Another entry from Justin O’Connor’s ‘Shanghai Diary’, published below [context for these diary entries]. In which, our hero retreats from the heat and realises more Shanghai, fractured through visions of fantastic cities, future and historical … I’m trying (and struggling!) not to preface each entry with glowing praise – simply have a read and discover how much there is to dwell on in these ripe, rich morsels shipped over from the East. Ironically, this is a one-way trade as Justin is still unable to access this site from behind the great firewall of China – but please leave comments, trackbacks or email (dan at cityofsound dot com) and I’ll pass them on. This entry is dated 7th August 2004:
“My Finnish friend Hanna sends me top tips on science fiction reads. Recently I read Perdido Street Station by China Mieville and I brought with me City of Saints and Madmen, by Jeff Vandermeer. (It’s still clocking in at over 36C. They reckon it will never reach 38 because that’s when work has to stop. It’s an oddly exciting feeling to watch the world weather report and to notice that only Tehran equals your score. So you stay in, reading). The first (‘a big, powerful, inventive, mesmerising and memorably horrid novel’ says the Amazon review, which is about right) is set in New Crobuzon, which ‘sprawls like a mutant Gormenghast‘ (Amazon again). The second is set in Ambergris, a similarly sprawling Peake-esque creation, though made less oppressive by the Pratchett-like whimsy (and O’Brien-esque pseudo-scholarly annotation), which pervades it. Both are cities assembled from jumbled fragments of our European urban (and urban colonial) imaginary. New Crobuzon’s prime source is the ‘great wem’, London in all its ugliness and energy. It’s Pepys and Dickens (and maybe Hugo’s medieval Paris), Wells (with the steam punk images of coke fuelled robots and mechanical computers) with a bit of contemporary Brixton and Hoxton thrown in (art, fashion, bohemia and fame). Ambergris has these elements, though its history is more akin to an early colonial settlement – Macau, or Calicut, or Sydney – created by free-booters in a founding act of (attempted) extermination of the indigenous locals. It’s Ann Rice’s New Orleans, but with less heat, or Melville’s Nantucket with a bit of Lovecrafts’s New England – even (as Michael Moorcock suggests in his intro) the Dutch cities of Conrad’s Far Eastern Archipelago.
The first of the two cities is run by a corrupt, authoritarian mayor who may or may not be elected, but in any event this doesn’t matter. The second seems to have no government, and if it has nobody knows who, or where, it is. Both are ‘unplanned’ – jumbled, sprawling, cheek-by-jowl – but also segmented into quarters, sometimes based on clearly readable function (as in medieval cities), sometimes ethnic group (or species – this being SF), sometimes on class. The absence of government and planning means no attempt at modernist social justice – getting on is about power, money, contacts, violence. Only sometimes can it be about fame or art. Neither city is pretty or safe but both, even the ‘horrid’ Perdido Street, are woven out of a nostalgia, a longing, for the noise, the smells, the mix of people and things that marked an earlier and elsewhere city – ‘when life was hot and brief and the devil takes the hindmost’, as the opposition leader says in the film of Well’s ‘The Shape of Things to Come’. In these cities obviously, the opponents of Raymond Massey’s vision of shining modernity have won the day.
But in reality these cities have long disappeared from the European experience. Peter Ackroyd’s TV series based on his London book began by trying to resurrect the dense overlay of memory, the multiple histories, the emotional investments, the spent energies and violence that haunt the London present. This usually involved some fade ins and fade outs over an unprepossessing street or alley marked out by bright double yellows and a sandwich shop. Iain Sinclair’s urban fictions succeed more through their astonishing research and the dogged acts of transformative seeing in which they engage. But if you want to see these cities, you have to go elsewhere – and Shanghai will do for starters.
One immediate thing stands out. Like those fictional cities, set against the fantasy geography of forests, mountains and badlands, it is a distinct point in space – it begins and it ends. Like ancient cities, like the new shock cities of the 19th century, it is distinct from the countryside. You come here to make your fortune; you leave your past behind. Shanghai is another country, and it is a new culture – that of the city dweller. You travel for miles. Then the agricultural plain gives way to big buildings. You arrive here and gawk. Nobody imagines that the hill farmer, the small town shop girl, the spotty Essex student does not know exactly what they are going to find in London. In fact it’s the reverse – everybody in England knows what London is, it’s London that has no idea of what exists beyond it, nor does it want to. The city holds out a promise of a new life.
Shanghai sprawls, and it multiplies its densities in fractile complications and infills. A high level freeway grid sits 50 meters above this dense undergrowth. The city is perfectly navigable in this way. Come off it and it’s more difficult. The skyline is the thing – look up and it’s the image the city wants to project. Shining modernity. On the ground it’s a jumble. Shanghai is less uniform in its layout that Beijing – built with the rectangular pattern of the ancient Chinese cities – but it is no more complex than the London layout. And, though there are more people, it is not as big in area. The complexity comes at street level. Each skyscraper is dropped on an urban fabric that ends – as far as it is concerned – a few meters from its front door or taxi rank. Maybe there is some Feng Shui master guild which has carved out a lucrative niche – but if so this geomancy is fractile, hieroglyphic, algebric. It is non-euclidian. It makes no attempt at the imposition of perspective which marks out the European notion of ‘town planning’. If you do want a square, with a museum and a concert hall and some trees – and every modern cultured city needs one so we better have one sharpish – then you can have one, but it is not inserted into any legible European perspective. This might relate to a traditional structure of the Chinese architecture, state and domestic, where things took place behind walls – rather like pre-Haussmann Paris in fact. But I suspect it relates more to the mix of authoritarian planning powers (a symbol inside a circle painted on your building indicates you have a month to leave. This might be the first time you have heard of it), lack of an overall urbanistic plan outside that of the maximization of real estate value, and power-politics (or shall we say corruption – though this is such a blunt word).
