15 March 2006

The City of the Hot Future


There is nearly everything I love about cities here. It's one of the most electric places I've ever been. The contrasts between old and new start at the rivers edge. On one bank there's The Bund - the old, beautiful, traditional European waterfront. And on the other there's Pudong - the most futuristic skyline in the world. Yesterday we had lunch in an old, traditional restaurant where some of the best dumplings we've ever tasted were made by hand in the manner they've been made for hundreds of years. We sat on beautifully carved, old Chinese wooden chairs in a restored old building. And the waiter took our order with some sort of wireless cyber-device.

The streets are practically shaking with activity and commerce. It's like being in the midst of an ongoing development earthquake. The architecture isn't constrained by old-fashioned esthetic notions. Much of it is hideous, but it is playful, interesting to look at, anarchic, different. Some of it is startling, bold and excellent. It's representative of the culture of the city in a way that the typical square glass boxes - no matter how much The Donald tries to put a sheen along with his name on them - of New York aren't.

Yesterday we went to the Art Museum and the Contemporary Art Museum. At the Art Museum we saw a retrospective of work by Chen Zhen, a Shanghai artist who did most of his work in France. Some of the work was bizarre and fun - like a collection of beautifully blown glass sculptures of parts of the human digestive system. Some of it was surprisingly political: a piece called The Library was a collection of glass cubes containing the ashes of burnt books in which you could still make out some of the Chinese text.

The Contemporary Art Museum - set in a quirky glass building in the middle of People's Park - had an exhibit about the impact of cartoon, as in Japanese manga, culture on art. It was mostly by very young artists and a lot of it was rather trite. But as a whole it was an interesting, well-curated, challenging show that was a lot of fun.

I was thinking to myself that in the 11 years I lived in Hong Kong, nothing similar to either of these shows was available. We then headed out to a part of town where there are a group of new galleries in old warehouses. (That sounds familiar and very encouraging to someone from Los Angeles.)

We took the clean and fast and cheap subway to the northern train station and started walking to the gallery area. Halfway across a bridge over a stream, a woman stopped Eva and started jabbering at top speed in Mandarin and pointing at Eva's purse. The woman had seen someone steal Eva's wallet.

A talented someone. Eva's purse had been zipped shut and held close to her side. A passerby called the police who showed up in about five minutes. But then some other police showed up.

Then all the police started arguing with each other. The problem was that we didn't know exactly where we were when the wallet was stolen. We only knew where we were when we discovered the theft. And that was cause for a jurisdictional dispute because no one really wanted to deal with a couple of non-Chinese-speaking tourists and a crime that could probably never be solved. But, once the police had been called, someone had to deal with us.

We had discovered the crime on the bridge and that was one precinct's territory. The wallet had probably been stolen before we got to the bridge and that was another precinct. They argued for over an hour before one precinct gave in and agreed to take us to their station house.

There, the low woman on the totem pole, whose English name was Emily and who had graduated from the academy only two months ago, was put in charge of taking Eva's statement. Emily took us up to a dreary, dirty office with one beat up old computer in a corner. She sat us down across from her at a desk and wrote down everything Eva told her. She then handed Eva the pages of Chinese writing and asked her to write a statement on them that they were correct and accurately reflected what Eva had told her. We had no reason to believe that we were going to end up in a re-education through labor camp no matter what the paper said, so trusting Emily, Eva did what she was asked.

We were given a properly stamped copy in case Eva's credit card companies ever want proof that she reported the theft of her cards to the police. They'll have to read it in Chinese though. Back at the hotel, the Chinese phone system unfortunately reverted to its old ways and it took Eva ten tries to get through to her Visa card customer service number without getting cut off before she could make her report.

We licked our wounds over an excellent Shanghainese dinner and then strolled around what used to be the French Concession, looking at the smart new boutiques in restored houses and bright lights. We ended up with drinks at Face - part of a small, growing chain of bar/restaurants around Asia. The original was my favorite Indian restaurant in Jakarta. The one in Bangkok - a Thai and Indian restaurant on different floors of one of the most beautiful wooden houses I've ever been in - is one of the great places to eat and drink in the world. This one was pretty great too.

After that we came back to the hotel for a drink and to listen to the Peace Hotel Old Jazz Band. They're famous for being in their 80s and 90s and having played here since they were kids. Unfortunately, by the time we got back to the hotel they'd doddered off to sleep and the middle-aged jazz band was playing. They were terrible, but that's what they're supposed to be so it was okay for a little while.

In all, it was an interesting and mostly fun day. A wallet can be stolen anywhere (luckily Eva's passport was safely locked up back at the hotel) and for the most part we have the impression that Shanghai is a whole lot safer than the average U.S. city. Today we plan to head back out to the art gallery district - keeping a tighter rein on our belongings; and then over to the brave new world of Pudong.

As much though as I'm loving this place, and even mulling it over as a place to live for a year or two, it is adding to my misgivings about the future of the planet. I'll get to that in the next post.

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