Tuesday, July 26, 2011

shanghai notes

a common frustration among us here in india is the perpetual annoyance at the speed at which china seems to have taken its most recent 'great leap forward' and the halting, staccato way in which change is occurring here. for some reason we claim to be in competition. after 5 days in shanghai (admittedly insufficient to understand the complexity of the city) i was not so sure that we needed to follow the 'china model' for development.

yet, at the first instance it is not very surprising when the mumbai shanghai comparison is made. if you walk in the city, as i had in the last trip a few months back, you come across lanes and streets overflowing with life- pretty much like mumbai. the history of the city, also has parallels with that of mumbai. after all, both of them were essentially products of colonialism. each is also the centre of 'westernisation' in its respective country. but to conflate this initial impression into a simplistic equivalence would be naive. both the cities have had very different forms of colonialism and are experiencing very different forces today. and these forces are acting upon populations that have experienced two very different modernities. these modernities have shaped the consciousness and sense of self of the populations. putting it in a base binary while the western enlightenment arrived here with notions of emancipation and democracy making its own schizophrenic modernism; in china it seems to have been that of efficiency and a rationalistic logic.

it was in the discussions with intellectuals- architects and philosophers that we first came up against the greatest cultural divide i have felt in the many exchanges that we have had with people from outside india. with the west, the battles to fight have been predictable (relatively) a new form of orientalism / colonialism, a newer version of the white man's burden, a liberal vision of a romantic return to a pre-industrial past, or the inability to use concepts and models relevant in the west to understand our situation.

in this week's conversations, on the other hand, language kept breaking down and revealed cracks wide chasms between our own (mis) understandings of concepts like freedom, equality, opportunity, practice and critique. it was as if we were speaking of the same things in completely different ways- or was it different things in similar ways?

the presumptions of our own positions was revealed in everything we said to one another. our own senses of agency and entitlement as practitioners was put strongly into relief. and it was hard, almost impossible, to keep making presumptive judgements out of our discussions. after all aren't we all programmed with ethical and moral value systems through our lives at levels that are subliminal, reaching deep into the recesses of our selves, making us who we are.

in china it seemed as if the system of indoctrination was extraordinarily successful in creating a strong sense of nationhood and loyalty; but also fear. as the body is made machine through daily exercises in schools, in the removal of the body-memory embedded in traditional ritual and family ties through the cultural revolution; the mind is numbed through a propaganda machinery that controls most of what you are allowed to think; and even manages to make release valves for frustrations in the space of art and research.

as a result, all of the major cities in china have a 'cultural district', generally an old factory compound that has been abandoned on the edge of the city -where artists are allowed to have warehouses and studio spaces for creative free expression. in shanghai it is called m 50 and in beijing district 798. the one in guangzhou has only recently been completed. after all what can be more harmless than the world of art. until it becomes dangerous. but then you know where it is to clamp down upon.

architecture meanwhile has a much more difficult task. as an essential part of building the new china ,as a profession and as a way of seeing, it is bound within a technocratic discourse. avant-garde theory from the west is reformatted and made a stylistic issue. parallel to this, theory plays its role in obfuscating local issues, blurring them with abstract concepts of universality. the 'deconstructive villas' on the outskirts of shanghai being perhaps the most obvious example.

the outskirts of shanghai is a landscape of enormous housing estates that plod endlessly on for acres and acres in between agricultural fields and some ancient canal villages now retrofitted to form tourism zones. most cities in china, we were told, are busy trying to make money - fast. and to do this, since all land belongs to the state, they are rapidly selling off agricultural fields to developers who then promptly build a high end residential colony. the older residents might want to complain- but really have no one they can speak to. their older place of livelihood passes into the hands of a real estate company and they are relocated to 'new socialist villages'- multi-storey apartment buildings where any chance of living of the land is impossible. unemployment is high and most young people leave the villages and move to the city.

