Xangai: a tale of two cities

Há uns meses estive em Xangai, e escrevi sobre isso. Gosto muito de Hong Kong e pouco de Xangai; a historiadora e escritora Jan Morris, exactamente o contrário. Mas o texto dela no Financial Times do último fim-de-semana é alguma coisa como o que eu gostava de ter escrito.

«(…) Of all the new civic exhibitions of our time, the Dubais and the Kuala Lumpurs, the Berlins and the Singapores and the Canary Wharfs, Pudong strikes me as unquestionably the ugliest. It is not just unlovely, it is actually nasty. Every contemporary architectural cliche is represented in its vast cluster of skyscrapers, every last bulge and atrium, mirror-glass and gold plating, the highest hotel on earth, the showiest TV tower, the whole attended by a mass of faceless commercialism stretching away as far as the eye can see, and connected to its own brand-new airport by the fastest train in the world.

It takes my breath away just to write about it, and that is undoubtedly what it is meant to do. This is the new China. The water traffic streams by down the Chinese centuries, and a loitering publicity barge displays its video advertisements hour after hour mid-stream. “Up yours!” shouts Pudong across the river to the Bund.

Hong Kong was never like this. It was never quite so brash, so shameless, so obvious. In its streets I feel I am in a city still governed by mores and even manners that are part of global society. Restraint shows still in Hong Kong, and even now, a decade after its return to China, it feels above all a city of the wider world.

Everything about Shanghai, though, reminds me that I am not just on the edge of the vast semi-continent that is China, but decidedly inside it. It rather scared me when I first came to this city in the aftermath of the Cultural Revolution: now, I have to say, I find it exhilarating, despite the pervading smog of its industries and millions of cars, despite its inescapable suggestion of historical threat. I warm to hideous Pudong, especially at night when its blazing illuminations seem impervious to ecology, and the lights from the 88th floor penthouse suites of the Grand Hyatt speak to me of unimaginably profitable negotiations. I like the bigness and the boldness and the chutz-pah of it all.

And oddly enough, despite the all too obvious messages of Pudong, the Bund does not seem at all downcast by the gaudy performance across the river, but actually rather buoyant. Its architects might be proud of it. Their majestic banks are not banks nowadays, the Long Bar of the Shanghai Club is forgotten and the British Consulate has moved somewhere less dominant, but there are enviable dress shops here and there, and trendy design firms, and posh jewellers inserted demurely among the Edwardiana. The Chinese jeunesse dorée of Shanghai frequents the Glamour Bar at No 5, and it is a pleasure to pop up to the sixth floor of some superannuated finance house to have a cappuccino high above the hubbub – rather like taking a break, say, as you explore the Neapolitan waterfront.

Pudong and the Bund are the well-worked archetypes of Shanghai, but the city is far more varied of nuance that this dichotomy might suggest – more varied than Hong Kong too, because its history has been more complicated.

There are moments when I feel I am back in the Shanghai of Mao Zedong. At one of the elegant new cafés, I came across a trio of young ladies playing tea-time music, and I paused to listen to them. They were playing sentimental old Irish melodies, and their technique was impeccable. But as I stood there, I realized that their interpretations were almost regimentally rhythmical, never a tender rallentando, never a quiver of emotion, as though they were governed by inexorable inner metronomes. They were the very opposite of gypsy café musicians. I realised then that they had probably learnt their musicianship at one of those mass children’s classes dear to Maoist theory.

(…) the legacy of the fast-fading socialist ideology – fading fast even in this last of the People’s Paradises – is less pervasive in the city than a surviving aura of the frenzied, sophisticated and doomed international society that flourished here between the world wars, when the Anglo-American International Settlement around the Bund, and the nearby French Concession, set the tone and the reputation of Shanghai.

Car horns blare far more blatantly in Shanghai than they ever do in Hong Kong. At night long lines of taxis wait outside the city nightclubs, as in black-and-white movies, and ought to be driven by refugee White Russian dukes. When I once remarked to a hotel employee that I had fallen madly in love with a statue of a classical Chinese hero standing near us, he simply said: “Our chairman loves him too”. There is an innate raciness to this place, tinged with fun, squalor, a sense of tolerance and a hint of excitement.

I am told that high-level corruption sullies Shanghai’s civic allure, and still makes investors prefer Hong Kong, and it is true that sometimes, traversing the back streets of this city, I have felt a slight tremor of unease that I never feel in Hong Kong. In the dusk, importunate beggars spring out of doorways, and sometimes I am persuaded that young men in dark suits are signalling my progress to each other on mobile phones, in readiness to pounce.

Nothing ever happens, though. Nobody harms me, and, actually, I rather enjoy that tremor of menace, in the dark interstices between the neon lights. It was like old times to me, like homely deja vu, to come across a street brawl not far from People’s Square, the ceremonial centre of the city – one of those Mediterranean-style brawls that never come to anything either, but erupt and subside, flare and fade, break sporadically into fisticuffs and peter out in rude gestures to the disappointment of all observers, especially me. I like a city with rough edges, and for all the shine and dazzle of the new Shanghai, for all those mechanical maidens at the café, there are plenty of rough edges here.

And so I left Shanghai for Hong Kong again, where they were holding an election for the Chief Executive of the Special Administrative Region in a perfect, though entirely impotent, replica of democratic modes; TV debates, walkabouts, newspaper interviews and all. None of which could make any difference to the preordained result, but which confirmed the civic image of conscientious balance.

I went out to Shanghai’s airport in the fabulous German-made Maglev train, which whisked me out of the city by magnetic levitation at 450 kph. Not many people used it, I was told, because it was too expensive, and it had cost the city countless trillion yuans over estimate, but that only confirmed my fellow-feeling for this city of raffish excess. When we reached the airport, almost all my fellow passengers transferred to the next train back to town. They had just come for the ride – something the sensible citizens of Hong Kong might consider immature.»

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