Published: Verve Magazine, Rambling Reporter, December 2006
A smattering of ramshackle buildings amidst the gleaming skyscrapers in Shanghai makes Sitanshi Talati-Parikh wonder how the city grew from ugly and dwarfed to tall, splendid and oh, so cosmopolitan, in just over a decade
As I landed in the city that is the poster child of the modern world, I held my breath until I could espy the snaking highways and the splendid buildings. I recalled seeing a row of symmetric buildings read: boring) from the plane, and a few dilapidated structures whilst being stuck in the traffic on the highway… and the tension gnawed at my insides. All along, this place, this city, is what I had been waiting for, with an innate knowledge that it would be simply outstanding. They all told me it would. I couldn’t be so sorely let down?
Secretly though, I wasn’t sure if I was happy or sorry to be unfazed by this city. It didn’t look like much – and I had given it all of 15 minutes! I refused to believe that any city held together by socialist-communism could offer a better way of life than a democratic one. My views were challenged every minute that I spent in unarguably the most modern city of the world. As I held onto my possibly jaded view, I saw the New World Order.
The city sneaked up on me. Slowly but surely it began to grow, like hunger or a snake uncoiling itself. It began to get bigger, bigger than I had ever imagined, and better, better than I had ever seen before. I tried to run away from it, afraid it would engulf me, but it towered over me at every opportunity. Even standing atop the tallest Asian TV Tower (Orient Pearl), looking down upon the city didn’t make it any less overpowering….
As my father raved about the city at every opportune moment, I would respond with a diatribe – the highways were excellent, but the traffic was still too much; the people were hardworking and intelligent, but they couldn’t piece a word of English together and the locals were a rowdy and uncultured lot. The government wants the city to grow, the country to prosper and the people to be well cared for, but it’s communist!
And suddenly it just didn’t seem so bad to me. Could all of this be so miserable? I recall the hungry eyes of the children on the streets of my hometown, and I compare it to the satisfied gleam on the faces of the youth of China. What had my so-called democracy done that was better than this? Our freedom of speech was not feeding the poor and making them happier! As the per capita income rose, the people in Shanghai grew wealthier. They were well provided and cared for.
Our hotel was plush and luxurious, and it was one amongst the many luxury hotels that vied for attention. It reeked of comfort and wealth, as did the fabulous multi-cuisine restaurants that you could choose from. From Italian wine and Mexican margaritas to Spanish tapas, Japanese sushi and French main courses, Indian dessert and Chinese tea, you could pick a cuisine from a myriad places on the globe. If the tastes were simpler and more local, you could just walk down on one of the smaller streets and pick up some dumplings or skewers.
Finishing a long drawn out meal at Giovanni’s, on the 27th floor of the Sheraton Grand, my father wistfully pointed out the glittering lights below. “Doesn’t that remind you of the Queen’s necklace?” Instinctively, I reacted with a, Yeah, right! It seemed like a role reversal. I was, in barely a few days, intensely cynical of the town that brought me up, and in awe of this city of lights.
Somehow, celebrating Diwali on the Shanghai-by-night river cruise, alive with sparkle, flavour and culture, didn’t seem out of place. This was a city totally livable – by anyone. As if to prove a point, little boats chugged by all day, on Shanghai’s Huangpu River, with enormous TV screens flashing a new lifestyle.
The city is truly cosmopolitan, in its own right. America has hit Shanghai (and China for that matter) pretty hard. Even obscure American franchises dotted the Eastern landscape; Chinese fashions were a culmination of Western haute couture with an extra zing and smaller sizes! That was very evident by the upcoming Shanghai Fashion Week that I happened to be right in time for. (Must-buy from China’s first upscale global brand, Shanghai Tang).
There is Halloween around, and the locals groove to Western pop music without understanding a word of the songs! It’s surprising to see a Starbucks inside a traditional Qing-dynasty architectural structure. Has America arrived in China, or is it the other way around? In a city where the subway system was yet to be integrated in whole, the roads were packed with cars from every country imaginable. Was I in New York or Shanghai? Subtitle the hoardings, pump up the highways, de-slant the eyes and you wouldn’t know the difference.
For a city that opened to the world after the Opium War, where foreign adventurers set up trading firms and mansions on the Bund (still the happening spot in town) from the proceeds of Opium trafficking, today, the skyscrapers in the city house the well-off middle class, while the rich live in plush villas in the suburbs, along with the poor. Whether walking on the Bund and the beautiful riverside promenade or on the streets of old Shanghai, with the Yu Gardens, Jade Buddha Temple and teahouses, one can marvel at how far this city has come.
I was incredulous as I saw the smattering of ramshackle buildings amidst the gleaming skyscrapers. I asked our tour guide – how in the world does the city go from ugly and dwarfed to tall and splendid in a span of just over a decade? The answer seemed unbelievably systematic – the government provided the residents of the buildings (that were to be razed down) with alternate housing, and replaced the old buildings with better ones! Easier said than done? Not quite! Rules and regulations were accepted, as a way of life, not something to be troubled by. The city reminded me of the brilliant Chinese acrobatic show I saw that evening – balanced gingerly on a pole of socialist-communism, but landing upright every time, not wavering even once.
Despite the cocoon of luxury, any tourist to Shanghai only wants one thing. A bargain, or many of them! The renowned Shanghai flea market is what we wanted, with a burning sense of need and urgency. The itch to bargain hit us like we’d been forewarned, like never before, not even on Mumbai’s ‘Fashion Street’. It didn’t take but a few seconds for that desire to be blown apart, when we were sorely informed that the ‘fakes’ had been taken off the roads. The flea market was eradicated in June. But we were welcome to shop at the government authorised malls. Malls? Why in the world would one go to malls in China? Malls, which were better than those in America…. Buzzing glass elevators that climbed like purring felines, shops that held one in awe, the sizes of which simply extended to the end of the earth.
To our enormous relief, Nanjing Road (the walking street, where one can take a little tourist motor train, but not any other form of vehicle) gave us local shops and boutiques… and hawkers. The hawkers that were like the plague; they ensnared us and led us into shady little alleys where following a dizzying ride up rickety stairs and hidden closets, you discovered that the fake hadn’t quite deserted Shanghai – it was just concealed from the naked eye. Polo, Abercrombie, Burberry, Gucci and the lot still flourished here, originally fake.
This made me wonder…. Maybe it was my purely democratic fantasy that refused to let me accept otherwise. Just as the fake Gucci was hidden, was the other side of life in this mystical country hidden from us too? We, the wide-eyed tourists, who came with a desire to see the People’s Republic of China in action, saw one side of the proverbial coin. Was the coin transparent or were we seeing exactly what they wanted us to see?