Not to overstate this, since stark contrasts can be seen in just about any major city you visit, but the surrealness of this place lies in the scale of those contrasts. And it’s a scale that is just hard to put words to.
Shanghai is city split by a river. On one side is the old part of town where, in pockets at least, the architecture is a mix of European and what you would traditionally think of as Chinese. During our walks and rides around this absolutely massive city (Jeff tells me the ride to find green rolling hills takes two and a half hours), we’ve been referring to this as the “real China”. On the other side of the river is the Western face of China, a place where literally just more than a decade ago there was little more than rice paddies as far as the eye could see. (We bought photo books yesterday where the photographer found old photos from various parts of the city and then went back and took new pictures in the same spot…the contrast is breathtaking.) Now, tall, neon-lit buildings and concrete have replaced all of that rural history. Two of the five tallest buildings in the world stand right next to one another. A third, “The Pearl” is something right out of the Jetsons, a tall spire that holds a strand of three pinkish orbs, the smallest and highest being a revolving restaurant where you can take in the sights. (If you want to skip the textual attempts at describing it all, just see the picture I posted a couple of days ago.) And make no mistake; it is Western. There’s a Hooters along the river, all of the major chains of hotels are here, and you know where to go if you want coffee, right? (Apparently, the big buzz around town is the first Cold Stone Creamery that just opened.) At night, the buildings themselves become billboards, and ships cruise down the river carrying these huge LCD screens that must be like 50 feet wide and 30 feet tall, flashing one advertisement after another for designer clothing or local restaurants and health clubs. Cars and bicycles and scooters and people are everywhere, and there is just a constant blur of activity and motion.
When you first see it, you have this “Grand Canyon Moment” where it just takes your brain a few minutes (or hours, or days) to fully comprehend what it’s looking at. And even then, as opposed to a quiet scene of natural, awe-inspiring beauty, the scene is just overloaded by noises and smells and colors and that just makes it hard to focus on any one aspect, on really “seeing” any one piece of the whole. I found myself just staring at it, blinking. It’s cliche, I know, but it’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen.
And then there is the old part of Shanghai, the “real” China, the part where a restaurant may be a couple of chairs and a table on a street corner where people can sit after buying some type of meat or fish on a stick that’s been barbecued on a makeshift grill built on to the back of a 30-year-old bicycle. A place where people dry their clothes and their linens on lines or fences or poles…anything that works. A place where you can buy these large, loud crickets housed in clay pots or small, bamboo cages and then enter them into some type of insect cage match for sport. A place where in almost every dimly lit storefront or window you can see people selling and bartering during the day, and lazing about, smoking cigarettes, playing cards or board games at night. A place where elderly couples stroll slowly along the sidewalks while half-crazed scooter drivers and cyclists weave in and out among them. A place where, according to Jeff, blocks of people may be “removed” overnight, their homes razed with amazing speed to make room for new big, Western buildings. A place where you can fill yourself up on really good dumplings for a dollar or less.
From the balcony at Jeff’s apartment where I’m staying these last two nights in Shanghai, these two different worlds are easy to take in. Almost straight down lies the old city, while not far in the distance to the East, the towering glass buildings literally nip at the clouds, the two separated only by a winding river and what seems like 1,000 years. It’s wild.
For myself, I can’t decide whether I like this place. Without question, this visit has changed my frame of thinking in a lot of ways, some of which I tried to articulate a couple of days ago and more of which I hope I can capture more of the coming days. The people here, both Western and Eastern, have been kind and gracious and helpful. And I’ve had a slew of new experiences, my first foot massage (an hour long), bartering (though with little energy) at the knockoff markets for 32 Gig flashdrives ($15), eating the abolute best fake lemon Chicken at this very cool vegetarian restaurant Jeff led us to. (Combine that foot massage and the tofu chicken and I might have had to start smoking again, something, btw, that a vast majority of men in this country are addicted to.) And even though there is a typhoon approaching and it’s pretty stormy outside, we’re going to go after some of the more cultural aspects of the city today.
But by and large, the city is almost too much to take, too polluted, too inconsistent, too sensuous, too much in motion. There is just too much that changes in too short a time that it’s hard to get your feet under you, massage or not. And there is something else, a reality that creeps slowly into your brain to scratch this can’t-put-your-finger on it itch that you feel after a few days here. At some point you realize this: there are no birds in this city. No squirrels. No rabbits. Nothing, and I mean nothing wild save the bats that swoop around your head as you walk through the parks at night or the occasional feral cat whose eventual destiny is almost surely sealed from it’s birth. When it dawns on you, that you’ve seen no living animal in the wild for five days, it kinda creeps you out.
Yes, China is growing, and you can’t help but feel it’s force when you scan the horizon from Jeff’s balcony. But the unsettling irony of this view of China at least is that for the most part, what we see here is ourselves. It’s a mirror of our own industriousness, entrepreneurship and hard work, and our own waste and greed and avarice as well. An article in the Shanghai Daily yesterday noted that the gap between rich and poor in China is growing, that a lake in one of the nearby provinces is almost “dead” from the pollution, stories that aren’t all that different from the headlines we read every day at home. While you might argue that the priorities in this country have always been misplaced, the Shanghai face of China seems to be bent on following our worst lead. New is old. The dissonance is acute.
Last night, after we had toured much of the city, we got dropped off a few blocks from where Sheryl and Wes are staying near Jeff’s place, and we strolled slowly home, stopping for a glass of wine, watching couples in the park dance to the sounds of old men plucking ornate stringed instruments, passing thousands of people in the process. At one point, Jeff, Sheryl’s son Noah and I turned down one of the back alleys in the old town and quietly walked past dimly lit apartments and navigated lines of drying clothes strung in our way. We peered into the darkness and made out the outlines of a family sitting on folding chairs in the middle of the walk, taking in the warm night. Not wanting to intrude, we turned back, and as we did, I looked into an alcove where, almost imperceptibly in the darkness I saw an old Chinese woman standing in a doorway. In the soft fluorescence of a streelight, I could just barely see her face, wrinkled, gentle eyes, staring back at me. She leaned against the door jamb, her hands clapsed in front of her, what I thought to be a shallow smile on her face. In that instant, in the muted blues and grays of the shadows, in the hushed corners of that cluttered side street, after a day filled with color and sound and chaos, something about Shanghai finally came into focus.