Friday, March 04, 2011

Metamorphosis of a City

It is interesting how a city transforms within a few days from imagination to ground realities...from the pictures you build up in your mind from books, movies, Google Earth, and then the way these images dissolve as your feet hit the streets.

The first time I remember seeing Shanghai was in Steven Speilberg`s movie, Empire of the Sun. Images of the Japanese Imperial Army bunkered in the surrounding countryside; their warships steaming up a river to launch a pre-dawn bombardment of the city. Panic, stampedes, street-battles and prison camps.

Now the river has a name - Pu. To its east is the old city established by the European merchants after they discovered an ingenious way of robbing the Chinese of their silver - by turning them into opium addicts in the name of "free trade".  These colonial buildings, which were once exclusive and awe inspiring, stand today like brightly lit insects on a museum display-panel.  You peer at them from the 100th floor of Shanghai World Financial Center across the river and marvel at the twists and turns of history...and the terrible fate that awaits nations that suffer weak governments and poor leadership.

Strangely, even after a decisive, centrally-planned transformation of Shanghai city during the period 1985-2000, what you see all around are symptoms of a slavish fascination for everything Western. The best preserved buildings are in the former colonial "concessions" while fortified town of old Shanghai gets steamrolled by residential towers sporting names that sound more British or French than Chinese. The streets are dominated by billboards of blond, anorexic models who seem to be rather effective in alluring young Chinese into dyeing their hair and looking perfectly ridiculous. Akihabara-Tokyo deja vu.

This trend is perhaps the reason why the government is anxious to promote a set of values that are unique to the Chinese. But will it be as easy as relocating residential areas to make way for skyscrapers and controlling half of Shanghai's population  (10+ million migrant-laborers!) through a system of residential permits? Can the Chinese politburo replicate the feat accomplished by the Meiji Reformers of Japan (1868-1912), in the age of Twitter, FaceBook, YouTube and Wikileaks?