My friend and ex-boss at Manchester Metropolitan University, Dr. Justin O'Connor, is spending a very hot summer in Shanghai. I, like most of those obsessed with modern cities, am fascinated by Shanghai - the idea of Shanghai, for I've never witnessed the reality (whatever that is) - so I asked him whether he fancied writing some impressions of his visit there for this blog. I hope he won't mind me saying this, but Justin is one of Europe's leading academics in the area of 'the city', from historical, sociological, economic and cultural perspectives - and a brilliantly compelling communicator to boot. So I figured he may be able to raise the tone a little here.
I've just received dispatch number one, which I'm posting unedited below, with a few of Justin's photos. Hopefully there'll be more in this series. This first piece already exceeds what I thought I might get, conjuring a vivid sense of the everyday shock of this city via a collage of immediate impressions. As Justin said to me in his accompanying email, "the city is difficult to read." But I feel this impressionistic approach is both one of the most effective ways of imagining a distant city into life and entirely appropriate in this situation, for this medium.
I hope you find it as valuable as I did - and maybe more to come:
"From the eighth floor I look out onto a canal well kept but never used except for the occasional small boat collecting floating rubbish. On the far side there is an electricity sub-station – lots of small pylons and grey boxes behind a wire fence. On this side, under the window, there is construction work – apparently a depot for the overground metro line nearby. It’s now the 12th day in a row over 36C. Last year the record was set at 13 consecutive days: tomorrow’s all set for the equalizer. Actually it’s hotter, but the thermometer is put somewhere in deep shadow, to be on the safe side. The men on the construction site work from 6am I think, definitely before 7am. They wake me up, but gently, the drop of metal and scraping of shovels slowly gathering weight around the dreams and then tugging and pulling and then – you’re awake. They work in the sun but drink tea in the shadows. They work until late. It’s hard to tell when, they’re gradually absorbed into the background. Then the flare of an arc welder reminds you. Last night they were laying concrete at 2am. Nobody opened the window and shouted shut the fuck up you fucking inconsiderate fucking fuckers. I suppose they all lay there, tired, hot, that’s just the way it is.
I started to say something about how this would not be allowed in England – people would complain, they’d plague the council, demand compensation. And anyway, they’d never a build a depot so close to a residential black, without compensation at least. That, I said, was what citizenship really meant. But it sounded very parochial, very small-minded, very irrelevant. I’m not sure why yet. On the streets – walking cycling driving queuing paying - there are constant crowds. It reminded me of St. Petersburg or Moscow. Huge cities, huge populations. Shanghai is 14 million, if you don’t count the migrants. Negotiating the crowd is about absolutely ignoring it except to avoid a collision at the last moment. Crossing a road involves avoiding people, cars, bikes, scooters coming from all angles. Cars have priority. The green man lights up – but cars can turn right on red here so this means simply cross now if you can. In the first few days I slapped cars that just ran an inch from my foot. But nobody does this. You avoid it and carry on. English people constantly apologise in crowds. It's a chance to show off how nice they are. Here constant exposure to crowds means you block them out – even collisions don’t involve communication. Drivers use the horn a lot – as little warnings with carefully graded tones and volumes. Only once have I heard somebody actually shout something out of a window – a taxi driver to a pedestrian who had the nerve not to give way before the car. I’m not sure how to read this complete priority of the car over pedestrian – sitting in a big jeep with one of the new urban middle class it seems like a dismissal of the losers, the nobodies on the street. But all traffic drives like this – maybe all car owners feel the same. But maybe its just the logical application of the same rules – you push, you push in, you squeeze into that space left between you and the barrier, you thrust your hand with your ticket of money over the shoulder to get in first. And cars simply push harder that's all.
Did somebody write a book "On Living in a big country"? I always think about those countries with big populations where historically life has been cheap. The tsars and the Soviets could spare millions of men. When I say 'spare' I mean kill or allow to die. Mao lost nearly a million men in the Korean war, to the US's few hundred. The Germans could not kill enough Russians. These war time events are by no means exceptions. An American said Chinese development consisted of 'a million men with teaspoons'. So what does it mean to live in a country in which live has historically meant nothing. Or rather, life at the bottom (and it's a large bottom…). At present the Chinese newspapers and the TV (I watch CCTV 9, the English language 'news 24 channel' which has lots of nearly kosher western news readers and special reporters; the nearly is in the absence of any flicker of irony, the completely straight face when obvious glosses, euphemisms, omissions occur. Taiwan ('Taiwan province') and Tibet are obvious, but there are many others) are concerned with a Chinese woman who was beaten up by US border guards. The Chinese execute (a bullet in the back of the head) hundreds every year; police beatings are regular. But this is the Americans ...
I give a lecture on Manchester - shock city - trying to evoke the newness of the city, of its unprecedented growth, its raw energy, the brutal but exhilarating power of its modernisation. Because it ate its children, it sucked them into its furnace stomach from farther and farther afield. Shanghai is doing this now. The architects are exhilarated, but it's fuelled by cheap migrant labour. Labour is cheap. Haircuts come with an optional head massage (a quid) and they wash your hair after cutting it – what a fantastic idea. Food quality is amazing – it is all over in all the forms and price ranges you wish. But a serious banquet for 8 in a Chinese restaurant with the best food you could find - without getting into shark fins, tiger penises and monkey brain territory – would come to 30 or 40 pounds. Including drink (apart from wine). Ironing, laundry, whatever. A five star hotel in Pudong charged 5 pounds for a full breakfast delivered to the room.
Here's a city that everybody says is 'exciting' because it’s being built on a huge scale, aiming to become Asia's (yes, including Japan) economic and financial capital. Already Hong Kong is feeling slightly less exciting. It is far more powerful financially – but it feels like a place that has had its time. But apart from the architects - always slaves to power and money - what's exciting other than a vicarious reliving of the West's own innocently brutal days of early industrialisation and modernisation. That’s a difficult one."
This impression of Shanghai is by Justin O'Connor. All Shanghai Diary entries.