1712 SEARCHING FOR THE SOUL OF SHANGHAI

I want somebody to tell me
Answer if you can
I, I want somebody to tell me
(Hah)
Now what is the soul of a man?” – Tom Waits ‘The Soul of a Man’

Shanghai is a beautiful city, full of young Chinese people making they way and their mark, generous, kind and friendly to foreigners, obsessed with their mobile content, stylish and cheerful.  The city itself is epitomised by the contrast between the new and the old, modern and colonial.  Both can be  best viewed from the Bund along the bank of the Huangpu River.  Behind you, to the west are beautiful old buildings from the colonial past of the 1800’s.

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Tourists looking east across the Huangpu River with the old 1800’s buildings behind them.

On the east bank of the river are modern skyscrapers, even more impressive than those behind us.  A visual architectural-fest.

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But the bustling, living heart of the city, the parts which beat long before the modernisation arrived are the old streets where Chinese live and work, cook and wash and provide food to many of the c. 26 million inhabitants of the metropolis.  Its like an unspoken divide, generated by forces unknown to me, illiterate in Chinese language and society, the young encountered commuting on metro and bicycles, the middle-aged and old inhabiting the old streets.

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The old city is being gutted, though,  large areas being demolished and replaced with multi-storey apartment blocks to house the ever growing population.  I sat in a small cafe sipping a latte and mulling over the effects of this evisceration, my own digestive system experiencing some complaints over the previous couple of days, overwhelmed, as indeed i was by the constant stream of new experiences guaranteed by your first visit to China.

Hah, I’ve traveled to different countries
I’ve traveled to foreign land
And I haven’t found nobody that can tell me
Just what about the soul of a man?

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What becomes of a city which has its guts surgically removed?  Can it re-invent itself, improve itself even and its old ways of life, can it become fitter and leaner without losing its essence?  Do such changes diminish the city, diminish urban life itself?  Of course, Shanghai is one of the most modern of Chinese cities and traditional life undoubtedly continues uninterrupted elsewhere and so we concern ourselves with Shanghai.  It is a city of such contradictions, a developed world co-existing side by side with older times.  It is possible to pay 100 yuan and more for dinner in ordinary restaurants representing the former, while 28 yuan will purchase you an excellent meal in the more traditional eateries including those occupying the ‘developed’ space in Metro stations and the like.  Part of the Old City, that around Yuyuan Gardens, has been redeveloped in ancient Chinese style and provides restaurants and tourist shops and is much loved by the Chinese – a tourist phenomenon replicated many times around the globe where ‘olden times’ are reproduced and preserved for the amusement of tourists.

 

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The less commercialized alleyways of Tianzifang provide an upmarket, more original and equally popular alternative, or addition perhaps, to the Yuyuan Garden area.   Here there is a notable shift to the more genuine, more original accompanied by a shift from mass produced tourist goods to art and artisan objects

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The alleyways of Tianzifang in Shanghai

There is a noticeable shift from kitsch to art but the artistic ability of the Chinese to design and mass produce objects of considerable beauty means that much of the kitsch could happily be displayed in art galleries around the world.

But to return to the surgery, it is not a random, unwarranted incision but like most surgery  necessitated by developments, in Shanghai’s case the ever-growing demand for modern accommodation.  A limited knowledge of history, such as obtained by this writer, provides reassurance that most modern cities have been gutted at some stage.  Large parts of Paris, for example underwent surgery in the 1870’s and later.  Medieval neighborhoods that were deemed overcrowded and unhealthy by officials at the time, were demolished under the supervision of  Haussmann,  then the Prefect of the Seine.  He oversaw the building of wide avenues, new parks and squares, the annexation of the suburbs surrounding Paris and the construction of new sewers, fountains and aqueducts.  The works were carried out up until 1927.  Paris today is testament to the positive results obtained from that radical, and unpopular at the time, surgery.

The streets of Shanghai are full of young people going to college or work, all engrossed in their mobile phones, demanding, i am sure, of the powers that be, health, wealth and the promise of happiness.  Demanding may seem a strange word to use in the context of Chinese citizens but the presence of so much energised youth necessitates the provision of opportunities.  Their demands, while they may not be articulated as they would be in Ireland, must be anticipated by those in charge if they wish to keep the population peaceful and content.

