December 17, 2004
Shanghai, China, 27/02/01
Just one travelogue entry before I go back to posting new new stuff, I promise.
The enormity, China! The perplexity, the grand stinking puzzle. Old man of the nations, gap-grinned mad and modernising fearlessly, garbling out the broken plot of his future to ancient tunes. China is vast — it can't see all of itself at once. The people I have met here are a serious and hardworking bunch to be sure; this society functions on restless labour without complaint, and yet it is a society thriving with adult imagination — there are adults in playgrounds and flying kites and watching the clouds for hidden faces. All of this is as essential to China as the plowing of rice or netting of fish or its industry. China is intensely moody.
China is one point two billion people living in close neighbourhoods of twenty-odd; communities are blocked out by clothes lines and longshans, as they call the narrow, grotty side-streets of old brick apartments in Shanghai. In the South West Xishuangbanna province the word longshan means ``place for the dead''. Same language, different perspective — statistics give the average Shanghainese living space the size of a double bed. At fourteen million people, it is one of China's most crowded cities. Yet flying in, my first impression of the city, and of China as a whole, was its vacuousness — its earthen faced, slate skied vacuousness.
Maybe the sky just seemed bigger for the earth's general lack of mountains; maybe the sky, with its oppressive pollution, is why humanity seemed so insignificant. As we descended into featureless fields, houses emerged — concrete, tall, and slight, spaced out evenly as teeth over great spans of mustard-earth. Windows like lipless mouths. A sense of mute openness to the landscape. It was not beautiful. China is silent and bare.
As we landed, people bicycled along in ant-lines, by the hundreds; the people clung to their plain faced earth with determined quietude as the sun hung indifferently above them, a cut mandarin burning dull orange in the white sky, and the wind felt nothing for these people.
The Pudong Airport is an architecturally marvellous, completely deserted structure. Such places are distant from people's everyday lives. Heavy looking concrete monuments to communist achievements, globally unparalleled architecture of yang design to let the spirits fly through on smoggy city winds, two bridges ``like dragons playing with a pearl'' — the pearl is the omnipresent T.V. Tower, with its bulbous towerhead casting a pepto-glow for blocks — all seem as if they might lift away of their own whimsy, dissolving like the faces in a cloud to expose the gritty gridwork of everyday life for everyday people. Sampan fishers and cargomen on the Huangpu river. Women on sidewalks steaming dumplings over pine needle fires, children on their backs or at their feet. Young peasants come to the city for success and always dreaming of the countryside, elderly people with settled eyes practising tai chi at dawn, farmers pulling heavy carts of rice and vegetables to market — people of ways that have nearly ever-been, the endless ones who crawl the panting streets, paradoxically minute, alien and parasitic in this city of a future they don't live in — the sweating pores on China's plain face.
Posted by delire at December 17, 2004 12:41 AM