The Merest Sniff of China (3)

Facing the world, facing the future

The Huangpu makes a final broad sweep before it enters the East China Sea. The Suzhou Creek enters at the apex of the bend, feeding a river already massive by Australian standards. Countless barges with a freeboard which can be measured in millimetres diligently slosh along in its opaque water. Ferries costing almost nothing one way and nothing at all coming back, honk that they are ready to depart.The Bunned

On the western bank is a scene — whether as an oil painting, a massive photograph or the real thing — in front of which Chinese from all over the country like to have their photo taken. The Hong Kong and Shanghai bank, opened to great acclaim in 1921, is the standout building in a long row of examples of muscular European imperialism, sans flair but solid with just a whiff of indomitability. It’s the Bund, old Shanghai, the main drag of the International Settlement, centre of banking and commerce and goodness knows what else for a hundred years from the middle of the nineteenth century. Shanghai was a fishing village on the silt flats of the Yangzi delta with a population of considerably less than 100,000 before the British established a trading concession here in 1842. The French followed, establishing their own Quarter which is still quite identifiable.

PudongAs you lean on the river wall and look across to the eastern bank, it is not possible, not at all possible, to ignore the Pearl Television Communications Tower, a vast rocket of a building awaiting take-off. There is a taller tower in Kuala Lumpur; but this is Shanghai, a metropolis of eight million, which must surely be one of the great cities of the world. The Pearl Tower, across the river in Pudong, is a potent symbol of where China may be heading.

Not eight million anymore. Fifteen years later, around 25 or 27. Maybe 40 depending on where you draw the line. Regardless, Shanghai is either China’s biggest city or biggest conurbation. And the Pearl Tower is no longer the dominant landmark on the Pudong bank. It’s good. Great. Fabulous really. But one among many. And the big lump in the background with the three cranes hanging off will be 640m. high when it is finished, more than 200m. taller than the Petronas Towers in KL.IMG_1980 (They were working at 10.30 on this gluggy night. I noticed the cranes move; then saw a bucket of concrete on its long journey up.)

Nor would the ferries cost nearly nothing any more. Shanghai is a world city and charges accordingly. I saw a very ugly watch for 6.3 million yuan in a shopping mall devoted exclusively, exclusively, to shops like Cartier, Bulgari, Ermenegildo Zegna, Ralph Lauren and so on. We also saw department stores full of Sino-ey knock-offs. No not Zegna, Frognie Zila.

We didn’t have to take the ferry either because there is now a tunnel under the Huangpu and for 70 yuan return you can go on a very strange underground traverse with a new attraction/distraction every 30 metres or so. (Magma falls, ooomm, cosmic fossils, oommm, meteor shower, oommm, giant waving air puppets, ooomm, etc.)

We had a couple of days in Shanghai to finish, at leisure as Lord Rowland would say, excited about revisiting the National Museum, looking at Pudong and just wandering around with the prospect of satisfying an unfulfilled penchant for dumplings and pork buns.

Visibility wasn’t much of an improvement from Beijing when we arrived and we were both very tired: 32 interviews in the can, about eight hours of video. Tiring. And that seems to have happened last time as well.

The maximum temperature was still hovering around zero and the air was thick with misty smog. The changes in climate and the density of our activities had taken some toll. On the first night in Shanghai we seemed to walk forever to find our quota of dumplings, Chinese pastries and beer. Homesickness was apparent, there was some trouble about rooms, and … well, all of those things. It looked like Shanghai might be a bit of a slog.

The next morning as we wandered through the hutongs, I found some lip balm for my badly cracked lips in a chemist shop, and was tempted by the vast range of aphrodisiacs and the pillow of roots which, had I slept on it, would have cured senility. My grey hair indicated great age to the shop assistants. The narrowness of the streets and the height of the buildings said city, said people, said, even stationary, plenty to look at, plenty to do. We took the ferry over to Pudong and went up to the observation platform of the Pearl Tower. Even with the limited visibility, you could see perhaps 80 or a 100 buildings going up, almost growing as you looked like bamboo in a tropical rain forest. Directly below us you could see the ingenious lattice-like rafts of concrete which have been devised to allow tall building on silt. (On the other side of the river Shanghai’s buildings had subsided several metres when comparative measurements were made between 1925 and 1960.)

El roadsIn the afternoon we rode the helter-skelter of Shanghai’s traffic system, now on the ground, now up in the air on the ‘viaducts’ of its (not really) freeways, now in a tunnel under the river, now in Pudong proper. Our hosts had brought us to a tower block perhaps fifteen kilometres from the heart of the city and we were escorted up to the thirtieth floor to look at a model of a new development. Mmm … a model. Very nice thank you. Then we looked out the window, and there it bloody well was. Most of the dormitory accommodation was in place with its swimming pools, the villas for the wealthy were there in neat rows, the great sprawl of low rise factories ran west to the horizon and the market gardens to the north had been razed in preparation for more building.

There are currently about 12,000 active major building sites in Shanghai city and, it is guessed, about 15 per cent of the world’s cranes at work. Economic growth (albeit from a relatively low base) has averaged 15 per cent per annum for the last few years. Investment at an estimated rate of US$50million per day is being poured into this area, one of three free trade sites in China. (The others are north of Beijing and in Guangzhou, the province abutting Hong Kong.) The call of the biggest market in the world has been heeded and those with capital have flocked to get their share. The Ricoh factory, assembling fax machines, we visited was a model of technological enterprise — antiseptic, superbly organised, good wages and working conditions, and this is one of a hundred thousand. Consider what one such enterprise can mean to a country town in Australia; then multiply by thousands, hundreds of thousands. I had an image of Bill Bixby turning into the Incredible Hulk, shirt ripping, trousers too short, a new massive creature emerging into the world with its goals and directions not entirely clear.

