A loud hum from People’s Park drew us in and suddenly we were surrounded by middle-aged couples lining the park pathways, standing shoulder to shoulder with handwritten signs. There were hundreds of them, speaking to each other rapid-fire over and around us, as they stood in the sunlight on this warm October Sunday. We may as well have been invisible, Rick and me, the only non-Chinese and clearly tourists, irrelevant to the goal of the day: matchmaking. The poster boards, we later learned, described adult children in the hopes of attracting a prospective daughter in or son-in-law, listing out details of age, employment, income, education and, in the case of men, type of housing. Photos were not included; the parents would only exchange these when a potential match was made. This was matchmaking the old-fashioned way, person-to-person. It was charming and strange at the same time – a throw back in such an aggressively modern city.
China hadn’t ever really been on my top ten list but when my neighbor Rick invited me along I said yes; I was ready for an adventure. Maybe for this reason I didn’t do my usual in-depth research and planning ahead of time. Aside from a few printouts with hotel addresses in Chinese for the taxi drivers, a guide book I hadn’t read, and a carry-on bag full of indistinguishable black clothing, I arrived curious about the culture and confident that we’d figure out our agenda as we went.
From the moment I had arrived at the airport, finding my way into the city and around thereafter was surprisingly easy. I’d expected the opposite, I realized. I’d anticipated difficulty communicating, and dealing with the large crowds I was always hearing about in the media. Instead we were benefitting from the extensive reshaping of the city undertaken for the previous year’s 2010 “Better City, Better Life” World Expo. The historic and elegant river waterfront, the Bund, was restored; traffic was rerouted throughout the city, with signs in English and Chinese on the main thoroughfares, and six new subway lines were built along with other improvements. The infrastructure is so successful at accommodating a massive volume of people that you never have a real sense of being in a city of twenty million people versus New York City’s population of eight million.
At our hotel, the Peninsula on the Bund, we each had a well-designed jewel box suite of rooms. Graceful pocket doors allowed zones of private and public space to be configured, and every aspect of the room’s environment could be controlled with a button. The humidity setting, with a range of one to six, dry to wet, was a highlight. Each morning we reviewed how dewy and youthful our skin looked, comparing which settings we’d each used the night before. This feature was, of course, totally over the top, but also unsurprising in a country where cities are built almost overnight and technology is dated as soon as it is released.
Each day, armed with a pre-printed list in Mandarin of the top tourist destinations and the hotels address as well, we set forth to explore. The doorman would confer with the taxi driver to make sure the destination was clear and away we would go. Aside from nee hao (hello) and xiexie (thank you), we were unable to communicate. It was oddly liberating; we were able to focus instead on the fun of eating and shopping as we explored different neighborhoods.
At a Cantonese restaurant run by a Michelin-starred chef, I ate turnip so delicate and delicious that I could not believe it was the same vegetable I’d choked down as child. Another day we ate at one of the many informal lunch kitchens that operate throughout the city. Essentially home cooks serving out of a store front, they are unregulated and cheap. Every guidebook and traveler will tell you never to eat at these for fear of food-poisoning, but we were hungry and the food was delicious. We sat at a tiny metal table on the sidewalk, and ate contentedly while the cook beamed and chatted with her neighbors and various passersby about us, clearly the spectacle of the day.
In the hip French Concession neighborhood we visited trendy shops and boutiques hoping to find something uniquely Chinese, an objet d’art, but were always disappointed. Most of what we saw in boutiques and “antique markets” alike we’d already seen in New York. We visited the former residences of Sun Yat-Sen (founder of the Chinese Republic) and Zhou Enlai (Communist leader). These modest homes with their austere interiors were oppressive, dark and dull. When Rick called me Comrade Nash I was relieved that the uniformed guard laughed instead of taking offense. We toured the Shanghai Museum and discovered it to be organized with a tour bus mentality. Cavernous hallways allowed for large groups to continuously flow through surveys of a particular genre: ceramics, calligraphy, metals, jades, and so on. It felt like a greatest hits tour, a mile wide but an inch deep. As I recalled the rich heritage of the centuries of Chinese artistic innovations and achievements I’d so admired in school, I began to wonder when I would begin to see these reflected in the city around me.
