korean and Japan, South to Vietnam and Thailand, down to Singapore. The distance between Beijing and Singapore is the same as that between Dublin and the current western border of China. Somehow Beijing remains the power center which holds this together, and makes the world look like an ‘out there’ to be managed.

Shanghai is different, it looks out to the world. It’s a fairly new city, because from 1423 the Emperors outlawed foreign trade (there’s a book out now which claimed that, just prior to the ban, Chinese sailors had circumnavigated the world and drawn maps, which were then acquired by the Portuguese who miraculously popped up in India 50 years later.) The British made Shanghai China’s main port. I’m wracking my cultural memory for images of Shanghai in the 20s and 30s. I know they are in there but I can only find a few. Madonna seems to have taken over a lot of these. General images of decadence (but not as clear as Berlin, for example) and opium dens. Shanghai Lil? Is this something outside of Danny La Rue? The main images I have I think come from Ballard’s (or Spielberg’s) Empire of the Sun: the English suburban housing estate where they all lived, and which I have not found evidence of yet (somebody told me where this was actually filmed, but I forget – not in China).

Of course the Chinese authorities don’t ever stress the period outside of a decadence caused by imperialists, and thus not to be celebrated. A famous Chinese Jazz band played here, were banned and reemerged in the Peace Hotel Bar in the 1990s. But there are as yet no Blue Badge guided tours of Shanghai’s Art Deco, not many books that I can find. Rather like the ‘Silver Age’ in Petersburg, I suspect it is more known about outside than inside Shanghai, and thus simply not available to tourism. The Chinese have of course torn down and ripped out most of these remnants. The Nanjing road, which was and is the main shopping street is being revamped. The hoarding has pictures of old Shanghai, but the new development has no resemblance to those pictures. It’s all relentlessly modern. A recently purchased pack of postcards had images of high rises, fly-overs, interchanges and new build museums and libraries. There was only one traditional building – a tea house, which was of course a replica and now houses within a faux Ming dynasty quarter of dim sum and nick-knack shops. Where is the distinctly Chinese here? What does Chinese modernity mean in this Asian capital? Are the Confucian traditions merely intellectual pipe dreams and Beijing political flim flam?

Yesterday we equalled the record. Today we were about to beat it, but it rained. For five minutes, but a lot. Scale is big in China."

Docks Bridge Containers

This impression of Shanghai is by Justin O’Connor. All Shanghai Diary entries.


2 responses to “Shanghai Diary #2”

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    ‘It Ate Its Children’ (or) I Love Blogs

    More and more these days, I am enjoying the Web as a window into the passions and pursuits of smart professionals and scholars. Via Space and Culture, I found this great post on a blog called City of Sound. It’s…


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