The sheet anchors of the vast population, almost constant war, famine and ideology have in the past held China’s economic development back. But there is a very strong sense that they have also made the country tough. The world awaits China like the delights of a fun park. Let’s go. Let’s see how many of these rides have some interest and value and, more to the point, let’s see how many we can make some money from. Good at that, the Chinese. Focused. 

Here’s an answer to the question: What do you do when you ‘do’ the future? You go for it. You surge forward on the basis of your instincts and your naked need to do so. You draw on all that restless, unsatisfied energy. You push forward without necessarily thinking about where you’re going, not with any larger view anyway — fire, ready, aim. This is the full tilt unadulterated blast of testosterone, and to unaccustomed eyes it is astonishing. It is a sight every Australian should see. 

Fifteen years ago all that was visible. And it is still is. There is still an apparent capacity to make impossible things happen and keep happening. Focus on the future not the past.

But back to the present…


Bayden had commented on the rabid addiction to the mobile phone evident everywhere but certainly making it hard to get attention in shops. Maybe you had to ring up the shop assistants. He had come to Shanghai for some time-lapse footage from the 48th floor of the JW Marriott hotel through the crystalline air. This is the view.IMG_2001

And what it is is part of the People’s Park covering the main subway station and site of Shanghai’s main cultural edifices. It was once the racecourse. The building with the red-roofed tower to the bottom was the Club building. The Grandstand was reputedly the largest in the world, and probably was. The turf was described as “smooth as a billiard table”. (Thank you wikipedia and Mr Findlay.)

national museumThat said we still found solace in the National Museum. Even the coins seemed interesting and I found something newly fascinating about calligraphy which has left me cold in the past. I could see the individuality of the styles and the variation according to purpose. And there was the jade.

We topped up with some dumplings at a street shop over the road from the Museum and walked off to the French Quarter. It all seemed much more knowable than last time. Hundreds of shops with what one might describe as ‘cutting edge fashion’, including dead set no worries ‘pop ups’.popup shop
SH moderne

We found some contemporary art, in sum somewhat discombobulating and not really the feel of having grown naturally out of the environment as was the case at 798 in Beijing. But the top floor had a well hidden restaurant full of style, welcome and nice food.

Our waitress sent us off to her pick of Shanghai’s art areas, hutongs off Taiking Road. There was certainly plenty of art there but it turned out to be like a gigantic Camberwell Rotary Art Fair — nothing wrong with that, and a cultural statement in its own right; but not exactly what were looking for. More the deflated tank made out of leather.

The French Quarter has its charms with ten of thousands of plane trees planted, I believe, by the British. FC street shop

In this photo I’m looking out the window of a Printemps department store. Printemps in Paris provides a very cheering shopping experience. I think we were expecting something the same with perhaps some nice coffee and a macaroon. Incorrect. We worked our way without success through the various offerings of the food hall and, on further exploration, realised we were in a shop (maybe like most other shops in the world) full of pretty awful Chinese knock-offs.

But we had a very fine walk and we found all the appropriate vestiges of humanity including the rather grand house from which Chou En Lai fled the Kuomintang spies in 1942, and the insect market. Could have picked up a couple of quality cicadas cheap but didn’t know if we could get them back into the country.Insect marketChou En Lai

However damaging to my reputation, I’m glad there’s a photo from the insect market stuck in here. It wouldn’t be China if there were no freakshows included, and I would belie my status as a dopey tourist walking around with mouth half open, eyes up to the landmark architecture or down to the map.

Finally it was clear, the last day, and everything took on a new hue. And it was just like it was last time …

If the developments on the east bank of the Huangpu are generated by testosterone, the throb of the west bank comes from the firm palpation of oestrogen — people, their families, their neighbourhoods and their social futures, history, time spent, lessons learnt, as well as their intersection with the things that the east bank, Pudong, produces. When you face the world, you face its calamities, disappointments and treachery, as well as its material richness and splendour. You face the facts of overpopulation and the common challenge of a sustainable future. You face consumerism and its distinctly unpleasant offshoot, commodification. And you have to face the ways in which we might get on together.

The acrobats. That laconic forum for minor miracles, the Flying Fruit Fly Circus, learnt a lot of its tricks from Chinese acrobats. And here we were in the presence of the teachers. The performance began at a very high pitch with tumbling and juggling, and then ascended — a suitable metaphor for the nature of our experience in China. Here was a young man balancing on four layers of rolling slats, standing on one foot, flicking first one, then two, then three, and finally four soup bowls simultaneously from his other leg to catch them on his head. Later, seven young women did handstands on chairs balanced one on top of the other in a long arc. Oooo, we went with the rest of the audience. Aaaaaah. No. Not possible. But with aspiration, discipline, patience, endless practice and a certain carelessness about the possible consequences, it can be done. And this might be a suitable metaphor for the future of the next great world power — China. 

One thought on “The Merest Sniff of China (3)

  1. Pingback: Blog 99 | mcraeblog

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