Shanghai Mega Metropolis

Trip Start Sep 30, 2005
Trip End Jun 04, 2006

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Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Last time I was in Shanghai, I was surprised by the way that despite it's reputation as China's international gateway, it retains a distinctly Chinese feel. I like this independence of spirit and culture and I appreciate Shanghai all the more for not being an imitation of the American-led uniform global style and culture which pervades much of modern Asia. For all that Shanghai is a scarily huge mass of life, I find it full of amazing subtleties which accentuate its' differences from most other commercial cities in China. It is the small things that make the difference after all! For example, Shanghai has its own cuisine which is distinct in style and flavour from anything else in China. If you ignore the fact that everything seems to be swimming in grease, it's actually quite nice, but it's just so very different to what you find elsewhere. Similarly, if you go into a local clothes market, there are styles which are more or less unique. They certainly share influences with other styles, but people here are not dressing to follow others. Shanghai has its own idea of fashion and the piles of fake Western branded goods in the markes aren't necessarily the locals' wardrobe of choice anyway.

The most engaging feature I think I find in Shanghai is simply that it's so self-confident with a very strong sense of identity. Given my experiences in other parts of China, that is a very significant statement, but Shanghai and its people stand tall, confident and ready to face the World and the rest of China in a distinctive Shanghainese manner. The people and the city are far more colourful than much of the China that I've seen and there's an exciting buzz.

Shanghai might be awash with a style of its own, yet in parts it is absurdly wealthy too. Nowhere is this better demonstrated than in Xintiandi. It is an amazingly chic place woven into original and replica early 20th century architecture. As ever there is an accent on food, but here it is food from all over the World in bistros and candlelit restaurants with glistening silver service and unending wine cellars. There are numerous boutiques featuring the latest in art and design, revue clubs, a gym and spa and everywhere the business people and groups of friends are dripping money. The irony of all this is that it's right next to the building where the Chinese Communist Party was formed!

I have never seen anything like Xintiandi anywhere I've been. It is just so chic. You argue over the translation but New World or New Heaven just about covers it. If new means western in China, then they've achieved that here. It's westernised, only as you don't find in the West, which I suppose is my point about Shanghai. It's a World leader in its own right, shaping its own culture and style as it goes. It does not appear to be following American-led global media culture which is refreshing, because in my opinion that's what most of China's newly developed out-of-the-box cities are aspiring to and that's kinda depressing. Hopefully they'll follow the good bits about Shanghai.

I've enjoyed seeing many of the good bits of Shanghai. I've only heard about the bad bits which include the unemployed migrant workers living in a double-edged poverty trap which prevents them from even leaving Shanghai to return home. Exploring "new Shanghai" in Pudong which will soon host the World Expo you don't get any inkling of this at all. The new Science and Technology centre is a really great change from the heat and grime of the city outside. Once you've got over the bewildering choice of tickets and avoided spending the price of a couple of nights accommodation on the most complex offering, the thoughtful, spacious and interactive displays were worth my investment. Places like Spider World and the Rainforest are made for kids, but I wasn't complaining. In fact I was happier with those than the sections explaining Quantum Theory and Space travel which were a bit too much for my brain!

The museum also highlights one of China's biggest attractions and flaws: the absence of any need for Political Correctness or balanced argument. Gene technology is exalted as being the solution to all manner of problems without any reference to the kind of issues that are causing endless debate elsewhere. There are stuffed animals and live fish on display which would have some cussing and cursing with indignation, but here it is normal. Most enlightening was the detailed exhibition on environmental management and conservation. One display that caught my attention was about man-made environmental disasters. This informed me that London is a smoke-filled city where people die from the pollution. I also read about disasters that have happened all over the World. However, I am interested to report that according to this display there are no environmental disasters in China!!!

Last time I was in Shanghai, I bemoaned the signage and I'm equally bemused by some of the road naming too. For example, North Suzhou Lu runs east to west on the north bank of Suzhou Creek and South Suzhou Lu runs - wait for it - east to west on the south bank of Suzhou Creek. Easy enough you might think. However, just around the corner, Beijing North Lu runs north to south into Beijing South Lu. The logic is designed to confuse a visitor methinks!

I'm still amazed that a city that receives such a great proportion of China's foreign visitors hasn't sorted out its multilingual signage although it appears that there have been various attempts to fix this piecemeal but all that does is confuse, none more so than the hybrid half Pinyin and half English names on train stations. It actually makes London look well organised! For example, you see East Feng Ci Road Station. If you say that to a Chinese speaker it means nothing. If you say it in English it means nothing. If you say it in Chinese it means nothing. Half is Pinyin and half English. The whole point of Pinyin is that it gives a romanisation of Chinese characters and at least a chance of pronouncing something like the Chinese words. With these signs, if you don't know both languages you can't even begin to pronounce it properly because one set of rules exists for reading one word in the name and one set for another! It's gobbledygook! Come on Shanghai, give me a break, Chinese is hard enough without expecting me to speak two languages in one sentence!
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