The new buildings clear a space and leave the rest. Into the gaps and crevices left behind, and into those newly newly created, creep the new uses, the infill uses. Those areas which – aside from designated tourist zones and shopping malls (difficult to tell them apart) – represent the limited, provisional public space in the city. It is this mix, this seeping, seething chaos, kept at bay by the shiny facades and the air-conditioning, which makes Shanghai like New Crobuzon. Not a Dickensian period drama, but a steam-punk timeslip, the newest and the oldest, the brightest and the shabbiest, different imagined futures grinding. No nostalgia here – the past is simply rubbed out, obliterated, buried under mountains of concrete. The most recent past has no time to fulfill Benjamin’s critique of the present – nobody’s looking, nobody cares. Maybe there are places like the old house (church?) in metropolis, some enclave of something older, another city buried beneath the flyovers. There were protesters on one of the main roads – the Linongs, small courtyard single story dwellings, were to be demolished. Artists photo and sketch, like Nadir before the coming storm of Haussmannisation – the old lintels and gates, the old courtyards and roof gables. But down they come, and up go the skyscrapers – and this is great. This is what we want. And it is this aspect perhaps, the energy and optimism of an unthinking modernity, the re-living of the destruction of the past – with relish, with relief – that also links the nostalgia of New Crobuzon with the excitement of Shanghai, new Metropolis.
In the air, the new modernity; on the ground the new Dickensian (Crobuzian). There is a master plan; all the plots have been drawn up, the transport and other infrastructure is in place (such as outside my building, all day, all night, all weekend), huge areas are earmarked for extensive and massively ambitious developments (Pudong, for example). In this it is Haussmann, writ large. But if the new developments have no reference to the previous urban ground, nor they have any reference to human uses other than the delivery of customers/ users to the buildings in question. There is an absence of recognizable urbanistic qualities other than those of our own cities’ period of brutal primitive accumulation (a troubled nostalgia). But the unexpected, the barely tolerated, the unthought of, the opportunist – these very quickly cover the ground in thick layers. The non-shopping humanity spilling out of the density in search of a domesticated public space of chatting and sitting and watching; rag-and-bone men with bike trailers and bells; people with single boxes of fruit, or a bowl of cooked food for sale; women selling wild flowers wired into broaches (for about 2p); construction workers sleeping; people handing out flyers; a billion plastic toy sellers; a stall with five blouses hanging up; invalid beggars – see! no arms, no legs; mobile phones offered in whispered asides.
But New Crobuzon is horrid, claustrophobic; Dickensian without the belief that deeper connections of humanity in the city will bring justice to bear. Nobody is going anywhere; no justice is going to be delivered; the energy is corrupt and circular; the future utterly absent. In fact, just like London. Shanghai in the end is more New York, those huddled masses smell opportunity somewhere, have a sense of liberation. The country bumpkins, arriving here to gawk, are now more materially behind the urban living average than ever (a recent survey put this at more than African cities). And income differentials withiin the city are growing at alarming rates. But at the moment everybody thinks they can make it. This is Walt Whitman not Dickens. They feel proud of the big buildings. One Chinese translator had never been able to afford to go to the top of one of the buildings that she frequently evoked as one of the symbols of the city. But to live in the Emerald City, Pudong’s bright lights a backdrop to the illuminated cruise ships going up and down the river, is to be part of its promise. If the past is being left behind, all well and good.
But what’s the future? Maybe another reference point is Rem Koolhaus’s idea of Junkspace – not the Dickensian sprawl but the proliferation of macro-system without content, meaningless space, redundant space. (see Fredric Jameson’s review)
“Junkspace exposes what previous generations kept under wraps: structures emerge like springs from a mattress, exit stairs dangle in didactic trapeze, probes thrust into space to deliver laboriously what is in fact omnipresent, free air, acres of glass hang from spidery cables, tautly stretched skins enclose flaccid non-events”.
“Junkspace is a Bermuda triangle of concepts, a petri dish abandoned: it cancels distinctions, undermines resolve, confuses intention with realization. It replaces hierarchy with accumulation, composition with addition. More and more, more is more. Junkspace is overripe and undernourishing at the same time, a colossal security blanket that covers the earth in a stranglehold of care . . . Junkspace is like being condemned to a perpetual Jacuzzi with millions of your best friends . . . A fuzzy empire of blur, it fuses high and low, public and private, straight and bent, bloated and starved to offer a seamless patchwork of the permanently disjointed.”
Maybe this describes it better – not just the quality of the urban space but that which underlines the energy and promise of this space: shopping. That’s what people see as their future. It’s what they all want to do. Without stop. Without end. I mentioned that there was no ‘most recent past’ to critique the present. Maybe we’re actually in this most recent past, just before it becomes it. Like Baudelaire, if we look carefully we can see it all in ruins already. It is shopping that makes us westerners gawk. I sometimes feel like those Saharan tribal chiefs brought to France to meet their colonial benefactors who, taken to an alpine waterfall kept looking and looking and looking. After a long time the minders said have they not seen enough. ‘No, hang on, we’re waiting for it to stop’. This shopping, it has to stop sometime, doesn’t it?”
This impression of Shanghai is by Justin O’Connor. All Shanghai Diary entries.
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