2007 – Shanghai; the consumerism and an amazing museum

It’s really hard to believe we’re in a communist country, or even a socialist country. Shanghai is the most commercial consumer city we’ve ever visited in any country.

The reports of congestion and pollution are all true. It’s hot, really hot and humid. Within five minutes of walking out of the air-conditioned hotel we’d be soaking wet. The Shanghai people carry washcloths and when they it gets too hot, sticky or dirty, they just dip them in some water and wash themselves off.

We were pretty tired from the flight in but cab ride to the hotel really finished us off; an exhausting 90 minutes of large trucks spewing toxic fumes and the most annoying Chinese radio station.The cab driver acted like it was business as usual. There are 23 million people in the city. It takes a while to get anywhere.

Like Beijing, this city is in a constant state of renovation. Old neighborhoods are being torn up to make way for places like “New Asia”, “Tomorrow Square” and “The Civilized Park”. This is home to “The New Age Department Store” and “The Yangtze New World”. Even the restoration project in the Xintiandi section of the Old French Concession area wears the motto, “Where yesterday meets tomorrow”. Urban renewal at this scale can’t be stopped until the entire face of the city has changed. We feel lucky to be able to see at least some of what it was like. In 2010, Shanghai will host the World Expo. By then, most of the old city will be gone or Disneyfied like the “oh too cute” reproduction mall of the Old Town.

Our first step out into the city was down the Nanjing Road, the Shanghai version of New York’s Times Square or Tokyo’s Ginza. It’s non-stop neon and shopping. Three steps onto the pedestrian walkway and a beautiful young Chinese girl grabbed my arm and said “you come with me”. Gretchen was a few paces in front of me and I thought I was being picked up by a hooker. It turned out she was trying to take me to one of the hundreds of restaurants that fill both sides of the street. That’s all people do on the Nanjing road, shop, eat, shop some more. It’s a paradise for shop-a-holics.

Within minutes we were attacked by the “hello watch bag” people and their cousins the “hello watch-bag-shoes” people. They swarm on you like locusts in heat, bearing plastic coated cards showing their knockoff fashion accessories. At first we tried to be polite, saying thank you but no (shei shei bouiye). But to acknowledge them is to encourage them. It’s almost like you need a fly swatter to get them off of you. If it’s not the “hello want watch bag” people, it’s the flashing roller skates, or the silicon goop that smushes against the sidewalk and instantly re-forms into a small ball. These are the people that brought the world the sticky wall walkers a few years back and countless other goofy toys that people sell from Piazza Navona to Times Square. In fact, Shanghai is the home of the “Arts and Crafts Research Center”. It’s all part of the evil scheme to suck the wealth of the world dry buy convincing people they need something that they don’t really want. Or is it the other way around?

Since the mid 1800’s, Shanghai has been a city of decadence and consumerism. In those days, Opium was the currency. There was lots of money to be made in the opium trade. The British loved Chinese tea and convinced the Chinese to take opium as payment. By 1870, 43% of China’s import was opium. It was such a money maker that soon the rest of the western world joined in. Americans like John Jacob Astor, James Grant Forbes (the maternal grandfather of John Kerry), and Warren Delano Jr (the maternal grandfather of Franklin Delano Roosevelt) all made fortunes in the opium trade. By the early 1800s it was estimated at over 2 million opium addicts in China.  The Emperor made formal requests to stop the flow of opium but the westerners were hooked as much as the Chinese. The Jardine, Matheson Company (the major exporter of opium to China), in a statement on the opium question, made the following comment: “The use of opium is not a curse but a comfort to the hard-working Chinese. To many scores of thousands it as been productive of healthful sustention and enjoyment.”

It all led up to two Opium Wars. China tried to block the ships from delivering the goods and the westerners (led by the British tea addicts) defeated them on both accounts.
Soon the Chinese people got tired of the corruption and ineptitude of the Imperial leaders and tried to run the foreign devils out in the Boxer Rebellion of 1901. They also were defeated. The west had better weapons,  and the Chinese were too doped up on Opium.

In 1917, Opium was finally outlawed. Even the British had to fess up to the worst of it as they witnessed what was happening to their own countrymen in the London Opium dens. But making it illegal didn’t stop the flow. The illegal drug trade was just as profitable.

