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

Shanghai Diary 2005 #7

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A further entry in Justin O’Connor’s Shanghai Diary 2005 [context and introduction here]. This entry is dated 1st July 2005, and in visiting a football match in Huangpu, and reading Momus’s blog, Justin discusses how the perceived homogeneity of Chinese working class – if that term makes sense at all – is differentiated from the heterogenous yet much-maligned working class in Britain and the US, particularly in comparison with a ‘creative class’.

On Saturday night we went to a football match. It was Shenhua against Zhejiang. ‘Shenhua’ means flower of Shanghai. They seem to be the older of the teams, with a new stadium in the Huangpu district (in the ’30s a dense impoverished working class neighborhood). There are two other sides, another based in the stadium near where I stay, and Pudong, which is in the new district across the river. This was a third-round China Cup match – against a team from the lower division. Everybody thought it was a match not worth bothering about, given the lowly status of the opposition – and this included the Shenhua club management who moved the venue from their usual stadium to a much smaller one up the road. This one had about a 20000 capacity. We got tickets outside for a quid each. There was a down-and-dirty noodle shop opposite, but disappointingly no hot dog sellers or chip vans. People sold small paper horns but I could not see any memorabilia. Maybe the shirt sellers stayed away also. Going up the stairs in the space just before you emerge into the seating area was a huge bank of computers all being played excitedly by ‘youth’. This was as excited as anybody got all game. The telly was there; and indeed, if it was England the prospects would have looked good for an upset. A second division – well, Championship or whatever – team taking on one of the top clubs; it was over two legs and the score had been 2-2 on the away leg. But the ground was three quarters empty. In front of me the active ‘Blue Devils’ supporters numbered about 50; they wore Shenhua shirts and sang. Over the other side a small green knot of ‘Green Spirit City’ supporters sang and jumped, as they were to do for the whole game. It was a long way away and I couldn’t hear them. The Blue Devils hardcore were teenagers, some with scarves tied around their wrists and about 60/40 boys over girls. They were happy and smiling. Nobody drank beer. Obviously nobody had tanked-up beforehand either. The songs made no reference to the other side; and indeed, after a ten minutes slot of various songs along the lines “Shenhua are champions” (they’re not actually) they sang an oo-ayy sort of lyric to a common football chant tune whose title I can’t remember – and they did it for 30 minutes. After the break they sang it – a sort of repeating, endless melody that returns to its starting point with great glee – again for 30 minutes. Only occasionally di the supporters look at what was going on on the pitch. Which was just as well ‘cos it was bloody awful. It was 0-0 so Shenhua won on away goals. There was no piped music though, and people could smoke, so there was some relief.

I was the only western person there I would say. The ground was way up in the Zharbei district, which is not where tourists get to. And maybe the foreign workers don’t go in much for football. Or maybe they did and they know better than me how crap it would be. It’s a shame though because a lot of the explorer-type foreigners would have enjoyed being in a place where they were unique. This is not about vanity or being the center of attention – hardly anyone took any notice of me; though this would be different outside Shanghai – but about not seeing other westerners. I’d like to develop this idea as the contemporary scourge known as ‘homophobia’. This is not fear of homosexuals – in a way that should be heterophobia, fear of those different from you. This homophobia is about fear of the same. Go to any monument or tourist site, and other westerners inevitably stand out from the crowd. You can’t not look; like seeing famous people, you are staring before you remember that you don’t know them. Another western person can be read instantly – a split-second check-out. We can’t do that as easily with Chinese people; we don’t know the codes. But you look and you turn away. It would be the biggest faux-pas to acknowledge another westerner simply because he or she was, well, like you. This is not what you came for. OK, this might happen later in bars, or at a hotel. But this is comparing notes; whilst out there you want to be on your own. Maybe it’s ok to meet other westerners from a different country – but not from your own. As an Englishman it’s difficult for me to be fully objective – what I say might well apply to other nations, and most probably does. When you meet people from your own country you are brought back home, back to the place which, for a few weeks or months, you have left behind. And they bring you back home. Sometimes this can be welcome. But many other times it’s an unwelcome intrusion into your Chinese (or wherever you are) reverie. Maybe homophobia goes deeper, and this especially in the English context.