yet, this is not as easy as it may appear to be. every chinese resident is assigned a identity card which determines the geography of their residence and workplace. if you lived in a smaller village in some other district and happened to get a job in shanghai, you would have to give up your old identity card and obtain one in the city of shanghai (your 'unit') or your workplace helps you to get this id but the process is long tedious and like all bureaucracy is tiresome. having received the shanghai card you can now access some of the best services for education and health care. your existence in the city is thus dependent on the generosity of the 'unit'- an arm of the state. if it so happens that you happen to get fired out of the job that you held- you will have to revert back to the older card and will lose access to all the services the city has to offer. you have to go back. the state then controls your every movement through an intricate system of paperwork. we were told that there is file on every single person that tracks their trajectory. in this climate, how does one protest? and to whom?

the state exists as an invisible cloud hovering over every single aspect of the country. but it is impenetrable. the 'government' is a being- faceless and anonymous- more frightening because of this. its intricate machinations are invisible to the common man. for us, used to a porous government whose rifts are apparent and many, this form of control was unfathomable. the communist party is all powerful and has created all kinds of ways to propagate its own power. meanwhile, all other power centres have been systematically erased. religious institutions, especially chinese ones, have been destroyed; the ancestral system of worship, all but vanished, and with it traditional crafts. and this in a country so conscious of its own history. 'chineseness' then becomes a commodity of dragons, kung fu  and tea ceremonies. history is image. meanwhile in a desperate urge to hold on to something 'real' a past is made anew- as style.

there is an essay to be written on style and history. an essay on conservation that deconstructs the categories of 'fake' and 'real'-. both as made. the 'real' as that which reeks of notions authenticity and grounded in some idea of place; while the fake as artifice- coming from 'elsewhere' and therefore inauthentic and shallow. the 'real' though is also very often from another place- the past. in that sense all style here is mannerism. pretence. the ’real' as much as the 'fake'. but i mean no judgement on this pretence. this is trying merely to be an analytical act where the real and the fake meet in fascinating ways describing our relationship with 'elsewhereness' and architecture as portal towards that place. in a country whose past has been 'erased'- this pretence is understandable. make believe identity is still identity felt- and in that framework : 'real'.

it was while walking the empty streets of 'thames town' in the suburbs of shanghai where we came up with these four categories of artifice. the 'real real', the 'fake real', the 'real fake' and the 'fake fake'. thames town we decided was in the third category- a collage of pieces of london and paris with red phone booths and old record shops. a church on a square where recently married chinese play-act a western christian wedding to replace a ritual long lost. this is an authentically forged copy. there is even a harry potter statue. more 'real fakes' can be found around the traditional yuyuan gardens in shanghai where it is now difficult to isolate the older temple from the malls, restaurants and shopping centres surrounding it as each is clad with the same details as the temple. it is a labyrinth of chineseness- red swooping roofs and grillwork.

meanwhile where traditional residential architecture has all been lost- demolished in the cultural revolution as symbols of the bourgeoisie. there is a desperate urge to revive the forms and processes of a bygone era in today's china by a few individuals. craftsmen are sought and given opportunities to recreate in traditional methods- the ancient. this is also artifice and can only be called a 'fake real'. a stab at recreation of a lost authentic identity. the 'fake fake' is the self conscious nudge-nudge wink-wink post-modern embrace of the surface as content. amusement parks-perhaps. in china, the difference between all of these is difficult to locate.
but where is the 'real real': the place where really china is said to lie. for many it lies in the villages that were once wiped clean by the cultural revolution. this 'authentic' construct of a china refuses to acknowledge years of communist rule, turning its back on its violences and displacements.

for others, the 'real real' china is in the shikumen- the older workers housing in shanghai. these chawl like housing forms tightly knit communities in the older city. migrants form the rest of of the country often manage to find housing and work here. today, there are only two futures that can be seen for this area. either they are demolished to make way for housing for the 'international community' that the city desperately wants to attract- or they are prettified and cleansed of all their inhabitants to make way for 'heritage areas' like xintiandi and tianzifang. here a small section of the older city has been cobble stoned and coffee shopped while surrounding it glass and steel skyscrapers rise. germans, americans, britishers walk these streets and drink in the bars listening to the 1930s jazz that shanghai has adopted as its music of the past. the chinese here are stockbrokers or waiters. this gentrification has been achieved with no perceptible violence. its all very efficient.

