Letter from China: Old Charms Thrive in the New Shanghai

Copyright The New York Times
By HOWARD W. FRENCH
Published: June 28, 2010
SHANGHAI — Despite what my watch said, the taxi ride in from the airport after a red-eye flight from Thailand had nothing of the bright, clear stillness I usually associate with dawn.
The sky, for one, hung leaden and low, and the sun, though risen, could not be detected through the curtain of haze. The driver said something about this being the traditional season of misty mornings and intermittent rain, or huang mei tian, but although I am no expert, it looked like standard-issue pollution to me.
Already at this hour, the highway into Shanghai was throbbing with traffic, steadily moving but growing thicker by the minute. As I nodded in and out of sleep, I suddenly realized that much of the roadway was unfamiliar. I’d been back and forth to this airport countless times, but I had been away for a year, and in Shanghai that’s plenty of time to give rise to doubts about the loss of familiar landmarks and the appearance of major expressways.
The pretext for much of Shanghai’s recent change, of course, is the hosting of the ongoing 2010 Expo, an event for which the city has spent untold billions. Most visibly, the money has gone toward the ambitious transformation of the city’s waterfront, where on both banks of the Huangpu River entire neighborhoods and industrial zones have been cleared and lavishly rebuilt. Shanghai has continued to expand and improve its transportation networks, opening new highways and interchanges and, recently, the 12th subway line in what is suddenly one of the world’s most impressive metro systems.
Few foreign visitors will perceive another ambitious push in this city’s makeover. One might call it the manners drive: sanding the rough edges from the behavior and mores of the city’s residents, like the stranger in a noodle shop who struck up a conversation the other day and whose second question, after asking my nationality, was how much money do I make?
Like the push to build new infrastructure, this upgrade effort began several years ago, but as the May opening date of the Expo drew near, it became the focus of an accelerating wave of public education campaigns aimed at topics like eradicating spitting, creating orderly pedestrians and, perhaps most touchingly, getting Shanghainese to abandon the wearing of pajamas in public.
During the hosting of the Expo, the city has gone to great lengths to be more hospitable to foreign visitors. Booths have been set up in many places where English-speaking volunteers pass out maps and give helpful directions to bewildered newcomers. I experienced the “one step back,” however, during a foray to an out-of-the-way neighborhood. I had opted for a ride to the desired subway stop on an (illegal) motorbike taxi, rather than the more expensive and ubiquitous automobile variety, and my young driver ignored my instructions and promptly got lost.
When he stopped to ask an older motorcycle-taxi driver for instructions, the other man said to him in Chinese, not suspecting I spoke the language, “I hope you’re charging him 30 yuan,” easily five times the normal price.
“Great idea,” I replied. “Better save it for your next customer.” He laughed, nonplussed. The lesson here, getting the locals to rethink “fleece the barbarian” hasn’t made it into the curriculum.
As I explored the city over the last few days, quirks like these gradually loomed more endearing than enervating, and there were many of them. With my eyes refreshed after a year’s absence, things began to jump out at me that I may have noticed before but never fully articulated.
Shanghai’s many impressive new roads and bridges and highways are hard to miss. But as I walked tremendous distances early in my re-immersion it slowly dawned on me that something else was lacking. In many neighborhoods, someone forgot to plan for that basic building block of livable cities, the sidewalk. In other areas, the sidewalks are taken over by parked cars, or dominated by commerce of every kind. Pedestrians, for their part, are forced onto the fringes of byways, where automobiles, motorcycles and bicycles seem to follow the law of the jungle and yield them no quarter. Under these circumstances, the familiar green traffic-light walk sign must be reinterpreted. It implies no right of way, and if it could speak would say something like, “Proceed at your own risk,” as vehicles of all kinds cut you off and zoom past.
Shanghai, like all of China, is scene to one of the world’s starkest class divides, but the chaotic street life blurs the lines.
High and low rub shoulders in the same generalized hurly-burly: the soaring apartment complexes, like my temporary abode, are surrounded and serviced by all manner of activity, from ubiquitous convenience stores and foot massage joints to Mr. Fixit stands and even neighborhood brothels. The city’s designers may have had their plans, but it is the deep streak of pragmatism or, better, expediency that runs through so much of life here that drives things.
Lest one is left with the impression of an overall lack of charm, there’s plenty of that, too. It comes in little glimpses snatched a dozen times a day, like the scene I saw walking home from dinner in the rain on the freeway — yes, the freeway — where a man pushed his electric scooter up an incline, followed a half-step by his presumed wife. Oblivious to the traffic, or to me as I overtook them, for encouragement she sang him classic melody. A few moments later, that little poem whizzed by.

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