Monday, February 09, 2004

I'm ashamed to admit this is the first post for the New Year. We had a great trip to Shanghai a few weeks back. This is what I've written:

There’s an old Chinese proverb that goes ‘A journey of a thousand miles must begin with a single step." These days however, a trip to China requires not just a single step but also a giant leap of faith.

Our trip to Shanghai was timed to coincide with the Chinese Lunar New Year (or Solnal as it’s called here in Korea). As it’s a time of year when Koreans traditionally go to visit their families and most of the country goes on the move back to their hometowns, we’ve found that it’s best just to get out of the country and avoid the pandemonium. After a fantastic trip to Beijing last fall for the Chuseok holiday, we had once again our minds on returning to China – and this time Shanghai fell into our sights.

Shanghai is a fascinating city, a city filled with modern contradictions grappling with history. It’s New China, where an imperial past wrestles with a communist present and a capitalist future. It’s a fusion of old and new and a bold look at what’s to come.

It’s also the largest city in China, home to just over 12 million people – though, as we were constantly reminded on our trip: Shanghai is not China, it’s Shanghai. Gateway to the mighty Yangtze River, Shanghai has a tragic and turbulent past - a sad legacy of exploitation that in many ways it may be doomed to repeat.

Up until the mid-1800s, Shanghai was little more than a small fishing town (in fact the name Shanghai just means 'on the sea' in Chinese). Then, overnight, everything changed.

Sensing a lucrative new market in China, the British East India Company began shipping thousands of tons of Indian-grown opium into China in return for tea. Much of this trade naturally went through large ports like Shanghai.

Opium parlors proliferated throughout China – creating, in effect, a nation of drug addicts. Eventually, war broke out when, in November 1839, in an effort to deal with the problem, Chinese authorities sealed their ports and Chinese junks attempted to prevent the English merchant vessels from trading in opium. The Brits, in true Imperial style, retaliated by sending in its fleet of warships and smashing the Chinese blockade. No match for the technological superiority of the British forces and after suffering a handful of humiliating defeats, the Chinese were eventually forced to agree to a shameful surrender under the Treaty of Nanking.

The treaty gave the British possession of five open ports, the most significant being Shanghai. With open ports in hand, the opium trade resumed and more than doubled in the three decades following the signing of the treaty. Shanghai once again became a synonymous with vice, which manifested itself in countless opium dens, gambling joints and brothels throughout the city.

With the Chinese humbled, and like sharks honing in on an injured fish, the other colonial powers moved in. The French were next (in 1847), followed in quick succession by the Americans and the Italians. Everyone wanted a piece of the action.

So, through the first few decades of the 20th Century, the world landed on Shanghai’s doorstep. The city was parceled up into districts, and each would subsequently take on the distinctive character of its Imperial master. Magnificent, soaring marble edifices were constructed along the riverfront as the bankers and financiers moved in, making Shanghai the most important commercial centre in the Orient. The French Concession took Old World architecture and created leafy boulevards and cafes that wouldn’t be out of place in any European capital.

All seemed perfect. For a while anyway…

Our flight from Pusan to Shanghai that morning was stressful. The more I fly these days the more I realize how much I dislike the experience, especially when traveling in Asia. I don’t know why, but I get very nervous stepping onto one of these flying rickshaws and I feel an equally huge sense of relief once I get off.

We ventured off the plane and into Shanghai’s sparkling new Pudong International Airport and the first thing we saw were the now familiar SARS checkpoints– it seems like wherever you travel in Asia these days you’re prodded, poked, scanned, monitored and measured.

We had planned to take the brand new maglev (magnetic levitation) train in from the airport, but due to the New Year holiday it had shut down early. We had to content ourselves with a regular old bus which poked along the highway until we reached a suburban metro station and we could jump on the metro line.

We emerged out onto Nanjing Road, Shanghai’s famous pedestrian shopping street. Being that it was the middle of winter, we had been prepared for the cold weather but we weren’t prepared for just how cold it really was. Arctic winds whipped through the narrow streets and stirred up miniature cyclones in the intersections. It was so cold that on our walk to our hostel, we noticed that, along with their drying laundry, people had even hung out their meat on their clotheslines.

