Wander along the old streets of Shanghai!
Wandering along the old streets of Shanghai was probably one of my favorite parts of the stay. Why? Because those were the best places to observe the local life. During my early morning walk I could see how people were waking up, exercising, having breakfast, getting ready for work... and during one of my evening walks I saw them playing games, women chatting or doing some handwork. Many families were having dinner outside, so I could get an idea what they were eating. Also, those old streets are great for wonderful photo shots of people, houses, and alleys.
Nanjing East Road
The pedestrianised section of Nanjing East Road (or Nan Jing Dong Lu), running from People's Park in the west to The Bund in the east, was the premier shopping street of the whole of China in the 1930s. It has probably lost this crown now, but the shops are still there, the neon lights are still on, and the shoppers are still coming. The best time to visit is after dark - even if you don't buy anything, it's good for a walk and people-watching. There are a couple of interesting shops selling countless varieties of tea, and Gou Bu Li is a good place to take away some buns/dumplings for supper!
Thoughts and Observations
"Tale of Two Cities"
"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way -- in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only."(by Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities)
The beginning of the Industrial Revolution, the setting of Charles Dicken's world famous "Tale of the Twin City", in which he wrote the "best of time, worst of time..." beginning to his masterpiece. At that time, London was undergoing a period of changes never before experienced by humans. Steam engines and railways enabled fields of crops to be transformed into new, gigantic factories overnight. The vastly improved productivity allowed England to leap forward and be the foundation of the great British Empire, and brought an immense amount of wealth to selective individuals. Yet, at this "the best of time", many workers lived in conditions so poor, it rivaled the "Black Death" Medieval Age. More and more people moved to the city in search of jobs, and suburbs of poor families spread from the center of the city, without the most basic needs. The factories were a place of great casualties, and without the protection of a union or insurance policy, many could not meet their ends when disaster struck.
Under the surface of its great power and wealth, London, at the early 19th century, was the capital of disorder, where people worked hard, died young, and burned their lives to give the rich a heavier wallet.
How ironic that history always seems to repeat itself. In Shanghai, early 21th century.
Shanghai is experiencing an amazing growth period during the past decade. High-rise after high-rise, landmark after landmark, mammoth buildings are risen from the ground seemingly on everyday. These structures breath a new sense of pride as a sign of acknowledgement to the long term dedication by the locals. As China continues to solidify its statue as one of the few powerhouse nations, Shanghai is at the top of the expedition of the highly anticipated China's modernization.
"Now we have covered one side, how about the other?"
While Pudong has been developed into a showcase of modern architectures, much of Puxi has retained its old and primitive conditions. Many older residents, who have experienced such turbulent times like the movements against the Imperial Dynasty, the World War II, the Cultural Revolution, the subsequent internal conflict of the Communist Party, and the decades long depression, arrive at the end of the long tunnel and able to glimpse the flourishing age of Shanghai. Yet, this supposed golden period bears little change to these mainstays. They continue to live with little to none of the modern conveniences most take for granted. As the younger fellow Shanghaiese buzzes through their daily routines at neck-breaking speed, the older generation cannot, and will not, catch up with the frenetic pace. Without a choice, or perhaps this comfort zone is too familiar to be detached from, many elders, and much of the older Shanghai, seem to be in a totally different world as the high-rising landmarks over at the other shore in Pudong. These older folks must be wondering what the heck is that ugly pointy tower sticking in the background of their sights during their naps in front of their century old houses.
"So what exactly is happening?"
Just look into the sky and the current affairs of Shanghai is written on it for everyone to see. Most days, a thick layer of grey smog blankets everything in sight. Apparent problems, just like the smog, leave some great uncertainties to the continue growth of the city. Having such a huge population, combines with the extended period of regression and self-containment, the plan to develop Shanghai into a model city for the rest of China is not an easy task. Evidently, Shanghai is still much more like the prototypical mainland Chinese city than a city like Hong Kong or Singapore, which represent a much stabler level as a whole. Granted, Shanghai might very well be the best economical and commercial city out of them all, but when the simple task of crossing an intersection turns into a dangerous adventure, something is wrong with the basic structure of this developing centre.