By 1920, Shanghai had reached it’s zenith of decadence. The ruling Imperials were gone and the city was divided up into various concessions (French, American, British, Dutch). They were ruled by their own police forces and their own judicial systems. It was a perfect climate for refugees and criminals.

From the 1920’s to the late 30s Shanghai was known as “the Emperors ugly daughter”, “Sodom and Gomorrah of the Far East”, “The Whore of Asia” or just plain old “Sin City”. Shanghai had a higher percentage of prostitutes than any other city on earth, one woman in every 130. There were 1,500 opium dens and the crime rate was twelve times higher than Chicago. The city was run by Broken tooth Kwoi, Pockmarked Huang and the leader of the mafia-style Qing Bang (the Green Gang) and Du Yuesheng, known asBig Ears Du”, who also happened to be the president of two respectable banks, chairman of the board of the Cheng Shih Middle school and benefactor of the emergency hospital.  Early on in “Big Ears” life, he went to a fortune teller who told him he would have a very charmed life if he attached the dried heads of monkeys to the back of his long gowns. The fortune-teller also told him if he ignored the advice, he’d die a violent death. Needless to say, Du never left home without his dried monkey heads. He ended up dying in 1951 from an illness related to his opium addiction.

Walking through the older parts of the city, you can sense the history but most of the historical color has been removed. The Old Town still has the pagoda style roofs but the buildings are all reproductions that now encompass the Disneyesque Old Town shopping mall. Everything in this consumer city is built into a shopping experience or restaurant/bar mall. There’s the Old Town Mall, the Nanjing Pedestrian Mall, The French Concession Mall (referred to as the Champs Elysée of Shanghai), the Xintiandi mall, and the Massive department stores. The Sun Department store attracts over 100,000 people a day to see the exotic window displays. And, of course, on almost every street corner are  the “hello watch-bag” people.

One of our favorite walks was around Fangbang Street (I just love saying the name) and the Dongtai lu antiques market. There aren’t really any antiques at the antique market (at least none that are pre-1949) but the fakes are really authentic looking. A real authentic antique has a red wax seal on the bottom, showing the authenticity and alarming the customs agents when you try to get it out of the country. It’s not allowed. But we did buy a small brass head with 4 faces. You can set your mood every morning, choosing from content, happy, sad or angry. That pretty much wraps it up.

Although Old Town has been pretty much blown away by New Old Town, there is a precious gem in the center of the mall known as the Yuyuan Gardens, considered one of the finest examples of a 16th century Chinese garden. Pan Yunduan spent almost 20 years building this paradise jus to please his father Pan En, a high-ranking official in the Ming Dynasty. Although it only covers an area of 5 acres, it’s an endless twist and turn of lagoons, pavilions, dragon walls, fish ponds and very peaceful places to pause from the chaos of the shopping mall outside.

In the French concession we stopped in to see the Museum of the First National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party. On  July 23, 1921, Mao Zedong and Dong Biwu, presided over the other 11 members of the Communist party. Around the table they passed the first resolutions of the party and elected the leaders. It was the birth of the Communist Party of China. At some point during the meeting, the French police were tipped off and raided the house. But by the time they got there, the new party members were all gone. There are photos, documents and a wax recreation of the famous meeting.

By the 1930’s, Chinese families moved into the Shikumen apartment houses, a mixture of eastern and western architecture that filled the French concession. Although most of them were torn down during the urban renewal, one of them has been restored as a museum of Chinese life in the 30’s. It’s one of the few looks into the past in this city, even if it is just a restored representation. The Xintiandi section was home to  many of the Shikumen houses. It was also home to the architect I.M. Pei, who pleaded with the Chinese government to save his 100 year old family building as well as the Shikumen houses of his relatives. In 2001, 4,000 families were relocated when urban renewal tore down the old shikumen buildings in the Xintiandi. I.M. Pei and all of his influence couldn’t do a thing about it. All that’s left of the Shikumen houses are the few that have been turned into the Shopping Mall that now houses a Starbucks, a Paulaner Beer pub, trendy clothing shops and lots of restaurants.

