Eriberto P. Lozada Jr.
Anthropology Program, Butler University
View of Pudong and the Shanghai Bund
The last time I came to Shanghai was in 1993 and much has changed. Six years ago, the Pudong district (across the water from downtown Shanghai) did not yet have a skyline of tall buildings. There are now elevated highways that make transportation from the outside areas of the city much more convenient, alleviating to a certain extent downtown traffic. I could not recognize the area where I lived that summer because of all the new construction.
I am continuing my exploration of transnational processes in China by exploring how computer technology shapes everyday Shanghai culture. In examining the intersection of technology and society in such areas as the Chinese uses of the computer and the internet and the computer industry in Shanghai, I will see how global media like the internet has become localized. I will also be able to see how the technology itself has become localized, resulting in the creation of a distinctly Chinese computer culture. Thus far, I see the creation of this computer culture arising from the social strategies of an emerging middle class, raised and educated in a reform-era China that is very different from the high socialist era of their parents. As a result, this project will examine issues of transnationalism, economic transformation, technology and society, and consumption.
Coal Barge on the Huangpu
Shanghai is an exciting global city, emerging onto the world arena in China’s late socialist expansion. As the next millenium approaches, Shanghai’s global culture has been strongly informed by its colonial legacy, a historical memory made present in the architecture on the Bund and in other areas throughout the city and through celebrations of 1930s nostalgia in popular culture.
In the picture above, a coal barge is passing by the new Pudong skyline, with a large Coca-Cola advertisement on the building to the far left. Such scenes are typical in the summer of 1999, where the most modern of technologies are used side-by-side with premodern techniques.
Generational cultural differences have been exacerbated by the drastic shift from a Maoist high-socialist to the “reform and opening” late-socialist society initiated by Deng Xiaoping in 1979. As generations that have only experienced late-socialist mainland Chinese society mature, new cultural patterns are becoming firmly embedded in Shanghai society through the socialization of children. As I have discussed in an examination of the success of Kentucky Fried Chicken in Beijing, children are a key locus for the localization of transnational processes. This is most evident in their consumption practices that, when combined with the social effects of China’s one-child family policy, drive much of family life. Children are their parents’ hope for the future, in attaining success in opportunities that had been limited for their parents.
Playing Chess in the People’s Park
All is not Toys ‘R Us, however, and people are still doing traditional practices. Here in the People’s Park in Shanghai, for example, Chinese Chess is still popular among both old and young. In the picture above, the older man facing the camera easily beat the younger man playing him.
Water Bumper Cars
Kids, however, are more open to creating new traditions. Children have been coming to People’s Park throughout the socialist period for recreation, but new attractions are the most popular.
Flying a Kite near the Shanghai Museum, July 1999
Many areas of Shanghai have been rebuilt to reflect their desired status as a global city. The Shanghai Museum, for example, is part of a complex that is a beautiful and thoroughly modern space, where both Shanghai residents and visitors, foreign and Chinese, come to relax. Young couples take their children to the fountain plaza behind the museum and in front of a municipal government building for a traditional pastime of kite flying, a practice that takes on different social meaning in light of the single child family policy.
Alternative music group practicing in a music shop
Many people, however, want to try new things. Many people, especially young adults, have become aware of global trends in popular culture through movies, music, and other forms of global media. A counter-culture is developing in China, one that through the local music scene and national music companies is giving voice to younger generations. In the picture, a recently-formed group has gathered in a music shop to practice. Owen Lefkon, a Harvard undergraduate (and my brother’s roommate), has just finished interviewing band members in his thesis research on Chinese counter-culture.
Taxi driver sports Pikachu on his dashboard
There are reminders, big and small, of transnational processes all over Shanghai. The taxi driver in the picture is sporting Pikachu on his dashboard. For those without young elementary school children, this may need some explanation.
Pikachu, a Pokemon character, is part of a craze among American (and other nations) school children. Pokemon, a Japanese anime creation, has become part of American childhood through a television cartoon, Nintendo gameboy games, and a wide assortment of toys — especially Pokemon playing cards. American parents in 1999 have spent a lot of time scouring toy and hobby stores for Pokemon cards, that, with the great demand, have skyrocketed in price. In my son’s elementary school in Cambridge, Pokemon cards have been outlawed during school hours because they caused great disruptions in the classrooms. I was able to buy the much treasured original Japanese cards for my son in Hong Kong, and found many other Pokemon products in Shanghai.
Harvard anthropologist Prof. James L. Watson lecturing in People’s Park
English is the dominant language of transnationalism, although the use of English is not a simple case of American/British cultural imperialism. People have a number of reasons for improving their foreign language skills; most people though study English to improve their chances for success in business and education. The use of English in transnational media like the internet and, more subtly, how English structures technology, is important to understand when exploring technology transfer and computer culture.
Legend Computer making its mark in the French Quarter
Computers have shaped culture in contemporary Shanghai in many different ways. Computer-related businesses, like Legend Computer Company, are an important part of the local economy. More importantly, however, computers have become a key part of Shanghai people’s imaginations of the future — imaginations that everyday people try to make reality.
A busy users assistant combines lunch and work
Where do we find people pursuing their imaginations and shaping culture in everyday life? Most visible are the writers, artists, and producers of media, both in China and abroad. The front lines of cultural dynamism, however, are people in the trenches of education, business, and the home. As anthropologists, our job is to observe people at the workplace and at home, to see first-hand through fieldwork how such cultural phenomena as computer technology shape social life.
Playing Age of Empires in an “Internet Bar”
Younger people are growing up with computers, and are the most active users of computer technology. One local phenomena has been the growth of “internet bars,” which despite their name, are not necessarily places where people get on the internet — many of these places do not even have internet access. They are places where young people primarily gather as individuals or in groups to play computer games on networked computers. In the summer of 1999, I watched mostly young males play such popular games as Age of Empires and Mechwarrior III. I will continue to explore how computers shape local Chinese society in future fieldwork.