to the north, somewhere near what used to the be the jewish ghetto a shikumen was in the process of being relocated. this is achieved first by building a wall around the area to be cleared and tearing down a few buildings on the edge. after this, signs are painted in blood red that mark the houses to be torn down. banners around the area proclaim (or threaten) 'harmonious demolition is in the best interests of the local community'. after that, the garbage stops being collected- and then later the addresses on the front doors are erased so that no postal services can exist. once cornered the locals are then evicted to different parts on the outskirts of shanghai. it is also ascertained that these displaced are moved to different parts of the city so that they cannot collectivize to protest.

if this is not frightening enough, an incident in this neighbourhood shut me up for the next two hours. as we were photographing this story- a demolished wall with high rises rising out of it, we were stopped by a man who seemed to live in this neighbourhood. he asked us to stop photographing 'bad' things. " all countries have rich and poor people. do not show poor people. this area is going to go and become like that" pointing us to the high rises across the street.  in him i felt a strange mixture of embarrassment, anger and national pride. he knew that what was happening was strange- but he also felt that it was a necessary evil- something that had to happen for china to progress. he saw himself as a cog within a much larger machine whose role was to play a small, insignificant role in the building of a nation. his role was to meekly accept the displacement.

agency and entitlement, in the way that we know it, did not seem to exist in consciousness of people in china. while we rambled on about talking to the state and negotiating with it for our rights, our chinese friends looked on bemusedly at our naivety and told us that deep in the heart of every chinese person is a core of fear. what we take for granted, they cannot.

meanwhile, on the surface the spectacle of the good life continues. television station beam relentless propaganda on the stories of entrepreneurship that have made a few billionaires, trickle down economics and the 'peaceful liberation of tibet' from feudal ties into a new world where the unique religious practices have not been disturbed. platitudes abound reminding me of the doordarshan of my childhood.

spectacles are mounted at unimaginable scales evoking chineseness. every city has its own unique 'event' as an  engine for driving investment- the olympics at beijing, the asian games at guangzhou and the expo of shanghai. each of these makes districts of cleaned up tati like landscapes of glittering glass skyscrapers, pristine gardens with topiary and lots and lots of shopping of a scale unimaginable. star architects make nauseously vapid contributions to these spectacles. scales are overwhelming and building pulsate with light strobes in evening rituals. in these new districts the city is a festival of lights and choreographed bodies. megaprojects abound- the bund in shanghai was pedestrianised by digging the cars under the water; entire parts of the city were erased to make a parking lot for the expo. the bund is lit with messages that remix advertising, nationalism and sustainability seeing no contradiction in them. on the bund romantic dinners can be had overlooking these lights.

architects revert back to their role as the creators of the most fantastic prisons that subjugate the body into passive acceptance,  participating in the process of submerging individuality into a great mass. you cant help but think of albert speer in the service of hitler.

this is a landscape of unbearable sweetness and beauty with a dark dark heart. 

shanghai: tongji university

conversations about shanghai and mumbai

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shanghai: villages around jinze

the extreme western edge of shanghai where agricultural lands are being abandoned to old people and migrants. as the village changes desperate attempts to capture a past in the form of opera stages are built.

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shanghai: shikumen

where the real shanghai used to live. shi ku men - stone door house

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shanghai: xintiandi

the poster boy of the redevelopment of shikumen. xintiandi where a small area is made chic and the rest demolished to make way for skuscrapers. the birthplace of the communist party lies somewhere in the middle.

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shanghai: tianzifang

old shikumen in the french concession convert into sweet art cafes and boutiques for tourists and westerners,

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