Ruminations On Shanghai

I’ve been to Shanghai every two to three years over the past 15, although the frequency lately seems to be increasing: last year for Chinese New Year and now this year for the Shanghai World’s Fair.

I travel there so often because Shanghai is where my wife comes from, and both her parents are alive to visit along with innumerable cousins and other relatives and friends. Her parents, who have received me warmly into their family and have become surrogate parents in a way since mine are long gone, are now becoming frail in their eighties. Both still work as doctors in high demand for consultation on difficult cases but their health is increasingly uncertain.

Street ladderShanghai has changed noticeably even to me over the 15 years of my acquaintance. The first couple of times we went back, the old Shanghai was strongly evident: people in pajamas or without shirts on the street in summer having meals in front of their small shops or apartments; hordes of bicycles swooping down the streets like swallows; the courtyards and alleys everywhere in various states of disrepair; the relative paucity of private vehicles and the chaos and disregard for traffic rules of any kind by taxis and small motorized transports; the wonderful variety of sizzling street food sometimes served by vendors on their haunches over low stoves on the sidewalk.

Shanghai today has become a modern city of skyscrapers, billboards and automobile traffic on the level of New York or London or Vancouver. One would not recognize it necessarily as being part of a “developing” country. It has amenities similar or more advanced than most places in the western world.

As only one example, there are the traffic signs coming into the downtown area of Shanghai that are computerized to light up and show traffic congestion in a simple schematic of main thoroughfares. One can see that up ahead certain red lit portions of roads are to be avoided.

Pink Dog EarsHuge areas of the city have been torn down and redeveloped. Many people, especially poorer residents, have been paid off one way or another and relocated outside of the main part of the city. Resistance was futile. China’s unique combination of capitalism, corruption and one-party state coercion allowed this redevelopment to proceed at a feverish pace.

As somebody who likes to take photographs and look for inspiration for paintings, I heartily disapprove of all this progress. I prefer the quaint and rundown as my subject matter. But as the Chinese I know point out, only Westerners would like to keep the old crumbling courtyards and other such reminders of a bygone Shanghai. The Chinese want to live in the 21st Century, or what they imagine it should be, with its traffic jams, pollution, cold urban sophistication and all.

Fruit VendorYet, if you know where to look you can still find many areas that hearken back to Shanghai before the most recent transformations. Courtyards and alleys with utilitarian bikes parked askew, low apartments with drying laundry thrust out perpendicularly on long poles, a shoe repairman’s iron equipment at an alley’s opening, where he takes on all comers. Although officially discouraged as not reflecting the modern Shanghai of the Party’s dreams, I even observed one fellow nonchalantly strolling down a busy city street in slippers and plaid pajamas, smoking languidly and walking his little dog on a leash. (Dogs are very popular in Shanghai these days, a trendy status symbol, and too often a hazard by what they leave behind.)

The last couple of years I understand a lot of the development was spurred by the construction of the site for the 2010 World’s Fair in Shanghai. The World’s Fair location is massive, on both sides of the broad Huangpu River that cuts through the city, and incorporates major pavilions from most of the countries of the world. The Chinese government has something to prove and spent billions on the Shanghai Expo, more than on the 2008 Beijing Olympics, on a site that covers over five square kilometers (about 2 square miles).

planet-shanghai-pajamas-1The World’s Fair began on May 1, and the following day my wife and I and her parents were lucky enough to attend as part of a special tour. At one point to get into the grounds, we were in long, long lines that snaked through what looked like white tubular cattle fencing. I endured some perfunctory airport-style security screening without having to remove my belt and shoes and at long last we were through.

No expense appeared to be spared with quite a few of the pavilions. There were many architectural marvels, including the British pavilion which looked like a giant squared-off hedgehog with each of the exterior’s 7.5 metre rods protuding like quills and said to act as fibre optic elements to illuminate the interior.

We toured the organically shaped Spanish pavilion, the French pavilion which gave pride of place in one interior courtyard to the contemporary art work of Chen Zhen, and the American pavilion.

