On the day I was supposed to leave Shanghai, I crossed the river separating Pudong where my hotel was, from Puxi, and walked the Bund for an hour, taking photos on my Diana F (which I have yet to send for developing).
By the second day of my stay in the city I began to realise that I was only being exposed to a highly privileged, hugely constructed sliver of the city. Moving between hotel and convention centre and posh shopping mall (for meals), everything was scrubbed sterile, spotless: Every toilet I visited was flawless and scented, cleaner than the ones that we had back home. From my hotel room I spotted a Ferrari parked in the courtyard of the mall opposite, right in front of the giant Prada store. I spent four days living in an artificial bubble, away from the reality of the city. I was there as a member of the mainstream media, after all, a paid guest of that spawn of capitalism, an MNC. What else was I expecting?
(What I came away with from the summit I attended, after listening to CEOs and SVPs talk earnestly about fragmented markets and how to invest in them, was that foreign businessmen have a better understanding of China and its culture than their thinkers and politicians do. Capitalism is warfare of the 21st century, and the conquerors must know their targets well.)
I did not manage to find the subway station that would take me back to Pudong. That failure crystallised my feelings about the entire trip: I believe that you can’t figure out what makes a city tick unless you become intimate with its public transport system. You understand a person by reading their body language; you understand a city by reading its subways.
Strolling down the Bund was a surreal experience: Row after row after row of European-style buildings topped with red stars and red-and-yellow flags. Except for the signs with Chinese words on them, I felt like I was walking through some alternate-universe European city where the Soviet Union had engulfed the continent. Buses offering historical tours of the Bund in a variety of languages signified by their home country’s flag: France, the UK, Germany, Russia… It didn’t make sense to me. When I think about historical Chinese architecture I think of peaked roofs and garden walls, not domes and columns. What they were offering was the history of colonialism, accreted and immortalised in brick and mortar, as if the 5000 years of Chinese history before that had simply been erased.
I looked across the river to Pudong, a contemporary nexus of glass and steel, global architecture that can be found echoed in any of the big cities in the world. Metropolitan they are called, which is just a lie-word for Western or West-influenced. We are truly a colonised people, I thought, headed back to check out of my hotel room, remembering how I had topped off the second night of my stay on a pilgrimage to the Apple store across the road, jostling for photos with excited tourists from deeper parts of the mainland. I spent the rest of the day at a Starbucks by the river, eating a salad and transcribing my recordings to strains of Tchaikovsky.
** On the Wikipedia page for the Bund, under “Cultural References”, the first two entries are about the area as portrayed in white men’s books. This, which is pretty much what you’ll get if you ask a Chinese person about the Bund’s cultural portrayal, comes in only at #3.