The walk from the Xintiandi to the People’s park is a pleasant walk down the Huaihai Road, another area of trendy restaurants, shops and bars. While we were here, the newest Absolute Ice bar opened up for business. It’s a 100 square meter room made of ice imported from the Torne river in northern Sweden. The chairs, walls, tables and glasses are all made of ice. Customers are given heavy coats when they enter. The temperature is kept at a constant -10° Celsius (14°F).

People’s Park was once the old racecourse; the center of western decadent life with a swimming pool, cricket pitch, and of course the racetrack. But in 1949, just after the Communist liberated the country, it was all pulled down.

The new Shanghai Museum is built on the site. This might not be the biggest museum in China but it is one of the best displayed museums we’ve ever seen. It’s designed to look like an old bronze tripod cooking pot called a ding, only this version has a round top and square bottom. The ancient Chinese represented the sky as a round object and the earth as a square. It’s a very clever design.
The museum holds over 120,000 pieces from the Neolithic period to the Qing dynasty including bronze, ceramics, calligraphy, furniture, jades, ancient coins, paintings, seals, sculptures and ethnic art. There was also an exhibit of American Art while we were here. It seemed oddly out of place.

After a long day in the sun, our friend Yvonne, a native of Singapore transplanted to Shanghai, picked us up at the hotel and took us to Pudong for dinner at a trendy Italian restaurant overlooking the mighty Huangpu River. We had a great meal as we watched the neon festooned boats sail in front of the massive display of lights and video screens. Yvonne told us that at 11pm, in an effort to save electricity, all the decorative lights go out; except the lighting of the buildings along the Bund, the famous waterfront embankment once home to western Banks and customs houses. Saving the power might not be a bad idea. Just the air conditioning alone in this city could strain the most sophisticated power grid. If the temperature gets up to 38° Celsius the factories close down, which is why the local government makes sure it never gets any hotter than 36° C in Shanghai.

On our last day here we hiked over towards Fuxing Park to see the old residences of Zhou Enlai and Sun-Yat-Sen. Zhou’s house (a 1920’s western style home in the French concession) was set up as a barracks and was used from 1947-1949 during the Chinese civil war. Each room had at least one bed and a desk.

Sun Yat-sen’s house and museum took over two houses on the other side of Fuxing Park. The home was glorious and everything was left at if the Yat-sen family was still living there, waiting to entertain guests that evening. The coal cooking stove in the kitchen was ready to go.

On the way back to the hotel, Gretchen wanted to see the knockoff shops and so we made a visit to the New Market. This is the belly of the beast. On every corner, at least 10 “hello watch-bag” people attacked us with plastic photo cards and followed us for blocks at a time. We made the mistake of telling them we were going to the New Market. That just encouraged them. That’s their game. They take you to see the merchandise in the New Market and when you buy something they get a commission. At least 5 of them latched onto to us as we entered the marketplace of really bad knockoffs. We tried to hide, but they found us. We walked fast, but they walked faster. We shouted for them to please go away but they just smiled. Finally we ducked into a cab and made it out. By the way, if you come to China, make sure you always carry the hotel name and address in Chinese characters. The cab drivers do not speak English (or any other western language) and they don’t read anglofied Chinese.

If you walk long enough and far enough, you can still see a lot of the old way of life; the outdoor food markets filled with all kinds of sqiggly eels, mud bugs, chickens, ducks and vegetables, and old men wandering the streets in their pajamas. There are stalls selling cricket baskets. Crickets are considered good luck they are kept in these square reed baskets and placed around the house. This is the real life of old Shanghai, a life that is disappearing. I have no idea if these markets will still be here in 10 years.

The days of Opium and sin might be over but China’s addiction problem never ended. China is one big consumer block and the west couldn’t just sit there and lose the profit. Opium was replace with tobacco and alcohol. Over 350 million Chinese are currently addicted to tobacco. Since 1952, alcohol use has increased 50 times. China drinks more beer than any other country in the world. I read that 45% of all the beer consumed in the world is here in China. Of course you have to factor in that China has more people than anywhere else in the world.

And how is America helping China with their addiction problems?  We’re hopping them up on coffee. There are currently 50 Starbucks cafes in Shanghai alone. According to Starbucks corporate management, by 2008, there’ll be more of their cafes in China than in the US.

What might have started out as a cheaper labor source so western companies could reep in more profits has now created the most consumer crazy country in the world.