July 23, 2008

Dispatch: Shanghai

Black Travels community member, Claire Garcia is currently traveling through China and Vietnam, and has been sending us dispatches along the way.

Somehow, "Shanghai" seems to warrant an exclamation point. It is city life on a mega scale. The "American Century" is definitely over~ this is what the future looks like. This country is producing the only thing that keeps a drowsy American emperor awake: cheap goods.

I have never seen so many super-skyscrapers (even the apartment buildings). The streets are always teeming (Shanghai's population is 14 million) with humanity, buses, cars, bicycles. Never have I seen so many "gimungus" electronic billboards, or every single space devoted to advertising or selling. Never have I seen so many huge loads on bikes or motor scooters, or people splayed out in the street taking an afternoon nap. Every block has at least one major construction project on it. It is sweltering here. I'm not a big sweater, but I have ended every day drenched.

Of course, the first thing I did was stroll along the famous Bund, lined by European architectural imperialism: the street, the commercial center of old Shanghai (Customs house, the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank - now the ubiquitous HSBC, etc)~ even a replica of Big Ben reminding the thousands in the street below 4 times an hour that the sun once never set on England. The HBSC has an astonishing domed mosaic in its lobby (it is still a working bank, amid all the glorious British neo-classical architecture) depicting the cities of its major branches: Calcutta, Hong King, New York, Paris, London, Shanghai, and one I'm forgetting. Unfortunately, photographs are not allowed.

Opposite the Bund is the very proletarian riverside promenade park, where once "Chinese and dogs were not allowed," though these two prohibitions appeared separately in the municipal code, not on a sign at the entrance, as legend has it. The Bund is just over the creek from our hotel, the funky historic Astor House which is trying to make the transition from a backpackers' hotel to 3-star tourist hotel, accompanied by often-comical ESL and bellboys in plaid a-line skirts which management apparently mistook for kilts.

Drenched, I found a secret little cafe tucked up in the rear of the second floor, guzzled one San Pelligrino in one gulp then tried to savor the second bottle while enjoying the coolness and the silence emanating from the courtyard below.

The next day, while waiting for my son Mateo to arrive, I headed over to the former French Concession to find the house, now museum, where the first Chinese Communist Party meeting was held. Of course, I first had to do the inaugural Garcia longer-than-it-looked-on-the=map-there-must-be-a-metro-around-the-next-corner death march for almost 90 minutes before finally jumping into a cab (cabs are cheap and plentiful).

At the site, I was the only foreigner in a sea of Chinese tourists, including masses of shrieking school kids wearing red neck kerchiefs. It was very interesting, and included a wax figure display of the 13 youths, including Mao, gathering excitedly around a table, setting out the vision and goals of the CPC. Fleeing the secret police who were trying to track them down, the revolutionaries held the final stage of their initial meeting on a junk in the river.

The museum also played homage to the "bourgeois revolutionaries," of the 19th and early 20th centuries who hadn't been able to succeed in over-throwing the imperialist oppressors because they didn't have the power of the proletariat behind them.

My next stop was a wonderful museum in a crown jewel urban renewal project, the Sichumen Open House. Many of you know of my interest in town houses. This museum reproduced a typical bourgeois town home, or sichumen, in 1920s Shanghai. It was an intriguing insight into how ordinary people lived and worked in pre-liberation Shanghai.

The top floor detailed the urban renewal process of the neighborhood~ saving the now decrepit architectural treasures of the sichumen while providing affordable housing and luxury housing and pedestrian-friendly commercial development in a neighborhood that had been going downhill for decades. The neighborhood is called "Xin Tiandi"-- heaven and earth. It's in the former French Concession, and where I would live if I ever end up in

My son Teo arrived from Beijing on the bullet train on Saturday night. Yes, he speaks Chinese: enough not only to navigate this amazing, overwhelming, and often wild city but also to joke with people and give directions to (Chinese) people who ask him. He is very disciplined and focused about learning Chinese~ does set lessons everyday on his mp3 player, though he mentioned this afternoon that he is "behind."

He has been to Shanghai a couple of times before, and I'd be literally lost without him.

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