Glitz and Gutters

Shanghai is energetic, manic, sometimes dirty and strange, but always loud and beautiful. There are parts of the city that are breathtakingly stunning and modern. From my room, I can see all the way to the Bund with the distinctive TV Tower. As Nancy Chen notes about Chinese cities in the 1990s, “opportunities seemed to lie just at the surface,” but I think that quote still applies (2001, Location 168). When I walk around the city, I can sense that feeling of excitement and opportunity. The Bund seems to epitomize Chinese modernity and sophistication, even as other parts of China (and the world) fall behind. In Shanghai, there is constant construction, growth, and market, so that the city seems like it is literally swelling with potential. I took this picture from my room one night as the sun set because I think it shows how beautiful the city can be. The second picture is supposed to be an artsy photo of the city alight and active in the middle of the night.

As Louisa Schein points out, cities like Shanghai are growing so urgently because they are symbols of modernity in the consumerist global market (2001, Kindle Location 2860). Schein says that cities like Shanghai are demonstrations of material potential, even though many residents might not be able to actually afford these desirable goods (2001, Kindle Location 2864). In fact, most of the city is about showing off glamorous consumerism and technology. The number of skyscrapers and metro lines increase every day, but other parts of China remain rural and impoverished. I’m actually really excited for our visit to rural China because I think I’ll be able to better understand the contrast between glittering Shanghai and the rest of China.

Although Shanghai is vivacious and futuristic, there are signs of the city’s incredibly rapid and relatively cheap industrialization. Buildings might be tall and urban, but also dirty and lacking maintenance. So many people have cars that the roads are packed and more dangerous. Smells from trash and sewage drift throughout the city because of infrastructure problems. Gutters overflow onto the sidewalk and road routinely. Construction on a new metro line begins within sight of another line. Shanghai heavily promotes its upscale Bund area, but to me, these development areas with street food, mom-and-pop shops, and hole in the wall restaurants are some of the most interesting parts. If the city were complete and polished, it would look just like another Western metropolis.

As Professor Pan Tianshu described in his class “Chinese Marketplace,” there is also an interesting discrepancy between living in a developed area and being “civilized.” Living in a metropolitan area does not necessary mean that one is cosmopolitan. Being cosmopolitan requires wealth, fashion, and certain manners. Professor Tianshu explained that during preparations for the World Expo in Shanghai, residents were actually chastised for not acting “civilized” enough. For example, invading someone’s personal space was not “civilized.” To really develop their “civilized” cosmopolitan reputation, Shanghai is working on both economy and culture.

I was really struck by the developed versus developing contrast when we visited a café called Central Perk this weekend. Central Perk is a tribute to the television show “Friends,” so I was practically shivering with excitement to visit. As we walked through the surrounding area, though, I was sure that we must have the wrong spot. The area was more impoverished, and it was a far-fetch from the usual glitzy tourist attractions. Babies were going to the bathroom in the street, and there were very old buildings all around us. I wasn’t expecting much from Central Perk at that moment, but the café turned out to be gorgeous and richly furnished. When I walked into the bathroom in the parking lot next door, the sinks were marble and the toilets were Western and very clean. Below are two pictures, one of the area and one of the cafe. I was very surprised and a little confused because of the seemingly contradictory settings. With just a few steps, it was like I had walked from one side of the city to another. Around every corner in Shanghai, I feel like I can find evidence of both the futuristic metropolis and the developing areas.