We walked past graphic pictures of a murder, posted near to the day’s headlines for all to read. We ran into some friends who had been assaulted by men flinging monkeys at them (I guess because 2004 is the year of the Monkey). For the rest of our 5-day stay, I tried diligently to find the men with monkeys but to no avail, I guess it was a one-time-only event.

That afternoon, after checking into our hostel, John and I set off to wander the streets of Shanghai. As it was New Year’s Eve, most of the shops had closed down, so we were just trying to get our bearings in an unfamiliar city. As we walked the shops shuttered their windows and we began to hear explosive echoes ringing through the streets.

I’m not really surprised that the Chinese, given they did invent gunpowder, would have a serious penchant for fireworks. But truly nothing would prepare for what was to come that evening.

Shopkeepers, in an awesome display of one-upmanship, would unroll a string of firecrackers into the street. When I say string, these rolls were a good 20 to 25 feet long. Oblivious to traffic and even passing pedestrians, they would light these things off and a concussive series of blasts would ring out across the street sending people scurrying for cover in open doorways.

Each tried to outdo the other. Then they brought out enormous mortar shells that would launch 50 or 60 feet into the air before detonating in a massive blast and showering the street with confetti. Smoke hung still and stung our eyes and the acrid stench of gunpowder filled the air.

This madness would continue for the rest of the evening. Everywhere you walked you heard the dull roar of explosives. It was as if we were walking in the streets of Beirut or Kabul.

That night, as we sat in our hostel relaxing, chaos erupted on the streets below. It was 11:30pm – only half an hour to go until midnight. It was now the hostel owners’ turn to duel with each other.

The street in front of our hostel became a sea of flame, and a wall of smoke billowed upwards. Guests of all nationalities rushed outside to try and capture the event on film, only to retreat just as quickly from the deafening explosions to safety indoors. The streets were on fire and awash in smoldering debris and the police just stood on ambivalently.

Upstairs on the rooftop patio, at 12 o’clock, we were treated to a truly extraordinary sight. Everywhere direction you looked you saw fireworks exploding in the night sky. The Jetson-esque cityscape of Pudong across the river lit up like Baghdad in an air raid.

No other firework display I’ve seen has even come close and I doubt no other will. It was a remarkable and unforgettable way to ring in the New Year…

It was the Communists who eventually killed old Shanghai. After suffering the very worst at the hands of the Western imperialists, it’s no surprise really to learn then that the Communist Party of China was born in Shanghai in 1921.

In 1927, with the help of the Chinese Communists, Chiang Kai-shek, then head of the Nationalist army, captured Shanghai. All foreigners were either deported or else placed in a special camp for stateless persons. The city was placed under government control and the Kuomintang immediately began to transform the city.

The opium dens were closed and the worst of the slums were slowly cleared away. All the hard work was to be in vain however as in August 1937, the Japanese attacked and occupied Shanghai as part of the Second Sino-Japanese War.

Once the Japanese were defeated at the end of WWII, Shanghai was restored to Chinese possession and by 1946 all the Western powers finally renounced their claims to the city.

Then in May 1949, the city fell once again, this time to the Communist forces under Mao Zedong. At first, the capitalists who had stayed in Shanghai were promised that their property would not be confiscated, but this promise was not kept and eventually all the old imperial factories were nationalized under the red flag in 1953.

In 1990, Shanghai was declared a special economic zone by the Communist government and in the last ten years or more, billions of dollars of foreign investment has poured in as multi-national corporations from around the world rush to stake out their claim of the fastest growing market in the world.

Sound eerily familiar?

Once again, Shanghai has been transformed as it’s reborn as a center of international trade and finance. Only this time, the foreign occupiers don’t come flying their national colors – instead it’s the Golden Arches and the United Colors of Benetton.

After the bedlam the night before, we sat quietly the next morning enjoying coffee in Starbucks. And while admittedly, I was thankful to have a morning latte - I couldn’t help think it’s a shame that these corporate hegemons foster cultural monotony across the globe. Here we were sitting in Shanghai and for all intents and purposes, I could be back in Korea or England or Canada and not know the difference.

