Shanghaied Into Modernity


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The ruins of Shanghai always come as a surprise in a city so defiantly modern. Communist party officials and real estate speculators who power much of China’s economic boom have sentenced to death almost every old house and district; demolished low-rise houses lie exposed in the downtown district, next to gated American-style luxury condominiums with names such as ‘Rich Gate’, the wreckage surreally reflected in the glass facades of tall office buildings. In Dongjiadu, Shanghai’s oldest quarter, where I went walking one evening in the spring of 2005, bulldozers were expected within the fortnight; and the old Chinese women squatting silently in the cramped alleys seemed helpless before them. The storm of progress, whose devastation Walter Benjamin saw in early twentieth-century Europe, is now blowing through China, propelling the angel of history into the future even as a pile of debris grows at his feet.

But you can’t get too sentimental about a place like Shanghai, which was built in the nineteenth century by something as unsentimental as the opium trade: the poppies harvested in India and then imported into China by foreign and comprador businessmen and soldiers.

A Great Clamour Pankaj Mishra Penguin 352 pp; Rs 499
A Great Clamour | Pankaj Mishra Penguin
352 pp; Rs 499

To be an Indian in Shanghai is to know a sensation of familiarity, if tinged with unease. It is also to be inevitably reminded of Bombay, the city most complicit with Shanghai in nineteenth-century inequity. Both port cities began to flourish after the British bullied China into opening up its markets to India-grown opium. The political and economic networks of British imperialism created a native class of comprador traders in the two cities, attracted to them a cosmopolitan cast of businessmen and adventurers, and set them apart from their vast, steadily impoverished hinterlands. Jews from Baghdad, such as the Sassoons, who opened the city’s famous Cathay Hotel (renamed the Peace Hotel in 1956), and the Kadoories, founders of the Hong Kong-based Peninsula Hotels, as well as Sikhs from India, who worked as policemen in the city’s exclusive International Settlement. The Japanese built up the city’s industrial infrastructure; they were followed by other foreign businessmen. Moneymaking took precedence over political and racial hierarchies and made the city one of the freest in the world.

Fleeing the Russian Revolution across Siberia, thousands of White Russians eventually settled in Shanghai. Turned away almost everywhere in the world, Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany found a hospitable home in the city between 1938 and 1941 — Ehud Olmert, the former Israeli prime minister, was born to a family of Chinese Jews. In the 1920s and 1930s, when one of its currencies was Mexican (due to old trading links with the Philippines), its policemen Sikh, and its prostitutes Russian, Shanghai was one of the great global cities in the world — even more so than London or New York. These years before World War II were a time of celebration. In the Chinese quarter of the city, mafia dons may have been fighting turf wars and the nationalists, led by Chiang Kai-shek, conducting brutal purges of communists. But little of this violence and chaos touched the International Settlement. Jazz bands played foxtrots and jitterbugs at the Tudor-style bar in the Cathay Hotel (where Noël Coward wrote Private Lives). Even the Japanese invasion of China, which began in the early 1930s, didn’t break the mood in the International Settlement. (The Japanese moved to intern Europeans and Americans in the city only after their attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941.)

During one of my early visits to Shanghai I often found myself gazing upon the Bund from a stylish new hotel in the Pudong. The architecture before me was more eclectic than that in colonial Bombay. It was also more pompous. But then the British abroad were always prone to self-aggrandizement in stone and their European rivals, trying hard to keep up, conjured even greater fantasies of grandeur.

The imposing solidity was once meant to awe the natives into obsequiousness. But things had changed dramatically in the last half-century. The natives now not only ‘swarmed,’ as the European traveller might have said, in the buildings on the Bund, they had also erected their own grand monuments on the once-desolate mudflats of the Pudong. Still, as in Bombay, it was hard to appreciate the architecture, colonial as well as post-colonial, for its own sake. I couldn’t rid myself of the feeling that what I saw was a façade and that behind it lay another country and a history that still shaped, in significant ways, the present.

In 1921, Gandhi claimed that Bombay’s big buildings hid ‘squalid poverty and dirt’. He was referring to the dubious sources of the city’s wealth. But it wasn’t just the trade in contraband goods but a kind of institutionalized brutality and callousness that underpinned daily life in both cities. As Shanghai’s great chronicler Lynn Pann describes it, in 1935 alone, the municipal corporation in Shanghai collected more than 5000 corpses of poor people from the pavements of the International Settlement.

The British claim to represent civilized Western values in India somewhat limited the potential for exploitation in Bombay and the deaths by starvation. But no such commitment to civilization was deemed necessary in Shanghai, where modern capitalism assumed its most rapacious forms, and where an axis of gangsters, politicians, and foreign businessmen effectively ruled the city until the communist takeover in 1949. Bombay had its sadistic police officers but there were more of them in Shanghai, where Sikh policemen imported from India were always ready to fire upon unruly Chinese.

