370kph-420kph. As the world’s fastest train accelerates, the Shanghai skyline tilts. Pinnacles of skyscrapers loom crazily towards us. If the tilting ‘maglev’ and the tower blocks represent the future of China, at ground level the past breaks through. Labyrinths littered with bikes, trikes, huts, tenements, washing lines and sorrowful birdcages. In the Marriage Park parents swap notes of their children’s ages, […]September 1, 2011
370kph-420kph. As the world’s fastest train accelerates, the Shanghai skyline tilts. Pinnacles of skyscrapers loom crazily towards us.
If the tilting ‘maglev’ and the tower blocks represent the future of China, at ground level the past breaks through. Labyrinths littered with bikes, trikes, huts, tenements, washing lines and sorrowful birdcages. In the Marriage Park parents swap notes of their children’s ages, heights and incomes. In a kebab kiosk, skewered bugs wave forlorn wee legs.
Public notices in Shanghai and Beijing are mostly bi-lingual. The Chinese reluctance to run translations past a native speaker makes for quaint poetry:
‘Delicate grade A Office for sale.’
‘Leave the commanding heights during a thunderstorm.’
‘May civilization follow you!’
Hawkers home in on the rare Western tourists. Careless eye contact attracts long-term attention. One lady maintains a monologue with me throughout a three hour hike along the Great Wall. It works; eventually, wearily, we set to haggling over her souvenirs. For people averaging £60 a month it’s worthwhile investing an afternoon to earn that extra £10.
The devil finds no idle hands here. Working hours leave little time even for essentials. Commuters catnap on the metro station floor; shopkeepers behind their counters. After each 12 hour school day, pupils face 4 hours of homework. No opportunity for mischief – no need for a legal drinking age. On the other hand the China Daily reports a harrowing rate of teenage suicide.
Still, the young nurse their dreams. One 13-year-old imagines her ideal country. The same spread as Shanghai but with one – instead of 21 – million souls. Oil-wells to support the economy; plots of land for the poor. Animals and humans co-existing in harmony. As many children as you want.
The Party leaves its stamp here and there. Massive buildings with polished floors and obscure purposes. Department stores where you queue serially for the invoice, the cash and the goods. An opera about an intellectual betraying a daughter of the revolution. The Shanghai Propaganda Gallery refers cautiously to the ‘mistake’ of the Great Leap Forward and displays a poster showing Tibetans cheering Mao.
To most Chinese, even those adult in 1989, Tiananmen Square is but an innocent tourist attraction: the world’s largest plaza, a source of pride, edged by Mao’s mausoleum, the Forbidden City and Parliament. A video-screen plays uplifting music to the scattered tourists. Solitary soldiers march with blank faces.
However, the boilersuits are history. City slickers dress to the nines. As do the city dogs: tiny jackets, baseball caps, backpacks. By-products of compulsory contraception.
Shanghai is balmy in spring. The polluted air sheds a peachy glow over the thousands of construction sites with their bamboo scaffolding. The sky is cloudless but never blue; the dimmed sun easy on the eye. By night, lovers stroll along the neon-lit riverbank beneath a tea-rose moon.