Jeff Yang’s Asian Pop Diary: A Tale of Two Cities: Shanghai

Jeff Yang – SF Gate

Thursday, March 24, 2005
Shanghai, China
Pudong International Airport is one of those structures that can only be described as “cavernous.” It’s a modernist warehouse of a building, roofed by a series of sweeping steel and glass arcs that, according to its architect, Frenchman Paul Andreu, are supposed to connote “wind and waves”; from the side, it has a profile reminiscent of a loaf of bread someone accidentally placed at the bottom of a heavy grocery bag. Nonetheless, it’s an impressive piece of architecture, and the centerpiece of Shanghai’s
Pudong New Area. It’s also a symbol of another essential trait in contemporary Shanghainese culture: the need for speed.
Modern Shanghai, “the New Shanghai,” is all about velocity. Even for a New Yorker, Shanghai seems overcaffeinated. It’s a city on a deadline — a city with places to go, things to see and money to make, and everything to be done immediately, if not sooner. There’s construction in all directions,
spanning the horizon. Stand still too long, and they’ll build a skyscraper around you. Not that it’s possible to stand still here; pedestrians move atthe pace of land-bound meteors, ricocheting off obstacles and one another, while on the streets, scooters zip heedlessly through swarms of
bicycles that flow around and between the automotive traffic, which alternates erratically between stalled and way too fast.
Not everyone navigates this gantlet successfully. Although China possesses just 1.9 percent of the world’s cars and trucks, its drivers get into 15 percent of the world’s traffic accidents, leading to the deaths of more than 100,000 people in 2003 alone. In Shanghai, the rules of the road are
those of the jungle. Time Asia quotes Fang Shou’en, director of China’s National Traffic Accident Prevention Committee, as saying, “There is no concept of right-of-way — it is like survival of the fittest,” and notes how, in China, driving instructors tell their students not to use their turn signals, for fear that other drivers will recklessly accelerate to avoid getting cut off.
Chinese officials once boasted that Pudong International Airport was completed in record time, moving from initial design in fall 1996 to ribbon-cutting in October 1999. The deadline was not arbitrary; it coincided with the 50th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China. The
unveiling of edifices throughout the nation had been timed to this demicentennial commemorative, and construction units were directed to meet that deadline by any means necessary.
In May of last year, however, after the roof of Paris’ Andreu-designed Charles de Gaulle Airport collapsed, killing five people (two of them Chinese), these same officials hastily backpedaled, assuring everyone that the haste in Pudong’s development did not come at the expense of quality, that the structure was “safe and scientifically reasonable” and that, anyway, the actual building of the airport was handled by Chinese — only the “initial sketches” had been laid out by the French.
Two Cities, Separate and Unequal
Of course, it’s hard to imagine too many people finding comfort in the airport’s 100 percent Chinese construction, given that the worker bees who toiled to build it were, like nearly all laborers in Shanghai’s dirtiest and sweatiest trades, migrant laborers from China’s deep rural countryside

