I can’t really give a first impression of Shanghai. Not because of things mentioned in the previous post, but because of the fact that many ambivalent and wildly contrasting emotions hit me when I finally ventured into this urban maze housing over 25 million souls. I can’t really make too much sense of what befell me. It wasn’t my first time in Asia, so it did not all come as too much of a cuture shock. Nor was this my first ‘Chinese’ stop. I had been to Macau, to Hong Kong… Though never the actual ‘mainland’, as it is called in Asia. And Taiwan is a difficult one to categorize, so let’s not get into that. So it didn’t seem completely unfamiliar. What I felt was a combination of extreme fatigue as a result of not having slept for almost 2 days and the 20 kilo’s of luggage I was carrying in 35+ degrees celcius weather. Still, my mind was present enough to notice the surroundings and without pause meticulously analyze it while trying to get myself and my belongings to my abode for the coming weeks.
My exit out of the underground and entry to the above ground did surprise me nonetheless. I knew China was the fastest growing nation on Earth and was developing at an unseen pace. To actually see how far it has come from being a giant Maoist commune to the main artery of the world’s market, that’s a whole other thing. I only have history books with grey pictures to compare it to though. Yet I can strangely enough read the awareness of the speed of change in the people’s faces. They’re conscious of the fact that their country has seen a tremendous transformation. Most of them lived it. They’ve seen their country go from the Cultural Revolution to the digital revolution. There is no future perspective beyond even and ever more growth. The ideal is very much Xi Jinping’s “Chinese dream”, which is more a nationalist aspiration than an individualist pursuit. Growth, the new sacred. To get it is to be favoured by the market forces, by that invisible force/hand. To have it is to give people a sense of purpose, of peace of mind, of being even. The feeling that things are collectively alright and therefore oneself can be alright too if one wills it, because the favorable conditions are there.
And growth is very physically visible here. High rise buildings are the norm. Wide lanes channeling avalanches of traffic cut through them, these blocks which shelter everything from families to computer stores, restaurants and massage parlours. A street corner is a tiny mall and after you’ve done your groceries, you could get a haircut and perhaps get a copy of your keys after looking fly again. In a sense it is very much like how one imagines a medieval European city to be, before corporations put small shops out of business there. Here they manage to coexist, the giant franchises and these merchants who sleep, eat and work in that little niche of a dusty street. No such thing as monotony in a Chinese city. Every street I walked was teeming with life. It’s not so much because of the weather, even in winter the people are out and about.
It would be silly to call Shanghai “more grand” than Hong Kong, my first ever entry point into Asia, as it has a population three times the size of it. Also, I couldn’t help but think again about that Pearl River metropolis when I saw the distinct Chinese characteristics. Yet there was something else that struck me that first day: it looked more colonial than Hong Kong. That was a peculiarity I’d learn over the course of two weeks being in this city. And it might help explain why this city was literally chosen to be China’s Alexandria.