To most, the vision of a modern city has certain requirements, most of which are quite basic, as a basis to judge the standards.
Much of the modern infrastructures are constructed with the influx of foreign capital. Many realize Shanghai is going to be a good base to explore the potentially boundless market of China. As of this day, however, Shanghai and China are still only that, potential. The rapid growth is destined to slow down, and at that time, can Shanghai and its people be able to maintain this fascinating chapter one?
"Is there a plan somewhere?"
An often confusing, and sometimes frightening sight. Certainly, this occurance is happening around the globe, but Shanghai, especially Pudong, is the hotbed to such awkward phenomenon. Identical looking combinations of glass and concrete seem to be spurting up from the ground in countless numbers, each slightly taller than the previous ones, yet same old style. Judging from the exterior, it is very hard to notice the fact that most of these buildings are not designed by the same guy who runs out of ideas in the last millennium. Admittedly, the first all-glass exterior building looks revolutionary, but after the completion of the millionth of such kind, it becomes as sad as Real Madrid's annual purchase of a star forward. When is enough of the same type of commodity enough? A city's main identity should be its harmonous mix of diversity, not an assembly line of glass cases that pretend to symbolize wealth, but has no positive resemblences whatsoever.
"The Transition Period"
While endless number of gigantic modern architectures which bare not a single trace of relation with their surrounding, and the once foreign concept of capitalism dominates the landscape of the society, which existence is more of an oddity? An old man selling pieces of fruit, as he has been doing as a living for decades at the same spot, only now this spot has transformed as the front entrance of a five star hotel. Or, the quietly dim roads where many poor residents can only share the joy of the consumers' Shanghai by overhearing the shoppers' laughters, who are wandering on the nearby Nanjing Lu.
In the midst of great conflict, during this era when much capital has been unceasingly poured into this huge financial oppuntunity, much of the long existing way of living is still well and alive, and cannot be reversed simply by the sudden oasis of wealth.
"But for how long?"
Shanghai is supporting more residents than ever before in its history. Currently standing at seventeen millions plus, this urban spawl is capable of being as the same calibur as New York, or a polluted, crowded mess like Mexico City.
During the thousands of history of mankind, countless conflicts and wars have been fought over domination and resistance. Nations go to war to conquer. The others to defend their own identities and survivals, to preserve their own unique cultures. Thousands of years have past, but this human bahaviour has not changed much.
Comes this age of globalization, when everyday?s standard around the world seems to becoming strikingly similar by the day, when different values, different cultures are ceasing to exist because of a conflict with the bottom line of today?s value: efficiency and unity. The most ironic thing in human's history occurs when the hard fought territory has buildings and designs that look exceptionally identically with this nation's most hated rival. Where is this nation's own pristine look? What good, what impression is this place trying to cast upon the rest of the world when this new, booming district looks like a carbon copy of another city, only to be risen from the ground a few decades late? Are we all living in this arcade age, when every city council is playing a virtual reality Sim City, and the only way to get applaud is to have the exact outlook as the city with the best statistics? Will it become a good ending when the whole city has transformed into a metropolis with only high-rise, modern residential and commercial buildings? When this place's history and culture has been replaced by nothing by concrete and glass, is that a sign of the new age, the time which is the equivalent of going to heaven? What good does this heaven bring, when every place in the world is a carbon copy of the exact same mold? City is composed of humans, and if its own habitants have no visions, no dream to construct a city that defines them as a race, as a type of persona, what good does this lifeless metropolis brings?
In this age of globalization, the struggle to maintain a region's unique culture and personality has never been more difficult. As Shanghai is aggressively ascending to gain its place among the world's elite centres, how much compromises do this distinct culture have to make to please the ever-growing demands of capitalism? Will one day, perhaps ten years, or twenty years from now, a massive collection of sky reaching concrete columns be known as Shanghai, only to be totally identical as the other "mega cities" of the world? Or can Shanghai escapes this unfortunate becoming and matures, along with its own identity, into the leading centre of China, the East, or even the world?
Shanghai is blasting into the 21st century, but will the super high-speed train slows down soon by the numerous obstacles?