News of the high speed rail crash in China last week (which has raised questions about what some perceive as a cargo-cultish rush into modernity) prompted me to dig up some choice quotes I’d saved back in 2004 from Justin O’Connor’s Shanghai Diary on the City of Sound blog. Seven years may have passed from then to now, and the environment may have changed drastically in the interim – but people don’t change that quickly.
From Shanghai Diary #1:
“The men on the construction site work from 6am I think, definitely before 7am. They wake me up, but gently, the drop of metal and scraping of shovels slowly gathering weight around the dreams and then tugging and pulling and then — you’re awake. They work in the sun but drink tea in the shadows. They work until late. It’s hard to tell when, they’re gradually absorbed into the background. Then the flare of an arc welder reminds you. Last night they were laying concrete at 2am. Nobody opened the window and shouted shut the fuck up you fucking inconsiderate fucking fuckers. I suppose they all lay there, tired, hot, that’s just the way it is.”
“Shanghai is 14 million, if you don’t count the migrants. Negotiating the crowd is about absolutely ignoring it except to avoid a collision at the last moment. Crossing a road involves avoiding people, cars, bikes, scooters coming from all angles … In the first few days I slapped cars that just ran an inch from my foot. But nobody does this. You avoid it and carry on … English people constantly apologise in crowds. It’s a chance to show off how nice they are. Here constant exposure to crowds means you block them out — even collisions don’t involve communication … But all traffic drives like this … maybe it’s just the logical application of the same rules — you push, you push in, you squeeze into that space left between you and the barrier, you thrust your hand with your ticket of money over the shoulder to get in first. And cars simply push harder, that’s all.”
“Labour is cheap. Haircuts come with an optional head massage (a quid) and they wash your hair after cutting it — what a fantastic idea. Food quality is amazing — it is all over in all the forms and price ranges you wish. But a serious banquet for 8 in a Chinese restaurant with the best food you could find — without getting into shark fins, tiger penises and monkey brain territory — would come to 30 or 40 pounds. Including drink (apart from wine). Ironing, laundry, whatever. A five star hotel in Pudong charged 5 pounds for a full breakfast delivered to the room.”
From Shanghai Diary #2:
“The trip down river takes about an hour and a half. After that time the sea looms into view as the river opens out. Only this isn’t the sea, it’s another river, the Yangtze, the third largest on earth. The Huangpu looks like the Thames; imagine the Thames then going into the main river of which it is the final tributary. This is where the docks are — and you can’t see them from the boat, they’re lost on the horizon. The shift in scale takes you from a London-sized city to a huge continent and it makes you dizzy.”
“China’s cultural influence extended beyond her borders, across to Korean and Japan, South to Vietnam and Thailand, down to Singapore. The distance between Beijing and Singapore is the same as that between Dublin and the current western border of China. Somehow Beijing remains the power center which holds this together, and makes the world look like an ‘out there’ to be managed.”
From Shanghai Diary #3:
“Huge towers lit by neon ads; walkways in the sky; thousands of people out walking amongst the street vendors, the Budweiser-sponsored something-to-do-with-BMX thing in one corner, some other film or TV shoot in another – Friday night in the big city without some angry, bitter, drunken male (mostly) throwing up or trying to hit you. These places don’t register in the Rough Guide, partly because they are so new the probably missed the last edition, but also because they don’t fit their image of what a westerner wants to see.”
“In Beijing the hotel in which I stayed was in the middle of an area of very small one floor houses grouped in quadrangles — Hutongs. Some of these date back to the Ming but most to the Qing dynasty. They were being knocked down as I was there, to make a road to the Olympic Village. They were about 20 minutes walk from the historic centre. One would be there one day and as we passed the next — they were broken, exposed, intimate spaces revealed, wallpaper flapping in the breeze. Looking through the dark alleys into the interior, past silhouettes of bicycles leant against the wall, a glimpse of window ledge with plants, washing out to dry, old men sitting and staring. The streets in the Hutong district were living rooms — people sat out, lay on camp beds, watched TV, played cards. Little hole in the wall shops sold kebabs … It’s all like some cup-of-sugar version of the old working class communities of England — but hot, exotic, quaint, nostalgic. This is what being a tourist should be like — a glimpse of another past somehow evoking how far you’re come, what you have lost … But any romanticism is easily dispelled by the public toilets … very quickly I realised that the ubiquitous provision of public toilets was not some enlightened tourism and street life policy — they were there for the locals.”
More Shanghai Diary entries here. See also:
- Shanghai, crayfish, the Chinese media, recent architecture, graphic designers, Chairmen, Emperors, and making minced meat of memory amidst the maelstrom of modernisation
- Where Blade Runner meets Las Vegas / The Guardian on issues with preserving the past and planning for the future as China’s big cities rapidly modernise.
- Lightningfield’s images of Shanghai / I wonder how these same views would look today.