Encountering ‘the other’ is what we are here for. Walking past the poor areas, glimpsing unimaginably constricted lives, dealing with waiters, cleaning women, hotel staff, ticket sellers, street beggars, local staff (if you are here with work), police – all those encounters of a foreigner – we act with the politeness, the understanding, the deference that comes from meeting ‘the other’ face to face. Back in England, however, the lower classes are to be met with fear and loathing. I’ve been reading Momus’ excellent blog from Berlin – last week he went to New York via London. His vitriolic account of London is worth a look. But this very acute and sensitive guy uses the word ‘chav‘ to describe those wandering around Hoxton – not there for the digital art but drunk and taking the piss out of his eye patch and funny pants. The ‘working class’ in England is not only deprived of decent pay, health, education and social services but also of any legitimacy. It is stupid and aggressive and racist and no sooner is it given money than it becomes stupid and aggressive and racist and vulgar – footballers and their wives. Last year I spoke to an intelligent, sensitive English artist based in London and the South Coast. Talking about Manchester he asked if I had had any problems from my family given that I have a Chinese partner. “What do you mean” I asked. “Well, they’re all a bit racist up there aren’t they?”. He had images of riots in Oldham and BNP victories in the Pennines I suppose. But it was also clear that this is how London thinks of itself – not more cultured but more multi-cultured. In The Guardian Kevin McCarra (I think) wrote about the Arsenal-Chelsea game being a celebration of London, with le tout London turned out to see a game with only a small handful of English players. This was a good thing because it reflected the multicultural strength of London – something that sets it apart from the narrow, blinkered racism of the rest of the country. If only the chavs would stay in Essex. Sociologists used to talk of the group and the grid. In the old days, middle class people saw themselves as part of a grid – a hierarchical matrix with loose social ties which allowed for social mobility. The working class saw themselves as part of a group, to which they were strongly tied in solidarity. In the old days, this solidarity was seen as restrictive but also as a good thing, a warm thing, a supportive thing. Today the grid covers the globe and navigating your way around it in social terms is a good thing – encountering change and diversity, the other. Group solidarity is regressive, fearful, a refusal of change and the other. Its solidarity holds you back. It breeds resentment, envy and hate. It makes you into a chav.

In some way China is full of chavs. This is an energetically materialist country where memories of real poverty stretch back less than a decade. An ecological campaigner writes how in his youth he would wait for hours on a road near his village so he could smell the fumes of the occasional car that went past. There are rich and poor, and the index is widening. But this does not tell the whole story. At the moment people, at least in the cities, feel that with some hard work they, or their sons and daughters, can make it. The government is not some retreating authoritarian monster throwing bread at the crowd; it is, for reasons to do with survival as well as ideology, trying to create new citizen consumers with a wider sense of social responsibility and to some extent equality. Is this feasible? Who knows? But it is being done within a cultural context that stresses common aspirations and symbols of achievement. Some of this is about the democracy of the brand – if you have the money you can buy it like anybody else. I wrote last about the consumption of western culture as a marker of status and that the price of this can be exclusionary. But if you can get hold of it, then it’s yours to show off as you like. There is growing inequality but not yet those strong divisions of culture and understanding that mark out class in England.

Or in the US. After writing about chavs, Momus writes from New York about fear on the streets, about the threat and the aggression that he found in parts of Harlem. He links this to Richard Florida’s new book where Bush and republican America are driving out the creatives with anti-gay, anti-metrosexual agendas. Momus wants a flatter society, like in Japan or Berlin, where the differences in wealth and aspiration do not cause social antagonism. Thus, whilst he says he is not wealthy and pays rent in a poor part of town, he could – if he put his mind to it – get out and make some real money. He has an exit route, which sets him apart from the guys on the street. But as Florida recognizes, this is not just about the religious red-neck Right. Maybe it is the creative class that has lacked social responsibility, which has cut itself off from those who do not have immediate access to these knowledge professions. Now a lot of this results from some of the nonsense that Florida spoke in the first place – what he says about the new duties of the creative class derive from his lumping of all sorts of disparate professions together. But he needed to do this to sell his statistics and models to a willing world, putting him amongst the world’s best paid ‘scholar-consultants’. But it does point us back to the idea that the values of a mobile, open, cosmopolitan creative class have become the repository of all that is good and the ignorant rump of blue collar factory waste have become the aggressive, vulgar, racist chavs of legend.

I will write later about the ‘creative class’ in China (or its big cities). The common social bonds are strong in China. Even in a rapaciously competitive city like Shanghai there is a sense that there are rich and poor but these have not stratified into the publicly symbolized elements of class. Communication in public lacks that mix of deference and aggression that marks real class friction. Part of this still goes back to the cultural revolution, which killed off the remaining class divisions of the older type. The new party officials who rose in its wake were certainly privileged and commanded ‘respect’, but this was the respect of fear and in no way developed the cultural capital of class. The Chinese government has been at pains to try and keep access to consumption open for all aspects of society. The big shopping centre I wrote about recently has posh foreign brands but also cheaper places, smaller shops, smaller restaurants. This is deliberate. In the UK, such large consumption developments are predicated on the systematic exclusion of those who can’t pay the full wack. In China there is a strong sense of national solidarity – they simply cannot understand sneers about saluting the flag and being biased at the Olympics. And this can easily become nationalism of the more ideological kind. The biggest popular mobilization since Tiananmen was the anti-Japanese demonstration about a new history textbook that played down their war crimes. And part of this also is the fact of the great racial homogeneity of the Chinese, which works with the sense of social solidarity – immigration not being an issue as yet. The Chinese, in all sorts of different ways, have not yet learned to become homophobic.

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


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