Shanghai Expo SpainThe latter was a slightly strange series of three video presentations. To introduce the first one, a big guy who could have been in his off-hours a blond surfer dude rattled off jokes in perfect Mandarin, according to my wife, to the laughter and amusement of the Chinese hordes. The videos contained presentations from Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama welcoming all to the pavilion and continued through humorous displays of Americans trying to pronounce simple greetings in Mandarin to end with a piece on building community. Each of the three videos was viewed in a different place in the pavilion. All in the mode of typical propaganda, to apparently innocuous ends. And then one left the last viewing areaShanghai Girls into a vast hall with products being promoted by Dell and GE and Johnson & Johnson and the whole panoply of American corporate interests.

We saw the Canadian pavilion from the outside. It had wood on it, so we could be sure it was from Canada. We didn’t have time to go in, although as Canadians my wife and I felt derelict in our duty. But in the main Shanghai Expo pavilion, interestingly enough, there was a surround-the-room promotional video which contained excerpts contributed from several nations, including Canada.

In the Canadian segment, which the producers must have done tongue-in-cheek, we are shown a sunny snow-covered scene of what we’re told by subtitle is Edmonton, Alberta.  In an older suburban area of the city, we see a young couple don bizarrely fluffy fur hats, and believe it or not, leave their house to whistle for their dog team.

We watch as they triumphantly make their way over white fields and streets past snow-bound vehicles, mushing their dogs as the snow flies. Talk about stereotypes. One of our Chinese tour guides asked me if this was how Canadians usually travelled in our cities. I had to say no, and then further advised her that nobody wore those ridiculous hats either.



Notes on images:

All photos are mine except where noted.

From top down:

1) You still see a lot of people on the streets like this: workmen with carts or people balancing bicycles piled high with goods or scraps.

2) The middle class in Shanghai is dog crazy. This fellow and his pet were snapped at a street magazine kiosk.

3) Just outside of the city of Shanghai, a fruit vendor sells his wares by the road.

4) The height of pajama fashion: from Neatorama, a review of the book Planet Shanghai by Justin Guariglia.

5) The Spanish pavilion at the the Shanghai World’s Fair.

6) Shanghai girls, like girls everywhere.

Explore posts in the same categories: China, Culture, Travel

6 Comments on “Ruminations On Shanghai”

  1. Hi Fencer,
    I’ve been patiently waiting for you to come back. Thanks for the travelogue! I think it is such a privilege to visit a country where you have such a knowledgeable companion to guide you through; but now that you’ve been 15 times, I suppose you are quite able to get around yourself.
    At one time I lived in France since I took a self-granted sabbatical to go to Art School The first year, I saw many things, but I really didn’t understand well about what I was seeing until I came back for the second year and could speak the language somewhat, and I had friends who invited me and explained the system. I learned so much more about what was going on around me after that.
    I enjoy your photos, so I’ll come visiting again in hopes that you will post more of your travel photos.

  2. fencer Says:

    Hi lookingforbeauty,

    No I still don’t go exploring much by myself… my command of the language, either Mandarin or Shanghainese, is pretty minimal and my in-laws would get nervous if I’m roaming too far afield.

    But I do love to get out and see what I can find to photograph… I’ll post a few more from this time and some of the older photos before too long I think.

    Thanks for coming by!


  3. You should have told those people at the Expo that only the wealthiest Canadian industrialists and sports heros could afford such a large and well bred dog team.

  4. fencer Says:

    Hey Mr. Beer,

    That’s a good one… I really should have elaborated on the nature of our dog teams and who has the best Malamutes.


  5. 3fingersmcgurk Says:

    I checked out the link to Chen Zhen. He was new to me. Thanks. I’m not a big installation art guy, but that’s just me. I really don’t grok that raft thingy.

    I found this line from the article very interesting:

    “Additionally, Chen traveled to India, Africa, Eastern Europe and Texas where he encouraged homeless and poverty-stricken children to explore their inner creative voices.”

    Kind of a different message than the usual “stay in school kids”. Although lately it has been co-opted by commercial intersts, I think the graffiti craze is an example of kids trying to express their creative energies even in rough situations.


  6. fencer Says:

    Hi Rufe,

    Chen Zhen means a lot to me, partially for his art, partially because he was my wife’s beloved brother, and partially because I really liked him. Unfortunately he died much too young…

    In this link are examples of some of the artwork he did with poor kids in Brazil: And if you’re interested, check out the other three pages on that site…

    Thanks for dropping by!


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