SHANGHAI

In Shanghai I meet Jerome, a friend I had first met during my travel in Russia in 2005. He's French but he now lives and works in Shanghai, so this is my great chance to see him again.

While we walk in the town Jerome talks about his efforts to learn Chinese; I show a (faint, to be honest) interest in the Chinese language and so we end up in a bookstore selling Chinese courses for foreigners. Here I experience the extraordinary sales skills of Chinese people. We are made the target of a shop-girl: she demonstrates the capabilities of a software and keeps repeating: "It is software, you know, it is not cassettes or cd". And she goes on and on, as if the software improved at each rehearsal of that sentence. The relentless pace of the shop-girl leaves little time for thinking, but the software does not seem that great to us: in the first lesson you just listen to "Nihao" ("Hello"), and repeat it, that's all. The authenticity of the software is also doubtful (details are omitted here), but getting rid of the human robot repeating "It is software, you know, it is not cassettes or cd" is close to impossible, short of running out of the shop, which is what we do.

The tour of the town with Jerome is very effective: in a relatively short time I can see the many interesting aspects of Shanghai. From the Site of the First National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party:

to the French Concession, remnant of the period of the International Settlements [1]:

to Old Shanghai. Here Jerome faces the unexpected:

He says to me, embarassed: "Well, the last time I passed by there were small houses and alleys". It's perhaps the best image of a town which is changing at such a pace that even their citizens can't keep up with it. We can still find flashes of the Old Shanghai:

The small two-storey houses have a shop on the ground floor, stretching out to take the basement and part of the street, and the first floor where the family lives. The road is almost unuseable: only bicycles and motorbikes can go along. The bustling alleys of Old Shanghai are better shown in this video:

Strangely enough, these areas are not mentioned in the travel books. I ask Jerome what people do when their small houses are pulled down to make room for large buildings and skyscrapers and he answers: "Well, they receive a compensation, but that's not enough money to buy a flat in a central area like this, so they have to relocate to the suburbs". And, more important, they have to change their habits: from the small house in Old Shanghai to a large building in the suburbs, with the (few) advantages and the (many) disadvantages that come with the change.

»We are late at lunch and so we eat together with the personnel of the restaurant. I am impressed by how many they are. I point out that there are more employees than customers and Jerome makes me understand that a top priority in China is to keep everyone employed. This reminds me of the Huang Shan porters: some tiles in the Chinese mosaic are slowly finding their place.

Old Shanghai belongs to "Old China", the authentically old part of China which has survived, here and there, in the towns and in the countryside. Then there is the "New Old China", the restored touristic spots (temples, gardens, houses etc.) which are mostly new but are old-style, such as the Yu Gardens in Shanghai:

Unfortunately these old-style places are what most tourists see and, understandably, what Chinese authorities are glad to show. It's not surprising to me, though, that Chinese are eager to get rid of their recent past, which reminds them of poverty and humiliation, because we did the same: the courtyards where all the families shared the toilet have vanished in less than no time in Milan.
I'll see again the difference between "Old China" and "New Old China" in the Hutongs in Beijing, in Lijiang and in other places.
Please note the zig-zag bridge in the last picture: it's just one of the many displays of superstition in China; in this case it comes from the belief that evil spirits can only go straight. For the same reason, the entrance to temples is "protected" by short wooden hurdles.
But numbers is where Chinese superstition is at its best, in my opinion: I have been told that in China 4 is the unlucky number and 8 is the lucky one. The consequences are: a mobile phone subscription has a different cost depending on how many 8s and 4s are in the phone number; a phone number with many 8s is a "status symbol" which only the rich and the influential can afford. In buildings and hotels floors 14, 24 etc. are often missing, not to mention 44. Last: the Olympic Games in Beijing will begin on August 8 in the next year: 8/8/2008. And not by coincidence.

In the afternoon I try the fastest means of transport on earth: the Maglev (Magnetic Levitation Train) linking Shanghai to the Pudong Airport. »On the way, in the Shanghai metro, I am in time to note the memorable warning 'Keep valuables snugly and beware the people press close to you designedly' inside an underground wagon, which makes me think that Chinese love adverbs and rhymes; and here I am, ready to take the Maglev:

It's exciting to travel at 431 km/h. It takes 6 minutes to complete the 30-km journey, just enough time for me to think that it takes me 50 minutes to complete the 25-km journey from home to office in the morning, and that's in the good days - it's not a fair world, is it?

In case you wonder how it feels like while travelling at such a speed, here you are:

Ah, look at this:

the girl is not hiding from my camera: she is shielding herself from the sun. It's a common sight in China, where white skin is considered a sign of beauty for women. It just so happens to see women shielding themselves from the sun with the umbrella, with the hat or, them failing, with whatever they have at hand. Exactly the opposite of what women do in the West: they broil in the sun, in the solarium or, them failing, in the microwave oven, because tanned skin is considered a sign of beauty for women. Go figure!

I leave from Shanghai with mixed feelings. It's a business town with a lot of wealth, proudly exhibited in the shops in Nanjing Road; there are skyscrapers like in Manhattan, the Maglev, etc. It's also, however, a town with huge contrasts, where you may easily run into these means of transport:

at the very centre of the town and where many people live at the poverty line. This is worsened by the fast increasing of the cost of living. These constrasts are, in my opinion, a contradiction for a country which defines itself to be Communist. It defines itself so, but in practise it is not. To the contrary, I'd say that I have never seen a more capitalistic country than China, where there are no rules and regulations, no protection for the weak, no guarantees for people with no high-ranking acquaintances. The government and the entrepreneurs (native and foreigner) are part of the same system, whose goal is to promote the economic development, no matter what. The weak also benefit from this development, but it costs them enormous efforts; these efforts are not properly rewarded, in any case far less than in other countries.

You may think that in such a developed town dragons may not exist. Well, maybe. And maybe not.

  1. ^Shanghai, unlike Hong Kong, has never been given to another country. However, around the middle of the nineteenth century, "Concessions" were created: the English Concession, the French Concession and the American Concession. Those areas were subject to the rules and regulations of those countries, not those of China.