Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Shanghai, China V

The powers that be seem determined to bring order to the city’s chaotic streets. Uniformed wardens blow whistles and issue threats to jaywalkers and offending motorists. It’s kind of sweet, trying to make this city over as Norwegian. But it seems like a tough sell. Pedestrians still stream into traffic as cabbies, bikers and scooters all weave through the confusion, paying heed to neither laws of man or physics.

Despite China’s nominal status as a people’s socialist republic, displays of conspicuous wealth are everywhere, and coming with that wealth is a sense of power and privilege.

A young sport drives his tricked out, canary yellow street racer through a rush hour crowd. That earns his some verbal abuse from a nearby crossing guard. There are words. Followed by shouting and finger pointing. But slapping the roof seemed to be crossing some invisible line, and junior leapt from the car ready for a fight.

He might have been more persuasive if he’d applied the parking brake first.

I had to admire his persistence though; he continued shouting abuse and making threats for half a block even as his car idled along in gear, dragging him across the pavement and toward oncoming traffic.

Sunday, June 19, 2005

Shanghai IV

I emerge from the subterranean if urine-scented cool to sticky streets, wandering along sterile tree-lined streets in the shadow of looming office towers still in various stages of construction. I eventually find my way across (or actually under) eight lanes of traffic and take an elevator up to the tip of the Jin Mao Tower.

The 88-story building was just a steel shell when I last visited in 1997; its spire capped only a few weeks earlier. Now it is the one genuinely stirring building on the skyline, massive and awe-inspiring, austere and pragmatic. And only slightly reminiscent of something that the Nazi's would have dreamed up on one of their better days.

At least they avoided the temptation to stick a flying saucer on the roof.

The view from Floor 88 is mightily impressive, though the effect loses some of its luster when visibility barely reaches to the Huangpu River's opposite banks. The one highlight of the visit is the spectacular view down into the Grand Hyatt's 350-foot tall atrium. Sort of monumental Blade Runner-ish.

Shanghai, China

Saturday, June 18, 2005

Shanghai III

Concrete palm fronds erupt from a police state hotel tower. The now-familiar cancerous polyps of the Oriental TV Tower in Pudong, joined now by an army of post-modernist, post-rational confections. A world's worth of architectural adornments have been plagiarized at random and plastered without order onto the skyline. At night it all winks and flashes like a cut-rate Vegas floor show.

And this is the future. I suppose I could get used to it, but I'd really rather not. I'd just as soon get back on the plane and find a place where trees are not yet ironic design elements.

I follow a series of imaginatively mangled signs.

"Bund Sightseeing tunnel is mysterous."

"Feost for the eyes via a single bund sightseeing tunnel."

I treat myself to a freakish run under the Huangpu River in the Bund Sightseeing Tunnel (30 yuan gets you a ride through a subway tunnel tarted up by a third-rate lightshow).

There's an almost willful tackiness to this place.

Shanghai, China

Friday, June 17, 2005

Shanghai II

Tiger Balm, mister? It is the mantra of any self-respecting street hawker across Asia. The logo reads...

Heals Wherever It Hurts.

I wonder if it will fix my wounded psyche. My ill-fitting identity. My unmoored consciousness. My accosted solitude. This complete and utter disconnection.

Sitting along Nanjing Road, I can see the new Pacific Century, the long Sino-centric future laid out before me. And to tell you the truth, it’s not that pretty.

A sickly gray fog clings to the city at dawn. The air a moist warm rag smelling of cigarette smoke and diesel, charcoal and sewage. The city's surrealist skyline lies smudged by haze.

Shanghai, China

Thursday, June 16, 2005

Shanghai I

In spite of a financially ill-advised decision to fly in business class, I emerge into Shanghai’s Pudong International Airport feeling utterly shattered.

My taxi driver holds the steering wheel in a death grip directly under his chin, and he leans over it peering blindly into the night through coke bottle glasses. It didn't take me long to realize that he is in fact blind as a bat, but he wasn’t letting that minor inconvenience slow us down. He veered through traffic at speed, swerving at the last possible second to avoid catastrophe.

I winced and flinched and wished mightily that the seat belt worked. It didn’t, so I took the coward's route of falling asleep. I didn't wake until screeching tires and honking horns greeted our exit into downtown Shanghai.

Shanghai, China