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The gap between these young people’s generation and mine emphasised by the constant use of mobile phones as they communicate, watch tv shows and movies and play games all while on the move, effortlessly avoiding crashing, or even bumping, into each other.  Occasional Chinese of my generation sit or stand on the metro and gaze around, as i do, presumably wondering too where this technology is leading us and what kind of future will it provide for the human race.

The young Chinese carry out their shopping, hire bicycles, find themselves and lost tourists on on-line maps, check buses and flights and carry out a thousand and one other day to day jobs via their mobile phones.  People that live in such an idealized, fashionable and convenient life  will not want to go home to some old-fashioned, overly cramped and inadequate home – they will not want to move from modern offices, universities and public spaces to pre-modern apartments – hence the need for ongoing surgery of Shanghai as the city continues to re-invent itself.

I saw a crowd standin’, talkin’
I just came up in time
Well, teachin’ the lawyers and the doctors
Well, a man ain’t nothin’ but his mind

I took the long way home that day, heading north on the Metro until it connects with the over-ground line, Line 3 – Metro travelling is a good way of people watching but removes you from any connection with the physical city itself as you travel beneath it.  Line 3 provides a fairly continuous vista of multi-storied apartment blocks but i was too removed to see if human life and commerce had carved out its niche at ground-level.  The resilience of human life and businesses, like the multiple garages in Rathgar’s leafy alleyways, usually find a way to insert themselves in the most unpromising and unlikely environments.

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Rathgar, Dublin, Ireland

Varied, exotic and easily visible life carried out on the pavement and in the alleyways of the old city may be of more benefit to the gaping tourist and his camera, always seeking authentic experiences, than to the participants of such lifestyles, who, like the small farmers i grew up with in the west of Ireland, may be trapped in a never-ending cycle of relative poverty and grind.

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Does the soul of  a city require grit, to exist, to be real?  Will the next generation, having largely dispensed with god, come to assume that soul is but a romantic ideal, to be kept and taken out on occasional visits on holidays and trips, like a well preserved old quarter or temple.

I visited two temples that day on my walk back from Yuyuan Gardens to connect with the Metro – finding a station in Shanghai one of the few things that i found difficult at times – used as i am to the signs standing out clearly in London and Paris.  The first, a Tao temple, empty except for workmen, as extensive but small-scale repairs took place.  A dusty, noisy but discernibly, to me at least, holy place, what is this holiness i detect – a cultural aberration, a romantic ideal, a fear of not having a soul?  Regular readers of my blog will know i am intrigued by the Tao and that the Way has so many meanings for me – could this generate experiences of holiness in me?

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Perhaps;

I read the bible often
I tries to read it right
And as far as I can have an understandin’
There’s nothin’ ‘bout a burnin’ light”

The second temple, dedicated to Confucius, more abandoned, unattended, a dead potted plant visible in the corner, something i couldn’t imagine happening in a Buddhist temple where everything is nurtured.  Perhaps the explanation is that though Confucius was deified, he is remembered more for his wisdom than for his holiness, for being a philosopher rather than a deity.

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Confucius

When Christ head into the temple
The people all stood amazed
Well, teachin’ the lawyers and the doctors
How to raise a man from the grave

I sit finishing my latte, watching people coming and going, three men at a table outside, a business meeting obviously but punctuated with laughter, genuine laughter, and it becomes clear that the soul of a city resides in its people, in their lives, their attitudes, their kindness to strangers and to each other.  Strangely while verbal politeness seems to be almost non-existence in Shanghai and perhaps in Chinese culture, in casual encounters at least; kindness and generosity, a readiness to smile and embrace the different, such as me for example an ignorant,  grey-bearded western man in an almost universal clean-shaven society, is everywhere.

Whatever Shanghai is doing, let it continue and let us hope that the mobile phone does not crowd out the small quiet spaces needed for the soul of a people to develop and thrive.

I want somebody to tell me
(Somebody)
Tell me if you can
(Somebody)
I want somebody to tell me
(Somebody)
What about the soul of a man?
Ah, I want somebody to tell me
(Somebody)
Answer if you can
(Somebody)
Want somebody to tell me
(Somebody)
What about the soul of a man?
What about the soul of a man?
What about the soul of a man?”

With thanks to all the kind and generous Chinese people i met in Shanghai, and elsewhere and to Tom Waits whose words accompanied me on this part of the journey.

Namaste my friends

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