Unrestrained greed and brutality largely defined the foreign presence in Shanghai. But those decades of semi-colonial occupation, when Shanghai came to be known as ‘the Whore of Asia’, glow with an old-fashioned glamour in such films as Zhang Yimou’s Shanghai Triad (1995), Chen Kaige’s Temptress Moon (1996) and Merchant-Ivory’s The White Countess (2005). And it is possible for expatriates today to retreat entirely from the flashy present into the sepia-tinted Shanghai of the pre-communist era — in the style commemorated by the designers of Shanghai Tang, probably Asia’s most famous fashion brand. At the old China Hand Reading Room, a bookshop-café on one of the elegantly shaded streets in the French Concession, coffee addicts linger late into the night amid the Ming-dynasty-style decor. Until recently, a jazz band played in the Peace Hotel’s Tudor bar with ageing Chinese saxophonists blowing out ‘These Foolish Things’. Borscht soup, the culinary legacy of the White Russians, can still be found on Shanghai menus.

The truly destitute are invisible in Shanghai, though you can easily spot the visitors from the impoverished countryside in their faded blue Mao jackets and dusty shoes gazing awestruck at the super-malls on Nanjing Lu and the luridly throbbing neon lights of Pudong, the ultra-modern extension of Shanghai, which make the ‘peaceful rise’ of China appear, apart from everything else, an occasion for lovers of kitsch. One day on the Bund I found a beggar — the only one I saw in several walks around the city — and he was so melodramatically seedy that I half-wondered if he had been put there by the tourist board as a reminder of the city’s sordid imperial past.

Sitting in the lobby of my hotel in one of the kitsch towers of Pudong, the famous Shanghai novelist Wang Anyi said, ‘There is no culture here!’ But culture doesn’t seem required yet in this sleek new part of the city which, built in less than a decade on the once desolate mudflats across the river from the Bund, is designed to project the wealth and power of globalizing China.

Skyscrapers of a postmodern snootiness dwarf the Bund’s pseudo-colonial domes and clock towers, which were once a reassuring sight to the taipan or straw-hatted tourist arriving from Europe. Gleaming new industrial parks — with landscaped gardens to soften the harshness of working conditions — sprawl across the suburbs. After what seems to have been a brief communist interlude, Shanghai has regained its role as the engine of the Chinese economy and the premier Asian city of capitalism.

The fruits of China’s export-driven economy are only partly apparent to most Chinese. More than 150 million Chinese still survive on a dollar a day; about 200 million of the rural population is crowding many of the world’s most polluted cities in search of livelihood; and millions of Chinese participate in the astonishing tens of thousands of protests recorded each year. But among the vast showrooms of Armani and Ferrari, where a new elite works hard to prove that, as Deng famously declared, ‘to get rich is glorious’, the China where local party officials impose arbitrary fees and taxes on taxes, and where public health and primary education systems deteriorate due to lack of state investment, seems remote.

Business and management books and biographies of American CEOs dominate the massive bookshops on Fujian Road, where in the 1920s and 1930s many Chinese intellectuals read Marx and Lenin and dreamed of revolution. BlackBerried American and European businessmen crowd hotel lobbies and expatriate cafés and bars — slicker versions of the old taipans, they can still be heard complaining of high local wages and the shortage of skilled labour. Nightclubs once again heave with griffins, or single young white men, often escorted by more than one Chinese woman. And demand for amahs dominates the classified pages of local newspapers.

After the communist takeover in 1949, the Paris of the East sank into drabness and austerity, and it was not until China’s economic reforms, which began in the early 1980s, that the expats returned. The more liberal economic and social climate encouraged thousands of Australians, Americans, and Europeans to move to Shanghai, following a huge influx of Taiwanese. In the late 1980s, Shanghai had yet to emerge from decades of communism and still struck foreigners as an alien city. Many early expatriates didn’t venture out much, living or socializing at the Portman Hotel on Nanjing Road, the first high-end hotel in Shanghai, and working at the adjacent Shanghai Centre. In the mid 1990s, they began to spread across the city. Shanghai now attracts some of the best talents from the large Chinese diaspora spread across Southeast Asia. The new bars and restaurants on the Bund are still obliged by local authorities to fly the Chinese flag. But even the bright red cloth emblazoned with stars seems to add to the general impression of capitalist gaiety.

The old historic heart of the city has been razed to meet the ramifying needs and desires of this new elite. Everywhere in the city luxury villas have sprung up to accommodate expatriate businessmen, senior Communist Party officials, and nouveau riche Chinese. Shortly after I left Shanghai I read that the central government in Beijing, presumably acting on its own report that up to 90 per cent of land acquisition in the cities was illegal, had banned the allocation of land for these villas. But many of them already stand, often alongside demolished housing for the poor, and in their bewilderingly mixed facades — American colonial-style decking, neoclassical columns, baroque plasterwork, Tudor beams — they symbolize a city under fresh occupation by the transnational elite.



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