Could it be that China’s legacy of innovation and creative thinking is being funneled primarily into technology and manufacturing instead? The burgeoning middle-class of Shanghai makes it seem so. The streets are filled with energy; groups of young office workers flood the sidewalks, laughing and chatting as they go. Rowdy high school kids pushed pass us, lining up at cheap eateries with window service. Grade-schoolers in uniforms and babies abound, usually hand in hand with at least one grandparent or parent. Clearly cherished, these children will set the course of China’s future as they grow. Alternatively called Gen 1 or the Sunshine Generation, they are the first to have grown up under the one child policy and without major political upheaval and oppression. They will have opportunities their parents and grandparents, victims of the Cultural Revolution, the Tiananmen Square Massacre and beyond, could never have dreamed. The young urbanites of Shanghai are more affluent than their parents at the same age and they are starting to live independently, to enjoy luxury goods and travel abroad. This freedom will, in my opinion, eventually lead to a greater sense of opportunity and desire for personal expression as individual taste becomes more sophisticated.
For now, Gen 1 is being raised in a city and culture caught between the past and the future. Shanghai is clean, strikingly so. The subways, streets and parks are fastidiously maintained. And they are not maintained by the automated machines you’d expect in so large a city, but by a cheap and populous workforce. Everywhere we went people were cleaning. In the stadium-size subway platforms and walkways we saw teams of cleaners with brooms and bins. As we sped by grassy medians downtown we passed workers, two to a tree, one holding a bamboo ladder at its base while the other pruned branches. Early in the mornings, parks are flooded with sweepers, removing leaves and needles up from the walkways. Each encounter brought that jolt of disconnectedness we’d felt at the matchmaking event; so startling to see such manual task-driven work in a city of efficiencies.
We started to pay closer attention to these juxtapositions. One day, sitting in a taxi stopped at a red light near the Bund, I watched pedestrians climb stairs to cross the intersection on an elevated bridge to the other side. This bridge was just one side of an enormous squared walkway in the sky, packed with people. I looked back down around me and quickly counted the traffic lanes. Eight lanes going North-South, and another eight going East-West. A sixteen lane interchange in the heart of downtown Shanghai! Shanghai had revealed its breadth.
We decided a boat tour would be an easy way to cover a lot of ground. Our boat traveled from the Bund on the Huangpu River to the mouth of the Yangzi River and back. Enormous ships and stacked shipping containers blanketed both banks of the river for all seventeen miles of the ride. Gritty and industrial, the waterfront is an active working area at all hours. Military ships and a military base at the river’s mouth monitor the traffic. We watched ships ply up and down the river, oil slicks trailing. As the miles went slowly by China’s manufacturing might became all the more obvious. The scale was staggering. We felt the sun hitting us even as the smog concealed the view.
It was dusk as we returned up river, with the Bund on our left, and Pudong directly opposite. A rural area as recently as fifteen years ago, Pudong now shimmers with skyscrapers, international bankers and a waterfront Starbucks. Earlier in the week we’d visited the Grand Hyatt’s 96th floor bar to take in the 360° view. In every direction, cascades of skyscrapers reflected the sun and massive cranes punctuated Shanghai’s booming economy. Now, on our return boat trip, we were able to see some of Pudong from the water. We were struck by how many towers were pitch black, blended with the night shadows that surround their brightly-lit neighbors. The reality is that a large proportion of the towers on Pudong and those towers we had goggled at from the Grand Hyatt are empty. They were built speculatively, and have sat unoccupied ever since. Shanghai is not as booming as it would have you believe.
On the flight back I asked my seatmate about all these empty buildings and dearth of an obvious artistic culture in today’s China. He born and raised in Beijing but has lived in America, where he runs a tech start-up, for the last twenty years. He said that China’s priority today is be perceived as a modern, first world country. This mentality is so entrenched that no Chinese, at least publicly, wants to be associated the country’s past because they will seem old-fashioned.
And this makes sense. But at what cost? Perhaps Gen 1 or their children may rediscover and celebrate China’s extraordinary past, and mainstream it into their work, channeling creativity into not just technological and manufacturing innovation, but also business, education, and artistic initiatives. It is exciting to think of the changes they will bring to China, and I am curious to see how long it will take for the old to become new and modern once again.