Post by Alex Gregor
After a delicious breakfast of jianbing (crepe-like bread with egg, seasonings, fried dough for texture) on the streets close to our temporary home at Fudan University’s International Dormitory, we visited the Bund, the bend in the river where all the colonial trading firms of yore set up their massive, edificial shops. These still stand as emblems of Shanghai’s economic past, although they are overshadowed by the newer, shinier, taller skyscrapers that hem them in from across the river and immediately behind too, where Nanjing Donglu, Shanghai’s most convincing imitation of NYC’s shopping boulevards, stretches to Renmin (People’s) Square. It felt like surfacing for air when we made it to the square after swimming through droves and droves and endless shoulder-to-shoulder droves of shopping tourists and wealthy residents of Shanghai, walking from one end of that street to the other. And then we dove under again, descending a staircase to a reproduction of “1930” in Shanghai beneath the square itself, a sepia-tinted simulacrum that poses trolley cars and life-sized photographs from the period beside recreated storefronts, home to completely modern-looking hair salons and clothing boutiques—even the Disney Store—many of which still cheerily wished us a “Merry Christmas!” with Santa Clauses pressing their rosy-cheeks to the front windows. This strange venue, as well as the renovated shopping complex we visited a few hours later occupying the restored buildings of the old Chinese part of town, where the temple to Shanghai’s City God remains an antique but active place of worship, seemed to encapsulate the collision of old and new taking place on almost every street-corner in this city and the attendant nostalgia for the traditionally Chinese, even if it essentializes and perhaps Orientalizes itself in its own reinvention.
Walking towards the latter, we passed several old neighborhoods—like the ones we’ll be filming during the next two weeks—that are being torn down, block by block, to be replaced with newer developments. Many of these apartments can’t be more than a few years old, although some clearly bear signs of age worn in over at least a couple of decades. Amidst an encroaching sea of sleek new skyscrapers, wide boulevards, boutiques and expensive (Jaguar) car dealerships that are rising up nearby, these neighborhoods look anachronistic in the extreme. In an ironic twist, their colonial rooflines, characteristically European, appeared yesterday as the sun went down over them as the sunlit silhouettes of a Chinese lifestyle that is being bulldozed, repaved, replaced by something more modern but less identifiable as coming from one place or another. These slightly run-down neighborhoods look quaint, even if it’s only because of their surroundings, with shuttered windows, tiled roofs, and colorful laundry flapping on clotheslines. They might even satisfy the tourist’s inveterate longing for the “authentic,” seeming to represent the slow-moving eddies of a calm, traditional lifestyle in a rising tide of change that swirls ever more recklessly towards the future (at the same time, though, they also show how Chinese life in Shanghai has been nothing but an encounter with the outside world for the last one hundred and seventy years).
Change is happening quickly to these neighborhoods, foreboding bulldozers and dump trucks parked outside still-occupied apartments as they demolish and haul away the adjacent blocks. My guess is that change must be happening quickly within these neighborhoods and apartments too, irrevocably altering the lives of the people who live there as globalization careens towards its uncertain—but exciting, well-advertised, and saleable—ends.
We’ve certainly chosen a good time to be here: there’s a lot going on that’s worth watching.
Post by Alex Gregor