Capitalism has arrived with vigor in Shanghai and it’s not just the gargantuan billboards that clutter every inch of the skyline or the giant video screens in the subways or even the McDonald’s or KFC outlets every two blocks. Rather, it’s the fact that it seems that everything in this city seems to be geared towards one goal… shopping.

The French Concession, which was once the height of European decadence, now looks more like Rodeo Drive and includes the modern pantheon of consumer brands familiar in any metropolitan setting. Volkswagen looks to have cornered the market in automobiles, as every other vehicle on the road wore a VW. Fahrvergnügen, indeed.

But, when in Rome… Over the course of the next two days, we hit every market in the city - from the schmaltzy knock-off market where the cries of "Hello, hello, hi, hello, hi" and "DVD-Rolex, DVD-Rolex" still ring all too clearly in my mind, to the more subdued bird market where most of the animals had been moved out of the city due to SARS concerns. You could still buy a bird on a string though. We didn’t.

We did buy the obligatory North Face jackets to add to our growing collection of fakes and Amy and I (well, more I than her) went a little overboard on the bootleg DVDs – we ended up with close to 50 discs that included some rare Chinese and Japanese cinema gems, the Godfather and Indiana Jones series’ and a bizarre Russian television miniseries, which I still have yet to figure out how to get it to work in my DVD player.

We rode through the Bund tourist tunnel on a wildly lit, lazy-paced tram ride that reminded me of the scene in 2001: A Space Odyssey when Bowman approaches the surface of Monolith. Only more boring.

One day, John and I found a place, just off of the main shopping drag, where you could shoot handguns and Chinese assault weapons. Next door was a massage parlor, so we spent the afternoon firing weapons and then getting full massages.

We journeyed to the top of the Oriental Pearl Tower, a massive phallic tusk that thrusts up into the Pudong skyline. While its height provided lots of magnificent viewpoints, mostly it just proved to be another exercise in one of the more popular Chinese pastimes – queuing up.

We spent a lot of time just wandering about the city marveling at its architecture which ranges from classical magnificence to space-age kooky. Surprisingly little, if any, bore any Chinese influence and walking around, it was easy to forget you were in Asia.

On our last night in Shanghai we found a delicious Thai restaurant which for made a delicious and welcome respite from the local Chinese food – which in general, is incredibly greasy and laced with MSG. Count me no fan of Chinese food as earlier I had had a bad encounter with some Tibetan Yak meat and spent much of one night discovering how much I could vomit (insert gratuitous ‘yak’ joke here).

After dinner we found a quiet Irish pub and settled in for a night of Guinness and whiskies. It was the one time as a group we were all together, so it was nice to finally relax in a warm, cozy environment, listen to some live music, enjoy each other’s company and get ragingly pissed up.

On our way out of the city, we finally managed to catch a ride on the maglev train. Using the principle magnetic levitation (basically, the train and track have magnets of similar poles so that the train floats on a cushion of air, thus no friction) the train speeds through the countryside at up to 430 km/hr. The ride that on the bus in from the airport took over an hour and a half, took seven minutes on the maglev train. It was mind-blowingly fast, and smooth as well. To see a video of our ride, click here.

Climbing back into the flying rickshaw, I wasn’t too sad to leave Shanghai. It’s a remarkable city which I have a feeling will come to dominate the 21st Century, much as it did the first half of the 20th Century.

You get the feeling, walking the streets of China’s mega-cities, that the dragon is slowly emerging up from its slumber. It’s shaking off its imperialist past, brushing aside its communist trappings and stretching out towards the future.

Looking out of the tiny, oval window as our plane raced into the heavens on its way back to Korea, I looked down at a spaghettied maze of superhighways crisscrossing the land and much to my surprise, realized that for now they were completely empty. When the dragon finally does awaken and those roads are full, this time it’s going to be the Chinese who will be in the driver’s seat.

Photos of our trip to Shanghai are available at


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