Several years ago, irritated by the glowing infrastructure-and-skyscraper stories brought home by visitors to Shanghai, I had written an article entitled “Looking for Shanghai’s soul” [November 2004]. Well, I spent a few days there recently and I’m here to report that Shanghai’s soul is alive and well in the
· thousands of people you encounter on the streets every day, buzzing about their work, laughing and joking and enjoying themselves;
· the taxi driver, who, when hearing (translated by a friend) that we were Indu (Indian), burst into Awaara over and over again till we got off at our destination;
· long queues of (mostly) Chinese tourists waiting in the sun to enter the Shanghai museum, and the amazing sensitivity of the museum management who provided umbrellas to everyone to use till they got to the shaded entrance;
· “all you can eat AND all you can drink” Japanese restaurant we went to, packed to the rafters, of course;
· laughing and laughing and laughing bargaining everywhere — my prize success was knocking down one vendor from 980 rmb to 150;
· hundreds of cool, elegant restaurants and bars, not just along the Bund, not just in the supremely elegant hotels (hi Danny), but tucked away behind crowded and unassuming main roads — again, mostly packed to the gills;
· extraordinarily beautiful architecture — French, English colonial, Chinese, and, of course, contemporary;
· buzzing contemporary art scene — new galleries popping up, high-end museum-type galleries, the Museum of Contemporary Art — and one stylish grand dame who is a myth in her own lifetime;
· international business people, who are there to make a bundle — of course — but who love Shanghai more than their home towns of San Francisco, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, Taipei, and, dare I say it, Bombay;
· service people who don’t look for a tip;
· and, finally, [the best for last] men walking around without their shirts on (it was very hot and muggy when we were there).
What a city! On the last day, I blurted out, “It’s better than New York!”
And as I commiserated with myself over that gaffe, I realised that the truth is that New York, exciting as it is, has, over the years, acquired the patina of an older European city — it’s slick, it’s got a lot of places to go and things to do, it’s exciting, but it’s losing its edginess. There are fewer and fewer neighbourhoods where you would get mugged — not that that’s a good thing — less and less variation between different parts of town, and, with real estate prices driving everything, less and less stylistic and, dare I say it, cultural, variation between New Yorkers.
Of course, not speaking Mandarin, my feel for Shanghai was very superficial and it’s possible — indeed, likely — that the edginess and excitement I felt was simply because it was all new.
But there’s no doubt that it’s a great city. And, make no mistake, the Chinese miracle — granted I only went to Shanghai — is real.
Like a lot of other analysts and observers, I had felt that the Chinese economy is poised for a post-Olympic slowdown, which would impact commodity prices and world growth quite severely. And, while this is still possible — indeed, likely — I now believe that the Chinese will come out of it stronger than before and stronger even than BRICs or even more optimistic forecasters.
In the words of another amazing woman I met (this one from Malaysia), “Communism is good. The government speaks with one voice, and things get done. What it says changes from time to time, as circumstances and citizens’ needs change.”
But what about human rights, censorship and so on?
Well, I must say, people — at least in Shanghai — seem to be quite happy. And I remember reading a report about a global survey by Pew, which showed that of all the countries in the world, the Chinese were the happiest (by an astounding margin) with their government. Well, it certainly appears to be delivering the goods.
And, returning to my Malaysian dragon lady, “What do they know about freedom? In Asia, we are freer than anywhere else. As women, for instance, we don’t have to burn our bras — we know who we are, we run the family, we manage businesses, we control things. The first female political leader in the world was …where?”
And, you know, she’s right — at least about freedom. The art queen I met said the same thing in a different context. She said that India, China and Iran are the oldest civilisations in the world, but for the last 200 years (or so), we have prostituted (my word) our cultural energy aping the West, a culture that is, no doubt, rich in many ways, but also carries some horrifying demon seeds, which result, for instance, in every so often someone bursting into a schoolroom and killing dozens of children — for no reason. That’s the unacceptable side of Western — well, American — culture.
So, while I’m not sure if I agree wholeheartedly with the “communism is good” view, the energy I tasted in Shanghai felt strongly like the world is on the cusp of a new Enlightenment, this one driven from the East.
In the words of the sage of somewhere or another, “Aa jaon maidan mein!”