untrained, overworked and depressingly underpaid.
The Chinese media calls them the “floating population,” former farmers who hail from rural provinces such as Henan and Anhui, where the average household subsists on annual wages of less than 4,000 yuan, or approximately $480 per year. (By way of contrast, this also happens to be the price
that gray-market Sony PlayStation Portables fetch in some of Shanghai’s sketchier electronics boutiques.) Given the choice between desperate poverty in their hometowns and unpleasant and dangerous — but better-paying — jobs in the Big City, ex-farmers have gravitated toward Shanghai en masse. They now make up something like one-third of Shanghai’s 13.3 million residents,
creating a sort of ghost city that sustains the metropolis’s go-go lifestyle but is rarely acknowledged by its “official” residents.
You see them everywhere. Or sort of see them, “Sixth Sense”-like, out of the corner of your eye. In the jazzy district of Xin Tian Di, where a neighborhood of crabbed and dilapidated tenements has been renovated into sleek boutiques and blindingly luxe restaurant/lounges, focus your eyes
away from the suits and Prada-toting teens and you’ll observe young men and women in nondescript uniforms sweeping trash away almost as quickly as it is carelessly dropped. On the spectacular Bund, the old “bankers row” still dominated by the imposing architecture of Shanghai’s Foreign Concession
era, the pay-per-poo bathrooms are staffed by a half-dozen or so migrant
workers talking quietly in their home dialects until addressed by a client in Mandarin (putonghua, the common tongue).
And at the towering apartment building under construction nearby, whose luxury-housing units will eventually cost $300,000 apiece, all the laborers on site are migrants from China’s outlands, toiling under a system with minimal workplace regulations and no job security, where wages are
doled out in a lump sum just once a year. Or not, if an employer is sufficiently corrupt: it is estimated that China’s migrant laborers are owed a staggering $46 billion in unpaid back wages.
The sad thing is that these phantom workers have little choice if they wish to survive — and little voice to change their situation — due to a simple yet damning bureaucratic edict enacted in the years following the Communist Revolution. The provision established a household registration system,
known as hukou, which strictly ties citizens to their places of birth. Farmers who migrate to urban centers still carry rural hukou documents, making them ineligible for most social services and exposing them to deportation based on spurious claims — for instance, false complaints by former
employers. And yet they come, drawn by the same scent of opportunity that has hovered over Shanghai throughout its colorful history, luring the shady and the innocent, the wealthy and the poor alike. As an old Chinese adage put it, Shanghai is like “the emperor’s ugly daughter — she never has to worry about suitors.” But now, a century after Shanghai first sizzled, the emperor’s daughter has new clothes — for some, designer prêt-a-porter; for others, a street sweeper’s jumpsuit.
Life between the Cracks
On the day before we are to leave Shanghai, we visit the remains of the Old City, a slice of authentic history on the far side of the tourist boulevard known as “Shanghai Old Street,” where a glossy, embalmed wedge of the past is preserved, Disney style, for tourist consumption. In the area known
as Lao Xi Men (“Old West Gate”), some of Shanghai’s oldest buildings still stand — not because of picturesque preservation efforts, but because, despite their decay and patina of age (or, perhaps, because of it), people continue to live in them. The low rents of the cramped and crumbling
structures in the Lao Xi Men neighborhood have served as a magnet for migrant workers and their families; an apartment here runs as little as 300 yuan (about $36) a month.
Our destination is a building just beyond the Fuyou Lu bric-a-brac market, where proprietors of the cluttered stalls tout their wares as genuine antiques (made fresh that morning!). A young woman peeks her head out of a narrow doorway, and a smile lights up her face as she recognizes our
host, Chinese-American entrepreneur John Lau. The woman calls up to a dark loft, just visible through the door, and a pretty 4-year-old girl scampers down a creaky set of stairs to greet us.
This is Ting Ting, the woman’s niece; a year ago, Lau photographed her playing in Fuyou Lu by herself, and then realized that the reason she was doing so was that, as a migrant from rural Anhui, she was ineligible to attend a subsidized preschool. On his next trip, he hunted her family
down and offered to pay for her education. This is his first visit to see Ting
Ting since she began attending school.
We follow a delighted Ting Ting to her home, not far from the market, and meet her parents, dressed in their best outfits to greet the special visitors from America; her father is wearing a tie and jacket that probably see use only at weddings and funerals. Ting’s family lives in a single-room apartment, sleeping together in one bed that dominates the cubicle-size space. There is barely room to stand between the bed and the only other major piece of furniture, a chest of drawers, on which sit a gas plate, a TV and a bulky industrial meat slicer. The gas plate is the family’s kitchen; the TV, their sole luxury. My putonghua is not yet good enough to ask about the meat slicer.
The luxury they couldn’t afford — yet — was sending Ting to preschool; the cost for nonresidents, more than 400 yuan per month (about $48), would have been significantly more than the family’s rent. John’s generosity has given their daughter, their only allotted child, a place in a clean,
attractive school nearby that is full of roly-poly kids wearing grow-into outfits several sizes too big for them. She screams happily as she sees her friends, and shows off her guests to the teachers, who seem embarrassed by the unexpected attention, and ask us politely to leave so as not to
distract the classes in session.
On our way back, I ask one of Lau’s assistants about the meat slicer, and she translates the question for Ting Ting’s parents. The meat slicer is the family’s hope for the future. They’d saved up to purchase this piece of industrial equipment with the goal of eventually opening a meat stand
of their own in the sprawling unregistered “wet market” that winds through
the serpentine alleys of the neighborhood. For now, Ting’s parents work at
a friend’s seafood stall, but they save, and they send money back to
their relatives in Anhui, and they dream.
But they’re on a deadline, too: all over Shanghai, neighborhoods just like this one are being dismantled; more than 15 million square feet of aging yet affordable housing has fallen to the wrecking ball during the past four years alone. Indeed, if you look just above the low, flat roofs, you
can see cranes and scaffolding in the near distance, as the city’s inexorable drive to renovate and rebuild eats away at this community.
Built for Speed
On the drive back to the airport, I stare at the oddly geometrical office towers of the New Area and think about the reasons behind Shanghai’s impatience to bolt into the future. Part of it is pride: Shanghai was once the Paris of the East, the Pearl of the Orient, and the residents here
are delighted that it has regained the effervescent glamour of a world city. Part of it is practicality: the Shanghainese are commonly stereotyped as a business-minded people (OK, that’s a euphemism), and there’s more money pouring into the city now than ever before, spilling from the purses of
tourists in the shops on Nanjing Road, sloshing from the pockets of hungry overseas investors and flooding in relentless waves from the accounts of “cousins” from Taiwan. Despite the strained relations between that island and the mainland, there are so many Taiwanese in Shanghai — up to
600,000, by some counts — that some wags have taken to calling Shanghai “Taiwan’s fifth-largest city.”
But the biggest reason behind Shanghai’s race toward tomorrow is the fact that all dreams, big and small, have an expiration date. Let the tourists and investors and foreign press have their irrational exuberance; most Shanghainese seem candidly aware that the next disaster, the next
political upheaval, a global economic downturn, any of these could send the collective dreams of this city tumbling to the ground. It has happened here before. It will happen again — someday. If they have the pedal to the metal, it’s because they want to go as far as they can before the wheels fall off
the truck.
As we board our flight, I think of 4-year-old Ting Ting, the years of growing up that lie ahead of her, and feel a sudden empathy for Shanghai’s speed fixation. I hear voices in my head saying, “Hurry up and learn, Ting Ting. Hurry up and graduate. Because now — now your parents may have something bigger to place their hopes on than a secondhand meat slicer.”
And so we head off to our final destination in Asia — Hong Kong,
Shanghai’s mismatched twin.
Jeff Yang is author of “Once Upon a Time in China: A Guide to the
Cinemas
of Hong Kong, Taiwan and Mainland China” (Atria Books) and co-author of
“I
Am Jackie Chan: My Life in Action” (Ballantine) and “Eastern Standard
Time”
(Mariner/Houghton Mifflin). He lives in New York City.
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