Saturday, June 16, 2007

Shanghai: City of change

Shanghai isn’t a visitors city in the classic sense. No Forbidden City or Great Wall or Temple of Heaven here.

But if you want to see contemporary Chinese culture in action, to see China in transition, there’s no place more vibrant or telling than Shanghai.

Bicycles and motorscooters share the road with gleaming new Audis; occasionally you still see a bicycle-powered work cart hauling recyclables or plants or construction rebar.

A man barbecues from a basket on his bicycle; another grills pancake-like pastries on a flat griddle next to a stand where ducks are drying, part of the preparation before cooking. Laundry flutters from low-rise wooden row houses flanked by glassy towers, and you know these traditional areas can’t last long.

The rapid destruction and light-speed social shift are one of the most common themes in art seen in the warehouse district of Suzhou Creek, home to dozens of galleries. Overtly sexual messages are here, too – quite a change in a society that two decades ago judged public affection as a punishable crime. Some artwork even criticizes social policy. “The anxiety produced by consumerism,’’ decries a placard describing one artist’s work.

And such themes aren’t just in the most cutting-edge galleries. You can see them as well at the venerable Shanghai Art Museum and Shanghai MOCA.

Both are located in the Peoples Park, Shanghai’s distinctly Chinese version of Central Park, an island of green flanked by an endless forest of towers topped with domes, spires, industrial pyramids, even swirled roofs.

I spent the day wandering through these and a half-dozen other neighborhoods. Often English speakers would stop me: “Where are you from? America? It is a very beautiful country.’’ “Miami? Miami Vice!’’

I wound through the Dontai antiques market (there are few antiques anymore; most are now copies) and on to Yu Garden. This is Shanghai’s one bona fide tourist area – though the tourists are as likely to be other Chinese as foreigners. The district of traditional-style buildings rims the traditional-style Yu Garden itself, now dwarfed by the endless array of souvenir stalls (silk bags, silk pajamas, key rings with bright insects captured in plastic, Mahjong sets, chop sticks, Buddhas, purses …) And despite warnings in guide books, the prices here are actually cheaper than elsewhere in town, provided you haggle well.

Any Shanghai visit should end on The Bund, the historic district rimmed with French Art Deco and stately neo-Classic buildings dating from the early 1900s. A wide promenade flanks the river, looking toward the Jetsonesque district of Pudong. On a Saturday night, it seems as if all of China’s billions are here: Young couples (yes, canoodling), families with the beloved One Child, girls on a night out, guys snapping photos with their cell phones and loudly calling buddies. Many head out on a one-hour sightseeing cruise, $10 per ticket. Others just crowd the boardwalk. One fool climbs into a fountain and dashes to the top so friends can take a photo – quick, before he’s ousted by the security force that rolls along the boardwalk in a tiny Smartcar with flashing lights. A barge stops right in front of the crowd, flashing advertisements for Dior and Vogue magazine and Welcome to Shanghai.

Chairman Mao stands near by – or at least his likeness, imposing in his oversized bronze figure. Is he rolling in his grave, or smiling at the Great Leap Forward?



TOP: Old meets new: the Buddhist Jiang An temple is surrounded by towers.

Above center: Chen Yan of Shanghart, one of Shanghai's top galleries

Above: Chairman Mao's statue on the Bund


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