“It’s like a farmers’ market!” My mother yelled ecstatically as she sank into a quicksand－like crowd. Grabbing for her hand, I pulled her out of the baked goods section of Shanghai Foods and navigated away from the throng.
Shanghai Foods, the giant expo center of treats set a few hundred yards from where my mother and I stayed in the city, is set up much like a department store, but without room to try out the goods. Apart from mounds of ‘by the kilogram’ goodies, schools of ‘has been’ fish and items marked International Goods (an aside: if Chinese grocery stores were the main authority on the international community, one would think that the only foods available outside of China are coffee and chocolate. Amazingly, the world subsists), Shanghai Foods plays host to a bustling cafeteria set apart from the grocery foods. After perusing a selection of meat buns varying enough to rival Bubba Gump Shrimp Co., we found a dumpling restaurant in the cafeteria and I ordered my mother a plate of them. I am yet to become a connoisseur of Chinese food, but I figure that if the girls working at Pizza Hut came to eat lunch there openly, the dumplings must have been comparatively good. We sat with an ABC Chinese, finished our meal, and went to explore The Bund.
Foreign influence in China is best expressed by The Bund’s skyline. A fascinating stretch of embassies and economic edifices, The Bund follows alongside the RIVER as a symbol of international intellectual colonialism. Over the past few hundred years, foreigners have taken over Shanghai and then been ‘beaten at their own game.’ In an effort to take back their pride, the Shanghai government funded various projects allowing the Chinese to technologically advance further in fields created by foreigners, as with skyscrapers. In sincerely hope that the purpose of the skyline is to attract foreign capital to the city as it is prestigious in the public eye, rather than to simply create reason for pride—the Chinese might be winning at a foreign-created game, but they’re letting foreigners dictate the rules of the game by agreeing to play it. In my opinion, Shanghai is like a beautiful celebrity who’s gotten significant plastic surgery—she’s still pretty, but there’s something off and unnatural about her. How could China modernize without Westernizing? In China’s eyes, according to the books we’ve read, China modernizing is a means to soft power, which is a means to hard power. If China has what the international community wants, then it will command respect, and only then will it be able to dictate rules to a new game that plays by China’s rules. In the book What Does China Think?, the author sets up an analogy called ‘The Village of Zebras’ which further explains this style of thinking, whereby a rising power masques something new with something old and gradually replaces what’s old with what’s new as people get used to it. Although the analogy relates mainly to styles of economic development rather than urban and cultural development, it seems like it would be a good way to gain the respect of the international community. You have to play the game before you can rewrite it. ANYWAYS, my mother and I traveled along The Bund as tourists principally, appreciating rather than assessing the ‘authenticity’ of the view.
That night, we found dinner at Xintiandi, a renovated beauty of a shopping district made out of the dilapidated remains of sikumen houses. Rather than demolish the relics of the past, Shanghaiese contractors salvaged the sikumen and gave them new life. In an essay I wrote for class, I expressed how it was sad that the sikumen were only deemed worthwhile if they could be made utilitarian, but in a land where land itself is scarce, things really do need to have utility to remain.
The next day, we strapped on our fanny packs and set off on foot to find the Copy Market, Shanghai’s ‘secret’ five-story celebration of copyright infringement. The bazaar, hidden in a building marked ‘Korea Market,’ plays host to kiosk after kiosk of scarves emblazoned with Hermess, Yevs Sante Lawrent Type purses, and native Shanghaiese who, speaking broken English, drag you up all four floors to their hidden rooms of belts and then accost you for wasting their time and making them vulnerable to police and they need you, pretty lady, to survive (guilt tripping tactics times a million) when you tell them you’ll ‘come back later.’ After a billion hours, my mother and I came away with various scarves, bags, backpacks, belts, wallets, new Chinese vocab words (courtesy of one seller who, seeing that I was actually trying to learn her language, helped me learn obscure colors), and tougher skin—appealing to emotions is part of the transaction, and you can’t let that affect you if you want to get a good price. We finished the day with a stroll around Beijing and a trip to the Good Fragrance Restaurant, a ‘Florida Gothic’ style establishment reminiscent of The Twilight Zone. The food was awesome, a wedding was going on, and a bellboy watched me attempt to eat a crab for about an hour. I was definitely getting used to eating outside of the cafeteria.
Our last day in Shanghai, we took in a leisurely breakfast, took another walk (this time knowing the city well enough not to inadvertently walk into an apartment complex), visited The Gap and picked up PANTS because it’s COLD in Shanghai, and then decided that we ought to take in a bit of culture via a trip to an exposition center. The SUPEC, or 上海城市规划展示馆 would give anyone a reason to like Shanghai. Decorated with giant sculptures and accolades, the brick ode to cityscape expansion and renovation soars skywards from its post in 人民公园 (People’s Park), celebrating the most efficient urbanization process in all of history. As I wandered its multiple floors of pristine halls, I wondered if it is too celebratory. The lack of critical exhibitions, paired with unfailing praise of the city’s efforts, give it a commercial edge rather than a purely historical one, and so I am questioning of my sources as objectively historical. Regardless of the promotional nature of the place, Ever since reading the book The Concrete Dragon by Thomas Campanella, a UNC Professor, I’ve been skeptical of Shanghai’s modern resplendence. Campanella calls the SUPEC “a symbol of triumph over the past and its humiliations” in a “reclaim[ed] city” but the city’s new architecture continues to be built in foreign fashion albeit sinofied; a style that requires using Western technology and Western design to promote a desired image, because what is Western seems to represent what is prosperous (as Mark Leonard writes in What Does China Think?, ‘the cult of the United States of America’ ). Like I wrote earlier, by insisting on ‘doing the West one better,’ I believe that China is foregoing its own ways of doing things and letting the West dictate what the game is. When I walked into the third floor of the center to see the Gastone Biggi exhibit—an exhibition of an Italian modern artist whose work, while impressive, had nothing to do with Shanghai or urban planning– I not only felt the idea that having Western accents was a plus in China, but truly understood the commonly held sentiment that Shanghai could have been built anywhere—anyone can show an international artist’s work, anywhere. Apart from an obscure modern art exhibit and pro-business jargon, the expo center has a floor celebrating Maoist society, a 1:120 replica of Shanghai that takes up an entire floor and uses about as much electricity to light up as a small American town, a 30 minute highly-advanced (read: green screen) film detailing the glorious history of Shanghai (with foreign actors and English subtitles! I’m pretty sure they want foreigners to read only the really simple stuff discussing how Shanghai has become awesome, because the stuff I actually wanted to read about was the stuff that wasn’t translated—I wonder what they’re keeping from me, with my lack of knowledge!), and, MOST surprisingly, an interactive children’s center encouraging people to design their own cities. One thing I’ve noticed about China is that people aren’t encouraged to debate, or create; they’re encouraged to memorize and further existing concepts. In an attempt to stay ahead of the curve technologically, however, maybe the government is pushing people to experiment and innovate, even if only in the context of a simple children’s digital game.
That evening, we returned to Xintiandi, packed up our bags, and readied ourselves to return home— er, to Xiamen.
I haven’t been writing much as I’m getting ready for midterms and presentations as well as partying with giant Montenegrins and a sizable delegation of other Eastern Europeans. I’ll try to write more soon, though!