Monday, May 02, 2005

This is China?

Reluctantly, I board the plane from Li Jiang to Shanghai via Kunming, the capital of Yunnan. I'm tempted to stay the night in Kunming and leave for Shanghai the next morning, but that would have thrown the last few days of the trip, and potentially the planned excursion up Huang Shan (Yellow Mountain) in doubt. So instead, I kill a couple hours at the Kunming airport snapping away at the TV crew filming just outside until they shut me down and I head for Shanghai, the "New York of China".

Perhaps in the most cosmo city in China I might be able to hear some music besides Kenny G or some other American music from ten or twenty years ago that the Chinese have instrumentalized and insist on playing ad nauseum. I don't know what the attraction is, but I've heard Kenny G, the talented yet often maligned saxophonist, just about everywhere I've been. Trains, elevators, car stereos -- he's everywhere. If China is really trying to catch up with Western culture, then it should start with what's on the radio today -- not fifteen years ago -- but I would expect nothing less from the country I've childlishly grown fond of over the past three weeks. I just wish they'd stop playing the same Kenny G song! Even the street saxophonist working the nighttime crowd in Li Jiang could have chosen any other title on any other CD and I would have forgiven him. Instead I'm continually forced to listen to music from an album I sold a long time ago.

On the plane to Shanghai I'm seated across the aisle from a couple European ladies who were not only downright annoying in their constant chatter and complaining, though admirably in Chinese but annoying nonetheless, they were French. Granted, I have nothing personally against the French, but as an American I feel it's my duty to be at least a little more annoyed at them than if they were English or from any other country of the world, which was quite easy with these ladies as they never stopped griping about something or another as they lolled barefoot all over their seats, probably about how there was no Kenny G in the cabin.

Settling in at the Captain Hotel in Shanghai, I head out to the Bund to wander the famous waterfront promenade under the night sky. Masses of locals and outsiders alike make their way back and forth, strolling aimlessly along the pedestrian walkway. On one side, the mid-19th century European architecture of Zhongshan Dong Lu manifests itself in the old banks and commerce buildings that speak of the heyday of old Shanghai. The lights of the city cast a warm orange glow across the buildings, intricate shadows created by the curves and angles of the roofs and windows that speak of a China unlike any I had seen so far on my journey. On the other side of the crowds wandering the Bund, across the Huangpu River, sits Pudong Island where an array of neon lights and buildings reaching for the sky pleasingly assault the senses in a firm display of modernity to which the Shanghai natives are justly proud. In the middle stands the Oriental Pearl TV Tower, the tallest in Asia at 468m, its observation decks shining brightly for all to see.

I stand there on the Bund with my hands on the railing while tourists to either side of me have their picture taken with the looming nightlight in the background, and I think that Pudong, if not the whole of Shanghai, represents China having one foot forward, one foot in the Western culture to which most underdeveloped and growing economies in the world strive to copy and embrace, rightfully or not, while the other foot stands firmly in Beijing, in the hutongs and ancient dynastic culture that is the foundation on which it, and much of the country, is built. The thought pleases me because it tells me that China is both here and there, or perhaps it's nowhere at all in particular. It just is, and it transcends.

The following day I head out to Nanjing Lu, the most popular pedestrian shopping street in the city, the Cunxi Lu of Chengdu except at a much larger scale (unfortunately). Stores are stocked with Star Wars t-shirts and expensive tea. Groups of tourists in blue hats disembark from a yellow trolley that takes them from one shopping hell or mecca to another.

I take a break and get my first bubble tea. Surprisingly, I had not encountered any yet on my trip, despite it being supposedly a very popular drink. I quickly empty the plastic cup of the sweetened milkshake-like tea and eat the candied chunks that rest at the bottom. I don't understand what the big deal is, so I order another. At 2 yuan a pop, it's hardly a hit on the wallet (or as the case would be in China, the permenantly disorganized lump of bills of different sizes). I still don't understand the craze as I go back for one more. After the third one, I'm convinced there's nothing special. Unburdened by expectations, the fourth one was quite OK.

The fifth was a bit too sweet.

The layer of grime of Chinese cities that is usually balanced by green parks and old culture stands alone along Nanjing Lu, and I quickly walk to the end merely for the sake of checking it off my list. I didn't need clothes or a fake Rolex watch that was offered to me at every corner (or anything else to drink), so I leave, slightly disheartened at what I've seen of Shanghai so far. While the atmosphere of the Bund is nice, it's not enough to redeem the city in my tourist eyes. Perhaps tomorrow would be different.


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