I came back last night from a weekend office trip to Shanghai, my first visit to China. Curzon, who has far more China experience than I do, gave me some words of warning before I left for Narita Airport: “Just remember, you’re visiting the nicest part of China, and it’s still the world’s biggest shithole.”
Shithole? Yes. Nice? Certainly. It’s a huge cow pie with flowers growing out of it. I always figured that China and Japan would have a lot in common, but it’s almost impossible to see: I returned from Shanghai with the impression that I had just been to Mirror Universe Japan, where the only commonalities are superficial, and deep down everything is exactly the opposite.
Come to mention it, they don’t even look that much alike.
The first thing that you notice upon arrival at Pudong Airport is the shitty air quality. As I looked out the airplane window taxiing in, it was hard to see anything beyond the immediate terminal area, and even the other airplanes were obscured by a light gray haze. It’s certainly no fun to breathe, either.
Pretty much everything in Shanghai has been built within the past 10 years. It’s obvious that everything was a rush job. Coming from Japan, where everything seems to be built perfectly, I could spot the cracks, stains and uneven seams on every building in Shanghai, starting with the virtually brand-new airport terminal.
From a distance, though, these places look downright amazing, in terms of scale as well as shape. So many foreign architects have gotten contracts for thousand-foot skyscrapers and expansive shopping malls, and taken the opportunity to go hog-wild on design.
That said, there is no question that it’s still a developing country. The beautiful new glass buildings exist right next to ancient buildings that seem to be ready to fall down. You see quite a few scenes like this:
Subtlety is not one of the city’s strong points. Shanghai is in your face all the time: wealth, poverty, flavors, smells, waiters and beggars are all in your face. The way Chinese is spoken (i.e. very loudly and forcefully) adds to the effect, and makes Tokyo seem incredibly subtle in comparison.
At night, though, the city is absolutely spectacular. With a caveat: it’s spectacular in a completely dystopian science fiction kind of way. I have heard many people compare Tokyo to Blade Runner, but Shanghai is an absolute spitting image. I mean, just look at this.
(Note than in the above picture, you can’t even see the Jin Mao Tower [the tallest building in China] except for a tiny hint of its pyramid-shaped top. That’s how bad the air is.)
The effect is even more pronounced when you’re riding down an expressway in a crowded Volkswagen Santana taxicab, surrounded by that seemingly endless field of skyscrapers which fade in and out of view as the air quality changes from bad to worse, with a new LCD television in one corner playing random Chinese music videos while the radio simultaneously blares a talk show, and the driver is going hyperactive on the other side of a flimsy-looking plastic shield. Not to mention the fact that conversations with people seemed to turn into that Blade Runner “gutter-talk”–a salad of pidgin English, the few Chinese words I know, and occasional bursts of Japanese where it seemed more applicable.
The one thing that gets me after this trip is an odd irony. China is, at its heart, one of the most capitalistic places I have ever visited. Everyone is a hustler out to make a yuan, and those who make the most yuan love to spend it on themselves. There seems to be no social cohesion whatsoever. But the country officially (if not practically) follows communist ideals.
Yet in Japan, which is universally accepted as a capitalist democracy, few people seem to have much cutthroat business sense. Instead, the society expects people to support each other through family, school and company networks, and people seem to care more about their work product and relationships than their compensation. It seems like a perfect foundation for a socialist utopia: instead, it produced the second-largest capitalist economy in the world.
Being in Japan has gotten me used to contradictions, but this one might puzzle me for a while. While I ponder it, time to start learning Mandarin. After a few months of being polite in Japan, it’s quite tempting to head back to China and spend a week merrily screaming at everyone in sight.